Written by Joe Pranevich
Merry Christmas! I have a distinct memory as a kid of sitting at my grandparents’ home a few nights before Christmas and coloring in a Christmas-themed coloring book. It wasn’t a special book or a Christmas tradition, just a happy memory at their kitchen table with a box of crayons. Thirty-nine years ago this month, a different pair of young boys sat at their kitchen table in their small town of Tenterden in Kent, England. They, too, were coloring: a stack of cassette tape inserts each with a picture of Santa and a goblin, drawn by their father. The family business was computer games and this Christmas marked the end of their first full year as game developers. I get such a warm feeling just imagining that family coming together with felt-tipped markers to put the finishing touches on something they made together.
The story of Santa and the Goblins, indeed the entire history of Intrigue Software, comes down to one thing: family, and especially the relationship between a father and son. Like all good Christmas stories, it has a happy ending, but the path to get to that ending was not a smooth one. Feelings were hurt, relationships were shattered, and art was born from adversity. Unless you were buying TI99 software from a mail-order catalog in 1983, this is not likely a game that you have played before, but it’s a great story and I am delighted for the chance to share it with you.
You’ve heard of Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and Vixen… but did you know Santa was a skilled hand at vanquishing goblins? Read on for more.
“Do It For Her” – Homer Simpson
Our story begins with Dennis Webb, a consultant working on the Dungeness B Nuclear Power station in Kent, England. The story of Dungeness B would make an interesting book in its own right, costing four times the original estimate and operating thirteen years after the planned activation date. By 1982 however, the worst of the construction challenges were behind them and the plant was set to be activated the following April. With the plant nearing operation, Webb’s lucrative engineering work dried up and he was “made redundant”, a typically British way of saying laid off. He found himself out of work and with plenty of time to consider his options.
This is where his son, Martin, comes in. Even as a young teen, Martin was a whizkid. Bored at school, but overloaded with potential, a plan was hatched for the father and son pair to try their hands at writing computer games. With Dennis’s engineering background and Martin’s talent for programming, they started initially on the Sinclair XZ81 before graduating to the TI99/4A as their platform of choice. Martin set himself to learning TI BASIC while Dennis began drawing up the plans for Adventuremania, their first computer game. He was inspired by the Sinclair's Pimania, an early “scavenger hunt” text adventure game whose clues would lead the player to a real-life treasure. (That game was part of the computer game zeitgeist in the UK at the time as players failed to find the real-life treasure. It was finally located in July 1985.) While Adventuremania would not include any real-life treasures, he placed the game within the real-world environments of London. Also unlike Pimania and many contemporary games, Dennis sought to build a game without a definitive ending; a key facet of his game design spirit was that it should not be like a jigsaw puzzle where you toss it away when done, but rather something you can come back to to tease out more secrets over time. Whether he succeeded in this or not, I cannot say.
Intrigue Software’s first “game to remember”.
The development of Adventuremania stretched into 1983. The pair were new at game design and were learning as they went. Martin relates a story where development of the game was done haphazardly and without backup tapes: they simply left the computer on in their converted garage 24/7 while they worked on the BASIC code. A freak power outage (caused by the young Martin and an errant shovel) destroyed weeks of work. The accident encouraged Dennis to be more involved in the development process and to take more care with their work. As a young company, they could not afford such accidents.
By this point in our story, adventure games were rare but not completely unknown on the TI99. Scott Adams’s Adventure International (a friend of our blog) had ported his Adventureland series to the TI starting in 1981. Even so, the TI was a difficult and constrained platform for those early adventure games. To even come close to working, his games were released as a two-pack: a cartridge containing an adventure game interpreter (written in assembly) and cassettes containing the game databases. Unlike on some platforms, Adventureland and its sequels were available text-only on the TI: there just wasn’t enough space for the graphics. Even this level of sophistication was beyond what the father and son pair could work out of their garage, so their early games were limited to what could fit in BASIC on a cassette tape. The Webbs worked around this limitation by reducing the amount of text, but so doing also found that they could squeeze in basic graphics beyond what Adams had produced for his TI port. Corners would have to be cut (the text parser is particularly limited), but Dennis and Martin demonstrated intense creativity to even make text adventures possible in 16K of BASIC.
An early Intrigue Software ad from November 1983 in Personal Computer magazine.
