Friday 25 December 2020

Missed Classic 91: Sanity Clause (1991)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Merry Christmas! I know I speak for many of us when I say that this has been a difficult year. While some of us found solace in the games that we played, others found themselves with little time or energy to relax as pandemic lockdowns and fear stretched over months. Our hearts reach out to those of you that have been affected by the virus in large or small ways. Christmas is a time for joy and reflection, plus to look forward to the year ahead. My Christmas started earlier this year as I have had the privilege to be playing Sanity Clause for you during what free time I could scrounge up these past several weeks. Playing this game, a little bundle of Christmas spirit from 1991, has been a relief to me and far less stressful than some other text adventures I could mention. I am glad that we have been able to continue our annual Christmas tradition this year and I hope that you enjoy reading about this game as much as I enjoyed playing it or, better still, playing Sanity Clause for yourself. Perhaps it will be a balm for your soul as well. 

Our longtime readers know that we made a deal with Satan Santa that this blog would continue running if and only if we played a Christmas classic each year. This is our seventh annual Christmas game (can you believe that?) and I know of at least one or two more English-language games for future years. Despite the hardships that the pandemic has brought, I am confident that we have many more great years of adventuring ahead of us!

While other Christmas games have been written as technical demos, adware, or “traditional” adventure games with a thin veneer of yuletide, Sanity Clause was written by a man who truly seems to love Christmas. Long after this game was a distant memory, Mike McCauley, the author, has even performed as the Jolly Old Elf himself. The game is well-researched, well-written, and you’ll just have to see what kind of nuttiness Santa was up to on this fateful Christmas in the early 1990s. 

Probably Mike, dressed up as a character you might recognize.

Mike McCauley, the author of Sanity Clause, has been difficult to track down. While he spoke to our colleague at the Digital Antiquarian a few years back about his first game, Son of Stagefright (1989), I  been unable to get in touch with him prior to publication. The history you are about to read has been cobbled together from publicly available information, augmented by some details that the Digital Antiquarian was kind enough to provide from his communications with Mr. McCauley. I may make errors or have massive omissions. I hope that you (and he) forgive any that I may make. 

In the mid-1980s, Mike McCauley worked by day as a software engineer at Aetna Insurance in California, but he had a passion for community theater. Leveraging that experience and “writing what you know” led McCauley to pen his first game, Son of Stagefright, a humorous adventure where the protagonist is trapped in just such a theater. Stagefright was written in AGT, the “Adventure Game Toolkit”, one of several popular adventure game-creating engines of the day. As a marketing tool, as well as a way to build community and interest around AGT games, Softworks hosted an annual game creation competition with a $100 cash prize. McCauley entered his game and was awarded as the best game of the year. This granted McCauley some notoriety in the community, ensured that his game was distributed widely, and (I hope) landed him some excellent shareware license fees. I regret that I have not yet had the time to play his first game, but Jimmy Maher from the Digital Antiquarian highly recommends it as an example of early amateur interactive fiction. 

“You can’t fool me! There ain’t no Sanity Clause.”

No sooner was Son of Stagefright out the door than McCauley began work on a second game, a then-untitled game about Christmas. He announced this work-in-progress in the 1989 contest results but would not be able to finish it for another two years. I’ll let McCauley summarize:

It all started out as a simple idea; could I design a game based on Santa Claus making his rounds by staying within the midnight hour as it moved around the globe. The answer was, "NO." Several months of frustrating research showed that the arrangement of time zones, national boundaries, oceans, etc. made it impossible. The whole idea went on a back burner for almost a year. (If you're getting bored with this, just let me know.) Then one day it hit me. THE IMPOSSIBLE is my favorite project, so I set out in earnest. Then my computer broke down. I was making great progress. What evolved was a patchwork of various national Christmas-related customs (some admittedly slightly modified to have them all occur on December 24th), some fantasy, a little craziness and eventually, anything that popped into my overworked mind to get you around the world on time. A lot of my information on local customs, geography, language, etc. around the world came from reference books, some of which were ambiguous or contradictory, so please take this in the spirit intended - not a sociology lesson, just good fun.

The game was released in time for the 1991 contest, although McCauley released a bugfix version the following March. Unfortunately, a critical error blunted the impact of the game creatively and financially: a hint guide intended only for the AGT contest judges was mistakenly shipped with Softworks copies of the game. This reduced the number of users paying the license fee (which included a guide) and likely robbed it of some of the fun of playing unaided. His game was runner-up in the 1991 contest, but the lack of a win and the mistake with the hint guide reduced the game’s impact. With many months spent on the project, McCauley seemed disappointed by the response. He told Mr. Maher that it had all come “crashing down” and that he was “left behind” by the rise of graphical adventure games. As far as I have been able to find, he did not write any further games. 

Although he did not return to game development, McCauley’s name crops up frequently through the 90s and into today with local theater companies near his home in California. I believe that he primarily worked behind the scenes-- he taught a course in prop design-- but has portrayed characters in local Renaissance and Old West fairs, and even as Saint Nick himself. In honor of the great fun I had with this game, I made a small donation to the Conejo Players Theater, a group that McCauley appears to have worked with. Local theater companies are struggling under pandemic restrictions and I hope you all consider giving what you can to support the artists that are struggling this Christmas. 

(Author's Note: An astute commenter has pointed out that Son of Stagefright was McCauley's second game. The first was Stagefright, a 1987 text adventure for the Coleco Adam. I had not found his earlier game in my research.)

Enough history, let’s play!

I have no proof, but Dudley may be inspired by “Patch” from Santa Claus the Movie (1985), played by Dudley Moore.

