From The Adventure Gamer
Written by Joe Pranevich
Merry Christmas! Welcome back to another Christmas at “The Adventure Gamer” where we are looking at our sixth holiday adventure game! Time flies while we are having so much fun and I’m just amazed that we keep finding new holiday adventures to play. This time out will be 1983’s A Christmas Adventure, a “bitCard” (more on that in a bit) by Chartscan Data, Inc. This game has two notable distinctions: First, it is the earliest Christmas game that I have found so far. Merry Christmas from Melbourne House and A Spell of Christmas Ice were both 1984 games, but this one is a full year earlier. This may be the first commercially released Christmas adventure ever, but we’ll keep looking for more. Second, this game was brought to us by you! Last year, we ran a brief GoFundMe to purchase the only available-to-the-public copy of the game from Retrogames. Our community pitched in some funds and we purchased and sent the game off to the Internet Archive. Unfortunately, they were unable to get the game imaged for the holidays and we detoured to Humbug instead. The archivists uploaded our game in January and that gave us plenty of time to review it for this Christmas.
The Christmas Adventure story begins in Montreal, Quebec at the home of Frank Winstan. It was spring or early summer 1983 and he was working on an idea to design and sell personalized software as an electronic holiday or greeting card. You wouldn’t just play an adventure game, you’d play a game that knew your name and would have personalized messages and other features set by your friends or family. Even in the 1980s, the holiday card industry was hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly sales; if they could tap even a tiny portion, the upside would be huge. In part due to a fear that someone else could capitalize on a similar idea first, he set his sights on a Christmas release for his first electronic “bitCard”. Even for the fast development cycles of early games, the timing was incredibly tight and made all the more so due to a lack of marketing or distribution infrastructure. Winstan needed to bootstrap a startup and ship their first product in less than five months. Was that even possible?
|The software retailed for approximately $45 in today’s money.|
Winstan had been advised by others that his timeline was too tight, but he enlisted the help of a Larry Callahan, a friend from Vanier College, and they set to work. Chartscan Data was born! Winstan was a psychology professor and he did not have experience with adventure games. Nonetheless, he and Callahan established a system where he (and Ron Sperber) wrote the scenario, Callahan built much of the initial Apple II version, and other programmers were brought on board for porting and other work. Callahan wrote the software in a combination of BASIC and 6502 assembly for speed and size. To make an impossible task even harder, Winstan targeted five separate 6502-based systems, each with their own versions of BASIC and other platform dependencies, all needing to ship at the same time.
While Callahan and others built the product, Winstan built the company. Time was against him. Despite marketing copy that said the game would go on sale in October, he only officially incorporated his company that September. Winstan’s role was to ferry code and documentation between the contracted programmers, develop marketing relationships and ship copies of his near-completed game for reviews, as well as write and type-set all of the documentation, and just about everything else. The coding wasn’t entirely going according to plan either and with only a month to go, he was still placing “help wanted” ads in the McGill University newspaper looking for experienced 6502 programmers. He reports that he frequently slept only two hours per night to keep all of the gears turning. Christmas was, in a very real sense, coming!
Judging by the date on this review, you would be correct to surmise that they made it! Chartscan Data released their first product on time, but not quite everything had fallen into place. Given the schedule, there was insufficient time to produce or distribute a boxed version of the game or to develop relationships for the same. Instead, all sales were to be via mail order. Winstan had managed to get seven or eight (by his report) reviews published, but these were in the holiday issues of various computing magazines. Between the delays inherent in print publication and the challenges of a mail-order only business model, there was a slim window where readers could purchase the game and ensure that it arrived in time for Christmas with all of the customizations inact. Samples were sent to computer stores, but this was not the perfect harmony of distribution and marketing that Winstan’s e-cards needed to be successful.
|The Apple II edition of “A Christmas Adventure”|
I’d love to report that A Christmas Adventure was the surprise hit of 1983, but that distinction falls to Care Bears and Cabbage Patch Kids. They made their Christmas delivery, but ultimately the timeline and budget were too tight to build a distribution pipeline to reach the masses by Christmas morning. Less than a thousand copies were sold that first year, plunging Chartscan Data into debt and ultimately bankruptcy. Having played the game (as you will soon read), they did not fail for lack of either effort or a good idea. Winstan’s concept of personalized games as gifts was a remarkable leap in 1983! In fact, I would assert (without adequate proof or research, mind you) that he is likely the unsung inventor of the “e-card”. I hope that he and his team look back on this failure with a certain amount of pride.
