Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas TWOFER!

1. The Official Father Christmas Game (Alternative Software, 1989)

2. Special Delivery (Thorn EMI / Creative Sparks, 1984)

For this year's Christmas season, I wanted to do something properly thematic, instead of just making a huge comparison on a winter-themed sports game, so I decided to make two Christmas-themed special entries. You might have read the first one already, but in case you missed it, you can read it here. But today's entry is a Two-for-One Christmas-themed special, naturally featuring two Christmas games under the magnifying glass. While it can't be said that Christmas-themed games ever were very special in gameplay or anything, it is difficult to find anything of this sort to make a comparison of. So in that sense, I was lucky enough to notice that there actually are some Christmas games that were possible to make comparisons of. So whether you like it or not, here we go...


The Official Father Christmas Game (Alternative Software, 1989)

Written for the Amstrad CPC and Sinclair ZX Spectrum by Orb for Enigma Variations Ltd.
Graphics for the Amstrad CPC and Sinclair ZX Spectrum versions by Shaun McClure.
Also converted for the Commodore 64 by Enigma Variations Ltd; further details unknown.



No matter how Official this game wanted to promote itself as, I cannot imagine Santa Claus himself has ever had any hand at giving Alternative Software his official stamp of approval. Indeed, I can almost certainly confirm this to be true, since I asked about it from the man himself on the 8th of this December at around noon. The whole brief interview was apparently even broadcasted live on the Official Santa Claus internet TV. I didn't get the interview video for myself, nor a photograph to prove the meeting actually took place, since I would have had to pay for a sum I wasn't prepared to at the time, nor will I be in the future. However, to quote mr. Claus himself, he sees "no harm in giving people the freedom of spreading the joy of Christmas in any which way they seem fit, but wouldn't give his official approval to something he felt that didn't represent him and the surrounding legend's legacy in the proper way." Great man, good old Santa. Anyway, the only old review I found was from the issue 5/93 of Your Sinclair, which said "If I were the official Santa, I'd sue", with a score of 43%. Currently, the scores at our favourite internet spots are: 6.27 from 15 votes at World of Spectrum, 6.5 from 12 votes at Lemon64, a 5 out of 10 at CPC Game Reviews and a 9.00 out of  20.00 at CPC-Softs. How's that for a mediocre load of tosh?



It's Christmas Eve, and you as Santa should be getting off to work. Ho and hum, your ever so faithful elves have stolen the parts of your sleigh, so you need to find the sleigh parts and reassemble it, but avoid the elves while getting it done. Once you're done with the sleigh, you get to load it up with presents and make your deliveries all over the world. If that doesn't give you the Christmas spirit, nothing will!

To be brutally honest, it doesn't offer much entertainment value to even the most fanatic of Santa Claus fans, but it's a nice and slightly unexpected curiosity in the Alternative library, which is otherwise very samey and bland. That said, it's still not that much different from all the other Christmas-themed games out there, which you have already read about from my earlier Christmas-themed special. One thing I can safely say: this is much more completable than any of the other Christmas games I have come across so far. Whether that is to be considered a good or a bad thing, can be comparable to each person's Christmas spirits, I suppose.



Being another one in the endless line of games for our troublesome threesome, it's time for another tape loading times comparisons, fully ornamented with their loading screens. For once, this might actually be of some worth, since the game was only ever released on tape.

Commodore 64: 3 min 58 sec
Amstrad CPC: 8 min 43 sec
ZX Spectrum: 4 min 41 sec

Loading screens, left to right: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.

Although the Amstrad version has the slowest loader, it does have the best-looking loading screen. All three have otherwise the same exact loading screen, but the colouring is different. The Amstrad version has more than one colour, and even has the proper colour scheme for Christmas. So is it worth the 4+ extra minutes wait?



The Official Father Christmas Game (as it is properly called in the game's title screen) is divided to three or four acts, depending on your way of counting. So because of this, I will be going through the comparison in sections of levels.

The game begins with a prompt for entering your name. On the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions, the prompt is a joystick-operated alphabet-scroller with a dot, an exclamation mark, Delete and End as the highly necessary additions. The C64 version allows you to type your name in and thus save time in starting the game. All three versions have space for eight letters to type your name. Of these three, the C64 version is the only one to feature a high scores list - otherwise, your chosen name will only be featured in the game as part of your letter to Santa Claus.

