Have You Played… Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon?

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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17 Comments

  1. TheAngriestHobo says:

    Richard! That’s a pleasant surprise for a Friday!

    This game… sounds amazing. Awful puns are really the main appeal I find in adventure games (this is a P&C adventure game, right?). My favourite gaming line of the ’90s came from Quest for Glory IV:

    “You lick the Good Humor bar. It tastes funny.”

  2. Author X says:

    I have! I definitely remember being blown away by the level of the puns, and I love an elaborate and tortured setup for a terrible joke. I remember the very end being a bit cloying and twee (and so was one of the books when I tracked it down and read it), but the rest of the game was fantastic and irreverent, so loaded with wordplay and jokes that puzzles revolved around them.

    My personal favorite bit (possibly embellished by time and nostalgia) is when an future youth finds out you’re from the 20th century and goes on a tear about how your generation threw his under the bus by refusing to address the looming energy crisis, and demands to know how you thought your children and grandchildren would get light, or heat, once fossil fuels were burnt up. Jake just shrugs shyly and says, “…global warming?”

  3. Jerppa says:

    “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.”

    Doesn’t every pub in the world do that?

  4. Michael Fogg says:

    Yeah, what’s next, Superhero League of Hoboken? ;)

    • pauleyc says:

      Oooh, SHL is one of my all-time favourites, thank’s to Steve Meretzky’s sense of humour. Actually, it would be nice to read a retrospective featuring Legend Entertainment, they had some excellent IF and adventure games back in the 80s and 90s (love their Gateway games).

  5. xcopy says:

    I second that!

  6. Michael Fogg says:

    Yup, could be a good idea for the new IF column

  7. WorldMaker says:

    I was one of the few that played it near release. Got a review copy as a kid. It lead me to the books, so that worked out pretty well.

    • WorldMaker says:

      It was also super confusing as there were many in jokes to the books I felt at the time. Haven’t tried it since finishing the book series, I don’t think.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        I played it before reading the books, but TBH it’s not that bad. The regulars get a big introduction before doing anything, none of their weirder quirks or the big story beats (like the fact that Jake and the other regulars are literally indestructible after an early story) play any part in it, and most of the action is outside the bar in new stories anyway. I felt it worked pretty well in that in the bar you’re basically Jake’s guest and he shows you what you need to know.

        • malkav11 says:

          The game introduced me to the books. In some ways I actually liked the game better. Not to say that the books are bad by any means, but they’re more…sedate, shall we say?

  8. zerosociety says:

    Ah, Justin and Lady Callahan, I miss ye.

    But I had no idea there was an Adventure Game based on Callahan’s. I need to hunt this down.

  9. Sentinel Greg says:

    I could swear that that man in the header image is straight out of a Junji Ito comic…

    Imma go searching

  10. Scandalon says:

    Alas, I have not. I recall being intrigued by an add in a magazine that most assuredly did not look like a western, but no idea what era that would have been. (And the article doesn’t say. Guess I’ll have to spend 15 seconds and google…Wikipedia says 1997, so probably PC Gamer then?) Used copies are still floating around, so probably playable under DOSBox.

  11. MOOncalF says:

    Wow, this rough diamond, I found this boxed in a department store bargain bin Christchurch New Zealand in ’98 or so where it had no damn right to be, I think I found it because I needed to. It propelled me into Spider Robinson fandom, it was a great adventure game, and the puns really SUCKED. :)

    • MOOncalF says:

      Oh, it has a couple of super-sticky puzzles early on, the manual has solutions so grab that in .pdf or whatever if you can, I could probably copy the relevant pages.