Sunday 24 December 2017

Missed Classic 48: Elves ‘87 (aka The Elf’s Christmas Adventure) (1987)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Merry Christmas! Can you believe this is our fourth Christmas since the relaunch? It’s also our fourth look at classic Christmas adventure games. Thus far we have looked at 1984’s Merry Christmas from Melbourne House and A Spell of Christmas Ice, plus 1986’s Crisis at Christmas. Holiday games are a special bunch; except Merry Christmas, they have all been produced by smaller developers. They have also been a global bunch, having been produced in Australia, England, and Scotland. Our next game will continue both of those traditions: Elves ‘87 (subtitled God Bless Frosty the Snowman!), a fantastic Christmas tale written in Nova Scotia by independent software designers Bruce MacKay and Marlene Abriel and distributed on their short-lived Atari ST BBS, “Burned Out Adventurers!” (or “BOA!” for short).

This is also a game with a unique history, pulled along by the friendly competition between adventure authoring systems. Although Bruce and Marlene did not intend the game to be commercial (instead a springboard to subsequent game ideas that they were brewing), it was unofficially ported and re-released as an advertisement (and sample code) for David Malmberg’s “Adventure Game Toolkit”, a rival development system. That release, retitled The Elf’s Christmas Adventure, is the one that I suspect most players are familiar with.

This Christmas marks the 30th anniversary of Elves ‘87 and I can think of no more fitting time to dig in and explore this piece of holiday cheer. So, spike some eggnog and pull up a chair by the fire, it’s time for a Christmas adventure!

Visit beautiful Halifax! (Photo by Tony Webster)

To start the story of Elves ‘87, we have to start before the beginning. In 1986, David Betz, a programmer best known for writing XLISP, a popular freeware LISP compiler, released “AdvSys” an adventure game authoring system. AdvSys, like the MIT-developed Infocom interpreter, was based around LISP as that language seemed especially suited for the types of challenges inherent in processing human text. (Having never developed anything in LISP myself, I am not quite sure why. I hope someone here will chime in and enlighten us.) This new system happened to support the Atari ST, the platform of choice for some aspiring game developers outside of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Enter Bruce MacKay and Marlene Abriel. In June 1986, they started work on Elves (later called Elves ‘86), a holiday-themed game based on AdvSys that they could share with their friends in the local Atari users group and perhaps even post to USENET. Bruce was a self-taught programmer, working part-time to port Citadel BBS to Solaris, a popular UNIX variant, for the Bedford Institute of Oceanography. Bruce was also a consummate BBS-er and spent countless hours (and dollars) dialing long distance to remote systems back in the day before they were all connected via the Internet. He eventually set up a Citadel BBS of his own (running on an Atari ST), “BOA!” or “Burned Out Adventurers!”. Bruce and Marlene collaborated on the game, with the latter contributing most of the story and prose of the game, while Bruce worked on the technical underpinnings. By Christmas that year, Elves was just a toy, a “pretty boring” game by Bruce’s own admission, where you could run around and interact with some objects. They considered the game a flop, but not everyone agreed. In Bruce’s words:
I think it was the '86 version that found its way to California. One December evening just as I sat down for dinner, I received a phone call from Neil Harris, then Product Marketing Manager for Atari. He just wanted to say thanks for the game and to let us know that everyone in their office was playing it and having a good laugh. You have to remember that this was the '80s. No internet. We were in shock that anyone that far away would have seen the game, much less taken the time to get in touch. I suspect Neil had my number because I was registered in their developer program. I don't remember how it would have gone public, perhaps Atari had a BBS that I might have uploaded it to, or maybe I put the files on USENET's feed.
Around this point, Bruce had also started running Elves as a “door game” on his BBS, a game that anyone logged into the BBS could play through their terminal software. This would later serve as the inspiration for a never-completed second game, but more on that in a bit. Of course, BOA BBS only supported a single phone line so the number of people that could play the game that was was limited, even if they were willing to call long-distance.

Over the next several months, Bruce and Marlene continued to update and improve Elves, to make it the game that they envisioned. They considered porting it to a different authoring system, or even to try and write an engine from scratch, but two events pushed them to stay with AdvSys: in April, Bruce discovered an updated runtime for the system while doing some very long-distance BBSing to Minneapolis, and then the following month, David Betz had a feature about his system in the pages of Byte magazine. With better documentation and sample code, Bruce was able to build libraries that supported the features he wanted in his game. With a more solid foundation, work resumed on Elves ‘87 in earnest that August.