During this formative period, the Webbs developed the pattern that they would use for the next several years: father Dennis ran the business and sold his games via mail-order, plus provided many of the illustrations; son Martin labored over the coding. The pair together collaborated on the game designs and testing. It was a tough business. Dennis initially also did all of the tape duplication, but as their business matured and sales increased, they were able to work with outside companies to keep the packages flying off the shelves.
Adventuremania was released in 1983 and sold around 5,000 copies. This was small compared to some of the larger publishing houses, but fantastic for a father and son shop in the middle of Kent. Dennis reports that it won “Game of the Year” in one of the UK computer magazines, but I have been unable to locate which one. Regardless, it was a success and netted (adjusted for inflation) more than $100,000 in sales in just a few months. This was enough to convince them that they could be successful making games and they began plotting their next moves. Building a sequel to Adventuremania was the obvious choice and work on that title began quickly, but before getting there they had time for one detour: a holiday-themed game that would become their second release, Santa and the Goblins.
Dennis describes the game as being initially his idea: he sketched out the floorplan of the house and major beats, plus sketched the characters on graph paper. Unlike Adventuremania, they were working to a deadline (Christmas!) but were able to pull it out in time and sales began no later than that November. We’ll be looking at this game shortly, but I want to reiterate how much this was a family affair: Martin relates how he and his brother would stay up all night coloring the cases for sale. Dennis separately assures me that later games were professionally illustrated, but the homespun aspect of this title is a part of its charm.
Later releases use a cover with less charm and less child labor.
Mania, the sequel to Adventuremania, was released in late 1983 or early 1984. It transitioned the story from the streets of London to the “Corridors of Time”. Intrigue was learning its gameplay lessons from the previous two releases and helpfully included a verb list in the manual to facilitate problem solving. One catalog at the time suggested that this was the second game in a trilogy (and confusingly called the third game, “Corridors of Time”), but this may have been a misunderstanding, perhaps equating Santa with the second game in the series. For our part, this is the end of Intrigue Software’s experiments with adventure gaming. One further release, 1985’s Tomb of Kuslak for the Amstrad CPC, appears to be a mixed text adventure/action game. That is far from the end of Intrigue Software’s story however.
By 1984, Martin’s programming interests transitioned from adventure gaming to graphical games and we only have Margaret Thatcher to blame. In that year, the UK launched the “Microelectronics Education Programme”, an initiative to encourage schools to bring computer science into British public education. That program included funding for schools to buy computers and hire teachers with computer science backgrounds, as well as expanding computer science at both the O and A-Levels. Martin’s headmaster (in US parlance, a principal) was aware of his evening career and encouraged him to enter his O-Levels early. He developed his first graphical game, Lionel and the Ladders in TI Extended BASIC as his course project. This not only allowed Martin to widen his skills, but post-examination also enabled him to leave school and pursue his computing career full time despite his age.
During this period, Intrigue Software reached its highest point as a development and publishing house, publishing at least seven games (that I have been able to find) in 1984, as well as bringing on a second developer (David J. Smith) for some of the games. Productivity was up and Martin was more-free to work on coding, but they understood that they were reaching the limits of BASIC programming on the increasingly “old” (and recently discontinued) TI99 platform. Martin took some time off to learn assembly programming, a much more difficult transition than the pair had initially expected. Fewer and fewer games were released in 1985 and 1986. Continued innovation (and sales) could only come by finding ways to wring every last drop of performance out of their target systems.
A screenshot of Lionel and the Ladders.
Despite their successes, this was a very stressful time for the Webbs. Martin dreamed of applying his talents to solving his family’s money challenges, while Dennis was in the unenviable (and no doubt heart-wrenching) position of relying on his young progeny for much of the family’s income. They were also fighting against time: the TI99 market was shrinking and a shift (starting in 1985) to also develop for the Amstrad CPC did not help much. Dennis even experimented with changing the company’s name, if they were too associated with TI99 gaming. Financial pressures mounted and the company would increasingly take on debt between games, then pay it back based on sales. By 1987, Intrigue was spinning around the edge of solvency and the pair decided, with some reluctance, to look for other types of computing projects. Instead of producing games solely for Intrigue, they looked to sell games to larger publishing houses. The first of these, a martial arts game entitled Karate Chop, was sold to Melbourne House. Max Torque, a motocross racing game, was sold to Bubble Bus Software. The pair, and especially Martin, was building a reputation among the publishing elite for tight games that squeezed every last drop of performance out of household computers. At 17, Martin embarked on the game that, perhaps more than any others, came to define his “fame” as a game developer: OutRun.
