Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Unique CHRISTMAS Games!

Yes, I'm getting a bit predictable with my season themed list entries, but since we didn't have much of properly Christmas-y games under the glass last year, I thought I would make up for it this year. Hopefully, this will be of some interest to at least some of you. Although this is supposed to be part of the Unique Games series, I decided to leave the "Unique" bit for even less focus than usual, because there are so few Christmas themed games out there, where the word would actually fit the description in any way. For those of you waiting for some proper entries in the Unique Games series, I promise to get back to the good stuff after the New Year. But for now, hang on to your elf costumes, or whatever you're wearing, and jump on board for the sleigh ride...



1. Santa's Grotty Christmas (1984, Bad Taste Software)

Let's start this festive set with a fabulously questionable game that has now turned 30 years old. In this game, you play as an unwell Santa Claus. The title screen suggests he is very drunk, but I suppose he could just as well be hungover. Either way, he certainly is not feeling very well, and he still has to do his job.

The game plays sort of like a scrolling version of Blitz (or Canyon Bomber, if you prefer), and your job is to drop Christmas socks down the chimneys. Unfortunately, Santa keeps quite literally shitting himself, and his droppings also fall constantly, albeit randomly, and you need to avoid smearing the wrong things. Then again, getting the brown logs dropped on specific things boosts up the Dust meter, whatever it is there for. I suppose it's fuel or something.

The second of only two games ever released by Bad Taste Software for the C64 also received a thorough remake for the Windows PC's from Bad Taste in 2012. The original game is nearly impossible to find as a proper tape, so if you want to actually play the game, you need to either find it from one of the scene websites, or alternately, you can download the new "enhanced" version from Bad Taste Software's own website.

2. Ferris's Christmas Caper (1998, Commodore Zone/Binary Zone PD)

Our second game comes from Jon Wells, who is one of the most prolific currently active C64 coders, having 22 items listed at Gamebase64. His games are mostly of very high quality too, and quite a few of them have had their commercial release through Psytronik Software. His only Christmas-themed game so far, Ferris's Christmas Caper, was originally released with the Commodore Zone magazine's issue #12 in 1998.

Simply put, it's a multi-directionally scrolling collect'em-up, with a mission to collect 25 presents scattered all over the C-Zone, before the time runs out. Worry not - although the timer runs surprisingly fast, it resets every time you find another present. The problem is, there is only one present in the area at a time, so you need to walk around the area for a small infinity before the game is over. It has some cute graphics and a nice enough soundtrack by Tonka Black, but there's only so much you can expect from a Christmas freebie. It's worth a try, but only for a quick session on the Christmas Eve when you have nothing else to do. NOTHING else.



1. Moley Christmas (1987, Gremlin Graphics/Your Sinclair)

Having originally been released as a cover tape of Your Sinclair magazine issue #25, Moley Christmas had naturally escaped my notice until emulation and World of Spectrum came along. There's not much to the game, actually, but it served the purpose of a Christmas freebie for YS readers extremely well back in the day. Nowadays, serious collectors might pay good money for this game, and since it's a Spectrum exclusive, it only adds to the game's current value.

It's basically a six screens long platforming puzzle-adventure with gameplay mechanics that most Gremlin fans should be very familiar with. The idea is to get Monty to pick up a computer listing of a game from the Gremlin HQ, then get the game to the Mastering Plant, then deliver the tape to the Duplication Plant and finally take the eight (!) cassettes to the YS offices in London through the M1 by hitching a ride. Released between Auf Wiedersehen Monty and Impossamole, Moley Christmas is also the first of only two Monty games featuring an energy bar. That doesn't mean it's any easier than the other games; if anything, it's more difficult, since everything has been squeezed onto six screens. But it's a fun addition to the series, and well worth spending a few quid for.

2. Crimbo: A Gloop Troops Tale (2010, Little Shop of Pixels)

This curiously titled Christmas-themed game is based on a Spectrum game called Gloop Troops, made earlier the same year by the late Simon Franco (who most recently worked on Alien: Isolation). Gloop Troops is an arcade-platformer, which shares many similarities to games like Bubble Bobble and Snow Bros. Crimbo is basically a Christmas-themed modification of the same engine.