Even with new features and improved documentation, expanding the game was a slog. Time and again, Bruce and Marlene hit resource limits or bugs which prevented them from advancing. Bruce had to invent a new system that he called “floors” to allow the engine to swap in and out items, to get around size restrictions. By the time the game was complete for Christmas, the pair had built the game all the way up to the system’s limits: it could support no new objects, no new synonyms, and they had to remove a handful of things at the last minute to squeak under the wire. That is the version that I will be playing for this review.

In the months that followed, Bruce and Marlene started work on their sequel project, Inca. Marlene had begun the background research, but the vision was to produce a multiplayer text adventure (similar to a MUD) and that simply wasn’t possible with the technology available to them. Before long, both developers moved on from gaming. Bruce transitioned into general software engineering (and eventually IT) while Marlene became a database administrator for a local hospital. Marlene unfortunately passed away a few years later. The Elves ‘87’s story doesn’t quite end there as it will be adopted and ported to create The Elf’s Christmas Adventure, but I’ll talk about that more after my review.

This is the first of our Christmas games that appears to involve (at least if the subtitle is accurate) a character that I loved in my youth: Frosty the Snowman. Frosty, like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, was a product of American commercialism and the power of advertising. The character originated in the “Frosty the Snowman” song, written by Walter Rollins and Steve Nelson. Both artists were accomplished country musicians with Mr. Rollins having previously found success with the Easter-themed “Here Comes Peter Cottontail”. The song was recorded by Gene Autry, country music superstar of the 1930s through the 1950s. Mr. Autry had a repertoire of holiday music as well, including not only Frosty and Rudolph, but also “Here Comes Santa Claus” and others.

Both the song and an associated story book (in the “Little Golden Book” series) were released in time for Christmas 1950. Frosty arguably would become more famous thanks to the trilogy of films created by Rankin/Bass Productions: Frosty the Snowman (1969), Frosty’s Winter Wonderland (1976), and Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July (1979). (The last of which is a fairly Avengers-esque teamup of Rankin/Bass’s two most famous Christmas icons.) There were also two additional Frosty films created (in 1992 and 2005) by the successor rights holders to the character, although not in the original films’ continuity. I doubt that the writers of this game were thinking about any of that when they were putting it together, even less so that Frosty was a licensed character. We’ll see how (and if) Frosty makes an appearance in the game itself.

Enough of that! Let’s play the game!

I’ve heard of contagious yawns… but sneezes?

We start the game in an octagon-shaped room filled with identical sneezing elves. Well… that’s one way to start the game! We are immediately told that we are a retired elf, among the oldest and wisest, and we have been summoned to the North Pole to help save Christmas. Despite the fact that we are in a room with eight sides, some trial and error shows that we can only head west to arrive inside of the elves’ bunkhouse at Santa’s Workshop at the North Pole. Whatever teleportation got us here was one-way since I can’t get back to where I came from by heading east.

I explore my surroundings and there is a ton to see: a mirror, a dresser, a closet to the south, and more. Working my way through the dresser, I find a lantern of “elfish” design in the top drawer. Score one for a Zork reference right off the bat! (Although in Zork, it is the sword that is elvish, not the lamp.) The middle and bottom drawers are locked and I’ll need to find the key. I enter the walk-in closet and there’s no light switch so I have to turn on my lamp. Inside is a parka which I put on, after some initial confusion. There is no “wear’ verb in this game and so picking it up is the same as wearing it. Being the seasoned adventure gamer that I am, I root through the pockets to discover a gold key in the left pocket and a brass key in the right. Very convenient!

I start trying the keys and the brass key immediately breaks in the lock on the middle drawer. Is this the kind of adventure with dead ends? Probably. I restore and don’t use it in that drawer, but it does successfully open the bottom drawer where I find “idiot mittens” and long johns. The latter are far too big for an elf, but I won’t question how Santa’s underwear ended up in an elf’s dresser. The “idiot” mittens are like the ones that you little kids wear, with a string connecting the two mittens so that they cannot be easily dropped or lost. I had to look up this definition so it may be a regional term.