This won’t be one of our typical play-by-play reviews of the entire game. Sanity Clause is long, clocking in at fifteen hours of playtime, hundreds of rooms, and dozens of large and small puzzles. It’s shorter and more playable than Humbug, but it takes time and dedication to get to the end. As it is our tradition to make Christmas games only a single post, I will take some liberties to condense the plot and the gameplay so that you get the spirit of the game without every individual twist and turn. To accomplish this, I regret that I will lose a lot of McCauley’s unique humor and voice and so I will try to include his words when I can. No matter how much I include, it can only be a fraction of the 60,000+ words that make up the game’s text. 

My strategy will be to cut my discussion of the game into three parts:

  • The North Pole “prologue” which introduces us to the game and McCauley’s sense of humor. This section plays more traditionally than the rest and is probably the weakest part of the game.
  • My first trip around the world from Taveuni to the Azores. Along the way, you’ll get a sense for how the globetrotting parts of the game work.
  • Finally, I’ll summarize the remaining locations and puzzles as I worked my way to the ending. 

This is a great game to play along with, so if you want to put this review down for a few hours, you can find the game on and the usual abandonware repositories. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. There are many good parts here and I know I will not do them all justice. 

McCauley’s introduction text sets the ground rules:

The object of the game is to visit several key locations around the globe, but you cannot do it all in one trip.  (The best combination of routes takes 5 trips.)  The "SCORE" command will give you a list of the key locations yet to be visited.  Seems simple enough so far, doesn't it?

Your trips will not be without obstacles, however.  Your companion is an apprentice elf named Dudley who has a penchant for fouling things up.  You also seem to be having a great deal of trouble with your "Christmas magic" getting cross circuited with various other forms of magic that you encounter -- with very disturbing results.  You will need to stay on your toes to get through this night.

Speaking of "night", here are a few of the ground rules for the game.  You are Santa Claus (or "Sanity Clause" for this trip).  You operate by "magic", but this magic is only effective around midnight on Christmas Eve.  This means that you must keep within the midnight hour as it travels around the globe.  Also, your usual means of travel is by flying reindeer.  Due to some quirk of genetics, the reindeer can only fly at night, so you mustn't get into the sun or you'll be grounded.  You are free to take any route you want.  No, seriously, I mean that.  This game does NOT have a pre-set path.  If you want to go to Tasmania instead of Queensland or Guam after New Hebrides, feel free. 

There are, by my count 268 routes around the globe and the situations you run into at a given location and the solutions to the puzzles may vary depending on the route you came by.

And the white snow fell all around, all around...

Prologue: The North Pole

Like many of our Christmas adventures, we open at the North Pole. It’s dark out and we cannot easily find our way back to our workshop in the dark. Unlike in every depiction I’ve seen, there is a hole in the ground next to the pole. I have no idea where it leads and the parser seems to take “hole” as a synonym for “pole” so when I try to climb down, I actually climb up the pole. That reveals a light source to the south, allowing me to navigate my way across the tundra back to my workshop. I take stock and notice that I am carrying both a beeper (how 90s!) and a Swiss army knife. That’s two Swiss army-style knives in the last two games that I have played, but I wager that this one does not have the same amazing gadgets as the one from Bureaucracy

I make it to Santa’s workshop and explore. The game is clever as the world loops around on itself both to the west and east. You might expect that, but I don’t think I’ve seen a game actually present it that way before. I take stock of the locations: we have my house and office, a toy construction area, a dark forest with a frozen pond, garden, and a reindeer pen. Notably, the reindeer are not in their pen and I arrive to find the gate was left open. I’m not going to comment that the North Pole is above the tundra line and shouldn’t have a forest full of Christmas trees; we can chalk that up to magic. Exploring the dark areas is impossible until I discover that I can pull a branch out of the fireplace to make a makeshift torch. In total, my explorations reward me with a calendar and clock from my office, a single roller skate, and a spade. I can use the spade to dig a frozen carrot out of my garden, but otherwise I do not see what to do. I barely have time to explore everything before it’s game over: Santa’s magic only works during a two hour window between 11 PM and 1 AM; since I spent too much time exploring, I am now out of the special magic window.

I restart and getting back to where I was takes only 23 turns. My guess is that I will need to coax the reindeer back to their pen with the frozen carrot, or that I can unthaw the carrot in the fire and then use it to tempt them, but neither works. This is the point when I discover the “help” command. 

“Help” is not just a hint system in this game, although it is that. “Help” is an authorial voice constantly pushing the plot forward by nudging you in the correct directions. There are points in the game (not yet) where you cannot proceed without asking the game for “help”, so there seems to be no intended shame in using it. The hint here is obvious but “remember to look under things” clued me into the fact that I didn’t look under my bed to discover a pair of ice skates. With them on my feet, I can skate on the pond in the forest and discover the reindeer relaxing. They insist that it’s not Christmas until tomorrow! The help clues me into showing them the calendar (and then turning the page) to prove that it’s actually Christmas and, yes, they need to get moving. They finally realize their mistake and head off to get ready.

My completed map of the north pole.

The reindeer may be back in their pen, but they still need to be hitched to the sleigh. This, it appears, is Mrs. Clause’s job and I find her inside the house. She somehow also didn’t remember that it was Christmas; I had to use another “help” command to find out that I needed to ask her for the time to prod her realization. Once reminded, she leaves me with some cookies and milk while she goes outside to finish. We have to drink the milk immediately, but the game lets me carry the cookies so we may need them later. Once in the sleigh, I need to figure out how to convince the reindeer to move. The clue is to do it like it was done in “A Visit from St. Nicholas”: 

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, 

And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight—

“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

I whistle and Dudley the elf appears from under the seat. He’ll be my helper elf for this evening. The second time I whistle, my house burns down because I neglected to “bank” the fire before I left. I don’t even know what that means! Nonetheless, I restore and do as requested and we are off! Only to set down a few moments later on Taveuni, the first stop in our globe trotting adventure. 