As a final coda on this part of our story, Winstan tells me that The Sloane Report, a Miami-based newsletter focusing on software in education, named A Christmas Adventure as their co-game of the year in 1984. Of course, this recognition came too late for the Christmas season, but it hinted that there may still have been life in the product after all. Although Chartscan Data had gone under, a new Bitcards, Inc. emerged through the magic of business and financial wizardry. Winstan taught himself BASIC and continued the development of A Christmas Adventure himself, releasing a “2.0” edition in time for Christmas 1984. This is the version that I played in my review. He continued updating and selling the game through Christmas 1986 with the final version being tagged as version 2.8. He tells me that he nearly had an agreement for a boxed edition of the game, but at that late stage the industry was shifting towards IBM PCs and that was not a platform that he or his team envisioned supporting. In the end, no other Bitcards were created and the company was eventually folded. Winstan and Callahan continued their careers at Vanier College. Winstan taught Psychology, while Callahan ran their IT Support Services (a role that is very dear to my heart!).
|Frank Winstan in the 1980s.|
This title has become exceedingly rare. Unlike so much of the early Commodore and Apple II software library, the game was never picked up by the BBS community or the abandonware forums. Very few copies were known to survive. For many years, the only known version was one of Winstan’s “sampler” demos sent to computer stores, documented by AppleAdventures in 2015. This version included 50% of the story and a “mini-customizer” so that you could see how your personalization would affect the story. AppleAdventures was later able to get his (or her?) hands on an original full version by 2018 and produced a “Let’s Play” video of it on Youtube, but I was unable to convince him to give us a copy to review. When I speak of the differences in the 1983 version below, I am comparing to his earlier efforts in documenting the game.
The version that I played for review was Winstan’s “version 2.0” edition with a 1984 copyright date. This update incorporated a few new puzzles and cleaned up old ones, added a bit more music, and redid some of the item names and text descriptions. This is the version available today on the Internet Archive and, I believe, the version that we purchased last year in our GoFundMe promotion.
Before I begin, I want to thank Frank Winstan and Larry Callahan for their kind cooperation in my review of their work. I can only imagine what it is like to have strange people email you about something that you did thirty-six years ago, but to their credit they have been incredibly forthcoming with details and anecdotes about the development of the game. It is to my great shame that I only incorporated around a third of the historical details that they provided me. I am also exceedingly grateful for Frank for sending along a copy of the manual and offering to mail me a pristine Apple II version for my review. I was unable to take him up on that given the time constraints– I suspect rushing right before Christmas is a feeling that he is familiar with!– but appreciate it nonetheless.
|Very nice “3D” rendering of flying towards the palace; quite advanced for 1983!|
The game opens with an extended cinematic, very unusual for a game of this era and well-done over all. The camera flies over a darkened North Pole snow field towards Santa’s Ice Palace. We are taken inside to Santa’s office. A “greetings” message on the wall appears to be customizable. I’m not positive who is narrating, but they have “chatted” with Santa’s computer many times before and refer to us, the viewer and player, as a “poor mortal”.
|Something is amiss? What can it be?|
|OMG. Who could it be?|
Suddenly, an alert appears on the computer: Santa is missing! With only a few hours before Christmas, the computer springs into action to figure out what to do. It searches its worldwide naughty-and-nice database to locate someone that can help. That someone… is you! My version has the name set as “Current Player” although this also is customizable.
With that, we are instructed to flip over the disk and begin.
|Presumably the Apple logo was also customizable.|
Playing the Game
We start the game where the cinematic ended, in Santa’s “Ice Palace”. The greeting message from the opening is still there, but the safe that was clearly visible before is now covered by an Apple painting. I’d wager that was either customizable as well, or at least changed based on which platform you were running. Is that a hint? Yes! We can move the painting to reveal the safe, although it is keyed to only let Santa open it. A strange parser issue shows up immediately in that the “waste basket” is spelled “was’basket”, presumably because the word was too long. You have to be careful as “basket” isn’t recognized as a synonym. I’ll have to be on the lookout for these sorts of things.