My map of the North Pole

Rather than walk through every room as I come to it, let me give you the rough flavor of what I encountered in the workshop:
  • The main workshop room was just to the west of the elves’ bunkhouse. That’s where all of the hard-working elves are building gifts for all the good little girls and boys. It also seems to be the center of the complex. There are a ton of items listed in the room description, most of which I cannot pick up, but I do manage to snag a pile of toys.
  • Just to the west is Santa’s garage where the sled is presumably kept. I cannot seem to get the door open (and the game insists there is no door), but there is one of those white styrofoam coolers in there containing some beer. After I open it, I get a message in a few turns that our beer got warm. No one wants warm beer! Just in case I screwed something up, I restore and leave the beer there untouched for now.
  • South of the workshop is gift-wrapping, where all the presents get the fancy wrapping and bows. Like before, there are tons of objects references in the description, but I am only able to pick up some cheap plastic poinsettias and some “To/From” cards.
  • Further south from there is Santa’s personal office. There is a ton of unread mail there (which I can pick up but not open), an Atari ST computer with a weather report calling for dense fog, as well as a locked desk and filing cabinet. The gold key from the parka works in the desk but I’ll have to keep looking to find a way to open the filing cabinet.

These days, an Atari ST can most easily be found in a museum. (Image by Ranma, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Inside Santa’s desk is what may be a key item: Egbert’s diary. Egbert, it seems, was an elf from a few years back that documented his life at the North Pole and the secrets that he discovered. Every time you read from the diary, you turn to a random page. I found a few entries before they started to repeat:
  • October 5, 1871 - Reveal of a Penguin Colony in the Antarctic with some important items and the recommendation that you never go there without a map.
  • December 24, 1871 - The most perfect Christmas Eve on record.
  • December 12, 1873 - Explanation of how Santa fits into the chimneys. He has the ability to shrink and blow by filling himself (or draining himself) of air like a balloon.
  • December 3, 1899 - Explanation of how Santa’s sack works. It’s matter-to-energy transmission to another dimension, of course. That should have been obvious. (Or maybe you just thought it was a Bag of Holding?)
  • February 1, 1901 - The elves just finished a month of vacation and have to resume working for next Christmas.
  • December 15, 1901 - Explanation of how Santa visits all the kids in one night. It’s because he lives in a higher energy sphere, able to move at 36,000 times the speed of an elf.

Now, how much of this is important and how much is flavor text? I honestly have no idea. The bit about the Penguin Colony seems suspiciously like it’s a hint, plus the note about another dimension if you try to enter Santa’s sack. I’ll be on the lookout for both the sack and an Antarctic map or penguin.

Now, let me backtrack a bit and talk about the parser. Overall, the parser isn’t terrible. It supports full sentences but not as robustly as the Infocom one. We cannot use pronouns, “wear” things, or “look under” them, for a few examples. Figuring out what you can interact with is a chore. The gift wrapping room listed tons of items and yet I can only pick up two and most of the time the game doesn’t even know the words for the others. In the main workshop, I lose a sentence or two of the room description because it scrolls off the screen before I can see it. It may have been slower on an Atari ST, but some pagination would have been nice. I should also mention that the game makes use of Canadian English terms which I had never heard before. Did you know that a “two-four” of beer is a 24-pack, for example? I already mentioned the “idiot mittens” as well, but there were a few other places where the noun seemed a bit strange; I am sure this reflects some regional terms that I hadn’t heard before. I blame this on our Halifax-based development team, but it really wasn’t too much of a problem.

Fun Fact: The North Pole at Christmas is approximately -40 degrees Celsius.

Scattered around the Workshop are three additional structures, all arranged around a circular soapstone path:
  • South of the Workshop is Santa’s personal cabin, a gingerbread house. Outside is a thermometer showing the current temperature to be 10 degrees Celsius. That is too warm for Christmas at the North Pole! Santa is inside, running around drinking mixed drinks that he’s making in a blender and searching for a belt to hold up his pants. The image is… charming, to say the least. He asks us repeatedly for a belt so I expect that is one of the puzzles. I don’t have a belt, but I do manage to steal Santa’s blender.
  • A runway is to the west, complete with a reindeer barn. Unfortunately, it’s not designed for warm-weather operation and so it’s too muddy. Even worse, I discover Rudolph ill in the reindeer barn, his nose completely failing to glow.
  • At the farthest end of the runway, whatever warming is affecting the North Pole seems to begin to fade and there is just enough snow to make a snowman. Naturally, I do! He doesn’t come magically to life.
  • In the far north is, naturally enough, the North Pole although there’s nothing obvious yet to see or do there.