As I type this all out, I admit it is not the best start to the game. The opening is time-limited, requires some specific (and unguessable) vocabulary, and forces me to use the help function more than once to avoid being stuck. I don’t understand why two of the puzzles are based on the reindeer and Mrs. Clause forgetting what day it is! This is occasionally charming, but it’s not up to the same quality as the rest of the game. It’s a common challenge with new writers of fiction to start their stories too early; often in creative writing classes we hear to lop off the first few pages and start when the action starts and trust that the reader will survive without all of the exposition. This is a good start, but McCauley could have benefitted from this advice.

Christmas, on the beach at Taveuni...

Making a List and Checking It Twice

We’ve barely begun and already botched the evening. I’ll let the author explain:

At your command, the reindeer leap to the sky and charge madly off into the inky night.  The swiftness of the ascent catches you off guard and you fall backwards, striking your head on some hard surface.

As you come to, you sense a warmth in the air.  Looking around, you see that you are on the ground on what appears to be a tropical island.  Dudley is trying to push the sleigh.  You get out and ask him what the problem is. "Well, it's kinda embarrassing to say. I got the presents delivered for you while you were out, but when I got back to the sleigh, I realized I made a small boo boo.  You see, I forgot this island is smack dab on the International Date Line and I overshot it when I landed -- so we ended up in yesterday. We're a day too early for any of your magic to work.  We gotta push the sleigh back West into tomorrow, er, today."

I push the sleigh with Dudley and a surfer appears. What he is doing surfing in the middle of the night is anyone’s guess, but he lets us know that Fiji moved the International Date Line a few years back and we’re fully on the correct side of the line. Dudley abashedly admits that he must not have read the almanac very well. As a consolation, the guy gifts us a surfboard and we are on our way. This is our first (of many) times in the game where we select where we want to travel to next, but there are fewer options than you might suspect. We cannot travel east or (as we just saw), our magic would stop working. Dudley informs us that there are no places to the north or south that we can land on, and we wouldn’t have enough time anyway. That leaves just the three westerly directions. Of those, it turns out that there are no islands to the southwest so we only can go northwest or west. That is much more manageable. 

In my haste to get out of the North Pole, I neglected to explain the goal of the game. In short, we must travel around the world delivering Christmas joy, but there are 18 areas in specific that we must visit in order to win. We can always see the full list with the “score” command, but here is the list at the start of the game:

The introduction admitted that it will take at least five trips to visit all of these locations, although how we’d be able to make multiple trips without losing the darkness or my magic is not yet explained. I assume we’ll cross that bridge when we get there. These 18 areas represent only a small portion of the overall explorable part of the game. Part of what will make this game fun is that we need to not only build maps of each region (although nearly all are small enough to not require mapping), but also how all of them connect together. There are multiple paths and multiple ways to reach certain destinations. The game is content-rich and I will eventually learn that some areas have completely different puzzles based on how we arrived and where we had been to earlier in our adventure. But at this point however, I was just starting out and unsure how the game would proceed.

I set off from Taveuni with the wind at my back and a world to explore. We cannot see where we will end up in our two flight options, but I cheat and use a save game to see that the Caroline Islands (split between Micronesia and Palau) are to the northwest and New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to the west. I choose to “go west, young man”. 

Makin' movies, makin' music, and fight-in' round the world!

My First Attempt Around the World

New Hebrides is a small location with only a single room. If we go in any direction, Santa automatically delivers all the presents and we are ready to go. It’s only then that we realize that Mount Lopevi has recently erupted and we parked on a cooling lava flow! I jump back in the sleigh, but the damage is done: the sleigh sank in the still-soft magma and encrusted the runners. Fortunately, we are still able to take off. From here, we cannot travel north to the Caroline Islands like I expected as Dudley reports we would run out of time. Instead, we’re stuck going west. Since I spent only three turns on the island, we can be sure that my delay didn’t cause us to not be able to go north; this reinforces that there will be a way to make a second (or more) pass later.

Northwest of the New Hebrides is Guam, one of our key locations! Unfortunately, the damage from the lava strikes when we land and the runners break off. It’s a simple puzzle as I am able to use the surfboard that we picked up in Taveuni to get the sleigh moving again. I deliver the presents and we are off! I was expecting the key locations to be special in some way, but Guam was just a single room and a simple object puzzle. We’ll see how the rest go.

We fly west again to New Guinea. Dudley volunteers to fix the sleigh while I make deliveries and I like the way the game keeps up a running storyline even as we presumably could have taken a different route. Unfortunately, we landed on a thatch roof and I immediately fall through when I step out of the sleigh. While I didn’t wake up the residents, I did break the clock that I’ve been carrying with me since the North Pole. I’ll no longer be able to check the time, but as each area has taken only a smattering of turns so far that should not be too much of a problem. I take another tumble when I leave the house because I neglected to notice that it was built on stilts. This Santa is clumsy! This area is small, but I discover a “Trader Joe’s” where I have the option to trade some of my items for two new ones: a rope and a pair of roller blades. Both sound useful so I select the least-likely-to-be-useful items out of my inventory (the calendar and the beeper) and trade for them. I make a saved game just in case I am wrong. Incidentally, this joke is a deeper cut than it appears: Trader Joes was an exclusively California-based grocery store chain in 1991. They would not begin their country-wide expansion until 1993. Here in Boston, Massachusetts, they are one of my favorite places to shop. I return to the sleigh and continue our adventure.