It seems like Santa's helpful helpers are being less than helpful once again - a theme that most of the Christmas games seem to recycle quite a lot. You play as Santa Claus, and your mission is to find all the hidden presents from the game's 10 screens, before you can finally do your seasonal work. Even with such an overused plotline, the game manages to win you over with its sheer playability, great graphics and a fine soundtrack. It's easily one of the best Christmas games for any retro machine, and you can download it from World of Spectrum. If this got you interested, I have to suggest you read the Little Shop of Pixels blog to see what would have been, and what the future looks like.



1. Christmas Crackers (1986, Database Publications)

One of the more interesting titles for this entry is this compilation tape from Database Publications. Since the tape's contents were only ever released on it, I decided to include the whole thing, although mostly because there don't seem to be much of other Christmas-themed games released for the Amstrad computers.

Christmas Crackers features six separately loadable titles: Jet-Pack Santa - almost a straight clone of Ultimate's JetPac, A Christmas Carol - a melody-based quiz, Kristmas Krimble - a not very Christmas-specific maze game, Cracker - a digital Christmas cracker in form of a joystick-waggler, Snow Plough! - almost a clone of Hover Bovver, and finally, Snap! - a Christmas variation of the card game. Although only about half of these have the potential to keep you actually entertained for more than 30 seconds, it's still one of the better Christmas releases for any of the 8-bits.

2. Feliz Navidad (2012, ESP Soft/freeware)

For a more modern option, the only Christmas-themed title I have come across for the Amstrad from the recent times has been this Spanish title from 2012. Again, you step in the shoes of Santa Claus, and you need to deliver the presents, but this time you're riding on your sleigh at a chosen velocity, dropping the presents down the chimneys in a Blitz-like manner across three levels. It's not much, but it's freeware.

Happily, the game features quite attractive graphics, as well as one of my favourite Christmas songs as the title tune: Jingle Bell Rock! So for those reasons, it's fun to check it out. Unhappily, the gameplay is so very simple that you will probably not be picking this one up again once you have done it that one time.



Both of our 8-bit Atari entries are fairly basic type-in games, because the only other Christmas-themed games I could find for this section would have been a pinball game made with Pinball Construction Set, a children's non-game Christmas demo sampler from Spinnaker and a Boulder Dash modification.

1. Santa's Grotto (1986, Atari User)

Easily the worst Christmas title so far, Santa's Grotto is a basic, monotonous maze game with no sounds and hardly any graphics. You are either Santa Claus or some other elf-like character, who needs to find as many presents as possible within a time limit from a maze of too many screens, and where only one present can be found on each screen. It has no gameplay value whatsoever, so gets boring and repetitive instantly, but then again it is a BASIC game - you can't really expect wonders.

2. Santa's Revenge (1990, New Atari User)

Even though this other game is also written in BASIC, it is quite a bit more enjoyable than the previous one. Not only does Santa's Revenge offer an astounding amount of sprites and at least two different types of levels (I couldn't get further than level 3 on my so far only attempt), it also has a lot of sounds, although none of them are very impressive, but then it is written in BASIC.

Once the game has loaded in and started up, you get a title screen of sorts, and the game starts to translate the code into memory, or whatever, and you are also given some sort of random bleepy "music". The game begins with a snowy flying bit, where you must descend from the skies through the blizzard, and get to the right end of the screen while avoiding hits from the huge snowballs. Getting hit with the snowballs decreases your energy. At least the next two levels are simple platform-style levels, where you need to get from the top of the screen to the bottom, while jumping over the moving obstacles. So, whether or not Santa's Revenge features anything else, it's already a much more playable and entertaining game than Santa's Grotto. I'm not sure if I'd still recommend it, though.



1. Psycho Santa (1993, Bullfrog/The One)

The first 16-bit entry on this list is happily very different from most of the other Christmas titles so far. You do control Santa in this one, as usual, but while trying to deliver the Christmas spirit all around by dropping off presents and all that, you are required to fight off the forces of evil, such as evil snowmen and massive flying Grim Reaper-like creatures. The main levels feel something like Defender and Dropzone, but have something rather unique added to the game mechanics, which I'm not sure how to explain. Mostly, it has to do with how you control Santa's sleigh around and drop off presents, but try it out for yourself to see what I mean.

Between the main levels, you get a bonus stage, in which you need to jump on a pogostick to reach for presents which are placed all over an enormous Christmas tree. You only have one life to use, so you need to be very careful with your flying around and fighting. Psycho Santa is not a game with the biggest amount of variety, but as an arcade-like experience, it is certainly one of the better Christmas-themed ones, and it should also be rather easily available due to its magazine freebie origins.