The reindeer barn has an “interesting” feature. When you enter the barn, it’s just empty. It is not until you “search” the barn that you get an interesting message: “Odd that you didn’t notice the enormous set of double doors leading to the northeast into the corral.” I can’t say that I like this much because I only typed “search” because I wanted to see if there was something hidden in the straw or whatever. From here, I go back and type “search” in every room just to make sure there’s isn’t a similar “joke” anywhere else, but I do not find any.

I have explored everywhere that I can find to explore, so I set off to solve some of the puzzles. At this point, my key leads are the middle drawer in the dresser, the filing cabinet in Santa’s Workshop, the cooler with the beer, and Santa’s belt. In all of this, I managed to leave my lantern on so I had to restart the game anyway and that gave me a chance to look over it all again. Giving Santa the beer didn’t help, even if I dragged the cooler there so it would be cold on arrival. Nothing I do seems to help Rudolph or to make “Frosty” come to life. I struggle for a bit with the mittens to see if I can get the string out, possibly to give them to Santa as a belt, but no good.

Just as I am about to give up and take a hint, restarting reminds me of the octagon room and how I never got back there. This time, I notice the mirror in the elves’ bunkhouse and try to enter it. Is that how I got here? It works and I am transported to a much colder winter wonderland: the South Pole.

This is hard to read, but single walls are passages and double walls are deadly.

We emerge at the South Pole next to an ice door. Exploring around, we realize that we are surrounded by two mazes: a traditional “drop items to map” maze and a complicated path through a series of ice floes to the north. Picking the wrong exit in each room plops you into the frozen water so it’s not recommended. Behind the ice door is a dead end, with a little joke that every adventure game has to have one. “Searching” there nets me a map of the floes-- including several rooms marked with asterisks-- which I appreciate very much.

The ice floe area is also the area with the biggest surprise of the game so far: Percival the Penguin. Up to this point, every character in the game has been static, no more of a character than a light fixture. Percival is different, a scripted character that randomly walks around the ice floes, occasionally stops to fish or to give us a nice little kick, and-- if you keep following him for long enough-- he gets pissed at you and knocks you in a random direction where you are almost certain to die. All in all, he is pretty well-written, even given only a few bits of dialog. He’s the most “mature” aspect of the game so far. He also has pockets in his tuxedo which I cannot seem to access (since the game mistakes me asking about the pockets in my parka) and is happy to (permanently) take any object that I hand him. I spend a good amount of time trying to find some object that he will react to, I take off the parka and try to access his pockets that way (but die of exposure in the cold), and try to survive being kicked and find him again to see if he does something differently. In the end, I had to give up for now.

Percival aside, exploring the floes rewards me with two special rooms (the ones marked with asterisks): a crystal garden where I can find a magical locked orb containing an ice flower, as well as a “Great Ice Hall” where I can find an “old silk hat”. When I am ready to leave, I have to take the northeast exit which somehow returns me back to where I started from. I take the mirror back to Santa’s Workshop.

Alas, no Penguin Village. I was hoping to meet Arale.

Back at the workshop, I bee-line to Frosty and put the hat on his head. He wakes up and starts to walk around! I follow him for a while, but he seems to just be moving randomly in and around the workshop. I get excited when he walks to Santa’s room or the North Pole, but I do not find any room that has a scripted event when he arrives. What am I supposed to do with him? I give him items, but none of them do anything except permanently go away and then I have to restore.

I return to trying to solve puzzles, eventually realizing that the brass key (for the elves dresser) amazingly opens the orb and I can remove the ice flower that is inside. That hardly makes sense, but sure. I try planting it at the North Pole, giving it to Santa, giving it to Frosty or the Penguin, etc. Nothing seems to do anything.