Modern Trader Joes do not sell roller skates or rope.

Flying west, we arrive in the Philippines. The game is helpful to tell us that local Christmas traditions are a mix of native roots and Spanish influence and that Santa delivers presents to hosts that display stockings and tinsel. Of course, all the “delivering” happens in text and we are left with a single house to explore where I find an old shoe and a pair of ruby slippers. As this is one of the key locations, my score is now 2 of 18! 

Another trip west and I land in Singapore. Once again, all the deliveries happen in the introductory text and we are left with a single 69-floor apartment tower to deliver presents to. This triggers a challenging sequence where we mistakenly get locked into the penthouse apartment with a little dog who is about to wake his owners. Failing to get out in time results in a “Game Over”, so we have to quickly explore the room and work out a plan of escape. The puzzle isn’t tremendously difficult as we can open a fold-out couch to discover a wristwatch and sheet. I take both and then do the only thing I can do: jump out the window.

You make a desperate leap through the open window into the dark night air.  You plummet earthward until the bed sheet billows out like a parachute and slows your descent.  Unfortunately, it starts to slip out of your mittens and just as it pulls free, you crash into something.  Looking around you see that you have landed in the sleigh.  "Nice skydiving, boss," says the elf.  "I thought I'd better fly the rig up to meet you.  Now, which direction shall we go?"

I choose west yet again and we land in the Nicobar Islands off the coast of India. 

A Syrian Christmas camel.

Unfortunately, there is some time wonkiness in Nicobar and we land in a location where four time zones meet. This triggers a scene where the sleigh begins to fade away. When I attempt to re-enter, magic mischief is triggered and I end up teleported to Syria… as a camel. In that country, Christmas presents are delivered by a Christmas camel (inspired by the story of the Three Wise Men) and so I’m trapped as a camel for the time being.

This makes exploring what little we can of the Syrian desert extra interesting. With no items or ability to carry anything, I discover that I have to “bite” objects to manipulate them. I pick up a bucket and rope that way and carry it to an oasis where I dip it into a well. Instead of pulling up water, I instead pull up… subway tokens. The “help” text says that there is a Syrian tradition where you can make a wish on a magic coin at midnight on Christmas and so I bite one of the coins and “make wish”. I am immediately transported to Greece and back to my regular Santa self, but Dudley and the sleigh are still nowhere to be seen. 

In Greece, I pocket the subway token in my mouth and find myself outside a home. A bowl of kollyva has been left outside on the stoop. Googling suggests that this is a custom to honor the dead. Inside the house, I find a vasilopita cake and a realization that Mike McCauley really enjoyed researching Greek customs and food. I grab both of the ethnic foodstuffs and investigate the house’s fireplace. The game plays a spooky little tune on the PC speaker as I discover a foul-smelling goblin. I jump out of the way as he begins peeing into the fire! Is this the strangest Christmas tradition? 

A Greek goblin, a kallikantzaroi.

The included help is no help at all and merely tells me to be careful about the goblins. I have to do real internet searches (not possible for a player in 1991!) to learn that these goblins, called kallikantzaroi, do not like the smell of old shoes. Fortunately, I picked up just such a shoe in Singapore and lob it at him:

You barely have time to grab the old shoe before the goblin comes tumbling down the chimney and somersaults into the room with you.  It rears back its misshapen head and starts spitting in your direction.  Unable to dodge the filthy onslaught, and no longer able to see through the wet air, you heave the shoe wildly in the direction of the demonic laughter. 

There is a blood-curdling scream and the room fills with a rush of water.  You flail frantically against the current until you bob like a cork to the surface. Looking around, you find yourself in a moonlight canal with the sounds of Italian carols mixed with "O Sole Mio" drifting through the night.  There is a dock to the South.

Through whatever mixture of magics that was, I am now in Venice. Exploring, I snatch up a key and enter another house. This one also has a fireplace but no goblin: it’s the fairy queen Le Befana! I speak with her to discover that she is actually my wife, Mrs. Clause, and that she does all of the deliveries in countries that expect a woman to deliver the presents. Santa disrobes to dry his clothes, but Mrs. Clause cheekily magics me, nearly naked, into a snowbank in the Swiss Alps. My clothes appear a moment later. Making our way to a village, I find Mrs. Clause again, this time dressed as Saint Lucy. It’s tradition in Switzerland for Santa to deliver presents with his wife. She is miffed that we lost the sleigh and gives me a pair of skis so that we can continue the trip overland. 

Mrs. Clause (Saint Lucy) is a looker. But what’s up with the bowl of eyes?

Santa isn’t very good at skiing and we quickly hit a tree and are rescued by a Saint Bernard, the dog not the actual saint. (No doubt in this universe, he’s one of my in-laws.) I quickly grab the flask of brandy that the dog is carrying before discovering that-- in this region-- tradition states that animals can talk on Christmas. More than that, this dog is an amateur yodeler and wants to give me a demonstration. I reluctantly agree:

The dog clears its throat, does a few quick scales and warm up exercises, then launches into the opening number from THE SOUND OF MUSIC.  He gets no further than, "The hills are alive ... " when there is a deep rumble and the entire hillside starts to crack and slide out from under you.  Once again you start tumbling head over heels down the slope.  From uphill, you hear the dog asking, "Would you like to hear some SWEENEY TODD?"  On and on you tumble until you come to rest at the base of the mountain miles from your canine Carusso.