OutRun was a computer racing simulator, developed by Yu Suzuki for a dual-core M68000 Sega arcade platform. Arcade games, then and now, could have far more horsepower than home systems and Sega was pioneering sprite scaling technology that would allow for more realistic 3D-style graphics. Upon release in 1986, OutRun became one of the most popular racing games of all time, shattering records and expectations for how frenetic and fun computer racing could be. Add to that fully immersive arcade “cabinets” with steering wheels and gas pedals, and quarters just flew into these systems at arcades around the world. In 1987, Sega contracted with several companies to produce home console ports of the game to continue to grow sales. US Gold picked up the rights to the Commodore 64 version and needed to find a developer innovative enough– and possibly even crazy enough– to try to cram a game that ran on a dual-CPU system with 12.5 mhz per core into a tiny 6502 running at less than 1 mhz. It couldn’t be done. At least, it couldn’t be done by anyone who hadn’t spent the last five years hacking performance out of outdated equipment. Martin Webb and his father put themselves out there to agree to the project, even mortgaging their house to cover the expenses. To make a long story short, the tricks that Martin had learned developing Max Torque gave him just enough of a head start to let him barely complete the game in 7 months, despite scope creep and ever-increasing expectations by the distributor and their partners at Sega.
Original arcade OutRun.
OutRun for the C64, coded by Martin. (Animation borrowed lovingly from the C64 Wiki.)
Martin wasn’t even given access to the original game assets! Instead, he and his father had to redraw graphics based on video recordings of an actual arcade cabinet. To make a long story short (we are here to talk about adventure games, after all!), Martin pulled it off. The game was a smash success, selling more than 250,000 copies in less than a month. It continued to sell for years, generating a steady stream of royalty checks for Martin and his father well into the 1990s.
Unfortunately, this is where things take a turn. Martin was no longer a kid and the years of pressure on their family had come to a head. Since this is a Christmas story, we’ll leave those private family matters aside, but the father-son team was no more. The family divorced and Martin left game development for good, before eventually moving to Brazil. His non-game career has proceeded well and he presently is the CEO of TudoDesk, a platform-as-a-service company for manufacturing management. He and his father eventually reconciled after many years apart and now look upon their time as video game developers with some painful nostalgia. Martin’s son, Thomas Webb (professionally known as “Tom London”), has carried on his family’s legacy by quite literally being a computer magician, appearing on America’s Got Talent and elsewhere. They did amazing, difficult things and came out the other side (eventually) happy and well-adjusted. That’s a Christmas miracle if I’ve ever heard one.
Let’s play this game!
A minimalist title screen.
Before we start, Santa and the Goblins includes a miniature manual, written on the interior of the cassette cover. It’s not a ton of text, but it accomplishes what it needs to do. Our story:
You play the role of S.C., delivering the last of your gifts in a large stately home. A grabble of wicked gready Goblins have moved in. The game has lots of magical things to keep you baffled for a long time. You will be amazed by the way the characters talk back to you in response to your questions as they move around in the game of their own accord…
This Fantasy Adventure requires great skill if you are going to be successful, while the novice will have immense fun travelling in part of the adventure trying to control the events…
The screen presents you with a brilliant graphical display of your location in 3D and each character when present…
I’m not going to harp on the spelling issues much, but having read their ad copy and a few of their game manuals, I admit that they could have used a proofreader. Even so, I like the scenario: We are Santa Clause and have one more house to deliver presents to, but some nasty goblins are in the way. I’m a little concerned about the game’s self-hype, especially for something delivered in 16K in 1983, but we’ll see how “amazed” we are once we play.