In the first level, you need to run through Santa's house, pick up all the sleigh pieces and deliver them outside where Rudolph is waiting for departure - one by one. While you're at it, your nasty little helpers will run around to annoy your white beard off, as collision with any of these buggers will automatically drop your currently held item and you need to pick it up again from a new random location. The level is presented as a flip-screen side-viewed maze, as it has no actual platforming elements.

As far as I'm able to tell, the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions play exactly the same, so I might as well make a straight comparison to the C64 version here. The main points of focus are on how the vicious little elves are made to run around, how do the ladders work, and how fast does the timer run. Starting from the timer, it does appear to run slightly quicker on the C64, but it isn't all that noticable until you get well into the final section. Even so, the game is very much beatable on all platforms. Next, the ladders: you need to align yourself exactly in the middle of the stairs on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD, while the C64 allows you to enter them slightly off. Also, running into the ladders with your joystick in a diagonal position allows a straight entrance on the C64 without any hassle with aligning, while in the other two versions, you need to go directly up from the middle, so it can be quicker to play on the C64. However, the elves act very differently on the C64 compared to the other two. On the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, they can't use the ladders, so you're safe on them, but on the C64, they can go almost anywhere - almost. You have a couple of safe spots in the house, so learn them to make your game easier. Because the elves don't seem to be able to use the ladders on the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions, they have been made to be more random in their appearances, often occupying the screen for long periods of time so that you are stuck where you are. There are some tricks that you can use to make completing the level easier, but all of them require good reflexes and timing.

Once the sleigh is back in one piece and ready for loading up, Santa is presented with a letter signed by you at the beginning of the game, where you are asking for six presents, which can be chosen from a line of items. The next section will place you once again in Santa's boots, and your mission is to collect one of all the six listed items, before you can start your journey around the world. This happens in Santa's Grotto, where loads of random items drop down from the ceiling, and you just need to align yourself under the collectables to catch them. All this is very reminiscent of a somewhat unknown game called Wibstars, of which I made a comparison a couple of months ago. The controllability of Santa in the second part of this section is similar to level 1, so there's no need to elaborate on it further, and choosing the toys for the list is similar for all three.

The final act is a side-scrolling drop'em-up, where you need to drop presents to certain houses, which are marked with arrows, but your mission is made more difficult by clouds, airplanes and birds, all of which have a tendency to catch the dropped present along with them or move them from their natural course of drop, and there are a lot of them flying around. The main difference here is really just the amount of sublevels in this section, although the controllability is slightly different on the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM compared to the C64 version. The sublevels on the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions are: 1. America, 2. Africa, 3. Asia and 4. Europe. The C64 version leaves out Asia for some reason, but has two other level levels instead: Antarctica and Finland. This, of course, is a bit of a stretch to the original idea of going with the four main continents, particularly when singling out one particular country - and that one being my home country, which is only proper, since the Official Santa Claus, or Father Christmas if you will, is from Finland, at least according to the most vocal sources. Not that it really adds much value to the game in the end. The difference with controlling the sleigh, then, is a matter of inertia (C64) versus instant change in speed or direction (AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM), both of which work just fine, and make very little difference to the actual playability. All you need to do is go back and forth in your reindeer-powered sleigh, and drop presents into the arrow-marked spots, and you have no real control over how they fall - just hope that they won't get caught on the clouds or the birds or the planes.

In the end, the biggest and most important differences in the game are in the first section, and it's really the deciding factor on this game anyway, because unfortunately, you will be spending about 60% of the time in the first section. In case you actually want some challenge from this game, choose the C64 version. In case you would rather just be done with it as soon as possible, choose either the SPECTRUM or the AMSTRAD version. I'd really rather choose either of the latter ones in this case.




For anyone familiar with the general output from Alternative Software, this game will come as nothing new in terms of graphics and overall style. Their games have always felt mediocre and soulless for me, at least for the most part, because usually they follow the same pattern of similar gameplay combined with similar graphics and similar sounds compared to other Alternative Software games, excluding most of the re-releases from defunct software houses such as Creative Sparks and Hill MacGibbon. The Official Father Christmas Game is no different to the bulk of Alternative's catalogue - it's just harmless and forgettable recycled format of everything in it.

Title screens and "Enter your name" screens, left to right: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.

