Crapshoot: Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, the Planescape of puns

Spot the odd one out. It's you. You think you're normal.

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. This time he took a break from bad adventure games in favour of a trip to the bar where everyone knows your name... because they're telepaths, aliens, and crazy people from the future.

Finding a nice surprise in a bargain bin is always a mixed experience. Good, for the obvious reason: hurrah! This is terrific! Bad, because it ended up there at all. If the game doesn't suck, that only leaves one option: it just didn't sell. In the case of Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, the jewel case was beaten up, cracked, and came from a flea market somewhere in America. It was the game equivalent of the bedraggled cat at the back of the animal rescue shelter, with the big hopeful eyes, moulting fur, and cage right next to the room where they keep the nighty-night needles. I picked it up mostly out of sympathy, and I actually got it for free, because the guy on the stall couldn't be bothered to make change for a note.

It deserved better than that. After carefully disinfecting the CD case and discarding it in the hope of stopping the faint but lingering smell of second-hand underpants and unidentifiable juices getting into the sofa, I put the disc into my PC with no idea of what to expect. I'd never heard of the books it's based on. I didn't know what type of game it was. It didn't have even have a cardboard box with some hints (which would have both made it sound cool, and immediately caught my attention with the words "Written by Josh Mandel", one of Sierra's most underrated writers/designers). It could have been anything.

It turned out to be the second-best thing I ever bought from a man who smelled of rotten eggs and liked noisily snacking on long, sloppily scooped-up strings of his own glistening snot between sales.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon is based on a series of novels by Spider Robinson about the greatest bar in the world—a place where anyone and anything could stop in for a drink, from alien space monsters wanting to quench their thirst before destroying the planet for their cockroach overlords, to tee-total vampires, time-travelling con-men, talking dogs and out-of-work folk musicians. Most of the series is made up of short stories about what drew the various regulars to each other, and the genuine love and compassion they use to help take the sting out of the world, if only for a while. Callahan's is a place where a man can walk in with a .45 automatic and the scars of 10 years imprisonment in a banana republic, and walk out the next morning with a job tending the best bar in the history of time and space and a new adopted family. Sometimes they save the world. Sometimes they just listen and sympathise and be there for a stranger, but often that turns out to be enough. The group's motto is "Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased," and they all have their fair share of both.

Oh. And they make puns. Lots and lots of f&*king puns.

The game follows a similar pattern to the books, in that it's broken into five short adventures, all sparked off by talking to one of the regulars. Callahan is worried that he hasn't seen vampire-regular Pyotr for a while. Time-travelling cop Josie wants help saving a rare cocoa bean. Squish the alien wants to help take out a dangerous satellite. Con-man Al Phee needs your help in the future. Ralph von Wau Wau the talking dog is up to his collar in a government conspiracy. You also have to save the world from a pair of squabbling gods, and win a pub quiz. I think we all know what the first priority of the night has to be...

It's worth noting here that while I like this game a lot, it's not quite a lost classic. Not all of the stories are that great, and while Callahan's has plenty of personality, actual technology isn't on its side. It uses 360-degree scenes with more animations than most similar games, but it's still pretty static—especially if you know how active Callahan's Place is meant to be. It should be loud, boisterous and fluid, with people smashing glasses in the fireplace and making toasts. Instead, they can about raise a glass, and not much more. Later areas don't have anything like as much life, which is disappointing.

What makes up for this, and some frustrating pixelbitching puzzles, is how much it uses what it does have—great characters, packed locations, superb background detail, endless throwaway jokes, and more cheesy one-liners than the Great Pun War of 1613 that... oh. Oh, god. Shouldn't have mentioned cheese. Not here. Not now. Urge... to... pun... rising! Must... hold back... the madness... and AAAARGH! Cheesy puns? Gouda have some of those, brie golly. Edam shame if we Swissed out on that! What? They're too hard? Hard as a Roque, more like! You just need Emmental discipline... to think a little more Caerphilly. Of course, my victory over you is a feta-compli... unless you think I bleu it. Don't worry though, Stiltons left to go—Ricotta get going! Don't get fraiche if you can't take it. You think I find this fun? I camembert-it! I'm over-Leydon with puns! I Urda call the police, but they'd just throw the Bouq at me like the time they Smoked Monterey Jack! OK, OK, I can still wedge in a few before sanity returns. Teleme, what am I even Douanier if not trying to cream the world record with a string... no... a spread of...

