California Games Anthology Chapter 2: ’90s Road Trip with Atari Lynx
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California Games and the Atari Lynx arrived at the end of the ’80s in this crazy moment when beach culture was immensely popular. Movies, TV shows and music gravitated to sunny settings, surfboards, and gnarly neon colors.
Commercials for Pepsi, Levi’s Jeans, and L.A. Gear played up beach life. Saved By The Bell’s “Bayside High”, those bodacious bros Bill & Ted (who coincidentally have an Atari Lynx game of their own) and even the Golden Girls, all contributed to popularizing beach culture in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
From Miami Vice to Vanilla Ice, the sunny settings of South Florida, Hawaii, and California served as backdrops and were romanticized as the raddest place to be.
THE TEST OF TIME
On the pop culture spectrum, I like to think that California Games has held up as a great snapshot of that time without falling victim to tacky trends. California Games is still a lot of fun to play and creates a cool little world to play in.
I clearly remember riding my bike wearing neon sunglasses and a Walkman with a Beach Boys mixtape. I loved You Can’t Do That On Television and thought getting slimed was the greatest thing on TV. This was life if you were a kid in 1989.
The line between fad and timeless becomes clearer in hindsight as greatness is revered and fads are remembered with a collective giggle.
A quick look at prizes given away on Nickelodeon’s Double Dare illustrate the sliding metric of tacky to epic. At the absolute bottom of the barrel are tacky fads that came and went. Shoes from L.A. Gear and BK Knights come to mind.
At the other end of the scale are pieces of 1989-1990 that remain far more revered and have forever ingrained themselves in the American pop culture psyche, such as Twin Peaks, the Back To The Future sequels, and Tom Petty’s Free Fallin’. These things are of their time, but on whole have remained perennial favorites.
Everything in between is basically M.C. Hammer and slap bracelets.
PLAYING WITH POWER
When Atari Lynx was first released in September, 1989 I was too consumed with Nintendo to notice. For Christmas that year I received a Game Boy and was profoundly happy to have one. Like most kids of the time, I was mesmerized with the magic of Mario and wasn’t paying much attention to anything else.
That began to change though when I first saw the Atari Lynx commercial with Tobey Maguire getting out of class to play California Games in the bathroom stall. It told a story I could relate to, and finding a way to play video games at school was totally something I would have done.
The Tobey Maguire commercial made Atari Lynx seem cool and different, and it made me question why I had accepted anything less. I remember seeing the commercial one afternoon on Nickelodeon and thinking “That’s so cool that he has a color screen! It’s like an actual video game.” Complain about the console size all you want, color 16-Bit graphics were legitimately impressive in 1989, particularly if you could play them in school.
Atari Lynx proved to be different. It was robust, advanced, smart and edgy. It had better graphics, better sound, a backlit screen, it was in color, and it threw groupthink back in the face of followers. It was rebellious.
When I became aware of the Lynx and how impressive it was, I set out on a mission to get one in time for summer. On weekends I would go to Sears or Toys ‘Я’ Us and just stare at the Lynx behind showcase glass.
My parents provided a loving home as I was growing up but things were not handed to me whenever I wanted something. I was expected to save up and buy my own stuff, particularly if it was an expensive toy or video game. I believe this has a lot to do with why I became a collector so early on, and why I’ve kept everything in such nice shape.
I so badly wanted a Lynx in time for summer, I worked hard mowing lawns and performing odd jobs around the neighborhood, carefully saving every penny I had and tallying my funds every week to see how much further I had to go. Atari Lynx for me was an earned effort.
SYNONYMOUS WITH SUMMERTIME
When I finally laid hands on my brand new Atari Lynx I was ecstatic and like a lot of kids who had Lynx, my first memories of it were of pulling it out of the box and playing the pack-in title California Games. At that moment, California Games and the Lynx became synonymous with summertime.
For me, summer vacation is when California Games and Atari Lynx really had a chance to shine. I grew up traveling quite often and spent a great deal of time in the car. Sometimes it was a day trip to another city a few hours out, other times it was a surprise trip to Universal Studios where I spent a lot of my life. 24-Hour marathon car rides with few stops along the way were commonplace. This was the beginning of my bringing the Lynx along on every adventure I would ever take.
Always up for an adventure, our road trips were a big deal for my family. These were journeys that we planned and looked forward to intently in the days leading up to our departure. In the early 1990s the Atari Lynx had been an integral part of my vacation gear. My “pre-flight checklist” always included a trip to the grocery store to fill the cooler with cold drinks and stock up on batteries for the Lynx.
The day before our trip I would load up my Lynx travel kit with the best games in my collection. The AC and cigarette lighter adapters and battery pack came along for the ride so I could hunker down for hours in the back of the car with unlimited power.
Even as an adult launching a tech startup, my Lynx was always in my carry-on bag. When I took a redeye flight to San Jose with Atari & Chuck E. Cheese pioneer Dr. Gene Landrum, the Lynx was in tow. We surfed California Games and drank merlot while trading Atari stories, including some of the ones you’re reading right now.
ATARI LYNX WAS PERFECT FOR LONG CAR RIDES
On the road, I’d spend hours in the car playing California Games, Chip’s Challenge, Gates of Zendocon, Blue Lightning, and Road Blasters. My Lynx was the revised model, it was smaller with rubber hand grips on the back and it proved to be remarkably comfortable to hold over extended periods of gameplay. I would look up to see the mile markers pass by as I thought of good times about to be had and the friends (girls) I was about to spend summer with.
There is this iconic image that I have in my mind when I think of Atari Lynx and the role it has played throughout my life. This scene of road trips late at night playing Lynx in the car until I fell asleep with my headphones on somewhere outside of Toledo, waking up the next morning to see the sun rise over mountains in the distance across the highway. Some nights I’d stay up with my Atari Lynx and play straight on till morning.