The manual also describes some interface quirks that I didn’t expect. Like most text adventures of the era, commands have to be entered as two words, verb then noun. Unlike other games however, we are to use the first three letters of each word and do not put a space between. To “take mince”, for example, we type “takmin”. This is unexpected, but easy enough to deal with and no doubt a consequence of the very tight memory limitations. There is an exception with the verb “say” where we do that, then the person’s name, then what we want to say. I’m sure I’ll understand better how this works as I play.
|And we’re off! Almost!|
Playing The Game
Before I begin, I must confess that even getting started with this game took hours of effort. That is not Intrigue Software’s fault, but this game taxes the original TI99/4A systems to their breaking point. It requires literally every last byte of RAM possible and as vanilla a 1983 configuration as possible. We cannot attach a disk drive or one of the RAM expansion cards (the game doesn’t support those anyway); it runs only when you have the correct original firmware with only a cassette drive attached. This got me in trouble with several emulators. I went through a long period where I had the game nearly working: I could load and move around, but any command that used more than four characters would result in a crash. I resolved initially to just map as much as I could and give the game a half-writeup, but my own stubbornness won out. I could not possibly let you down on Christmas! Thanks to the JS99 in-browser emulator and some magic commands provided by the emulator author (“CALL FILES(0)” before loading the cassette), I was able to get it working for the write-up. As you will see, this won’t be the only time I have to turn to TI enthusiasts for help on this game.
We start the game in the “Hall”, a perfectly square room with doors apparently to the west and south. We know that “Elvin” is in the servants’ room, but what that means isn’t clear. Is “Elvin” a funny misspelling of Elf? Is it someone’s name? The only way for sure would be to find the servants’ room. Beyond that, I can see a list of “pies” on the screen with six pie-shaped icons below the window, plus one more apparently on the floor in the room. I have no idea what those are for either. Finally, there is a red character in the room with me. Is he an Elf? On the bright side, the manual did not lie: the room looks vaguely 3D! Let’s explore.
The room colors and doors change! But not much else.
I head south and discover the “Cloak Room”. The colors of the walls change, but most everything else stays the same. This room has exits to the north and south, but also a new image: a “fat goblin” standing by the northern door. I don’t see anything obvious to do with him, so I continue exploring south. On the way out, he steals one of my pies! I still have five more so no need to worry yet.
This is the point where I either needed to find a compatible emulator or call it quits. As “eat” by itself didn’t work, and I had no way to type “eatpie” without the game crashing, it seemed to be the end. Fortunately, after more time than I care to admit, I managed to get it working under JS99. (This was after trying multiple builds of MAME on both Mac and Linux, different firmwares, and several other options, all the while being told by people on message boards that it works just fine for them. Very frustrating!) Everything after this point is a clean run.
Once I have the game working and (presumably) solvable, I take better stock of the situation:
- My starting inventory consists of the pies (which are conveniently displayed on the screen), but also two gifts: a “boy’s gift” and a “girl’s gift”. Presumably they are the presents I need to deliver. We have to type “inv” to see those.
- Finding additional pies around the house isn’t too difficult, but there are also plenty of goblins who steal them. It can be difficult to keep our energy up.
- The goblins don’t appear dangerous on their own. Other than stealing an item (usually a pie, but sometimes the kids’ gifts), they don’t hurt us in any way. I assume that losing the gifts is a serious matter and I’d either need to restart or hope they have a treasure hoard someplace.
- The home has a few one-way doors. Most of the place is a simple 4x4 grid, but every now and then we find a path that goes one way without a corresponding door on the other side.
- In a few rooms, there is a small “door” to the left of the door on the north wall. The graphics are not quite good enough for me to make out. I initially thought that they were stairs, but “UP, “DOW”, “U”, or “D” do not work.
- Elvin moves around the house constantly, at least every time we move if not more often. Even as we build a layout of the house, catching up to him is almost more luck than science.
Eventually, I find Elvin!
Elvin, in blue, reveals how short I am. Am I really Santa Claus? The manual just says “S.C.”
Unfortunately, I have no idea what to do with him. I had imagined or expected that something would happen when we finally tracked him down, considering the difficulty in doing so: you have to have mapped much of the house and are keeping track of where he goes each turn to head him off. He doesn’t respond to any obvious “say” commands. I have no idea what to do. Despite having built a decent map of maybe 75% of the house, I’m stuck.
At this point, start cheating. I know! But Christmas is (literally) coming and I need some help.
It’s been a long time since I wrote in old-style BASIC.
I’m going to make myself feel slightly better by thinking that I’m at least not doing anything that someone in 1983 couldn’t do. Santa and the Goblins was distributed as a TI-BASIC program and so all someone would need to do to see the source is type “LIST” on the command-line. Even for someone familiar with BASIC (and having spent many hours on a few flavors of BASIC as a young person), this code is nearly inscrutable with lots (and lots) of DATA/READ blocks happening in spaghetti locations. It’s a miracle that the code runs at all, but of course Martin had to be this crazy because the software needed every last byte even to run. Reading this feels like I’m trying to take a course on optimizing BASIC programs while standing on my head.