That doesn't mean that the game's versions don't have anything worth noting, when making a comparison. As you see, the graphical differences start at the title screen already. The game was originally sold in aid of the "Save the Children" fund, so there actually was a fairly Christmas-spirited function for this game, although I have no idea whether it actually sold enough to make any sort of difference. Anyway, while the AMSTRAD version has the fund logo in the loading screen, the SPECTRUM version doesn't show one anywhere, and the C64 version has the logo is included in the title screen. Just as well, since it would otherwise be just text, and since the C64 version only supports joystick, there would have been no control options either. You get no copyright information on the C64 version, though, if that makes any difference. Apart from having the Save the Children logo addition on the C64, I have no real preference regarding the title screens.

What you do learn from the title screen already, though, is the overall style of graphics for each version, as you can see from the time and score display at the bottom of the screen - it sticks down there through the whole game. Both the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions go for a less colourful overall presentation with hi-res graphics, while the C64 goes for the obvious C64'ish choice, which is much more colours with lower resolution.

Full level 1 map from the Amstrad CPC version.

So, because the time and score displays are otherwise always at the bottom, I decided to cut them out and connect the screens from Santa's home to show you all the six screens at once for each version. And we shall start with the AMSTRAD version, which stays within the same limits of colour as the loading screen already displayed - you have black, white, green and red. It works fine with the slightly more colourful display at the bottom (it adds a bit of yellow to the palette), but on its own, it looks sadly lacking in colour.

Full level 1 map from the ZX Spectrum version.

Looking at the SPECTRUM version, though, you can see why the AMSTRAD version decided to go for less colourful graphics. While the SPECTRUM version of the house is certainly more entertaining to look at as a complete set, in action it's a bit too funky because of all the different colours (two shades of red, white, grey, black, magenta, two shades of yellow and two shades of cyan) and the inevitable clash caused by them. Still, I do think for the most part, it works just slightly better this way.

Full level 1 map from the Commodore 64 version.

Then again, you can have an even more colourful version of the game on the C64, but then a lot of the detail gets lost in translation. Although it's just one more colour than on the SPECTRUM (white, green, yellow, light blue, dark blue, black, magenta, brown, pink, green, red and cyan), there is no colour clash, but there is so much less details in the graphics as well. For me, the most disturbing graphical mistake is the colour of Rudolph, who is only supposed to have a red nose, instead of a completely red body with some white spots. It look more like Bambi now, and it just makes me think that the graphician for the C64 version has never seen a proper reindeer. At least the other versions have a white reindeer, although I can't be sure whether it is such because of the circumstances didn't allow anything else or not. Grey would have been nice, but that's just useless nitpicking, when everything else in the game is already so mediocre.

In terms of character animations, the three versions don't really differ all that much - just in the style of the animation. All the versions have no more than 3 or 4 frames of animation for Santa (not that sure about the elves), but the C64 Santa walks with a bit of a slide, while the other two have a more strict pixel-based movement style. Although it's more a matter of preference, I do think the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have a better feel in the animations, but both styles fit well with the style of gameplay on each version.

Screenshots from level 2, left to right: Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC.

Level 2, as a whole, works better on the C64. The idea of having a letter to Santa Claus on the screen does make you wish the letter would actually look something like a letter. On the C64, the blocky font isn't perhaps the best choice for the letter, but at least there's a white sheet representing paper to hold the letters, while the other two only have text in no particularly differing style from the title screen texts. Also, the other two versions show a clear lack of proofreading skills: "I would like the the following presents". All the items are more logically aligned on the C64 as well, regardless of the item. Finally, Santa's Grotto has some background graphics on the C64, which isn't exactly all that pretty, but it's there, and as such, more entertaining than the non-existing background on the other two versions.

Screenshots from all the subsections of level 3 on Amstrad CPC.

For the final section, the action screen on the AMSTRAD is divided into three layers, each displaying different monochrome things in a different colour. Of course, Santa and all his accessories are red, because red is the primary colour you normally would associate Santa Claus with. The clouds, birds, presents, arrows and planes in the middle section are white, and the location-related graphics at the bottom are green, regardless of the location.

Screenshots from all the subsections of level 3 on ZX Spectrum.

The SPECTRUM version doesn't really differ from the AMSTRAD in the basics, but the colouring is different. Santa's sprite is now cyan, which doesn't really fit well with his usual colours, and the location graphics are yellow, which in contrast is slightly more acceptable than the AMSTRAD's green. Still, it's a bit boring.