...and back. And breathe. Better. Where was I? Oh, yes. Callahan's Place. Around the rear. That familiar dairy air. Hic. Sorry. Right. Back inside. Back to helping crazy people sort out their problems.

By far the best stories are the trip to save the vampire, the trip to save the cocoa plant, and the visit to the future, with the others a little undercooked in comparison. I'm not going to go into too much specific detail, purely because unlike several of the we've looked at together over the last few months, this one is worth playing for yourself. There's not much story to spoil, but a joke out of context is a joke stabbed through the heart and left to die like a penguin in the Sahara. If you want to get hold of it, it's out of print and still technically protected, but the developers are long gone and Spider Robinson himself doesn't seem to care who plays it . You might want to click the "Amazon" link if you're interested, and acquire a "rare original copy". Any other links on that page remain Naughty. So don't follow them (wags finger).

What I like most about Callahan's is just how much damn stuff it has in it. Insane amounts. One of Mandel's design fingerprints was having adventure games give unique responses to your actions. Games he wrote for would rarely give a "That Doesn't Work" if they could say "Sure, you could stick your credit card into the plug socket, but do you really want that charge on your account?"

Callahan's, with its incredibly busy backgrounds, takes this to a whole new level. Verbs thrown in purely for gags, pointless scenery, blatant set-ups shamelessly dropped in front of you... it's the Planescape: Torment of punning. Walk into a screen—ow—and pretty much every pixel on it will have a joke attached, from main character Jake trying to have the last word with an empty crate, to a pointless conversation with a snooty butler whose entire knowledge of American culture comes from two films: Deliverance and I Spit On Your Grave. (He feels no need to see more, but would be gratified if Sir could resist his sordid Yankee urge to drag him around the back of the castle and violently sodomise him.)

If there's a conversation longer than a couple of sentences without a joke in it, beware. It's setting something up, and there's nothing in nature more dangerous than a loaded pun.

The opening pub quiz doesn't just give you an excuse to chat to everyone and pump them for hints, it sets up the fact that this is a game full of wordplay, jokes, and really good-bad one-liners that occasionally verge on torture. It's a game where you'll visit a location called Castle Florescu in Romania in search of a heartbroken friend who's contemplating suicide... purely so that the main character can announce "Jake Stonebender... to the Florescu!" The same town has a coffee shop called Starbucherest. It sells Decappucinos, and has a special running on, amongst others, Chinese coffee beans. They're brewed as espresso for flavour, then topped with a dollop of fresh mortar. "I've never seen that before," Jake admits. "What?" demands the barista, "You've never seen mortar on an Orient espresso?"

This is weapons grade punning, people. Be very, very afraid.

There are several games I've picked up and loved long after they were forgotten by the world, but if you don't count The Last Express, I can't think of one I wish I could nip back in time and throw a few pennies to the creators when it actually mattered. (Note: If anyone has such a device, this is purely a rhetorical statement. Being from Yorkshire, I am inherently tight-fisted and mean, and would almost certainly squander the opportunity on something trivial, like buying shares in Microsoft back when Bill Gates still had acne.) Your experiences may very, depending on your tolerance for puns—and believe me, this game will hurt you in the brain. But in a good way. It's one of the wittiest, silliest adventures of the 90s, with a completely unique feel, and at its core, the heart of the books, if not the same level of storytelling. It has much better puns though, and some really fun character moments with the regulars.

If you don't feel like checking out the game, I highly recommend trying to track down a copy of the stories. They're tough to find in print (and the same goes for the spin-off series set in a brothel owned by Callahan's wife), but the audio versions from Blackstone are pretty good, and available on Audible. The only downside of getting into them is that I guarantee you'll start wishing that Callahan's Place actually existed, and that you had somewhere like that to go in the evenings, smash a glass in the fireplace, and share a toast to the fact that people—and even horrifically bad jokes—can be pretty damn special. Fair trade, really. I'm glad I found it before someone picked it up as a cheap drinks coaster. It's just a shame I had to.