When we look at the desk and chair, we get the message that they “cannot be manipulated in any way” and “this is not a trick”. The 1983 edition of the game doesn’t mention them at all and I am not sure what was gained by adding them in except to fill out the room.
In terms of customization, the 1983 video that I viewed has the game brought to us by “Frostbyte Computers” while my version says “Apple User Magazine”. Apple User was a magazine published in the 1980s by Database Publications, although beyond that I am not deeply familiar with it. Frostbyte is a name that is used by far too many companies over the years and I am unclear which one this referred to. In both cases, my guess is that these are companies that Frank Winstan worked with to promote the game. I do not know what a straight-from-the-factory edition of the game would have said.
In addition to the vault, we also have a computer that wants us to insert both a system and a data disk (oh, the 1980s!) and we can pick up the waste basket.
|Made in Canada!|
My first task is to explore the house and see what I find. Rather than narrate through every room one-by-one, let me summarize:
- To the north is Santa’s Workshop, complete with a map of Canada! I grab a shovel, but the crafting tools are too delicate to be picked up by my fingers. I pull aside the rug to reveal a key. I ignore the stairs down for now.
- In the northwest of the palace is Santa’s minimalist art gallery: only a single painting adorns the wall. Moving it causes me to be attacked by “cursed elves”. That triggers a brief action scene, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do except watch as they ransack the place. I am forced to restore already. A window in the room is too high up for me to do anything with it. Will I find a ladder?
- West of the office is a living room with a chair and a (very!) hot fireplace. Even looking at the fire kills me, so I’ll avoid that for now. I sit in the chair and discover that it “feels funny”. I remove the cushions and discover a rope that I can add to my collection. A sword over the fireplace seems interesting but I can’t do anything with it.
- Further west is an entertainment room with a jukebox and ping-pong table. I pick up a record, but there is no obvious way to play music.
- North of the living room is a spartan kitchen containing milk and an empty bag. I nab both.
- In the south, I find a bedroom with dressers and closets. One closet contains a surprise Pac-Man cameo while the other has a full set of Santa regalia including boots, a hat, a coat, and gloves. I pocket some coins from the dresser. A second drawer is locked, but my key fits. That contains a disk labeled “chanukah”! Finally, a piece of paper falls out of Santa’s coat that says to call “Current Player” (me!) in the event of an emergency. How did they know I was so good at adventure games!?
|Hey look! It’s a cameo!|
That is a lot to digest, but I want to highlight a few things. When you enter that closet in the bedroom, the screen goes black and Pac-Man marches across the screen. When he gets around half way, he discovers that he’s in the wrong game and quickly runs off. It’s bonkers and the first laugh-out-loud moment of the game. I hope we see more examples of the authors’ humor as we play on. It seems impossible, but when this game came out Pac-Man (1980) was very new and “Pac-Man fever” had only just subsided.
Interface-wise, the game is inconsistent whether or not objects disappear when you pick them up. The shovel and key disappear, for example, while the wastebasket does not. Unlike Sierra’s Mystery House-style games, dropped objects only appear when you drop them in the room that they originated in. The parser seems very simple with very few supported synonyms. I’m also fairly sure that it has only three characters of sensitivity, as opposed to the five used by many other early adventures.
Finally, this is the first reference to Chanukah (or “Hanukkah” or any number of equally-valid alternate spellings) in one of our Christmas games! I’ve been hoping to come across a Hanukkah adventure game, but I’m almost certain that none were made in the classic era. The only Hanukkah game that I know of at all is Game of the Maccabees (1983), a little-known action game for the Atari. The earliest Jewish-themed adventure game that I know of is The Pesach Adventure (1993) celebrating Passover. If I ever find a Hanukkah adventure, you can bet your menorah that I’ll find a way to cover it.
|If only Amazon could work out how to store 43 million boxes in such a small space!|
Just beneath the workshop is the “gift storage room” where we can see piles of gifts for the good little boys and girls in the world. Looking at them triggers a database-style interface where I can theoretically learn the gifts of all 43,126,798 good children, but for simplicity we can only see the first eight entries. While 43 million seems like a big number, there were 63 million children in the United States alone in 1983. Were the rest naughty? And what about all the good children everywhere else in the world? And did I spend more time than I should researching historical census data? The answer to the last question is “yes”.