Screenshots from all the subsections of level 3 on Commodore 64.

Again, the C64 version can spread around much more colour to fill everyone's needs. Santa and his sleigh are a multi-colour hi-res item, and Rudolph is now strangely orangey-brownish, which is better than red, but not quite correct yet. The mid-section has now blue birds, grey airplanes and yellow stars in addition to the white clouds, and the location graphics are very colourful indeed, and almost vaguely even representative of each area's stereotypical sceneries and habitats. The Finnish houses should be red to make the stereotype more accurate, and a bit of more snow would have been nice as well, since we do get some of it during the period.

Game completed, left to right: Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum.

When you complete the game, you get a "Well Done" message that is basically the same for all versions. The C64 text is more logically laid out, but is in plain white, while the other two have a bit more colour in them, but have a bit of a punctuation problem. Again, where was the proofreader? At least the SPECTRUM and AMSTRAD versions have a monochrome picture of Santa Claus doing a thumbs-up gesture to show as a bonus of sorts, although you do get the same picture after every level anyway.

All in all, the C64 version wins by a hair, because it offers more to look at. I do prefer level 1 on the SPECTRUM, and I sort of like how constant the AMSTRAD version is in its colours throughout the game, but it's just one of those occasions when more is more, even if it's as mediocre as it is.




Christmas songs are something we all love to hate, particularly after enduring them for weeks and weeks in shopping malls and the radio - you just can't escape it in these parts of the world. To top this all off, you have the option to go 8-bit and listen to some traditional Christmas tunes that have been programmed into your favourite seasonal games.

In each version of the Official Father Christmas Game, you get to hear different 8-bit renditions of three different Christmas songs. Jingle Bells and We Wish You A Merry Christmas are featured in all versions of the game, but while the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions have Deck The Halls, the C64 version has a rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, which happens to be one of my current favourite Christmas songs. But there's more to the musical differences than just that one song. On the C64, all three songs are played on their own during every level (with no option for sound effects), while the AMSTRAD and SPECTRUM versions only feature all three songs as a Christmas medley on the title screen. All the levels in the game only have rather minimalistic, but effective sound effects instead of music, which works fine if you feel like you've had enough of Christmas tunes already.

In a way, the SPECTRUM version is the most impressive of the lot, since even with the 48k Spectrum's beeper, you can hear some sort of multi-channeled beeping music, which is a nice trick. The music does sound a bit better on the AMSTRAD, though, even if it's similarly arranged, because having no need to use tricks leaves out the irritating high-pitched noise produced by the Spectrum beeper in cases such as this. While these versions both have a cheerful and upbeat soundtrack, the C64 conversion has a more relaxed tempo in the songs, and the instrumentation is also a lot more peaceful. Depending on your mood, either one will work fine, but the AMSTRAD/SPECTRUM version works better for the game.




Surprisingly, the conclusion is that the AMSTRAD version is the best one of the lot, because it has the most constant mediocrity, whatever that means. But truthfully, none of the versions are worse than the other, as you can complete all of them just as easily. It's just a matter of preference, how you want the game to play, look and sound like. This is just mathematics.

1. AMSTRAD CPC: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 7
2. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 1, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 5
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 3, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5

Now, before you start getting too jolly, here comes the second comparison to bring these Christmas specials into a conclusion of sorts...


Special Delivery (Creative Sparks, 1984)

Developed by Dalali Software Ltd.
Released for the Atari XL/XE computers, Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum.



While this one is clearly not as "official" as the other game, it has at least earned a more united approval of retrogamers. Even at the time of its release, Special Delivery had a good average score of about 70% from the gaming press, and now it's even more valued than it was then. At World of Spectrum, the game has a 7.5 from 18 votes; at Lemon64, it has a score of 7.4 from 5 votes, and at Atarimania, it has a rating of 7.9 from 24 votes. Definitely the more promising entry in this seasonal two-for-one.



Again, it's Christmas Eve - what else. This time, Santa has overslept, because his alarm clock has failed to wake him up. So now he's in a good bit of a hurry to deliver all the gifts, but he doesn't have enough presents to give to all the children, so he comes up with a cunning plan. Santa's helpers in the clouds will help him by dropping the presents from the clouds. Your mission is to collect as many of the presents as possible, and land safely on the roofs to deliver the gifts, which will require from you to climb down the chimneys and go through the houses unnoticed, leaving the presents under each house's Christmas tree. Remember, you've got a tight schedule, so it's going to be one busy game.