A few things pop out quickly. The game knows 15 three-character verbs:
27100 DATA say,loo,sea,eat,inv,cli,rea
27200 DATA tak,dro,rub,str,fil,wav,gra,giv
Of those, a few are obvious: “EAT”, “SAY”, “LOOk”, “TAKe”, and “INVentory” are clear enough, as is “DROp” even though I haven’t needed to use it yet. I had briefly been confused that the three-letter verb for picking something up was “TAKe” rather than “GET”, but it was not much of an obstacle. That leaves a few more that seem easy to guess at: “SEArch”, “CLImb”, “REAd”, “RUB”, “WAVe”, and “GIVe”. Three are less easy: “FIL”, “STR”, and “GRA”. I could probably guess “FILL” and “GRAb” (or “GRAsp?”), but I have no idea what “STR” could be.
While digging, I also learn two more things:
- There are three special objects in the game (“ELV”, “GOB”, and “DRA”) that are used for something. We can guess that “ELV” is Elvin and “GOB” is Goblin, but we haven’t encountered a “DRA” creature yet. My guesses are “Dragon”, “Drake”, or “Dracula”. None of them seem Christmassy, and the latter may just be because I still have Dracula Unleashed on the brain.
- The game consists of 24 rooms. I’ve mapped a 4x4 grid, but that implies there are two more rows of rooms that we can access somehow.
My map so far. Where are the last eight rooms hiding? (We start the game in the northeastern hall.)
Fortunately, this bit of cheating gets me two fundamental new things to try:
- I can use “CLImb” in the rooms that have the funny door-thing to the north. I guess they are stairs? Note that climbing doesn’t differentiate between “up” and “down”, but climbing takes you to another part of the house rather than a separate level. I notated all of the places with these doors as a “?” on my map. When you add these (secret?) passages, the house feels more maze-like. Curiously, the goblins don’t steal anything from us if we exit that way.
- I also discover that we need to “SEArch” each room. While we see the pies and goblins as soon as we enter, searching is required to see if we find anything else of value. Working my way back through the house, climbing every stairway and searching every room takes some time.
Through this process, I collect numerous items hidden all over the house: a magic lamp, lamp oil, a wand, goblin stoppers (a pun on “gobstopper”), matches, and a mysterious map. Reading the map is impossible for now as it is written in a language we do not know. We can “fill” the lamp with oil, but I can find no way to light it with the match. If we are holding the lamp, a goblin will blow it out sometimes instead of stealing a pie, so it must be important to keep it lit. We now also have two new ways to deal with the goblins: they will stop bothering us temporarily if we hand out a goblin stopper, plus we can make them disappear if we wave the wand at them. These two options make exploring easier since we can now easily keep the goblins at bay without wasting our few remaining pies. I’m concerned that both approaches have limited charges, but they buy me some flexibility for now.
This re-search of everything is also what reveals the exit that I was missing: in the southern Hall, climbing takes us to the “Landing”. We have a new area to explore!
Notice that there is no way back down from here.
The upstairs area feels like an escalation of difficulty. While we start with the discovery that there is no immediate way back down, we quickly realize that the final rooms are littered with one-way doors that drop us back somewhere on the first floor– and usually quite a hike back. The trip back wastes even more stoppers and wand charges, but we don’t seem to run out yet. A player traversing with only the pies to satisfy the hungry beasts would be in deep trouble. Mapping is essential.
The only new object we find past the landing is a set of “stairs”. The game is terse and cryptic, but I imagine them as a set of portable stairs. All of that wandering and mapping however eventually leads me to the Dragon’s Lair.
Look! A dragon! It’s tiny and cute though.
You might be surprised to find that this house, equipped with so many bedrooms and servants quarters, also has a Dragon’s Lair with a built-in dragon. I was certainly surprised! Unfortunately, this gets me stuck for some time. Any attempt to leave the room gets us blasted with fire breath– it doesn’t kill us, but it prevents us from leaving. The wand doesn’t work on him, nor any other inventory item that I have. We are dead-ended.
Talking to the dragon (using the “SAY”) command gets us one of the few bits of dialog that I have found so far:
I've had goblin for lunch but I haven't had goblin for tea yet.