These are the experiences that have stayed with me for a lifetime, but they’re lost on those who’ve never experienced it themselves. When you haven’t been stuck in the car for twelve hours as a kid with little to do, you can’t fully appreciate what it meant to have a handheld, let alone a 16-bit color handheld that was comfortable to hold and felt like home.
Having a Lynx that I could take with me anywhere, even to the privacy of my own bedroom, was true freedom. It was escapism, defiance, and more than anything it was superb technology.
FIGHTING BOREDOM AT BOB EVANS
As a kid I got away with bringing my Lynx into restaurants. Bob Evans and Perkins were frequent stops along our drive, and the Lynx often came in to fight the boredom of waiting to be seated.
Even once I arrived at my summer destination, the Lynx came with me – usually strapped to my belt as I walked through Walmart, or into “Cigarette King” with my Grandma for her discount cartons of cigarettes. (She bought them in bulk.)
Some of the best times though were lounging next to my best friend’s pool while his mom put fillets on the grill and I waited anxiously for a phone call from one girl in particular. (We’ll get to that story in Chapter 3) This became the Lynx tradition, it went along on every great adventure I ever had.
ATARI SAFARI: HUNTING FOR LYNX AT TOYS ‘Я’ US
My family was always very thoughtful and encouraging of my love for classic gaming, and road trips often turned into game hunts. In the mid ’90s when Atari Lynx games were hitting the clearance aisle, if we spotted a Toys ‘Я’ Us along the highway my parents would usually pull off and let me run in for a few minutes to hunt down Atari stuff.
Usually on these stops I could find a spare Sun Visor or Lynx Pouch. With a little luck I might find the occasional Atari game or $19 TurboGrafx console. Sometimes the games would be gone but the Atari signage would still be intact, and if you asked the right employee she’d usually let you keep the plastic strips with the Atari logo that ran along the shelves.
At the end of vacation in August 1994, we stopped at a Toys ‘Я’ Us just outside of Savannah, Georiga. I made my way to the back of the video game department and saw an empty Lynx wall in disarray. All of the little white Toys ‘Я’ Us claim tickets were gone, and whatever was left of the Lynx display was strewn across the floor. It was as though they had just carted it all away twenty minutes ago. Disappointed, I headed back to the car.
As I approached the front of the store, there were a few clearance items just to the right of the registers – including two shopping carts filled to the brim with thirty different Lynx titles, all brand new in the box and clearance priced at $2.99 a piece! I was in heaven!
What an awesome score for a 6th grader with little money. In that one stop I acquired nearly half of the Lynx library, and had done so with my own money that I had earned myself. I still have all of those games in my collection, archived in their original boxes and stored like books. A few of the games from that day are photographed below.
I’m sure anybody who had a handheld in the 1990s would say the same thing – that playing their Game Boy on long car rides reminds them of summer. But that’s surface-level nostalgia, and Tetris hardly has anything to do with summer.
Those who would make that argument miss the greater point – Yes, you might be able to play your Game Boy in the dead of winter, and yeah, that might remind you of good times, but it doesn’t evoke the essence of summer or drench you in waves of sparkling blue and white pixels and make you want to stay forever in that moment.
California Games is about the symbiosis of the summer experience and the game itself.
AUGUST AND EVERYTHING AFTER
In those last weeks of summer I would develop a Pavlovian reflex of nearly dry-heaving every time a “Back To School” commercial interrupted whatever awesome ’90s sitcom I was watching.
After returning home and starting school, I’d find ways to smuggle my Lynx into class. I think it was some sort of last-ditch attempt at hanging onto summer, or escaping back to summer after school had already started. My friends and I called this “August Denial”.
Taking the Lynx to school most often meant playing it on the long bus ride home. I’d sit sideways on the bench seat with my head against the open window, playing California Games while I listened to music. Even then I had learned to hide my Atari Lynx from friends who were either amazed by it or jealous of it and caused a scene either way. The Lynx drew attention, and I knew when not to do that.
In Elementary School I took a page from the Tobey Maguire playbook and became skilled at hiding my Lynx inside of my book bag, sneaking it into the bathroom stall for a quick bump of Blue Lightning or California Games. Sometimes at lunch I’d sit outside with my friends, leaning against the building while I played my Lynx.
On guard against totalitarian teachers and dreaded Vice Principals, I kept it hidden inside my backpack and used the Sun Visor to prop the bag open just enough to see what I was playing. Somehow I never got caught.
This is where California Games and the Atari Lynx reach their apex for me personally. It’s a wayback machine of grandiose proportions. How unfair that I was stuck in Math class when two weeks ago I was with my friends at the beach.
Because the game was an experience in itself, and because it came along on almost every journey I had ever taken, pulling it out and playing it again was like going back to that moment. It was a small bubble of summer that I could take back with me and escape into anywhere, anytime.
The stories I’ve shared with you today have been the good ones. Summer with my best friends. Road trips with my family. Finding a shopping cart full of new Atari games being given away almost for free. What I haven’t shared are the bad times in the hospital, the nights after a family member has passed away, the worst moments one’s life that were somehow made a bit better by this little AA-powered toy.
California Games was programmed at EPYX by James Donald, Pete Wierzbicki, Larry Abel and Stephen Jungels.
Justin is a Technology Entrepreneur, Futurist and Raconteur, and an avid Atari aficionado behind the creation of Atari I/O. He is also a contributing writer at The Retroist under the name Atari I/O. You can follow him at his website https://www.atari.io
1 – 4 PLAYERS
model # PA 2025