We can look at the presents, but only a couple of them seem valuable. Presents #1, #5, #6, and #8 all teleport me somewhere around the castle when I look at them. I’m not clear why. Present #3 is apparently “curtains” and thanks to the magic of an overly-destructive pun, I die and have to restore. #7 is the present for me that I will get at the end of the game. The only presents of value are #4, a doll that I can pick up, and #2, a rhyme:
I was talking to a computer ace
Her name, it was Veronica
I said, “Hi Ronny- what’s the word?”
She said, “The word is Chanukah!”
With two references to Hanukkah in the last couple of minutes, I think that will be important later.
The 1983 game has a completely different puzzle here. In the opening cinematic, there is a brief display of Santa’s gift list. For some reason, Susie’s present is listed in that opening but left blank here. Somehow this is supposed to clue you in that you can pick up (“get doll”) in this room. Regardless of how you get it, the doll is pull-string and intones, “Mommy says that you have to keep warm when you are sick.” Could that be a clue?
|The sleigh is pointed in an inconvenient direction, don’t you think?|
Past the gift room is the empty reindeer stables and a garage containing Santa’s sleigh. With neither reindeer to pull it, nor jolly old man to steer it, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. I do find a blanket that I can grab. By this point, I’m out of inventory space and storing things elsewhere but you get the idea.
With no more rooms in the Ice Palace, I resolve to solve some puzzles. The first is easy: Santa’s security system is fooled by wearing his clothes and that gets me access to his safe. Inside is an unlabeled potion. I can also insert the “chanukah” disk in the computer, but it still needs a second before it will boot. (Weren’t old-timey computers so quaint?) It takes some time and experimentation, but I realize that the record from the jukebox is referred to as “floppy” in its description. That makes no sense at all, but the computer boots when I (somehow?) insert it, so what do I know?
On startup, the computer asks for a password so I take the most obvious guess: “chanukah”. It works! Only a moron would write the password on the disk itself, but my wager is that Santa isn’t the most clued in to digital security. Wait until he gets his whole “naughty” list hacked one of these years! The computer displays a menu with four options:
- The first is the gift list, but it doesn’t appear to be useful. The list does not match what is in the store room; the doll is the same, but the third gift is a bicycle and not (evil) curtains.
- The second and third options are “need to know” and the computer somehow thinks I don’t need to know yet. When I need to “cure elf maladies” or render “reindeer first aid”, I’ll know where to look for answers.
- The final option describes an emergency exit from the palace. It reveals that during an emergency (like this one), the castle is automatically sealed to prevent anyone entering or leaving. However, there is one way out via a “virtually empty” room, although it involves fastening together two common items hidden elsewhere. To make it trickier, one of the items is in a “different time plane”. Is there time travel in this game? My guess is that the rope is one of the items, but what is the second?
The 1983 edition has the computer with the same password, but without the menu. Instead, it gives you a (unnecessary, in my case) clue to access the vault.
|Catch the elves in color!|
This is where I get stuck and I eventually watch the 1983 video to see what I missed. The next puzzle that I could solve was the “cursed elves”. I had not noticed that if I opened up the painting while carrying the bag, my action scene would be different. Now, I can control the bag with the arrow keys to capture as many elves as possible. It was more difficult than it looks! For one thing, the elves can move diagonally while I can only move up and down or left and right. Even leaving one behind ends the game and it took me a few tries to capture them all. Once I did, I discovered that I captured seven bad elves and one good one. I have to play over again to try to leave one of the green elves and this adds another layer to the difficulty as the green ones seem to kamikaze whenever I get close. After a few frustrating attempts, I work out that the striped elf is the “good” one (not the plain green one) and seal the deal.
