Friday 25 December 2015

A Very Amiga Christmas! 16-Bit Festive Gaming Goodies!

A 16-bit Christmas of Festive Freebies 

Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas. Tis the season, etc. etc. Yep, it's that time of year again, and thus the obligatory Christmas themed gaming articles appear online. The problem is, when looking at retro games, they are the same every year - unless some clever so-and-so has created a new homebrew game with a festive spin. Sure, I could cover newer indie games that feature Santa, elves, snowmen and the rest, but there are hardly any new ones and those that do appear are so dire they don't deserve the time spend playing (and writing about) them. Hmm, so what's a guy to do? I know, take a look at games on one of the greatest computers of all time, that's what! 

Commodore's 16-bit beauty is the perfect candidate for an Xmas party as it was around in the late 1980's to mid 90's, the peak years for computer game magazines. During that time, magazines were full of enthusiastic young gamers and contained a very tongue-in-cheek style that never took itself too seriously - a far cry from the po-faced magazines of today. The best thing, however, were the cover disks! Each month your mag would come with one, possibly even two or three, floppy disks containing demos of the latest titles and, best of all, full homebrew games from bedroom programmers. Known developers got in on the action and began giving away Christmas themed levels based on their much loved titles, with Sensible Software, DMA and Team 17 all giving away seasonal treats.

I was an avid magazine buying during the 90's, so I had all of these Amiga cover disks and still enjoy revisiting them to this day. As it's the holiday season I want to take a look at the best Christmas-based fun and frolics you can have on your Amiga, as well as ones that should be discarded along with all the wrapping paper!

Santa's Xmas Caper

Ok, so this is technically cheating as it wasn't a cover disk freebie, but a multi-format budget release that hit stores back in 1992 - but as the most Chistmassy game on the Amiga, I had to include it. While the 8-bit versions were horizontally scrolling shoot-em-ups (note - only the C64 version is worth playing as the Amstrad and ZX Spectrum versions were horrible), the Amiga version is a rather bland platformer in which a chubby Santa collects presents, while pelting enemies with snowballs in order to temporarily freeze them. On the plus side, it does nail the whole Christmas vibe, with Santa, presents, snow, Christmas puds and all that jazz present and correct. But the mediocre gameplay, coupled with an irritatingly high difficulty level, makes playing the thing a bit of a chore - you must collect all the presents to exit a stage, but if you miss any it's very hard to go back. But maybe I am being a bit harsh - if you were young and had low expectations then Santa's Xmas Caper was probably worth the few pounds price of admission just for the ability to play something super Christmassy on the big day. But there were much better options, options that were completely free (well, aside for the cost of a magazine).

Fire & Ice Christmas Special Edition 

Fire & Ice from Graftgold is one of the better platformers on the Amiga, so it was fantastic to get a Christmas themed freebie on the cover of Amiga Power magazine back in 1992. Fire & ice stars Cool Coyote, an instantly lovable character, who must find all the parts of a giant key in order to open the exit door to each stage. These key parts are held by enemies, who drop it when destroyed by pelting them with ice balls and then touched, shattering them into dust. The enemies holding key parts are randomised each time you play, so this gives the game a greater level of replayability. With charming visuals, great (almost rave like) music and a selection of fantastic environments to traverse, Fire & Ice is a treat on the eyes and ears. 

Gameplay is enjoyable and very challenging, maybe too much so (due to the rather floating jumping of our furry hero). The freezing-then-shatter mechanic is implemented well, and means you have to take your time and tread carefully, taking out enemies in small groups before progressing. The only problem is there are too many hard to avoid traps and enemies that suddenly rush onscreen, giving you very little time to react and avoid death (this is one hit kill territory, folks!). Despite the difficulty level and lack of password system (what were they thinking?? Thank goodness for emulator save states), Fire & ice is a great game and one of my favourites for the 16-bit Commodore. As the first world was snow and ice based, this Christmas edition doesn't really feel much different really. But Cool Coyote is wearing a Santa outfit, complete with beard - what more could you ask for? Plus the soundtrack is a mental rave re-imagining of a popular Christmas tune. Much lols! All in all, this is one of best Christmas freebies for the Amiga.