Even that gets me nowhere.
I am forced to start over and check everything again. I go through every exit to make sure they all go where they appear to go. Other than one-way doors, only the “Landing” exit (and all of the ones upstairs) go to an unexpected place. I go back to search the source, but that is as inscrutable to me as the magic map is to my character. I do work out from the source that I can talk to Elvin, but the speech syntax is cryptic and it’s no wonder I didn’t work it out myself.
We can greet Elvin with “sayelv hallo”, for example, but notice that it uses the strange (British?) “hallo” instead of “hello”. He also gives us some basic clues if we ask in the right way:
> sayelv what is the lamp for
It has magical powers.
> sayelv what is the wand for
To get rid of goblins.
There are more texts in the source (none of which are more illuminating than that) so they are not ultimately helpful unless there is a command to get him to do something. I also realize while reading his dialog text that the strange stairs that I have been seeing and “CLImbing” are intended to be fireplaces with chimneys. That explains so much! Well, it actually doesn’t, but at least it is clearer now what I am doing and why we just climb instead of specifying a direction. How they loop around to other places on the same floor is a Christmas mystery.
After significant time and mapping, made all the slower because of the slow pace of emulation (I cheat a bit using save states), I come to one inescapable solution: all roads lead to the dragon’s den. There is nothing new anywhere and I must find out how to defeat the dragon.
I needed to get a hint. I turned to the AtariAge forums (home to a very nice group of TI99 enthusiasts) and they started working through the BASIC source code for me. They really went above and beyond. They revealed that “STR” was for “STRike” and that we could use it to light a match. They also confirmed that “GRA” was for “GRAb”. Somehow, something that I did differently (perhaps striking the match), triggered a new event. If I rub the lamp in the dragon’s room, the lamp now glows and a magic potion descends from the ceiling. It also teleports Elvin into the room!
Three’s a crowd.
But, something isn’t quite right. Despite the message clearly saying that “a magic potion spirals down from the ceiling”, the potion is nowhere to be found. We don’t see it on the screen or when we search. Elvin isn’t obviously carrying it. Is it meant to imply that the potion became Elvin? Is it a bug? A part of the code that isn’t completed? I have no idea. I try talking to Elvin here to see if he can help in some way, but nothing I try works. I’m still stuck, but at least I have Elvin in the room now. I go back to the forum for the next hint, but the helpful soul just tells me that the dragon gave me all the hints I should need… and they were right!
To recap, she says:
I've had goblin for lunch but I haven't had goblin for tea yet.
I decide that I need to feed a goblin to the dragon. Using my newly-confirmed “GRAb” command, I search the house for a nearby goblin and try to nab him. About a third of the time, it works! (The rest of the time, the goblin escapes.) I assume that there’s something I could do to improve the odds, but trial and error (and save states) did the trick for me. Back at the dragon’s room, dropping the goblin does nothing (and he presumably runs off), but if I “GIVe” the goblin over, the dragon will finally let me pass!
From here, the remainder of the game is simple: the boy’s and girl’s rooms are the only ones on the other side of the dragon. I drop the correct present in each room and we win!
We won! This is the winning screen.
Yes, the message “Merry Christmas!” is the only indication that we have won as the game continues. Dennis and Martin have confirmed this is the correct “ending” of the game, but that it is designed to allow players to continue if they wished. That’s good enough for me!
Are there puzzles remaining for me to solve? I don’t think so. As best I can tell looking at the source, Elvin appears to be just a (difficult to use) help function that can clue you in to what a few of the objects do. Why exactly he is summoned by the lamp, or indeed what the lamp does at all, isn’t clear. Without playing again to see, I believe you can win the game using only the wand (or the goblin stoppers) to keep the hoards at bay and make it to the dragon’s room. There’s no requirement to use any of the other items to catch and deliver a goblin. There may be silent requirements: for example, it may be that we can only get through certain exits if we have picked up the map. All in all, it feels complete even if (looking back) there are not that many distinct puzzles beyond exploration.
Time Played: 8 hr 55 min
My completed map. Still only 23 rooms. Did I miss one? Or miscount?