This puzzle is clearer in the black-and-white version of the game as all of the elves wearing vertical stripes are evil while the one with horizontal stripes is not.
|Catch the elves in black and white!|
Once we work out the correct elf to keep and get lucky with the arcade sequence, the final elf appears in the room with me. Unfortunately, all of the evil magic has made him ill (an elf malady!) and I can now consult the computer to see what to do. The computer tells me that I need to feed the elf the potion and to keep him warm. I hand over the potion and blanket and he’s right as rain again. The elf turns out to be the leader elf and is happy to follow me around from room to room. I am not clear how to solve this puzzle in the 1983 edition of the game as there is no computer hint. I believe that the doll’s advice was supposed to clue you in to give him the blanket, but I am uncertain what may have clued you in to needing the potion as well.
With the elf in tow, I can pick up the tools in Santa’s Workshop since he can carry them for me.
I fail to notice at first, but you can walk through the hole where the evil elves poured through. This leads to a dark tunnel and then to a time machine! See? I knew there would be time travel here eventually. The original edition of the game has a small maze in place of the tunnel, but since I’m just watching a video I have no idea how difficult it was.
|This time machine has a Y2K problem.|
Even with the time machine, I am immediately stuck again. The 1983 video just shows the elf activating the machine when you enter the room and look at it, but that doesn’t happen in the 1984 version. I have to solve this myself. Before I get too far, let me admit that this was multiple hours of experimentation with a little bit of “reading the source code” included. Only a small portion of the game is written in BASIC and I was unable to find anything relevant, but that tells you how desperate I was. Given the rarity of this game, I do not believe a “request for assistance” would have been useful!
|If I only had the manual when I played!|
This is when I discovered the “help” feature and boy is it robust! This is all clearly laid out in the manual, but I did not get my hands on a copy (thanks again to Mr. Winstan!) prior to playing. By typing “help”, you can request general information (such as a list of verbs that the game understands) or more specific information about the room that you are in. You can even decrease the difficulty of the elf capture game! This is a great feature, made slightly worse by all of the disk swapping that you have to do to access it. This was likely quite easy on a real system, but my emulator did not handle the disk swapping correctly (probably because the game writes its state to the disks?) and so I had to restore after receiving the hint. I will blame this on modernity rather than a bug in the original.
The two hints for the time machine room are cryptic:
“He is his name and his name is like he. Get his attention- that’s the key!”
“Only someone who is small by design can help you slip through the cracks of time.”
Both clues point to the elf as the solution, but I only stumble on the answer by accident. We can, it turns out, issue commands directly to the elf by typing “elf” by itself. That brings up a second prompt to tell him what to do. You can even type “help” again and he’ll give you his own clues! In this case, he tells us to examine the time machine. I had done that already, but now I tell him to examine the machine. This reveals that there is a keyhole in the back.
I know I missed something because I never learned that the time machine was broken, but if you tell the elf to “fix timemachine” when he is carrying the tools, he does so and we are whisked back to the past.
I had thought that this strange syntax for asking the elf to do something would have been in the manual, but it turns out that it is not. My manual is for a later update to the game and perhaps this puzzle was tweaked again, but as it stands I found this to be the most frustrating part of the game so far. Being able to issue commands to the elf is a great feature! It opens up tons of puzzle mechanics and was implemented very well in the Zork series, for example. I am not aware of any other games using this syntax and I wish that it would have been mentioned in the manual.
With my complaints out of the way, I travel back to the year “1”. (The current year was “8X”, but I’m not going to nit pick this two-digit year too much. I expect there were more than just cave paintings in the year 1901!) When we are in the past, the interface doesn’t really work because– somehow this makes sense– we are in an era before computers existed and therefore we cannot tell our computer to do stuff for us. Fortunately, the elf traveled with us and we know how to control him so it all works out. It’s clever but reminds us that we are working through an avatar. We learn that the cave paintings are done by an ancient Evil One and that he is the one that put the elves under a spell. Did he make Santa and the reindeer disappear as well? I discover a hook hidden under a pile of bones and grab that before heading back to the present.
|The 1983 version of the puzzle is different.|
In the original version, the time machine is easier to activate as I stated previously, but also takes you to a different era. This is the only example of changed art that I see so far between the 1983 and 1984 games. Rather than going prehistoric, we seem to go somewhere else. The dial remains on “83” so I am glad that this sequence was rewritten for clarity. We still pick up a hook in the past (behind a painting rather than in a pile of bones) and then travel back to the present.