This is undoubtedly one of the most versatile and interesting Christmas games of all time, which raises the question: why was it never marketed better, perhaps even remade and re-released for new editions? Christmas just happens to be the perfect time for consumers to purchase all sorts of things they don't need anyway. As it is, though, it's still one of the more collectable games, and quite possibly the only commerical Christmas game you will ever need to even consider to purchase into your retrogaming collection, unless you own a 16-bit Nintendo or Sega console. Still, for an 8-bit Christmas game, this is easily one of your best options.



ZX Spectrum loading screen.
I came across a couple of problems with this game: the ATARI version doesn't yet have a tape image anywhere on the internet, and the only versions I could find were either ATR disk images or XEX-executables. Neither does the C64 version have either a tape or a disk image anywhere, so I shall have to do this bit at a later time. Only the SPECTRUM tape image is easily available, and if anything can be logically concluded from previous experiences with games from Creative Sparks (and/or Thorn EMI), it might well be the only one that has any sort of a loading picture.



As with most of the other games where you control Santa Claus, you get to do no shooting or killing whatsoever, and the most violent act you will be able to commit is to kill yourself by getting burned by flames. Excuse my rather bleak start for this - I was watching the final act of Ransom with Mel Gibson on the TV while writing this bit, and an overdose of Christmas things might have not helped the matter.

Back to the game, then. Special Delivery is played in three distinctly different acts. The first one is another horizontally scrolling Scramble-clone of sorts, where you fly around over a mountainous area, and try to collect a target amount of presents dropped from the skies by your little helpers for you to pick up. If you don't reach the target within a certain amount of time, the game continues into a Bomber-like section, where you drop the presents down smaller houses' chimneys from mid-flight. If you do reach the target, you come to an area with bigger houses, on top of which you must park your sleigh and go down the chimney.

The second part of the game is basically a vertically scrolling avoid'em-up, where Santa descends down the chimney, moving around three ladders towards the fireplace, while avoiding balls of fire moving upwards and lumps of snow falling down.

Finally, the big three-storey houses all have numerous stairs to climb, curious children to avoid and doorways to go through. There is always a big Christmas tree in a randomly chosen room, where you must drop off your presents (just walk up to the tree and the presents will be dropped automatically), and then there is a key to pick up, which you need in order to get out of the house through the back door. So it's an early form of plot-driven bit of stealth gaming, if you wish to think of it that way.

Controlling Santa is fairly self-explanatory and obvious for all sections, and the only time you need to use the fire button is when you drop the presents straight down the chimneys when you haven't reached the target amount. Only the C64 version is restricted to using only the four main directions, while the other two have the diagonals in use as well, which allows for more flexible gameplay, but then again, each of the versions' gameplay mechanics have been adjusted to go with more comfortably with each control method.

Colliding with clouds and mountains will make you lose one present, but a hit by a lightning, a present dropped by the Red Devil (as he is called in the game's official instructions), a fireball or a snowball in the chimney, or making contact with one of the children will make you lose one hour of your time - the equivalent of losing a life in this game. It sure is a rough job being Santa Claus. The game gets gradually more difficult with a growing number of clouds, more often appearing and longer lasting lightnings, more drops from the Red Devil, more obstacles in the chimneys and more wandering children in the houses. So, however limited the game seems to be, it certainly offers a lot more gameplay value than most 8-bit Christmas games.

So how about the other differences, then? Well, happily, there aren't many. Most of the big differences are to be found in the SPECTRUM version. Moving around Santa's sleigh in the side-scrolling bits doesn't look very good and fluent, but it affects the gameplay less than you would imagine. The strikes of lightnings are also never around for more than a small fraction of a second, unlike in the other two versions, so they're easier to avoid in a way. Then again, they're also more random at appearing. When you get to the area with small houses, you can't go as low with your sleigh on the SPECTRUM as you can go in the other two versions, although it doesn't really matter, since the presents will always fall straight down from where they were dropped, instead of being affected by the wind or your sleigh's position. Going down the chimneys takes a lot longer on the SPECTRUM, and the fireballs appear on the screen much higher than on the other two, so you need slightly better reflexes. But all in all, the differences are so slight that it's really a matter of preference in the end. Therefore, I do think that the more restricting control method on the C64 puts a bigger disadvantage on the version, while the ATARI version has really the most well-balanced gameplay of all three.




