In this post I think we’re going all the way back to the June 1991. It’s my brother Phil’s 17th birthday and he’s just unwrapped an Atari Lynx. I’m back from my first year of university, having spent what seemed like weeks in a sweltering sports hall doing exams in mechanics and other awful engineering things. In a few months I’d be off to France for my second year – a decision that confounds me to this day – but in the meantime a huge summer break beckoned, reunited with my school friends, exploring Southern Comfort, being either on or off (I’ve lost track which at that point in time) with the flame-haired Irish girl my former best friend and I had both fallen for on the same night the previous year, and collecting trolleys for Sainsbury’s… Which funded, alongside the aforementioned exotic things, seeing Guns ‘n Roses at Wembley, complete with an expletive-tastic Skid Row and the UK premier of Nine Inch Nails.
That summer had its moments, one way or another (mostly another, the closer I got to leaving for France), and this was very much reflected in my experience with Phil’s Lynx. On one hand, he’s only got the Gameboy killer! I’d not even had it a year, and here’s this all singing and dancing powerhouse with its huge screen running arcade quality graphics. On the other, it came with California Games!
Several years earlier, I’d spent dozens of hours playing Winter Games on my friend Steven’s Commodore 128 and on our Spectrum +2. Not only was this a successor, but it came with all the glamour of The Beach Boys, CHiPs and the hottie in a bikini on roller skates on the cover!
Speaking of which, despite the Lynx being a powerhouse, there was a bit of compromise. Only four of the six events appeared here, sacrificing frisbee and said skater hottie rolling provocatively down a path next to a road. I don’t think we were missing out on too much, and if I remember right she appeared on the scoreboard screen so you could still get your kicks there!
But what you did get was BMX, half-pipe, footbag and the big one, surfing! Actually, they could have compromised on all the events as long as surfing was there. The waves felt like waves, and the controls responded perfectly to them. It looked the part as well – the blue sky, the realistic spray as the wave closed in, and the blond surfer dude just out there having fun in the warm California sun.
BMX felt very similar, with flipping off the top of waves replaced by flipping and jumping and spinning your way around a great-looking BMX track. Half-pipe, situated right in front of the Hollywood sign, wasn’t quite as responsive, but you eventually got the hang of it and then it could really feel good – big air and big turns could rack up serious points once you puzzled out how to get a bit of speed up. Footbag was a less extreme affair, but you could still get a lot of satisfaction out of putting together a long and varied combo with some carefully timed nudges to the joypad.
Very recently I played the Atari 2600 version of this, on the portable I got last Christmas (2016). That is a remarkable achievement, with easily the best graphics on the system, and its own version of Louie Louie! It’s very playable, can handle up to eight players, and the footbag feels great. Definitely worth seeking out to see Atari’s original powerhouse in all its glory!
California Games stayed close to my heart for far longer than the Lynx could ever hope to; in fact, Blue Lightning is the only other game I remember playing on it! But even California Games, as much as I love playing it on various systems to this day, can’t hold a flame to my Gameboy. Also known as Lynx killer!
See you next time, but let’s finish with a reminder of America’s greatest cultural export…