In France, I take the form of Père Noël and deliver presents through the countryside. Along the way I find a liver pie that is so disgusting that we refuse to even pick it up, plus an ink eraser. Before long, I make it to the French coastline at Boulogne-sur-mer, a real town on the English channel. There’s a fishing boat sitting on the beach, but the waves are too much for such a tiny boat to be able to cross the channel. The hint here is that the Greeks have a technique to calm the surf; I do some Googling to discover that the kollyva porridge can be used for just such an activity! I throw it in the water and am able to row my way across to England. The game helpfully reminds me that Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of sailors, so really this isn’t so difficult. 

Once in London, the game informs me that the reason we have been unable to find Dudley is that our times are out of phase ever since Nicobar, but we can reset our magic clocks at the Greenwich Observatory and all will be right again. Unfortunately, the observatory is locked. I talk to a nearby policeman who informs me that we’re in the wrong place: the observatory moved to Sussex in the 1960s to escape the city lights. He recommends that I go there on a tram or bicycle, but the only bicycle there is his and he’ll arrest me if I steal it. Instead, I board the tram and pay with the token that I picked up in Syria. Once at the correct observatory, I reset my watch (the one that I stole in Singapore) to local time. That somehow causes Dudley and the sleigh to reappear. The elf informs me that he’s taken care of Africa while I was busy and it’s time to move on. Whew! That was a long sequence, if a bit linear. 

The town of Horta in the Azores.

Our only route out of the UK is to head southwest to the Azores. I suppose Ireland will just have no presents this year! Instead of landing in town, we land in “bleak, black hills”. One of the rings on the reindeer harnesses has broken and we have to search for a replacement. This leads to one of the most contrived puzzle sequences so far: we find a replacement ring hanging above a carousel, too high to reach. The carousel itself is in the middle of nowhere and seems vaguely surreal. Even climbing on one of the ponies doesn’t give us the altitude to grab the ring. Further searching reveals that there is a fuze box nearby with a burned out fuze. A hint tells us that we can use a coin to temporarily replace the fuse, but I do not have any coins to stick in there. It appears as if I am stuck.

After spending some time beating my head against the puzzle, I eventually give up. I’ll need to start over from the beginning and either locate a solution to this puzzle or find another path across the Atlantic. I am frustrated that I only made it around 50% of the circumference, but perhaps I should be relieved that I made it this far considering all of the little puzzles along the way. 

Zack and Ivy chase the world’s foremost supercrook. She's even better at getting into places than I am.

Exploring the World

With my failure in the Azores, I end my chronological trip around the world. From this point, I changed my strategy: instead of traveling in a loop, I would spend time mapping each location in each timezone, one by one. That is, after finishing up New Hebrides, I would simply restore my game and play the Caroline Islands instead. Once done, I load a different save game and look at all of the options in the next timezone over. This strategy would make telling a continuous narrative of the game impossible. Given the size of the game, I doubt you would want a play-by-play of the whole thing either. 

Although I did not realize it at the time, I likely did not need to approach it this way. The game is overall more fair than I gave it credit for. While you can get stuck if you do something wrong, the author ensured that all (or most) of the paths are possible. For example, I could have escaped the Azores easily by noticing that the vasilopita cake from Greece traditionally is baked with a coin hidden inside. That would have let me past the carousel and to cross the Atlantic Ocean. If I would have arrived in the Azores by taking a route that did not pass through Greece, there would have been another puzzle that rewarded me with a coin or an alternate solution. 

It took me many hours, but I eventually mapped out every region of the game and every connection between those regions. Along the way, I developed an appreciation for how much effort it must have taken to design all of the puzzles and to ensure that every route could work, if we only did all of the right things along the way. I admit that eventually I had to resort to looking at the source code to decrypt one or two particularly difficult puzzles, but otherwise I solved the game by myself with just the hint system and an occasional need to Google about a Christmas tradition.

I wish I could give justice to all of the remaining areas of the game. While the majority are simple areas like I described above, usually with a puzzle about a local tradition or an item to find, a few areas are much larger and more complicated. New York and Hollywood are two of my favorites, both of which involve some unexpected time travel. There is also one other “run” of locations like our trek from Syria where Dudley is lost and we have to find him again, that time stretching from Norway across northern Europe and into England. And finally, there are a few strange shortcuts along the way that jump you quite far ahead. In Shanghai, for example, you can proceed straight to Cape Verde in Africa.

In the end, here is my map. I represented each stop as only a single oval; locations could have as few as one and as many as a dozen rooms each:

My completed map of the world. Gold represents key areas.

Before I get into a long list of what was in each region, I want to call out what I feel are the three best sequences in the game. It’s a pity that I didn’t stumble on any of them in my first pass through, but all three are in North America and so well beyond my sticking point in the Azores. They are:

  • New York City -  We cannot get to the city directly, but if we pass through the “Bermuda Triangle” in our trip we will be sucked into a timewarp to 1863 at the offices of Thomas Nast. Nast was the cartoonist that popularized the modern depiction of Santa Claus and we need to inspire him (by handing him a child’s crayon drawing of Santa that we picked up) to create the character we know and love. Along the way, this little detour also gets us a glimpse of Superman and that’s not bad either. This is by far my favorite sequence of the game as it shows a great love for the source material and its history.
  • Hollywood - Shortly after arriving in Hollywood, we stumble onto a movie set and are drafted to play a role in a low-budget film. But the magic of Christmas and Movie Magic don’t mix and we quickly find ourselves exploring Martian canals before finding a way to be transported-- literally-- into an episode of Star Trek. It doesn’t end there as we end up transporting ourselves and a load of tribbles off the ship to clean up an oil spill in Alaska. None of it makes any sense, but it’s a great homage. 
  • Kansas - As you must expect by now, heading to Kansas causes Santa to be picked up by a twister and deposited in Oz. There, we have to answer a riddle about the Pythagorean Theorem (correcting an error in the Oz script) before meeting with the titular Wizard and returning to Earth, either by using the ruby slippers we found in Singapore or by hot air balloon. 