Pretty is a word you cannot really use when describing Special Delivery for any computer, and even at the time of release, its graphics were mediocre at best. Now, though, a retrogamer might as well think of it being charmingly low in quality - rose-tinted glasses and all that. Still, considering the amount of work that must have been needed back in the day to be put into making a game even with the amount of variety that this offers, must have made the graphics far from being the primary concern. And thankfully so, because the gameplay is rather good in all formats.

Title screens, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum.

Although it's clear that the title screen is overlaid on top of the screen where your game eventually begins, each version has its own specific variation of the title screen. On the ATARI, you have a text scroller at the bottom of the screen, giving you the title and credits and so on; on the C64, you get a static title card of sorts shown in the middle of the screen, along with the current high score; and on the SPECTRUM, you get two screens for the price of one - the first one having a static title and copyright text along with the control options, and the second one having the text scroller at the bottom, although it only starts to scroll after the title tune has finished playing. Otherwise the second title screen on the Spectrum is the same as the first one (although the border has changed to grey), which is why I didn't include it here.

Screenshots from the outdoor sections, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum.

You already saw how the outdoor sections basically look like, because they are shown on the title screens, but let's dig a bit deeper and concentrate on actually describing the graphics now. The outdoor section is divided into three areas: the mountains, the big houses and the small houses. While flying over the mountains, you are bombarded with presents from both Santa's little helpers and from the Red Devil, all of which look otherwise the same, but the Red Devil is just red. Funny, though, that even the Red Devil has a halo over his head. The mountains and clouds looks the most picturesque on the ATARI, with clearly more thought put into the graphics, but it's quite blocky and unattractive. The C64 version takes after the ATARI version, but has much less detail and colours.

The SPECTRUM version has the least amount of colours, and it scrolls the worst, but it's the only one where the sleigh has a reindeer (and an animated one at that!) fronting it. It doesn't really help much, since your sleigh moves around in character block based moves - one block at a time for every other direction, but backwards you go two blocks at a time. It's pretty fast, though, so after a while you won't think much of it. Thanks to the higher screen resolution, there are some nice details added here, that couldn't be produced for the two lo-res versions.

Screenshots from the chimney section, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum.

In the second section, you get to perform the famous Santa-maneouvre of going down the chimney. I, for one, have always thought it a ridiculous notion of anyone climbing down a chimney, because I have never on a normal house seen a chimney, that could fit more than a small bird or a ferret inside, and trying to fit an overweight jolly old bloke with a huge sack full of mostly hard presents down the same hole sounds, simply, preposterous. Not that miracles have never happened, and legends shouldn't be taken for granted. But this game explained quite a lot of my misconceptions about this part of the legend for me - apparently in some countries, chimneys are as wide as to fit eight fully grown men side by side, although much of the space has already been taken by three ladders going from top to bottom.

I'm not going to dwell on the colour choices for each version's chimneys and the surrounding darknesses, which frankly isn't either very important or particularly interesting, but I would like to say a few words about what happens inside the chimney. Usually, fire is shown as a yellow flaming mass, and in the case of the ATARI and C64 versions, it's no different. Only the fireballs do look a bit silly going up the ladders in a decidedly organized manner. But since that is the case for all three versions, it's all the same. On the ATARI and C64, the ladder is in the same colour as the plaster around the bricks of the chimney, so it's some sort of magical all-purpose material that can handle weight and fire nicely. Everything on the SPECTRUM version, that has been lumped between the red-and-yellow brick layers of the chimney, is of a light grey colour - the fireballs, the snowballs, the ladders and even Santa Claus. Sure, it's still hi-res, but the fireballs don't really look like fire. Happily, the scrolling is very good here.

Screenshots from examples of a big house, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum.

The big houses are shown in a pseudo-3D format, where nothing of importance has been actually made to work in all three dimensions. And to be honest, there is nothing at all realistic about these houses in any case, if the chimney didn't manage to prove that point to you yet. Not that it makes much difference, because the game is still quite entertaining. All the big houses have twelve rooms, four of which have ladders, and three key elements scattered around the house in random rooms: the key, the Christmas tree and the back door. Although why would you go out through the back door when Rudolph is still waiting for you on the roof, never fails to baffle me. Then, there are those sleepwalking children, the number of which increases after every successful special delivery.