2. Santa & Rudolph Do Christmas! (1994, public domain)

Here's a game that was written in AMOS, which might ring a warning signal for some of you. Fear not, because it is one of the best such games I have come across so far. That said, if you do want to find and download it to play with your chosen emulator, none of the available disk images are able to boot up to the game, so you need to run it manually after the error message shows up, by typing in the executable file's name, which is "Santa&Rudolph".

Although the title mentions two of our favourite Christmas characters, unfortunately you are only able to play a single-player game, for which you choose to control either Santa Claus or Rudolph the reindeer. This doesn't affect the controllability, but the levels are slightly different. The idea is to go from door to door to summon Christmas presents that come from all four directions and fly across the screen, and collect a certain number of them before you are given access to the next level. Meanwhile, all sorts of nasties try to make your job as difficult as possible, so you need to shoot them with your rocket launcher or whatever your weapon is supposed to be. It's good harmless arcade fun, and definitely worth checking out.



Somehow, it seems like with the 16-bit machines, we are getting only more towards the current age of gaming, instead of keeping with the 80's and 90's. But there aren't any properly old Christmas games for these, and everything already seems more retro at heart than truly old...

1. Stario's Christmas (1996, Top Byte Software), ST/STE

Here we have a Christmas-themed sequel of sorts to the ST's own Super Mario rip-off, Super Stario Land, which hasn't been featured on any of the Unique Games lists yet, because it's not particularly unique. Partly because this game exists, but also because neither of these are particularly unique, even if they're exclusive. This time, because I'm including other non-unique and non-exclusive games to the list for Christmas's sake, I had to let this one sneak in.

Sure enough, this one also plays almost exactly like Super Mario Bros., apart from Stario having a bit more slippery sense of inertia. I haven't gotten too far in the game yet to know exactly if Christmas is represented in the game in any other way than in the title screen and some snowy-looking levels. But it's easily the best SMB clone I have ever seen, which means the original Stario game must be as well. Highly recommended.

2. SantaFly (2002, Reservoir Dogs/freeware)
, STE and above

Being original is something that cannot be said of this second 16-bit Atari item either. It is, however, a very addictive representative of a genre that was very popular in the early 2000's: cave-flyers. So basically, you just need one button to play this game.

There is some sort of a plot that somehow once again revolves around Santa's naughty little helpers, who are this time portrayed as busty anime girls with Christmas-themed clothing. The game itself is, of course, not much else than flying in randomly generated, not very graphically impressive caves with obstacles, collecting a certain number of different sorts of items in each level. SantaFly does, however, have a leveling system based on collecting experience points, although I have no idea how does this affect the gameplay in any way. It is an interesting title, and still a rather fresh one at that, and it includes a brilliant, if a slightly unorthodox soundtrack with no Christmas tunes whatsoever. Do check this one out.



Daze Before Christmas (1994, Sunsoft)

I couldn't leave this one without a mention, as it's easily one of the best, if not THE best Christmas game ever. Having been released at the twilight of both SNES and Megadrive's lives, Daze Before Christmas shows us exactly why these machines were regarded as the best machines for side-scrolling action-based gaming, and still often are. So, while it's not exactly an exclusive game to either (or indeed any) machine, it is unique in the sense that it's actually a properly good Christmas-themed game.
Screenshots from the Sega Genesis/Megadrive version of Daze Before Christmas.
This time it's not Santa's helpers that have been doing the misdeeds - it's the Evil Snowman who has stolen all the elves, the presents, and even the reindeer, and so Santa must go plough through various different areas for the lost things. Daze Before Christmas is unique also in that it features Santa's evil persona, the Anti-Claus, who comes alive when you drink a cup of Santa's secret steaming brew, which looks suspiciously like a hot cup of tea. It's also a game of multiple genres: for the most part, it's a multi-directional action-platformer with the occasional small puzzle element, but every now and then, you are thrown into a side-scrolling drop'em-up, sort of like Feliz Navidad on Amstrad, but with more gameplay elements. I cannot recommend it enough, but if you want to add it properly into your collection, be prepared to cough up a good amount of savings, as it's a rare and precious collectable on both machines.

Screenshots from the Super Nintendo version of Daze Before Christmas.



Merry Xmas Santa (1984, Icon Software)

Since this is the only Christmas themed game I could find for either of the Acorn computers, it seemed such a pity to leave it out of the list just because it was also released on the Spectrum. That said, it is not that much to speak of as a game, unfortunately, but I'll throw in this quick comparison nonetheless.

