From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about bringing random obscure games back into the light. Today, let's go to the virtual place where everybody knows your game.
Being a non-drinking, socially awkward writer-type person, bars and pubs aren't exactly my favourite places. A glass of dreadful Coke, poking at a bowl of overly fingered peanuts and the sound of other people having a much better, drunker time doesn't make for a great evening. If only there was some way I could master the art of having a good time, or at least, convince myself that I wasn't missing out by not doing so. If only there was a lousy compilation from 1989 that could act as wingman and sensei. It could be called Bar Games, and be as much fun as falling eyeball first onto a rusty nail.
But what are the chances of that, eh?
Bar Games. Well, it's no Callahan's Crosstime Saloon, but what would you expect from the creators of Les Manley and Les Manley: Lost In LA? Like many rubbish games of the era, it's five mini-games slapped together, but unlike most, it's ballsy enough to outright admit it on the cover. I can't help but think this might have caused some... tension... somewhere behind the scenes.
"WANNA GET LUCKY?" demands the Bar Games box, at least in my mind. "Cruise into the hottest bar in town! Here, men are men and the women are glad of it. Pick-up lines slice through the charged air faster than a beer sliding across a counter-top, and games of skill and chance are enjoyed while the big-screen blares out the cable sports network!"
"Um," mutters the Main Menu. "Actually, no."
The advertising on the box glares over. "Well, what do you have?"
"Air hockey. Um. Air hockey's pretty cool. Oh. And a dice game."
"No big-screen? No cable sports network?"
"No. I'm... uh... an EGA game from 1989. Tell you the truth, you're lucky I can do farty music."
"You mean party music?"
"Fine," sighs the box. "Let's see what we've got to work with."
Liar's Dice is the first game on offer, and against the odds, it's one I actually know how to play. Well, I say that. I've never actually played it, but I have played adventure games that use it, and it's a much easier set of rules to remember than Poker, Blackjack or any of the other staple 'let's put a casino in our game' games out there. Allow me to explain the rules, for your entertainment and education.
Liar's Dice is a perfect fusion of luck and boredom, which pretends to have some kind of tactic beyond 'not being a Muppet', but clearly doesn't. Both players have a set of dice, which they roll in secret. Numbers come up, as is their habit, and you bet on how many of a certain number you have between you. If you get it right, you congratulate yourself on having skill you in fact don't, and collect some money you don't deserve. If the other player challenges you, you compete by raising the number or number of numbers you get, until they bet more numbers than are actually there, at which point you have their number.
This continues until one of you either takes all the other's money, or falls asleep on the dice and wakes up with a face covered in square pock-marks, and as much self-respect as a man arrested for performing erotic acts on furniture in Ikea. The game version is much the same, except both players are psychic - you because you can randomly read the pretty bartender's thoughts, and her because she's quite blatantly a cheating bitch. I'm just saying, because I'm pretty sure my clicking doesn't have any tells.
The only thing sadder than actually playing this is to invite friends around to play it with you, because Bar Games does actually have support for up to four. Not against each other, though, that would be ridiculous. No, you all play against the computer in turn, simply comparing scores at the end. Really. If there's one thing more boring than Liar's Dice, it's watching someone else play it and waiting for a turn. Honestly, I don't know anything that could make enduring this nonsense even remotely interesting.
"That was pathetic," mutters the box. "You'd better have something more interesting than that, or we're sunk! I promised the experience of actually going to the bar!"
The Main Menu thinks for a moment. "Did you promise the experience of being a customer? "
"As opposed to what? Serving drinks for a gaggle of assholes?"
"Ah," grins the Main Menu. "So you didn't? Excellent..."
Last Call puts you behind the bar itself, charged with throwing drinks down the counter to a never-ending series of jerks who are too bloody lazy to move their hands five inches to pick up a drink. It's all about gauging strength correctly. Too much, and the glass slams right past the customer. Not enough, and it slips off the bar for some reason, mostly linked to that 'too lazy to pick up' thing.
There's not a lot more to be said about this one, except that it makes Liar's Dice feel like downing a whole bottle of caffeine pills and jumping on a rollercoaster. And surfing it. Naked. It's boring is what I'm saying.
However well you think you're doing, the fact that you just give everyone the same beer and never actually take anybody's money for drinks means you're probably going to get fired at the end of the evening anyway. It's not even clear you're an employee. Maybe you're just a drunk who's killed the pretty bartender after a particularly bad run of luck at Liar's Dice, and are now standing on her corpse, serving free drinks until the police batter down the door and come to arrest you. This isn't stated in the game, though I think we can assume it's intentionally implied. If not, it'd just be silly.
Right. What's next?
The box covers its head with its flaps. "No, no, no," it sighs. "I told you. That's Air Hockey. I don't care if we've got a few different opponents. It's Air Hockey. Don't you have something for— Wait."
"During Last Call. What was that bit about a wet T-Shirt contest?"
"In the background? Oh... Oh, that's nothing. You don't want to play that."
Wet 'n Wild is by far the weirdest of the Bar Games, though to give it some credit, one of the few of its kind to offer equal-opportunity fan-service. You get to choose whether it's male or female bar patrons to get a supposedly-sexy soaking. After that, things just get weird. As you can probably tell from the fact that I'm about to use the word milieu, such seedy contests are not exactly my milieu. Still, I'm going to hazard a suggestion that having a wet t-shirt contest where the contestants just wear their regular evening clothes is slightly missing the point of the exercise. Or points, as the case may be.