Is this really so hard?

The rest of the areas are also fun. He is a smattering of my experiences as I explored the world in full: 

  • In Tasmania, we land in a tree and are attacked by a cartoon-style “Tasmanian Devil”. This was at the height of the Taz craze and McCauley was likely paying homage to it. 
  • In Russia, we re-enact two Christmas traditions: we first have a chicken tell our fortune and then have to solve a puzzle by putting three magical horses on a sleigh in the correct order.
  • In Queensland, we fight off a plague of frogs. This is likely a reference to the Cane Toad problem where a non-native species has been invading the ecosystem. Notably, this was several years before The Simpsons made a very similar parody.   
  • In Tokyo, we battle against Godzilla and either defeat it with a coconut or the help of a Super Llama. Depending on how we win, we get rocketed to California or Peru.
  • In Shanghai, we are drugged (“shanghaied”) by an old man during a tea ceremony and find ourselves and the sleigh trapped on a boat. We have to bribe one of the guards and end up sinking the ship to escape, but somehow we end up in Cape Verde, Africa. 
  • In Tibet, we have an encounter with a guru and a yeti. We barely escape the yeti with our lives. Dudley panics and screams “Lightspeed to Endor!” (some reference to the Yeti looking like a Wampa?) and the reindeer misinterpret that as a command to go to Endeyír Island, Norway “across from the Harijstan Fjord.” McCauley claims in the text that this is a real place, but Google Maps disagrees. 
  • In Norway, we start another sequence without Dudley where we work our way across northern Europe. This is most worth it due to a puzzle where we find a cat that sings “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and then we use it to distract the policeman in London so we can steal his bicycle. I had no idea that one of US’s unofficial national anthems was actually new lyrics on “God Save the Queen”. 
  • In Venezuela, we have to contend with a group of Christmas night roller skaters. Fortunately, we can make it through if we bought the skates at Trader Joe’s. 
  • In Peru, we explore Incan ruins. Inexplicably, we do this by following a map written in crayon by a kid in Brazil; I honestly don’t claim to understand that part. Somehow this leads us to discover the winter home of the Easter Bunny and being given a pizza. An alternate solution to this puzzle involves summoning the Wonder Llama to lead us out and I don’t understand that one any better. 
  • In Colombia, we have to shoot down fire balloons. This involves buying a squirt gun using a coupon in the back of a comic book. This is one of the weaker puzzles and I can only assume is based on a local tradition. 

The description matches a fire lantern festival, but those are southeast Asian rather than Colombian. 

  • In the Canadian Rockies, we have an extended homage to Rocky and Bullwinkle. I’m sure it is very funny.
  • In the Galapagos Islands, the reindeer go on a union-mandated break and I have to convince a bunch of turtles to pull the sleigh instead. If we picked up pizza in Peru, they will (of course) be ninja turtles. 
  • In Guatemala, we have an anti-puzzle. We are given some challenging but not impossible math or trivia questions. If we get them correct, we win an all-expense paid trip… which causes us to abandon Christmas and we lose the game. The only way to pass is by providing an incorrect answer.
  • In Mexico, we reenact what seems to be a scene from a spy movie by paragliding behind an unmanned speed boat. I have no idea why we do this. 
  • In Hawaii, we stumble on a (middle of the night?) convention of the Hollow Earth Society. We can collect some of their “hot air” to dry out our sleigh and continue on. 
  • On Christmas Island, we defuse a bomb that turns out to be a Timex commercial. I vaguely remember these from when I was a kid. 

No matter how we go, we have a two-part finale that will differ somewhat depending on what paths we took to make it here. 

  • First, we have to pass through Danger Island and out-con a swindler that is impounding the sleigh. This seems to be a homage to a 1968 TV show, but we can defeat him in several ways depending on what objects we found along the way. (For example, we can use x-ray glasses to beat him at a shell game, an eraser to un-mark his marked cards, or even just charm him using a picture of Ghengis Khan. He’s a “con artist”... get it?) 
  • Once we escape, we end up in Antarctica and have to find a way to the other side of the world. This could be done by flying through the center of the Earth (proving the “Hollow Earth” conventioneers correct), using a teleporter, or by finding the source code to the game and changing it to create an exit from the South Pole directly to the North Pole. It’s clever and the multiple solutions ensure that every time you make it to the end we have to do something different. 

McCauley likes obscure pop culture references almost as much as I do. 

Regardless of how we get back to the North Pole, we can use our Christmas magic to roll back time and do the whole mess again:

You are a sneaky one.  You pull up the master CLAUSE.DAT file, edit ROOM 134 to have an exit to the NORTH connecting directly to ROOM 2, then you quickly recompile the edited version and RUN it.  In milliseconds you are standing at the North Pole.  (I just hope you sent in your $10 registration before you pulled that stunt.)

Of course, once there, being the saint that you are, you cannot stand the thought of the kids in those 15 countries that you missed not getting their presents.  With a little help from your emergency supply of Christmas magic that Mrs. Clause keeps tucked away in her pantry, you manage to turn the clock back a day and set out once again to catch the places you missed.  Ho Ho Ho!