Now comes the least important aspect of our Christmas game review: the rating. For anyone that may be new here, we close off our reviews with a 0-100 rating that describes how closely the game comes to an idealized version of a Monkey Island game from the mid-1990s. Even the good games rarely score above a 50, but using this scale to describe a text adventure that fits in 16K of RAM seems positively barbaric. I’ll provide a score for posterity, but I hope no one dwells on it too much. This game is a remarkable accomplishment: not only is it one of the earliest Christmas adventures known, but it was also written by a talented young engineer on a system that today feels barely more powerful than a calculator.
We’ll also be using our holiday-themed “EGGNOG” rating system. It is suspiciously similar to the “PISSED” system, but with more alcohol.
Enigmas and Solution-Findability - Santa and the Goblins manages to pack a few good puzzles into its small frame. Exploration itself is a puzzle and the game does a great job of gradually increasing the difficulty: we start the game in a easy-to-map 4x4 grid, some one-way doors start to show up a few rooms in, and by the time we’re near the end it’s practically a maze with doors that drop you back to the beginning of the game. Figuring out what to do with the pies and the other items is also part of the fun, but let down by the interface. The final dragon puzzle in the endgame seems simple now that I’ve solved it, but it is clever and properly hinted (even if the whole but with Elvin and the magic potion seems out of place). I had fun. My score: 3.
Game UI and Items - The interface is one of the weakest points to the game. That perhaps could not be helped as there is only so much you can do in so little RAM, but the three-character words with no spacing just comes off as strange after playing other text adventures. (Even Adventure International used three-character verbs in their code, but they hide the limitation well by supporting proper spacing.) It’s also strange that while we can see the pies and the NPCs, we cannot see any of the other objects in the interface. I also had no idea what the strange “door” was in the north side of so many rooms. Having to search everywhere also got annoying, but I kept good notes. The game is also let down by a lack of even common synonyms (“GET” for “TAKE”, for example). My score: 1.
|An example screenshot from JS99, the emulator I used. Also note the strange “door” in the northwest of the room. Is that a chimney? Stairs? Something else?|
Gameworld and Story - The setting for this game is a highly-constructed maze which is good for the “Puzzles” section of the score, but bad for the “Setting”. The house doesn’t make sense, doesn’t ever come together as a “real” place, and makes less and less sense the more you think about it. Why are there so many chimneys in each room that lead to a room on the same level? The basic story: Santa (or rather, “S.C.”) discovering a goblin-invested home on his route isn’t bad, but there’s not a lot for us to give a large score here. My score: 2.
Noises and Pretty Pixels - We have graphics! It’s difficult to fit graphics into such a small space, but the game accomplishes a lot by displaying the characters (and pies!) on the screen, even if none of the other objects are displayed. Changing the wall colors adds a bit of variation, and the holly leaf glyphs as spacers is a nice touch. My score: 2.
Overworld and Environs - This category is often the most difficult to explain, but I always think of it as “atmosphere”. A well-designed house might give you points in “Setting”, but if the house is scary or moody or sad, we get points for “Atmosphere”. This game doesn’t do all that much in the atmosphere department, not even providing very much Christmas magic. Of course, it would have been difficult (likely impossible) to include things like Christmas trees and other iconography in the game, but it would have helped. The game is a technical feat, but was held back by the platform limitations. My score: 1.
Death caused by insufficient pies.
Gregariousness and Thespianism - Our final category relates to the way that we interact with the characters in the game and the quality of the writing. Here, we have a few NPCs, but only Elvin stands out as someone we can interact with, even though he doesn’t have much personality. (The dragon gets more personality in the “tea” line than Elvin gets the remainder of the game.) This score is also brought down by the very limited text in the game. I have to give extra credit to the “Aha!” moment when we rub the lamp and Elvin appears, but then nothing obvious comes of that interaction. I wanted more. My score: 1.
I’m positive that the low score may be disappointing to some, but I will use my discretionary point to add one more due to the technical wizardry and being one of the very first Christmas games ever made.
Let’s add up the scores: (3+1+2+2+1+1)/.6 + 1 = 18 points!
That score seems fair. In this case, the score for me is secondary to the great fun that I had researching Intrigue Software and the wonderful emailed conversations with Dennis and Martin Webb. This is a fun game, but it’s also a very early game developed by an inexperienced pair of game developers. The game doesn’t ever live up to the hype written on the box, but I imagine it was fun for kids and adults during the holiday season almost four decades ago.