After struggling for some time and not getting any farther, I remembered that Christmas doesn’t wait around. It was time to take a hint, but in this case there wasn’t anyone (other than Bruce) to ask. Instead, the distribution of Elves ‘87 that I downloaded had the original source code in a readable LISP-like language. With apologies to anyone that was hoping I was going to solve this on my own, let me walk you through the final puzzles:
  • The first puzzle you are supposed to solve is Santa’s belt. In this case, I was right on thinking that the mittens’ string had something to do with it, but I was using the wrong verbs. If you “untie mittens”, you remove the string and can hand it to Santa. He then thanks us and reveals why he summoned us here: we have to get Rudolph’s nose to glow because of all of the fog. I should have figured this out and feel dumb now that I missed the verb.
  • The next step was that I missed some pages in the diary that I found in Santa’s workshop. One of the pages that I missed said that if Rudolph’s nose ever stopped glowing, I can solve it using a potion made of pureed poinsettia blended with the first snowflake of Christmas Eve. I don’t have either of those items, but I do have a blender. I didn’t try reading the diary enough times after the pages started to repeat.
  • Frosty is the solution to my poinsettia problem: once he is brought to life, he will bring the plastic poinsettias to life if you hand them to him. That is the only object that he will do anything productive with and I do not think this was hinted anywhere. I had given him a TON of objects to see what would happen, but I must have missed this one. I figure out on my own that you can use the blender to create poinsettia juice from the plant.

We saved Christmas! Again!

The “final” puzzle is the hardest. Everything else I could have solved by being more careful or thorough, but this one… I doubt it. The trick is that we have to make the North Pole cold again so that snow falls. How do we do it? By using the thermometer and the cooler. Yes, you place the thermometer in the cooler and it gets colder so, somehow, the environment gets colder. Once it’s in there for a few turns, it starts to snow and you can collect the first fallen snowflake-- even if you are indoors at the time! You put it in the blender and take it to Rudolph and we win!

Time played: 4 hr 05 min

OMG! An actual title screen!

The Remake

Before moving on to the final review, I’d like to pause for a second to take a deeper look at the remake. (Don’t worry! I’ve already jotted down my scores so that it won’t bias me in any way.) I reached out to Mr. Malmberg and he doesn’t have any strong recollections of the update, only that he felt that the original was a very good game. (And I agree!)

The history of the remake is somewhat tricky to piece together, but it started in 1989 when David Malmberg took the original AdvSys source and ported it to his “Adventure Gamer Toolkit” under the name The Elf’s Adventure. I have not looked at that version in specific, but it may have been the more common version pre-Internet as I find a review of it as late as 1993 in Red Herring magazine. In 1992, with the release of the Master’s Edition of the Adventure Game Toolkit, Mr. Malmberg took another pass at the game to produce The Elf’s Christmas Adventure and included the source with copies of the Master’s Edition that he sold through Softworks. This is the version that I just finished playing. At some point prior to 1994, subsequent iterations of the “Master’s Edition” stopped including the Christmas Adventure as one of the sample games.

The remake was explicitly designed as a technical demo, to show off how much more powerful AGT was than its predecessors. Even so, you can tell there is a lot of love that went into this conversion, done by someone that knew the game fairly well. Many of my interface issues have been resolved, with room descriptions clarified and an easier time telling what you can interact with and what you cannot. There are also more verbs, including that we can “wear” the parka now, and exits are easier to find. The layout and interface makes good use of color and the game plays some tinny PC-speaker-style Christmas music to keep you in the mood. I managed to keep it on for almost five minutes before hitting “mute”. The introduction is clearer with more help to guide a novice adventurer. The most egregious addition is that there is now a sign just outside Santa’s Workshop that is a three-page advertisement for the “Master’s Edition”. Commercialism at Christmas!? Blasphemy! Overall however, this is a more mature product.

A note in the game materials also stated that David Malmberg wrote a solution for this game, selling it for “no charge” plus $1 in shipping. I reached out to Mr. Malmberg and unfortunately he no longer has copies of this solution. If anyone purchased one back when the game was new, I would love to see it.

A newly written help system.

Even a menu mode!

While the focus of this review is not on the AGT system, I was especially impressed by the optional “menu mode”. When this is turned on, all navigation and commands are done through a menu selection system rather than by being typed in. It even provides lists of objects in each room that you can interact with. It was a nice touch and while my own text adventure-playing is still back in the mid 1980s, it’s nice to see that the form was evolving. We’ve seen an almost identical system in Spellcasting 101 and other Legend Entertainment games, but I had not realized the form also appeared in purely text games. There is also an option to play in a “graphical” mode that permitted you to change the size of the text.

Gameplay-wise, the story works out mostly the same. It is clear that AdvSys still had some advantages over AGT as my two favorite interactive-characters from the former, Percival the Penguin and Frosty, are much less interactive this time around. Percy now stays with you throughout the ice floes, rather than wandering around himself. Frosty is now completely stationary at the end of the runway, a sad testament for a snowman that likes to dance around! Puzzle-wise, it appears that they realized the final puzzle was a bit too tough and offered an alternative: the ice flower in the orb is now a poinsettia and I suspect you can use it for the final concoction, although I did not try that myself. Everything else appears to play out identically.