ATR Christmas Edition

A Christmas, by which I mean snow covered, themed stage given away on both Amiga Action and Amiga Format magazines in 1994, probably to entice Amiga gamers to buy the full version of Team 17's enjoyable top down racer. ATR (or ATR : All Terrain Racing, to give it its full title) is probably the best racing game of its kind on the system, with glorious, detailed visuals and great gameplay, but is unfortunately let down by a punishing difficulty level that makes progress very hard indeed. Obviously, that isn't an issue with this Christmas demo as you are only dealing with one track to race on, and it actually helps bring you back for repeated goes as you desperately try to get ahead of the back and snatch the coveted first place position!  The Christmas content is pretty cute, with decorated Christmas trees, Santa & Rudolph chilling out on the rooftop of a house and a smile-inducing rendition of Jingle Bells playing in the background. This is an extremely enjoyable freebie that still plays well today!

Galactic : The Xmas Edition

Utterly bizarre Robotron 2084 style shooter given away with the Christmas edition of The One Amiga magazine in 1993. You play as Santa and are given the task of blasting weird robotic penguin things with playing cards, collecting the toys and fruits they drop as a result. Bonus levels switch the play style to that of a Bubble Bobble style platformer, whereby you must collect all the fruit before the time runs out. Actually, it is rather more akin to Bubble Bobble sequel-of-sorts Parasol Stars, thanks to Santa having an umbrella to help break his falls. It plays ok for a few minutes and has some novelty value due to it being so oddball in nature. But boredom soon sets in as it's just the same thing over and over again and it won't be long before you are reaching for the off button on your Amiga. Oh, and the irritating sound effects will drive you nuts! Give this a miss.

Psycho Santa

Another festive cover disk title from The One Amiga, this time given away to celebrate Christmas 1993. But, while Psycho Santa is often spoken highly of in discussions regarding Amiga Christmas games, it is actually pretty awful, and has only the most minimal of festive content to actually be classed as a Christmas game. Essentially a clone of Eugene Jarvis's classic coin-op Defender, Psycho Santa is a 2D horizontal scrolling shoot-em-up in which you navigate a looping terrain, delivering presents to houses while avoiding or destroying enemies. A simple premise, certainly, and one that could have worked quite well with a bit more polish. For a start, the flying reapers that scream when you pelt them with your snowball projectiles seem totally out of place in the game world. Likewise, the bland 'space' background seems ill at ease with your Santa in his sleigh sprite - would it have killed Bullfrog (yes, Bullfrog created this) to put some seasonal backdrops in the game? Some snow perhaps? Lastly, and probably the biggest reason I hate Psycho Santa, is the method of delivering presents itself. Instead of pressing a button to drop a present - which would have made for some fun, time based 'bomb' dropping gameplay similar to Konami's Scramble - you have to hold back on the joystick before pressing fire. This doesn't sound too bad on paper, but the execution is appalling, resulting in a tedious debacle of zipping left and right as you attempt to fling a parcel backwards into a house. The fact that the houses take several of these laborious deliveries before becoming 'happy' (the games description, not mine), just saps the fun right out of it. There's not even any Christmas music during gameplay. One to avoid.

Xmas Lemmings

Ok, so I won't patronise you by explaining what Lemmings is as every man and his dog must be aware of the suicidal green haired critters by now. But as one of the Amiga's most beloved series of games it was only a matter of time before it was given the Christmas treatment and in 1991 that's exactly what Psygnosis did. Xmas Lemmings was a short (4 levels) demo that simply gave the little rodents festive hats, changed the backgrounds to the standard snow theme and added some xmas ditties as a soundtrack. Gameplay was identical to the original game, with you commanding the Lemmings via the mouse and action icons at the bottom of the screen - clicking the dig icon and then clicking on a Lemming would then cause the light blighter to begin burrowing through the ground, while the bridge icon would result in the Lemmings building a walkway to cross large gaps.. but then you knew all this already, right? Xmas Lemmings was an enjoyable, if short lived, bit of fun for the holiday season and must have been popular as it spawned two full commercially released sequels in 93 and 94 (named Christmas Lemmings in the UK and Holiday Lemmings in the USA) with far more stages this time around. 