I’d like to thank Dennis and Martin Webb for (individually and together) answering my never-ending questions about their life stories. They were a great help developing this narrative. In addition, this post would not have been possible without the assistance of the AtariAge forum, the TI99 group on Reddit, and the lead developer of JS99 who helped me with my memory issues. Other sources include EuroGamer’s 2019 interview/history on the development of OutRun, as well as other interviews and notes that I was able to find online. Extra special thanks also to the TI Italian Users Club for tracking down and archiving this game. It's to the credit of our global internet that the best place to find an obscure British game is on an Italian fan page! And finally, I would like to thank the Museum of Computer Adventure Game History (MOCAGH) for their archiving of the manuals and other materials. It is Martin's comment there about he and his brother hand-coloring the box art that set me down this crazy path this holiday season.
This has been our ninth Christmas game since the relaunch of TAG, yet we are in no danger of running out of Christmas games. If you know of any more (especially early ones), please let me know in the comments below. For my part, I am working on something special for New Years, but may drop it if it doesn’t come together in time. After that, I’ll be back to alternating posts between Nord and Bert and Dracula Unleashed.
If you are still in the mood for more Christmas games, please check out some of our previous holiday adventures:
- Merry Christmas from Melbourne House (1984)
- A Spell of Christmas Ice (1984)
- Crisis at Christmas (1986)
- Elves ‘87 (aka Elf’s Christmas Adventure) (1987)
- Humbug (1990)
- The Christmas Adventure (1983)
- Sanity Clause (1991)
- Paranoia (1987)
From all of your friends here at The Adventurers Guild, we wish you a joyous and healthy holiday season.
Merry Christmas! I hope you are all enjoying the holiday. I worked extra hard on this one to play the game and to tell the Webbs' story as best I could. I hope you enjoy. I am back on "Nord and Bert" now and am most of the way through the penultimate episode.ReplyDelete
In my rush to hit the "Publish" button before my holiday flight, I made a few typos and neglected to credit the TI Italian Users Club, among others. That has been corrected. To say that I got a lot of help getting the game working and finished is an understatement. I love that this site is a mix of popular and obscure games and Christmas always gives me the chance to really dig into the history of some of these now-obscure developers.
I hope you enjoy! Buon Natale!
I've been playing this, which is new this year, and enjoying it: Azazel's Christmas FableReplyDelete
Thank you Joe it certainly was interesting, the technical background was a great look into past technology. I cannot help but think that they could have cut a bunch of dead-ends like the lamp to make space for other features, but I guess the deadline loomed and with only one programmer they had to make a call. Fun read though!ReplyDelete
I'm not 100% sure what matters and what doesn't. The game is cryptic and there isn't so much text, but for all I know something else breaks if we didn't use the lamp. I don't think that's good puzzle design and it could have been cleaned up.Delete
It's also difficult to stress just how difficult it is to code in these old BASIC variants. They are built to generate spaghetti code and excising that element from this game could be been difficult to do without breaking something else The READ/DATA statements alone and the way that TI-BASIC handled the internal stack made my brain explode. So easy to add bugs. (In fact, the "stairs" item that we can pick up late in the game is probably such a bug. Just glad I didn't make it unwinnable my mistake.)
Thanks so much Joe, and happy holidays to all!ReplyDelete
Happy holidays to all the TAG community!ReplyDelete
Great post, I really enjoyed reading about the Webbs and about this game. Good to hear they reconciled.ReplyDelete
I'm always impressed by how much some people can get out of a computer that doesn't have that much. In particular this system seems a weird design, a calculator company making a 16-bit computer in the '70s. The whole thing is impressive to me.ReplyDelete
And an early/late Happy New Year to everyone reading and blogging on our wonderful website!
Great article! It's awesome to have these obscure devs and games' histories not get lost to time. Excellent work, and important too!ReplyDelete
There's a Christmas game I sent an email about to the TAG group, but I'll share it here too with everyone. It's a 1991 adventure game called Scrooge: A Christmas Carol, based on Dickens' work. I haven't played it yet, just tested it, and it looks quite charming. Seems to have been made, or at least published, by an Irish company who released other games based on known stories, like Wind in the Willows and Robin Hood.
Info and box scans of the Amiga version on The Hall of Light: http://hol.abime.net/5865
A little review with screenshots and a gameplay video of the DOS version: https://www.squakenet.com/game/scrooge
Happy holidays everyone!