As much as anything else, this has convinced me that I need to spend more time learning about text adventure builders of the 1980s and 1990s. I have indirectly reviewed several (AdvSys, The Quill, and Tartan’s Adventure Builder System) and the differences are fascinating in terms what they were were trying to accomplish. AGT’s “Master Edition” is by far the most mature of the several that I looked at, although it is also chronologically the latest.

The updated ending scene. Note the old version name.

Final Rating

Now that I’ve played it, we come to the difficult part: the rating. I’ve let the game stew for a couple of days and so I think I can be objective. The truth is, this is a tremendously promising game and a fantastic freshman effort. In the end, I think the designers were let down by the poor quality of the parser more than anything else and much of the time they could have used for polish and playtesting instead went to trying to work around parser bugs and limitations. Just a few more hints here, a few more alternate verbs, and a bit more work on some of the prose and this would have been a commercial-grade effort. As it was, it was still quite good.

Just a reminder that we forego our usual “PISSED” rating system for the suspiciously-similar holiday themed rating system: “EGGNOG”. And for new readers, keep in mind that we are scoring against an idealized graphical adventure game. A “low” score doesn’t mean a failing grade, especially with text adventures already being handicapped by not having graphics.

Enigmas and Solution-Findability - There is a ton of good ideas here, but the reach exceeds their grasp somewhat. The setup of the game was creative and the ice floes are a fantastic take on a maze; I could easily have imagined that in an Infocom game. I also loved the diary as a way to hint at the puzzles, although I was unlucky and missed one or two of the critical pages. I score this category low for two reasons: first, that I do not believe this game to be solvable in its current state and second, that there are too many “fake” puzzles that don’t go anywhere. The first is just a polish issue as a hint here or a clarification there would have gone a long way. Was there any hint to the thermostat puzzle? To Frosty’s transmogrifying powers? What was up with the ice flower? Or Percival and his many pockets? So many good idea, but they needed a bit more time. My score: 2.

A diary page about Santa’s incredible balloon powers.

Game UI and Items - The AdvSys parser is decent, although by 1987 not quite up to commercial standards. It’s obvious both from the source and from speaking to Mr. MacKay that it wasn’t up to the task of a game that was as complicated as this one or with as many moving parts. In the end, there are just too many missing verbs and phrasings that the game does not understand. My score: 2.

Gameworld and Story - Here’s where the game starts to shine: the diary is fantastic! It would have been nice for a bit more hand-holding to get you started in the game since I didn’t even solve the “first” puzzle to fully understand the story, but that is probably as much my fault as the game’s. I wish there had been more to Frosty and Percival. My favorite aspect was one that was in the diary entries that I missed: there is a suggestion that Christmas troubles are somewhat cyclic. We are dealing with Rudolph II (or III?), for example, as the previous generations once had the same problem and the original Rudolph was from the 19th century. I just wish that the rest of the game incorporated this brilliant backstory a bit better, and had it connect to the South Pole puzzles or something else. My score: 3.

Noises and Pretty Pixels - I loved the ASCII-art map, but there’s no other graphics to speak of so we have to give this category the same score as every other text adventure. My score: 0.

Overworld and Environs - The authors depict a great little Christmas world complete with cute explanations for some of Santa’s secrets. I also am particularly fond of the South Pole segment and the whole thing manages to feel like a Christmas game. My score: 3.

Gregariousness and Thespianism - The prose was decent throughout and I especially loved how much personality they could get out of Pervival with only a few lines of code. This category takes a hit because there just isn’t much NPC dialog, except a few lines from Santa about his belt. I would have loved to have Frosty talk, for instance. My score: 3.

I am going to use my discretionary point to add one more because the above doesn’t quite feel like it captures the true charm of this game. It’s nicer than it should be and it’s just that it is a bit too difficult (or incomplete) to really be all that it could be. Let’s tally it up: (2+2+3+0+3+3)/.6 + 1 = 23 points!

That places it just under last year’s Crisis at Christmas, but that’s a fantastic placing for a first-time developer working on tools that just weren’t good enough. I would love to travel back in time and see what they could have accomplished with a more mature parser. It’s always dangerous to play “what if”, but it seems to me that both Bruce and Marlene were competent game designers and might have easily found a spot in that industry had they have been based in Boston, for example, rather than Halifax. Bruce in particular seemed to have a real talent for learning and improving complex systems; I hope he made use of that in his future career. I can’t help but feel that I’m grading this game low but I don’t see any obvious scores to change. It certainly is sticking with me more than previous Christmas games have.

