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Spotlight: California Raisins

It is not at all uncommon to see a Capcom action game rated “Game of the Month” in a major publication. It is, however, an oddity to see such a highly praised game go unreleased! California Raisins: The Grape Escape, planned for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991, fits this description precisely.

Because of its extensive coverage and praise in Game Player’s Magazine, California Raisins has been a hot topic of discussion and speculation among hobbyists for over twelve years. We’ve often wondered what the game was like, and why we didn’t get to play it. Most of us all but gave up entirely on knowing even a shred of detail on the game.

And then there was Lost Levels. Here, then, is an exclusive look at the game, its history, and the man behind the shriveled fruit.

-By Frank Cifaldi

You don’t become the Vice President of Captivation Digital Laboratories overnight. As Robert Morgan, the very man in question, might tell you, it takes several years of experience in the industry to get a sweet gig like that.

“If memory serves, I programmed [California Raisins] in the summer of 1990. I was in college at the time, part-way through the Computer Science program at Cal Poly Pomona. After class, I would drive up the hill to Diamond Bar, to the home of Rod and Nancy Nakamoto.”

Back then, the Nakamotos ran a very small company called Interactive Designs out of their home. Morgan literally programmed games at their living room desk.

Interactive Designs would go on to create classics such as Greendog for the Sega Genesis and Sonic Spinball for the Sega Game Gear. Back in 1990, however, their catalog included only a handful of minimally-successful games for the Commodore Amiga, Apple II, and the PC. California Raisins was to be their first cartridge-based video game.

“I remember development being slow since the tools felt particularly arcane – even for 1990. I also only had about four pages of documentation on the whole machine, so there was quite a guessing game. Being so far down the chain of relationships made it difficult to get questions answered.”

That “chain” found Interactive Designs at the bottom. The game was being developed there for Radiance Software, via an agreement between CALRAB and Applause Licensing, who in turn was producing it for mighty Capcom.

Christopher Riggs, credited as game designer on California Raisins, was the owner of Radiance Software. Radiance is perhaps best known for their port of the Capcom arcade classic Side Arms to the TurboGrafx 16. Their relationship wasn’t exclusive to Capcom, however. In fact, their two other NES games weren’t for Capcom at all; Rollerblade Racer and The Great Waldo Search were produced for Hi-Tech Expressions and T*HQ, respectively.

“Christopher Riggs was the designer on the project, though his role was considerably different than typical designers of today. He did the top-level design work, and a collaborative effort hammered out the details,” said Morgan. “Chris had the relationship with Capcom and probably acted much more like a producer of today.”

Nancy Nakamoto is credited as the graphics artist on California Raisins. Most of the conceptual ideas came from conversations between Riggs and herself. Acting as a direct supervisor, Nakamoto would relay the basic concepts to Morgan, who would then implement them into the code.

“Development was pretty fun on this project. We didn’t get too bogged down in anything, and the game came together fairly smoothly. Of course, this is in hindsight – I may have been tearing my hair out at the time.”

California Raisins was certainly a worthy Capcom title. More than anything, it’s reminiscent of the Mega Man series: the main character walks left to right, climbs ladders, jumps, and shoots enemies with his “jelly gun.” Players are free to play through the game’s levels in any order they desire, hunting for the area’s “boss enemy,” who sits in a secluded room waiting for our hero. Conquering all four levels unlocks the final battle in the sky, where you’re challenged to defeat the leader of the California Raisins’ rival band, The Wild Bunch. Doing so frees your kidnapped band-mates just in time for their next scheduled concert, which you’re given an allusion to in the game’s finale.

Mega Man was not the only frame of reference for California Raisins. The cartoon-style graphics, for instance, are reminiscent of Capcom’s other hit of the time, Duck Tales. This combination of gun-toting action against a cartoony atmosphere would not be used again until Capcom’s own Darkwing Duck one year later.

By video game standards, especially of the time, California Raisins is a bit on the short side. The game can easily be breezed through by an experienced game player in less than twenty minutes, even on its optional “difficult” setting.

For the more adventurous among us, however, California Raisins hides an assortment of surprises for those who wish to explore it further. Hidden musical icons, for instance, can be found in the most unlikely places by shooting at random spots in the air. There are several hidden doors and secret passageways, particularly in the “Maize Maze” level, begging to be explored by those who seek more from their games.

At least one unique feature helps California Raisins stick out among other, similar games: pressing the “Select” button at any time during game play allows you to strut your stuff in a moonwalk! This feature actually came from a minor programming goof.

“I got some direction wrong and the raisin was moving backwards – it looked like he was moonwalking. We all looked at it and said, ‘Hey, ...’”

While this certainly is a fun gimmick to play with, moonwalking actually allows for some great strategy. Doing a Michael Jackson impersonation allows you to shoot at an enemy as you’re running away, something that this author certainly wishes were possible in Mega Man.

There’s certainly nothing “wrong” with the game, especially by 1990’s standards, so the question remains: why was California Raisins never published?

“Why was the game never released? I honestly don’t know. As far as I know, the game was complete and ready to go,” said Morgan. “Some people have had consprational theories that someone may not have wanted the game released – it’s fun to think that, but it’s probably more likely that it was a marketing or company politics thing. The truth is that I was too far from the decision making to be privy to what went on. I understand that the game did have some healthy pre-orders from the retailers...”

Raisins may not have been the best game ever made, but I think fondly of it. For the most part, three of us put it together over the course of four or five months. Given what we were doing and what little resources we had, I think we did a fairly decent job.”

Though it may not have been released, California Raisins helped Interactive Designs get into the console business. In addition to the titles mentioned above, Interactive Designs were also responsible for games such as Star Wars and Dinosaurs for Hire for the Sega Genesis, as well as Tale Spin and Darkwing Duck for the TurboGrafx 16.

Interactive Designs was eventually bought out by Sega. The core group may be separated, but many former Interactive employees remain in the video games industry to this day.

Robert Morgan is currently the Vice President of Captivation Digital Laboratories, Inc., who were responsible for a lot of the behind the scenes technological advancements of the Sega Dreamcast, as well as on such hits as Lose Your Marbles for the PC.

Nancy Nakamoto retired from creating video games around five or six years ago. She and Rod have been involved in more games than they can likely remember.

Scott Etherton, who wrote the musical score, is probably best known for his musical work on Mechwarrior II.

Christopher Riggs, as of this writing, is nowhere to be found.

Special thanks goes to Robert Morgan, who took time out of his busy schedule to discuss, as he put it, “the good ole days,” as well as Brandon Murphy, who somehow pulled a miracle and found a copy of California Raisins floating around in Florida, and had the uncommon decency to share it with us.


Download California Raisins: The Grape Escape here.
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