We do not get to keep any of our collected items in the next pass and everything seems exactly the same. Presumably, we should be choosing a different route to find the rest of the locations that we missed.

In my case, this is when I planned my Victory Route. Looking over the map, I am able to match McCauley’s five-round win. In fact, I’m fairly certain there is no way to do better but would be happy to be wrong. Here are my final choices:

  1. Russia -> Tibet -> New York -> Canada
  2. Tasmania -> Shanghai -> Venezuela -> Haiti
  3. Queensland -> Philippines -> Singapore -> Chile -> Colombia
  4. Guam -> Tokyo
  5. W. Australia -> Christmas Island -> Peru

And with all of that, hours and hours of Christmas joy and madness, we made it!

Time Played: 15 hr 15 min

A slightly underwhelming ending scene.

But it keeps going…

And going…

And ends, finally, when the developer needs to pee.

Final Rating

We made it to the end of another find Christmas game! I hope you enjoyed taking this journey with me. The game is long and I certainly cannot do right by McCauley’s humor in these brief snippets, but I hope at least that I have imparted just a bit of the flavor. If you feel a bit exhausted getting here (I feel a bit exhausted writing this far!), know that you are not alone:

Your stop on Cape Verde is surprisingly uneventful.  In fact, you might even suspect that the programmer was losing his grip.  Well, you just try coming up with a couple hundred witty scenes in one game and see if you don't shine one on once in a while yourself.  Anyway, as I was saying.  Nothing happens.  So there.  Can we get on with the game now, Mr. (or Ms.) purist?

That said, this game was far from perfect. Other than being a bit too long, it features numerous parser bugs thanks to imperfections in AGT, plus a handful of other issues. It’s clear a lot of love was poured into this game. 

As every game may be someone’s first here at “The Adventure Gamer”, let me remind you that we are using our suspiciously similar EGGNOG rating system, rather than our usual PISSED one. These ratings are based on an idealized graphical adventure of the mid-1990s and so text adventures never score very high. That does not mean that these are not good games, only that they are not as universally accessible to the Monkey Island crowd. 

Enigmas and Solution-Findability - Individually, none of the puzzles in the game are spectacular. Many of them are clever, but few are more than just delivering item A to location B and using it the correct way. The time limit, very important in the early game, becomes pointless once we get through the prologue. There are few cases where I had to do outside research to solve one of the puzzles, but even that was done sparingly and there may have been more clues in the game itself that I did not find. I did however love the metagame of traveling around the world and trying to discover the most efficient paths. I might be a bit generous here, but there is something to be said for rapid-fire fun puzzles instead of large Infocom-style set pieces. My score: 5

ASCII art was used sparingly, but it is in there.

Game UI and Items - The game interface is good for a text adventure and nearly on par with early Infocom, but there are too many instances where it cannot guess a synonym or acts on an item we do not expect. My score: 3

Gameworld and Story - So much effort was put into crafting a universe and story for this game and I appreciate McCauley’s urge to make a Grand Unified Christmas Theorem. While there was little story to advance, little moments like meeting Thomas Nast, or the recurring elements around misplaced sleighs, the volcano damage, and other aspects all made it feel like the game was keeping track and telling an overarching story rather than just plopping us down in discrete areas. The game is let down by a weak opening act, but once you get past that, the story is a lot of fun. My score: 6

Noises and Pretty Pixels - This is a text adventure, but it does have a smattering of ASCII art graphics and PC-speaker songs and sound effects that at least ensures one point. My score: 1

Overworld and Environs - McCauley somehow manages to provide a consistent authorial tone throughout a novel’s worth of game text, most of which is good. The game is the embodiment of “Christmas atmosphere” and I could not help but smile though so many of our little adventures. My score: 4

Gregariousness and Thespianism - Not only does McCauley manage to interject a consistent and funny narrator, he also paints our two major NPCs (Dudley and Mrs. Clause) in an interesting way. Dudley is a great character with quirks and more than a bit of attitude. Mrs. Clause is less well-developed, but the cheeky way in which she blasted Santa nearly nude into the Swiss Alps wins points for me. My score: 5

Let’s add those up: (5+3+6+1+4+5)/.6 = 40 points! 

This has been a rough fall and Christmas for me, but this game was just what I needed. The game is already too long, but there are alternate routes and more puzzles that I didn’t see even with my intensive exploration. I’d give it two bonus points if I could, but for now let’s just add one more. 

At 41 points, Sanity Clause is our highest rated Christmas adventure! Both it and Humbug built on a similar sense of whimsy, but only Sanity Clause truly embraced the holiday. It more than deserves the score that it has received. Is it as good as some of the Infocom adventures? Absolutely yes. Infocom could have tightened the game and made it better, but even what we have is a fun romp that I am glad to have experienced.

I hope you enjoyed our Christmas post. If you are looking for even more Christmas-gaming fun, please check out our previous holiday specials:

With that, I will force myself to play some more Bureaucracy. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! See you in 2021!


  1. Perhaps it will be a baum for your soul as well.

    ... was this an intentional pun on "Tannenbaum" or did you mean balm?

    I made a small donation to the Conejo Players Theater

    If this Conejo is the place just south of Frenso, aiii. What a dismal-looking patch of earth.

    Unlike in every depiction I’ve seen, there is a hole in the ground next to the pole. I have no idea where it leads and the parser seems to take “hole” as a synonym for “pole” so when I try to climb down, I actually climb up the pole.

    The latter is rather odd, but having read through to the end of the post, I wonder if the hole is the exit from the South Pole?