The 1992 remake would have scored better on the puzzles thanks to clearer room and object descriptions, user interface, and the additional of the background music. I would have scored that a 27.

I hope you enjoyed this look at a fantastic Christmas adventure. I had a ton of fun. I especially want to thank Bruce MacKay who provided me an insane amount of information for us to use in my write-up, as well as David Malmberg who was kind enough to answer a few questions. I look forward to seeing what kinds of Christmas mischief we can get ourselves into next year. Merry Christmas!


  1. Joe, thanks for this wonderful write-up on the 30th anniversary of Elves'87. I think your eggnog rating is quite generous. I'm sure Marlene is smiling.

    When we wrote Elves'87 I was managing a camera store and Marlene was working as a blood technician at the hospital. Neither of us had any expectations that anyone other than local members of our Atari users group would be playing the game. It's wonderful to see even one person playing the game three decades later.

    Merry Christmas to all.

  2. Merry Christmas! For those of you that want to play along, you can download both versions here:

    I'm still hoping that a copy of 1982's "A Christmas Adventure" surfaces for next year. That's the oldest Christmas game that I know of that we have not covered yet. I found a Youtube "Let's Play" of it, but the presenter wasn't willing to share.

    1. Do you mean the 1983 Apple II game by Bitcards that is sold for a heavy prize of £150 here: ?

      Surprisingly, another company (Litte Softie) apparently produced a game with the exact same name for Spectrum and C64, but that seems to have disappeared for good:

    2. I was referring to the Bitcards one, although I know nothing about the other. And yes, I keep seeing that 150 EUR price tag and telling myself that this website is great and all but that's a lot of money for disks that I cannot image myself. I keep hoping it ends up in one of the Internet Archive dumps and I can play it that way.

      In any event, around 10 months before I need to worry too much about that.

      I have something else up my sleeve once we get to 1993 games, but the less I say about that the better...

    3. In case you didn't know about these, here's couple more Christmas games from early 1990s:^Santa%21+The+Adventure$&pub=^Outlet$&loadpics=1^Miser%2c+The$&pub=^River+Software$&loadpics=1

      The Miser seems especially interesting, since it's supposed to be an adaptation of Dickensian Christmas Carol.

    4. Thanks! I was not aware of those, although WoS has been a key resource in finding old text adventures. Thus far, I have concentrated on pre-1990 Christmas adventures but if we run out of those then we can start into the next decade.

      The BitCards game is interesting for a ton of reasons, but most importantly because it's actually graphical-- and we haven't had one of those since "Merry Christmas from Melbourne House". It would also be chronologically the earliest Christmas-themed adventure that I know of. Maybe we'll find more hidden away someplace.

      We have time to figure this out, of course.

  3. Perhaps it's possible the lantern of "elfish" design isn't a Zork reference and is just referring to the fact that everything here is designed by Santa's elves?

    1. It is possible, but I know from discussions with Bruce that he and Marlene were big Zork fans. It's one of those nice references that could be read either way.

  4. I'm rather late to the party, but as a long-time Halifax resident (since relocated), I have a few comments:

    One of my High School teachers used the phrase “idiot mittens”, about the same time this game was being developed. She was British, so I assumed that was where the expression originated. I had never heard it before/since (but I also very rarely have a need to discuss children's mittens-on-a-string either).

    I don't recall the “Burned Out Adventurers!” BBS. I received my first modem at Christmas 1989, so perhaps it was offline by then. I was very interested in adventure games (and RPGs) at the time, so I would definitely have called it.

    If memory serves, the Bedford Institute of Oceanography operated its own BBS (or, at least a staff member did so unofficially using their mainframe). It was some odd, custom software.

  5. Enjoyed reading this history and game review. Lots of memories. Will try to find a current playable version of the game for my son. My mom (Marlene Abriel) would have loved to have seen him solve the puzzles. ~ Jennifer

    1. I will be glad to help you get it going. You'll probably want to use DosBox or similar to play it, but it shouldn't be too hard. I still have a download if you cannot find one. Three generations! How time flies...

    2. Thank you very much. I’ll tag back in once I give it a shot.