Whatever bar Bar Games is set in must be a weird, weird place. Let's recap. A bar roughly a mile long, yet with only one bartender at a time. A single Air Hockey table. Customers who swarm to drink generic beer at the end of the evening, yet otherwise keep so much to themselves that the bartender can waste hour after hour playing Boring Dice with clients. And in the back, a giant stage and scaffolding set up to simultaneously murder customers and let them dump buckets of water on pretty women.
The water part would make some sense, except that when you're dealing with big buckets full of it being dumped on them from a very great height, it only takes one or two before this stops being a wet t-shirt content and turns into a fricking swimming gala. You have to hit them with bucket after bucket after bucket before the game deems them wet enough for you do be Da Man (or Da Woman, if you select male hotties), at which point they splash off stage and are replaced with another target. There are eight men and eight women to work through, all pictured in various stages of moistness and boasting all the nipple-poking eroticism that two pixels can manage. Which is basically zero, in case you're wondering.
Objectification is a dangerous business though! What makes this mode so weird is that while you're trying to prove that wetter is better, both the bar and your fellow contestants are trying to kill you. The difficulty starts ramping up almost immediately, as your targets stop just walking back and forth in a straight, easily predicted path, and start doubling back, while another contestant sabotages your buckets. After that, lights under the buckets starting giving electric shocks if you tip a bucket at the wrong time. After that, contestants start appearing above you, dropping weights and dumbbells down onto your head.
The best part? If you imagine you're your character, you're the one person in the bar who can't even see the sleaze. Seriously, Bar Games, water pistols and white t-shirts. It's just common sense. What happens instead? Lots of girls facing the camera, lots of guys facing away, and... wait. Is that one of the guys clutching a teddy bear for support? What the hell kind of weird dive is this place, anyway?
"Am I cool yet?" asks the Main Menu, ever optimistic.
"No, but at least now people might pirate us. Come on, Liar's Dice. Air Hockey. Bloody Tapper—"
"Last Call isn't quite Tapper."
"Don't quibble. We've only got space for five games on the disk, and by my count we've wasted at least three of them. Tell me you're saving the best for last. I need to hear those words."
"Well, neither of us can really talk at all, so..."
Needless to say, Pick Up Artist is where my natural talents come to the fore. Don't let minor things like being single fool you—last I checked, I was Man Enough to successfully not score with no fewer than six babes on Valentine's Day, and that's apparently an achievement. You know how they say women like guys who make them laugh? I only have to offer to buy one a drink to have her howling in laughter. Seriously, if you don't count pesky, trivial little details like success, I'm basically Casanova.
Pick Up Artist starts with you being sent a note by one of three women at the bar: one blonde, one black-haired, and one redhead. Taking 'playing hard to get' to a whole new level, she doesn't tell you which she is, only that she has a flower in her hair. All three stare at the back wall throughout the entire conversation. You have to pick one of the three to talk to, and only if you choose the correct answer does she turn around. If she has a flower in her hair, the date continues the next night. If not, she rewards your carefully honed random seduction technique by telling you that she's really fascinated by what you're saying, but has to... um... be elsewhere now. Like, rilly. Rilly rilly.
This whole section is about as much fun as being dumped by text-message. No, by sky-writing, emblazoned across the sky at the Royal Wedding, with a little footnote underneath adding that you smell. First of all, you only have a one-in-three chance of picking the right girl to talk to in the first place, and there's no hint as to which one is correct. Conversation is done by picking one of three options, but not by simply selecting it. No, instead, the cursor bounces around at random and you have to hit the button to stop it. Only one answer is ever correct, and the only way to work out which is via pure trial and error. The redhead for instance is only interested in real-estate, the blonde only reacts well to talk of swimsuits, while the black-haired beauty just wants to talk holiday plans. After that, there are follow-up questions:
"Hi, I couldn't help noticing your terrific tan. I vacation in pretty exotic places. Did anyone ever tell you that you have the skin of a Polynesian princess?"
"But of course—and you're the Polynesian toad! Ha, ha. Actually, that's pretty original! Tell me about these exotic vacations."
(At this point, said girl may have heard you say this to both others, and herself, over three days of game-time. But let's ignore that, because as we all know, writing is really, really hard.)
"I was fishing in Nova Scotia last month. The mornings were cold, but invigorating."
"I don't like the cold; can't keep my tan. When you go somewhere warmer, call me."
Heaven forfend you might actually not have something in common. Go to Hawaii? Awesome. Went beachcombing? You loser. What do you do? A teacher? Turns out the blonde recognises you as the one who gave her an F. Don't have the same stock market broker as the redhead? She won't give you the time of day. Gotta love games that assume people can only be happy with a gender-swapped clone.
Manage both the trial-by-error and error-by-f***king-cursor challenge, and be chasing the right girl, and you move onto an actual date. Which, like all good dates, immediately starts with a trap—whichever girl agreed to go out with you tells you that she'll have whatever drink you're having. Beer? Spritzer? Bourbon? You only have one chance to make a psychic impression, and things don't get any easier later on.
I have no idea what happens if you pass that test ("and in the game, ha ha"), but I'm willing to bet that if you end up scoring as a result, it's only going to be points. Next game!
"That's all I got," admits the Main Menu. "I mean, there's Tournament Play instead of playing one game at a time, and I'll keep some high scores, but... we're screwed, right?"
"Ah, never mind. Nobody's going to remember this game anyway."
"Yeah. It'll be completely forgotten in a year, when Les Manley takes the world by storm."
"We belong dead."