    That reveals a light source to the south

    Well, it would - if you're actually right on the north geographic pole, every direction is south! (Cf. the south pole of Mars in Leather Goddesses of Phobos.)

    I neglected to “bank” the fire before I left. I don’t even know what that means!

    It means to cover it with ashes so that it burns slowly, rather than putting it out entirely. It will continue to give off heat in your absence or while you sleep (rather than, you know, freezing your Christmas baubles off) and is easier to build back up later vs. starting from scratch.

    Incidentally, this joke is a deeper cut than it appears: Trader Joes was an exclusively California-based grocery store chain in 1991.

    Hmm, are you sure this is meant to be a reference to that, and not just the general trope of Trader Whoever's on a tropical island? I mean, you are trading objects, not food... unless there's some other detail you didn't include in the post that makes it certain?

    ("Fun" fact: the namesake Joe of the chain died this past February.)

    I have to do real internet searches (not possible for a player in 1991!)

    Prodigy? CompuServe? Asking on Usenet or BBSes for that matter? I daresay people who were into shareware interactive fiction in 1991 were more likely than average to have access to what online resources there were.

    This one also has a fireplace but no goblin: it’s the fairy queen Le Befana!

    "Fairy queen"? I always heard her described as a witch...

    Mrs. Clause (Saint Lucy) is a looker. But what’s up with the bowl of eyes?

    According to the stories, she was either tortured by having her eyes gouged out before she was executed, or in some versions she took her own eyes out. So those are her supposed to be her own eyes and she's the patron saint of eye illnesses. (Well, you asked...)

    I kinda like the "strike the set" bit at the end. Community theater again, natch.

    1. I did mean "balm", but it's amazing what we don't catch in editing.

      While there is a Conejo near Fresno, the theater company (and the author of the game) are in northwest Los Angeles near Simi Valley.

      The Trader Joe's in the game certainly *seems* like a store, but you are right that they could be making a more generalized joke. That said, Trader Joes was FOUNDED (in 1967) less than an hour from where Mr. McCauley lived and there's one of the oldest Trader Joe's stores a 10-minute drive from where he lived (or at least had the shareware fees sent to) in 1991.

      And finally the "fairy queen" nit for La Befana was the game's term, not mine. I am not familiar with the legend.

      Merry Christmas!

    2. Mm, you may be right about the nod to the grocery store then.

      (And I wrote "Frenso" and "are her supposed to be her", so, hey.)

    3. My posts are sometimes littered with typos. Thank you for pointing them out and helping me to correct them. I do appreciate it!

  2. This looks interesting! Where you can find a copy these days?

    BTW, the cartoonist in question is actually Thomas Nast, who also first used the elephant as a symbol of the Republican Party - is the spelling "Nash" what the game uses?

    1. The link is in the post, but you can Google for it easily enough as long as you include "AGT".

      And you are correct and I have fixed the typo. Sorry about that.

  3. Son of Stagefright was actually Mike's second game iirc, because it was a sequel to the Coleco Adam game Stagefright

    1. I am embarrassed and you are correct. "Son of Stagefright" even bills itself as a sequel and I spent some time searching for an original, but searches always turned up the new game. I just assumed that he was being cheeky. This is one of the things that I had planned to ask McCauley about.

      As this error and the several typos that I have fixed no doubt attest, this post could have used a bit more time. I will make a correction notice and try to add the original Stagefright to Mobygames as penance.

    2. Great job Joe, it's amazing the amount of work that the author of this game put into it (and you in this article). Can you describe the scene or puzzle set in my home country, Argentina? I notice in your map that it seems to be in the same room that Río de Janeiro, which is a brazilian city. It's a very common mistake made by Hollywood in movies and TV series, which is kind of annoying...

    3. Leo, I apologize. I (of course!) know that Rio de Janerio is in Brazil and have no idea how I put that wrong on my map, especially because it's not wrong in the game. Just another gaffe from moving too quickly on this, I am sorry.

      Unfortunately, Argentina does not appear in the game. I just checked the source code and it's not even a place that I missed. Sorry to disappoint. :/

    4. No problem Joe, I wasn't meaning that you think that Río is in my country, but that it was a mistake by the game's author (although that would be weird, given that it shows that he made a lot of research for the game, but hey, if Hollywood writers a lot of times err on that...)

  4. Not sure where this comment will show up in the list, but Hi, this is Mike McCauley. I've loved reading the review, the pieced-together bio, and the follow-up comments. Way back in the dark ages, when I put this game together, I was just having fun playing with all the holiday trivia I could scrounge up, as well as playing with my quirky sense of humor. I had no illusions of producing a polished literary masterpiece. Saying that I'm the ADD poster boy might explain a lot of the non-sequitur and out-of-left-field humor. Hole for Pole? who knows, might have been a programming error, or possibly I meant it a a clue for the later trip through the earth from the South Pole back to the North Pole. Trader Joes -- could be, I don't remember if I based it on the store chain. Missing clues? Could be. My ADD view of clues might not match up with linear thinking at all times. Dudley -- just a funny sounding name. More likely triggered by Dudley Do-Right than Dudley Moore. By the way, I grew up in Fresno. I had completely forgotten about Conejo at the intersection of Conejo and Peach. The Conejo Players Theatre is in Thousand Oaks, CA, in the Conejo (Spanish for Rabbit) Valley. Glad people are still having some fun with the games I put together 30 years ago.

  5. Is the ring with the carousel supposed to be a reference to the brass rings I have never actually seen but hear were a thing for carousels back in the day?

  6. Some more about La Befana.

    BTW, this game is listed twice in the "Index of Games Played By Year".