Sure, the game still looks thoroughly simplistic, so I need not comment on the undecorativeness of the house and its rooms, much less the Christmas tree. Each version has a different degree of blockiness on the sprites running around, and each version has everything in different colours. In sheer functionality, the SPECTRUM version looks the most natural in action, and combines the house colours from both ATARI and C64, but still uses monochrome sprites. From the two blocky versions, the ATARI one feels more roomy, and it fits better together with the game's other sections.

Game Over screens, left to right: Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum.

Your session may end at any section, but I decided to go for the most obvious one here, because the outdoors section is the one where you are most likely to get a Game Over. All three versions have a differently shown Game Over message, which isn't all that much to speak of in any case, but at least it's different. On the ATARI, it's shown at the bottom beside the scores, in the place of the amounts of presents collected and required. On both C64 and SPECTRUM, the text is shown somewhere in the middle area of the action screen, but on the C64, the text is shown in two alternating colours (yellow and turqoise) and in the background, and on the SPECTRUM, the text comes in a flashing box.

In the end, the SPECTRUM version is at the same time a combination of both the ATARI and C64 versions and still clearly having its very own Spectrumesque identity with the monochrome hi-res sprites and awkward scrolling. But it's still aesthetically a better overall combination of primitive things than the C64 version, which even lacks the detail that is on the otherwise similarly ugly but colourful ATARI version.




Naturally, being a Christmas-themed game, the theme tune is a well-known Christmas song, this time being none other than Jingle Bells. While the SPECTRUM was still at the time only able to produce a single beepy sound at a time, both the ATARI and C64 versions have renditions with two voices, featuring the melody and the polka-like bass line. This is the only bit where the C64 version has some advantage, as the two melodic lines have a slightly different sounding instrument, while the ATARI only has two similar beepy tones.

The game is otherwise completely played with sound effects. While the SPECTRUM version has no more than three sound effects in total (one high ping-note for scoring with something, one lower one for failure, and one tapping sound for walking), it can still be considered adequate for this sort of a game. In contrast, both the ATARI and C64 versions can boast of having quite a lot more to offer. First and foremost, there's a nice wind-blowing effect that is played in the outdoor sections, a few bips and bops to tell you of successful and unsuccessful deliveries, as well as picking up and dropping presents, and of course losing an hour of your time, and the obligatory tapping noise for when you're walking. The chimney section even has its own low repeating note, which is a bit irritating, but also adds a sense of danger.

Since both the ATARI and C64 versions still have quite primitive sound effects, I don't really have a preference either way, but the C64 version does have a slightly better rendition of Jingle Bells.




Special Delivery might not be the most official Christmas game around, but it certainly offers more entertainment than the previous Christmas-themed game on this entry, not to mention many other 8-bit Christmas-themed games. For any retrogamer, it's a good addition to their collection, regardless of the version, and it's doesn't even seem to have much of value for some reason, so it's also a plausible idea for a Christmas present. Anyway, here are the results:

1. ATARI 8-BIT: Playability 3, Graphics 3, Sounds 2 = TOTAL 8
2. ZX SPECTRUM: Playability 2, Graphics 2, Sounds 1 = TOTAL 5
2. COMMODORE 64: Playability 1, Graphics 1, Sounds 3 = TOTAL 5

And that's exactly how it is, really, regardless of the mathematics. Looks strangely familiar... oh well.

If this entry hasn't given you enough ideas for next year's Christmas presents, have another look at my previous Christmas-themed entry and see if you can work on a nice little combination for your retrogaming friends.

That's it for now, and very likely for the next year as well, since there aren't that many Christmas-themed games around to make much more of these, so I hope you enjoyed this month's thematic offerings! And so, the time has come to wish you all a happy Christmas, or whatever it is you are celebrating in your religion of choice, and thank you all for reading again! Comments, suggestions and corrections are still welcome!


  1. Well, I think both games are pretty much crap :-D My favorite game to play on the Spectrum on Christmas was The Snowman - how's that for a suggestion? ;-)

    1. I won't argue against that. ;-) I have never tried The Snowman, even forgot it existed. Perhaps I shall look into it next year.