With the hook and rope together, I can create a grappling hook! I throw that to the window in the art gallery and I am able to leave the Ice Palace for the first time. I’m not even going to mention that we were on the second floor.
|Just because my nose glows… I just don’t fit in.|
I have been reluctant to mention this before now because I am not sure what is the game and what is the emulator, but I have been struggling with infrequent lockups. I’ve never lost more than a few minutes, but from this point on the game suddenly becomes much less stable. By the time I reach the end in a few minutes from now, I’ll be carefully plotting every move and avoiding actions (like checking our inventory!) that can trigger a crash. I push through, but if these bugs were in the original then I am not sure how much patience the players would have had for this. I’m going to assume that the bugs are due to emulaton and possibly due to my use of save states rather than saving to disk as intended.
I emerge outside. To the west is a snow bank. I dig with the shovel and discover that Rudolph was trapped under the snow! He’s suffering from the extreme cold and his nose has turned orange rather than red; apparently that also means that the other reindeer will not recognize him. Are glowing colored noses so common that they couldn’t put two-and-two together? Sure, Comet and Cupid might be dumb, but Donner and Blitzen could have worked it out. I ask the computer what to do and it tells me that I need to administer a “hot non-alcoholic beverage”. I don’t have any of those yet.
|Not the game’s best art.|
Abandoning Rudolph for now, I head east to discover a hut with a loose floorboard. Looking at it tells me that it is “hanging at the window” and I can only assume that it’s a translation error of some kind. It hardly matters because I can move the board to find a path downstairs. Heading down, I discover not only Santa’s secret stash of booze, but also the jolly old elf himself. He’s been tied up, but it is no problem at all to “untie santa” and he heads off on his way. Santa will wait for us by his sleigh.
The final puzzle stumped me for a long time, but I eventually found the “hint” that I needed by hex-editing the game files. I know, I know… I’m a dirty cheater. The 1983 edition of the game just requires you to give the milk to Rudolph, but the 1984 edition wants it to be warm milk. I had guessed as much, but no amount of trying to warm it by the fire seemed to have helped. I eventually noticed an item in the game called “was’bas+mlk”. This revealed that I could put the milk in the basket, then I could put the basket in the fire, and finally I could fish them back out and have warm milk. Make sense? The parser doesn’t handle this very clearly as we cannot remove the milk from the basket when done, but it gets the point across and we can feed the milk to Rudolph. Once back to health, he too went back to Santa’s sleigh.
I race back to the sleign, noticing that there are now reindeer in their stables. Presumably Rudolph gathered them together once he was feeling well. At the sleigh, Santa gives me a present and a message from my friend that gave me the game and heads off on his yearly rounds. I win!
Time Played: 6 hr 35 min
|Santa thanks you and leaves for his once-a-year task.|
|We get our gift (never revealed) and then the game ends with a personalized message.|
We made it to the end of another holiday classic! I hope you enjoyed this trip as much as I have. I have a ton of fun researching these holiday games and I hope that comes through. This is a game that has tremendous promise, but for everything that is ahead of its time (the personalization and help system especially), there are some head-scratching moments that a more seasoned game designer would have avoided. The fact that I had enough fun that I was willing to try to hex-edit the game to solve it should be seen as a sign of my enjoyment and desire to reach the end, rather than my frustration.
Every one of our reviews may be someone’s first and that is doubly true for these holiday posts. Let me remind you that we are using our “suspiciously similar” EGGNOG system for review since our usual rating scale doesn’t seem festive enough. Also keep in mind that these scores are based against an idealized version of a circa-1990s LucasArts or Sierra game. Text adventures and early adventures in general do not score all that highly, but this is an indication only of their quality compared to games released more than a decade later. These ratings are designed to be fun and it is generally not a good idea to put too much stock in them.
