Callahan's Crosstime Saloon

Developer:  Legend Entertainment Company
Publisher:  Take 2
Year Released:  1997

Review by Glen Davis (June, 1997)
ccs.jpgFor classic adventure game fans, reared on the "use the mayonaise from the sandwich to extract the key from the keyhole" style of gaming, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (CCS) provides a breath of fresh air, blowing away all those stale Myst-style static puzzle games. Although the writing is sometimes uneven, the dialogue occasionally tedious, and the puzzles, well... devious, this is still one of the better adventure games to come along in recent years.

The Callahan's Pedigree
CCS is based on the series of science-fiction short stories and books written by author Spider Robinson. The game, and written fiction, uses a bar as a nexus point for patrons from throughout the universe (and various time streams) that come to share problems and painful experiences alike. In some ways, CCS shares plot elements with the George Lucas' Star Wars cantina, writer Watt-Evans' short story "Why I Left Harry's All-Night Hamburgers" and the recent Steve Meretzky adventure game release "Space Bar". But what sets CCS apart from the other exotic watering holes, and what keeps readers coming back, is the intelligent writing of its author and overwhelming good nature in solving an individual's problem by the bar's community of esoteric patrons. Due credit for capturing the essence of the book series must go to comedian Josh Mandel whose previous adventure games included Freddy Pharkas Frontier Pharmacist and Space Quest VI.

The basic plot elements have you (playing Jake Stonebender, a scruffy 1960's folk musician) stepping into 5 unrelated vignettes to help friends and ultimately save the universe. The saloon serves as a jumping off point for each of these mini-adventures, wherein you can gather background information, acquire interesting companions to travel through space and time with, and engage in humorous word play. The stories have obvious adventure-game potential -- they include saving a rainforest which is the source of a rare chocolate bar, keeping a lonely vampire from suiciding by reuniting him with his lost love, travelling through time to aid a reluctant psychic and rescuing a kidnapped bar buddy who happens to be a talking dog.

"Ah am Guzman... Ah am your pilot!"
CCS won't impress those who expect breakthroughs in animation or visual effects -- nor will blaster-happy Quake jocks feel comfortable here. But for those who value playability, storyline, and intelligence, with strong doses of humour and word play, the Callahan's universe is a joy to explore. Interaction with comrades and your environment in CCS is heavily textual, and requires careful reading to solve puzzles and to experience the story cohesively. Your travelling companions make frequent suggestions, which generally guide you in the correct direction of solving a puzzle, but for those who are really challenged there is a hint book included. Throwing the hint guide away buys you 30-40 hours of gameplay. The puzzles, while generally fair, are sometimes bizarre, but they are almost always in context with the game's plot and storyline.

Generally, the game and puzzle difficulty would be in the easy-moderate category. This game will especially appeal to first-time adventure gamers. Its mini-quest structure will also attract those who dislike the need to invest many hours to finish one segment of a game in a satisfying way.

The strongest point in the game's favour is its use of humour. How often in recent memory has an adventure game made you laugh out loud? The collection of witty gags, funny remarks and clever puns is truly awesome in this game, and the 30-40 hour gameplay time might grow to be much longer if (like me) you click on one object after another simply to see what jokes you may uncover. By way of example, are these lines from the Brazilian jungle mini-quest. When you, as Jake, click on the spare tire on the ground beside a 4-wheel drive, the narrator will point out, "The gentleman with the jeep is obviously not working tirelessly." Click on the jeep itself and you're told, "That old wreck is getting a spare tire. And so is the jeep he's working on. Sorry, that was a jeep shot." Sometimes, the humour "misses the mark" (but who can be consistently funny?) and younger or non-U.S. players may miss some references to TV shows, ads, bands and sports personalities.

In addition to humorous dialogue, there are a series of tough word puzzle games that must be solved before the plot can advance. The first of these involves finding similes of words to turn them into proper names: "irritate, occupied to capacity, and lifeless" becomes "Grate, Full, Dead" or "The Grateful Dead". That was an easy example -- the word play gets more difficult as you progress.

The amount of conversation in this game and the conversational interface didn't annoy me, but it might vex some people. Like many of Legend Entertainment's recent games there is a lot of dialogue. The conversation interface frequently spits you out at an option's end and makes you talk to the subject again to continue. Used conversation options don't grey out so this can increase gameplay time, but does not really advance the plot.

Interactive fiction is more than pretty pictures
CCS features 360-degree scrolling, SVGA VESA-standard graphics display in either Windows 95 or DOS. Although more "cartoon-like" than most Myst-clones, the graphics work well in this game to reinforce the whimsical nature of the story. I encountered several graphics bugs in the inventory and backgrounds -- none were serious enough to slow the storyline (and there is a patch available at the Legend Entertainment Website that may correct these).

Sound and music
In both Windows95 and DOS, there are wide a range of FM-synthesis and MIDI soundcards provided for. The background music is acceptable and unobtrusive. From time to time, the game suffered from the "hanging note" MIDI daughterboard problem that afflicts all SoundBlaster MPU-401 sound cards. The voice acting is generally believable and foreign accents sounded realistic. I encountered one negative "feature" in the game design whereby 'banter' between Jake and his companion sometimes occurred so quickly that I was unable to fully appreciate it. Additionally, the characters seem to mumble from time to time. One recommendation to alleviate both problems is to turn the option for speech text on, which will allow the player to read what the characters are saying.

Documentation comes in the form of a CD jewel case game manual and a larger Strategy and Hint Guide. The game manual is nearly identical to that used in prior Legend games (viz. Shannara, Death Gate) and is generally adequate for the purpose, but does not fully deal with all Windows95 and DOS sound card problems. I was a bit surprised that the game box did not include one of Spider Robinson's classic Callahan books so that adventure gamers could continue what has become a Legend game ritual: read the book, play the game, consider the differences/parallels go onto Usenet adventure forums to argue these.

The Bottom Line
This game, as in the Callahan books, gives us a peek inside a New York state bar that is rather more unusual on the inside than you'd expect from its conventional exterior. Josh Mandel has largely accomplished his purpose of portraying the Callahan universe with the Spider Robinson style of puns, witty gags and funny dialogue. The game is very heavily laden with text and dialogue -- this characteristic will be off-putting to those who prefer "guns to puns". I suspect that this game will not become a widespread international bestseller because Legend Entertainment is a small designer that doesn't have a strong international presence, and the game does have a heavy U.S. context for much of its humour. Yet, Callahan's Crosstime Saloon rightly deserves to be considered a classic with other humorous adventure games like Monkey Island, Sam and Max and Toonstruck.

Callahan's Crosstime Saloon is distributed in Australia by Directsoft Australia Pty. Ltd. (+61 2 9482-3455). Appreciation is extended to Andrew James for the review copy of this game.

See the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Glen Davis 1997. All rights reserved.

System requirements:
The game requires a minimum 486/66, DOS 5.0 or Win 95, 8MB RAM, 2x CD-ROM drive, VESA-compatible or SVGA-graphics card, mouse and soundcard. It supports all Sound Blaster-compatible and other major sound cards as well as MIDI-music through an MPU-401 daughtercard. A significant feature of Legend games is that the recommended hardware is only a little above the minimum requirements (say 486-100 or faster with 16 MB RAM and 2 MB SVGA VESA card).