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Have You Played... Callahan's Crosstime Saloon?

Shared pain lessened. Shared joy increased.

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Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

It’s a shut-em-up. Only way to handle a character with a loaded pun.

The odds are that if you have played Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, it wasn’t when it came out. Not many games have been so poorly handled by their publisher, nor so many publishers depressingly ignorant about what they had. It’s based on the long-running series of books by Spider Robinson, set in a Long Island bar that’s basically Cheers, if Cheers routinely welcomed aliens, time-travellers and lost souls in need of friendship that never ends up on the rocks, a fresh start, and compassion with a twist of lime. The publisher… sold it as a Western. Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngh! Just assume that everything is wrong, starting with the fact that the Callahan of the title is a plump Irishman (at least to the eye), his ‘saloon’ is a place of comfortable chairs and bad punning, nobody-but-nobody would get away with pulling a gun on one of his patrons except him, it has a proper front door, and despite having read the entire series, I don’t remember one single person or alien ever trying to fuck it.

And so, one truly excellent adventure slipped instantly into obscurity. A real crime, especially since on top of all the good stuff that came with the Callahan setting (the books are excellent, if repetitive after a while) it was designed by Josh Mandel. Mandel is not only one of the most unappreciated writers/designers from the Sierra factory – he wrote, amongst many other things, the Bargain Bin in Space Quest IV – but one who deserves to name his own design style. “Mandelian Design”, the art of putting a joke into every single pixel and possible interaction on the screen. Callahan’s rich 360 degree backgrounds are pun cluster-bombs, sharing the series love of such tortured set-ups that Amnesty International really should intervene. Another game might have you go into a Romanian coffee shop – Starbuccharests, obviously – and do a couple of puns about coffee beans. Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon has a whole range of different flavours, all in the name of slowly leading up to agonisingly painful punchlines like “What, you’ve never heard of mortar on an Orient espresso?”

The game takes place all around the world, but on the same night… the joy of time-travel… with main character and author stand-in Jake zooming around on assorted quests to help the bar patrons with their problems. They’re not quite rooted in the same kind of issues everyone faces in the book, such as a former aid worker who ironically calls himself a time-traveller because he spent years suffering in a tyrant’s jail only to emerge in ‘the future’, but the same spirit of bonhomie and genuine friendship runs through all of them. It’s a great setup for an adventure that lets the story go anywhere, even if the later vignettes do feel like they were under more time-pressure than the first few. Much like the books though, the game does what’s most important – really make you wish the place was real, and just for a while, make it feel like it is.

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Richard Cobbett

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