Let’s get to reviewing:
Enigmas and Solution-Findability – On the whole, I enjoyed the puzzles in this game even though most did not rise above fetch quests around the house. The use of the computer for hints was fantastic, as was everything involved with the Elf, and the creation of the warm milk. Ultimately, those were let down by the primitiveness of the parser but the underlying ideas were solid. The animated arcade sequence was also done well with the right level of charm and frustration; having to work out which elf to save was a nice touch. I am giving extra credit for the robust helpo system which was exceptional for the era and helped to ensure the game remained fun and not frustrating. The rhyming clues ( which I only briefly covered) were some of the game’s best sources of humor. My score: 3
Game UI and Items – As much as I hate to say it, the interface isn’t quite baked yet. A three-character parser with very few synonyms is not great even by 1983 standards and it shows that the developers hadn’t played that many adventure games prior to building this one. If they had better tools, they could have made a better game. Still, the verb list was helpful (even if it felt like an exaggeration) and there are some great features such as the ability to make multiple moves in a single line which are listed in the manual but which I did not discover on my own. My score: 2
Gameworld and Story – The Ice Palace and environs were fun to explore, but they never felt like a real place and the story never coalesced into a full narrative. We never fully understood who our avatar was in the game (an intelligent or magical computer?) and the menace of an Evil One from the dawn of time who plotted something against Santa was a great start, but didn’t go anywhere and didn’t have any impact on the ending of the game. It feels like there were plot beats missing. Who tied up Santa? How did Rudolph end up trapped in the snow? Did we ever cure all of those cursed elves? My score: 1
Noises and Pretty Pixels – This game gives us both a Christmas soundtrack and some excellent art, including a surprisingly nice opening animation. A few of the locations weren’t drawn as well as the others, but the little touches ranging from Pac-Man’s cameo to the catch-the-elves game were done very well. My score: 3
Overworld and Environs – In our normal rating system, we refer to this category as “Atmosphere” and it describes how the game made you feel. Was it tense? Did the setting evoke strong emotions? Did it all come together in an indescribable way? Unfortunately, I have to say that while the game was good and had some nice bits of levity, the overall tone wasn’t consistent. I may have felt differently if I had used the help system more or if the rhymes were integrated into the game itself. My score: 2
Gregariousness and Thespianism – This category refers to the game’s text and I’m very much in a split-decision. On one hand, the room descriptions were spartan and a few object names had strange contractions. And yet, some of the jokes landed, the computer interfaces were nice, and the help system was robust and clever with lots of rhyming clues that most players would never see. I loved those rhyming clues! My score: 2.
Before we add it all up, I want to add one bonus point for being customizable. I was considering deducting points for the crashes, but as I am uncertain whether that was my game or the emulator, I’ll give the game the benefit of the doubt.
Finally tally: (3+2+1+3+2+2)/.6+1 = 23 points!
Honestly, that feels about right. This is another case where the game is greater than the sum of its parts, but it is in good company with several of our other Christmas games, as well as Brian Moriarty’s early work. I am positive that the Bitcards team would have continued to improve had they remained in the industry. With a slightly better engine, they could have done wonders. Even so, it seems likely that Frank Winstan invented the computer greeting card.
I might be stretching things a bit, but I would not be at all surprised to learn that Winstan’s game inspired the release of Merry Christmas from Melbourne House the following year. While they were Australian (but releasing games in the US and UK) and it seems unlikely that they played this one, a particularly inscrutable joke in that game was that you could only exit Santa’s workshop via a window. We may never know if these events are connected, but I have my suspicions.
If you are looking for even more Christmas-gaming fun, please check out our previous holiday specials:
- Merry Christmas from Melbourne House (1984)
- A Spell of Christmas Ice (1984)
- Crisis at Christmas (1986)
- Elves ‘87 (aka Elf’s Christmas Adventure) (1987)
- Humbug (1990)
As for me, I’ll be taking a break until the new year when I will resume our Infocom marathon (finally!) with Trinity. See you in 2020!