Screenshots from the Acorn BBC Micro version of Merry Xmas Santa.
It's a single-screen platformer, which would be enough said already, but let's elaborate. The idea is to control Santa over the rooftops, jump over roof gaps and drop presents down the chimneys. As you make progress to new levels, the game throws new obstacles at you, such as flying snowballs and randomly appearing snowmen.

Screenshots from the ZX Spectrum version of Merry Xmas Santa.
Although the basic idea is the same in both versions, the Spectrum version plays much too quickly, and the BBC Micro version much too slowly. The graphics are very much representative of each computer's familiar style and capabilities - for both better and worse. I don't have much to say about the sounds - they are badly made in both. I'd suggest you'd skip this game unless you're a fanatic of everything Christmas, but if you're just a regular game collector and you absolutely want to justify the purchase, go for the Acorn version, since it seems to be the only Christmas-themed game on the machine (Tynesoft also released it as "Santa's Delivery", so it doesn't count).



1. Xmas Carnage (1994, Soft Enterprises)

Well, how about it - a Christmas-themed first-person shooter! Even a rare one at that. This curious German title is one of the most difficult to find old FPS titles, as it was developed for the Computer '94 fair in Cologne and was released as shareware, and never got a particularly popular for good reasons. Doom had already been out for a year, and used a more comfortable 3D engine than what Soft Enterprises utilised for this game and The Hidden Below, the only other FPS with the said engine.

Happily, the game has an interesting plot twist: instead of playing as Santa Claus, you take the role of the Easter Bunny, who hates Christmas and wants to destroy Santa Claus and his helpers. Unhappily, the game is rather badly designed, as it is uncomfortable to play, difficult to navigate even when you get a map, and has no other language options than German. Sure, you can guess your way through the menus even if you can't speak German properly, but it sure helps in keeping this game a rather unknown little curiosity. To be fair, it's not quite as bad as I think I might make it sound, but it's not good enough to make you want to play it for more than an hour, since you'll most likely still be stuck within the first map.

2. Merry Gear Solid: Secret Santa (2007, Insignificant Studios)

Oh bloody Nora, has it been 7 years already? You could hardly call it retro yet, but I'm already beginning to feel nostalgic towards the time period when indie developers were still so indie, they didn't even have Steam to support them. Or any other commercial platform, for that matter. In any case, however old this particular game is not, it certainly has the feel of an old NES/MSX title - and for a damn good reason, too.

Arthur Lee's wonderful Christmas tribute of the good old Metal Gear Solid series (or if you want to go really retro, drop the Solid) is still as brilliant and fresh as a Christmas-themed game as it was 7 years ago. Of course, it plays very much like the old Metal Gear games, only smoother and without that many bugs, and has a storyline to kill for. I don't want to say too much about it, because you really need to play it yourselves. Amazingly enough, there is also a sequel for this festive game, and looks like there could be a third in the series someday in the not too distant future.



the RetroZone Xmas series (2008-)

As there were no other Christmas-related games that I could think of for the NES, unless you count games like Home Alone or any of the Bible games that the Angry Video Game Nerd has already gone through with more detail than I could have bothered, I decided to pick the wild card and go for something more recent.

An American company called retroUSB (formerly RetroZone) is an internet retailer for new technology and games for old school gamers and machines. They offer new original homebrew games, development tools, new hardware, old NES and SNES game reproduction cartridges, as well as merchandise. Since 2008, they have released special Christmas demo cartridges, which usually include a basic Christmas-themed game of sorts, lots of music and graphics, as well as special cartridge lighting shenanigans. So far, six NES cartridges and have been released, and two for the SNES, the other of which is just a slight upgrade of one of the NES games.

None of the games are anything special, but they do make for an interesting little diversion. You get a few different shoot'em-ups, a break-out clone of sorts, another Blitz-like game and a single-screen platformer. Perhaps not exactly worth the money considering the actual material, but worth the purchase, if you want to support the modern homebrew NES/SNES developing scene, since there are not that many properly good new games for these machines out there. The newest entries in the series are very likely just around the corner, so keep an eye out for the retroUSB website.


And that's still not all, folks! There will be another Christmas special coming up later on, in which I'll be doing a comparison of two different Christmas-themed games. So I hope that'll be quite enough of Christmas fun for two years' worth.

But I do hope you enjoyed this festive little entry, and will be back for the next one as well.
Thanks for reading - comments, suggestions and corrections are welcome as ever!

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