Cannon Soccer

As one of the best Amiga games of all time, Cannon Fodder was ripe for a festive plucking - And in 1993, Amiga Format gave us just that. With typical tongue-in-cheek humour, the guys at Sensible Software created a 2 stage, Christmas special edition of their top down strategic shoot-em-up. But, instead of going down the easy route of merely popping some Christmas hats on the war torn heroes and maybe adding a sleigh here and some reindeer there, we were given a bizarre twist to proceedings. Clearly based on the famous incident that occurred in 1914 when British and German soldiers ceased fire on Christmas day to play a game of football (there is a lot more to this story, but Google it as it's extremely interesting), Cannon Soccer, as the name gives away, chucks in a football pitch and football players (I'm British so I call it Football, not Soccer) - obviously taken from Sensible Software's most famous title, Sensible Soccer. Other than this, gameplay is identical to the regular game - move your unit of soldiers around the landscape using the mouse, shooting and lobbing grenades at any enemies (including shepards) and buildings you see. As such, it's just as much fun as the incredibly satisfying original game but with the added novelty and humour of the Christmas theme. Be warned, however, as it is hard-as-nails, mainly due to the grenade firing chopper that constantly assaults you during the stages. One of the highlights of Amiga gaming back in the day and an essential title to fire up on Xmas day!

Elves Dreamland

So, you thought the days of getting free Christmas games for your Amiga were assigned to the past? Think again, because developer and Jet Set Willy fan, Nitta Mituaki has created a homage to both Matthew Smith's ZX Spectrum classic with a holiday theme, in his brand new 2015 homebrew title, Elves Dreamland. An unashamed Jet Set Willy clone, this flick screen platformer tasks you with collecting 200 items (presents, naturally) while avoiding the plethora of enemies patrolling each screen. The game is made up of 8 large areas, 7 of which are cleverly based on retro Christmas games from the 1980s and 1990s, including Santa's Xmas Caper, Plum Duff and Christmas Lemmings. The gameplay is basic but reasonably fun, but the fast pace and overly light jumping make it a lot less enjoyable than its inspiration. The visuals are nice and colourful and certainly nail the Christmas spirit (though the title screen is abysmal), but the music is utterly atrocious, with some mangled versions of Christmas jingles assaulting your ears with every duff note - still, it made me laugh, so I guess it falls into the 'so bad it's good' category. At the end of of the day, though, it's a reasonably fun little game and worth playing for the novelty of having a new Amiga Christmas game to play between bouts of gluttony (pass the Xmas pud... again).

Santa & Rudolph Do Xmas

This freeware title was released in 1994, rather late on in the Amiga's lifespan and, as far as I know, was not given away on a magazine cover disk. But it turns out to be the most enjoyable Christmas game on the system. I'm sure many will disagree, but the single screen arcade action is right up my street and I find myself returning to it every year. Choosing to play as either Santa or Rudolph, you zip around the screen (flight made possible due to being attached to a big red balloon) shooting any enemies that come onscreen with your trusty bazooka and grabbing presents that fall or enter horizontally into the play area. These presents then must be delivered to one of the various doors that, at first, merely look like part of the background. Once you meet the delivery quota you move on to the next stage. It's simple stuff certainly, but like all great arcade games (Mr Do, Bomb Jack, Pac Man etc) it's the need for quick thinking and fast reflexes, coupled with a steadily rising difficulty level, that keeps you coming back in order to get further or beat your high score. 

While the game starts you off in a predictable snowy environment (delivering presents to igloos), you soon find yourself in a town delivering to blocks of flats and houses, before zipping off to Egypt to deliver gifts to pyramids (Santa has a busy schedule, obviously). Enemies change accordingly; with UFOs in the town, mummies in Egypt, wind-up tanks in the jungle and robot grasshoppers (I think) on the moon... Look, I didn't say they made sense. One amusing factor is the invincible penguin who appears throughout the game, slowing homing in on your position thanks to his propeller hat. 

Santa & Rudolph Do Xmas is the only seasonal game (not including the many themed remixes of an existing title) that warrants playing at any time of year as the twitch, arcade style gameplay is timeless and enjoyable. That's why it's my favourite Christmas Amiga game.

Sure, there are other Christmas themed games out there but I urge you to avoid the juvenile, platforming crapness of Charlie The Christmas Chimp; the extremely basic antics contained within Cornelius Saves Christmas; and the pixelated smut of Maria's Xmas Box (guffaw!). 

So, now I have separated the wheat from the chaff you have plenty of Christmas treats to get stuck into. Hopefully it will take you back to those care free days when you would be up at the crack of dawn, pestering your half-asleep parents into getting up so you could open your gifts. The days when cover disks still existed and the magazines went the extra mile in the festive season to bring you some gaming goodies with a seasonal spin. Now, if you'll excuse me I'm off to fire up Santa & Rudolph Do Xmas again... while drinking mulled wine, naturally!

Merry Christmas!

Retro Spirit Games (2015)

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