Thursday, 25 December 2014

Missed Classic 3: Merry Christmas from Melbourne House (1984)



What exactly does “cracked” mean in this context?

 Merry Christmas! Christmas is always a nostalgic time for me, a time when I reconnect with family and friends and revisit some of my old haunts. As a very special post for the season, I set out to find and play the earliest Christmas-themed graphical adventure game that I could find, a little vignette from 1984 called “Merry Christmas from Melbourne House”. While this was the only graphical adventure that I could find, my research did identify a few text adventures which I have listed at the end of this post. Please drop me a note in the comments below if you know of any others-- you will not only get CAPs, but also my Christmas appreciation! Not having ever heard of the game before, I did not know what to expect. Was this a missed classic? Or just a game better off forgotten? 

Before we get into the game, let me set the stage. After the company that would become Sierra On-Line published “Mystery House” in 1980, many new companies entered the market for what would now be called “illustrated text adventures”. These are games, like “Mystery House”, that took the basic structure of text adventures like “Zork” and “Colossal Cave”, but put simple graphics or animations against them. This would remain the norm in adventure games until 1984 when games with on-screen animated protagonists would appear, but new illustrated games were produced throughout the remainder of the 1980s, especially as developing them was relatively inexpensive. 
One of the many companies that stepped into this industry was Beam Software, a subsidiary of the publisher Melbourne House. Where Melbourne House was primarily aimed at importing games into the UK and Australia markets, Beam would produce software that eventually would be distributed globally in their own right. Beam had its first huge success with a version of “The Hobbit” in 1982, winning several awards and becoming (at least according to the “Digital Antiquarian”) the most sold text adventure game of all time. My only experience with the company is vague memories of playing one of their text adventures, “Sherlock” (1984), but I suspect they were much better known in their home markets of the UK and Australia.



I always look for “100% machine code” when purchasing new games.
(Source: TheRetroCavern.com)

And that is where this game enters the picture. In 1984, Melbourne House released their “Merry Christmas” game through a magazine promotion. I have been unable to find an original ad for the game, but various sources describe that it was distributed inexpensively as a marketing opportunity, both to get players interested in their games as well as to advertise a few of their products in-game. The lead programmer was Grahame Willis who had previously worked on “The Castle of Terror”. This is the final game of his that I have been able to find.

Santa’s Christmas Journal 1984: Ho Ho Oh No! Some of my elves are in revolt and I am running behind on packing my sleigh. If I don’t get my jolly butt moving, there may be no Christmas this year!


Have you noticed that in any Christmas movie where they show the North Pole, it is daytime?
Shouldn’t it be always night in the Arctic Circle in the winter?

As the game opens, I am standing outside the famous “Santa’s Workshop”-- my workshop-- at the North Pole. The workshop itself is quite small, but magic is always about suspension of disbelief. I notice a sign and a sad-looking snowman out front and the frozen Arctic tundra surrounding us in all directions. I can even see myself, Santa Claus, walking around outside in a bit of light animation-- although the on-screen Santa appears to be decorative only and cannot be controlled as in later adventure games. The sign, in addition to saying “Santa’s Workshop” also has another helpful message: “digging in the snow in lots of fun and very rewarding”. I’ll take that as a hint! I check out the snowman as well and discover why he is sad: he is missing his nose. One puzzle and one hint right off the bat, not a bad start!

I try to enter the workshop, but the door is locked. I look around for a “Welcome” mat, but of course there is only snow. With the hint from the sign, I dig around and find a small key with a red “S” on it. Is it really a puzzle when there is a hint in the same room as the solution, especially when the hint is rather direct? As a player, I am a bit disappointed, but hey-- it’s Christmas!

Rather than go into the workshop, even though I have a key now, I decide to head “north”. I immediately find myself “lost in the snow”. I try to go back the way I came and I just pass through more rooms with snow. I have discovered the game’s first (only?) maze! I do not have any items with which to map it yet, though that may not be necessary as the rooms are not exactly alike: there are signs that change position as you move around. I also try digging randomly, just to see what would happen, and I discover the snowman’s nose! I consider starting a map, but since I’ve lost track of all the wandering around I’ve done, I would not know where to start. I ask the game for a “hint” (as much to see what that does as actually needing one) and it reminds me that the North Pole is north. Well, duh! I try that and end up back at the workshop. (On my second playthrough, to prepare this review, I discover that this whole experience was a bit of a streak of luck. The maze is at least several screens, only one of which has the snowman’s nose and only one of which can be exited to the workshop by going north.)


You are in a maze of twisty little snow-drifts, all alike.

Back outside my workshop, I try to help the snowman first. I use “help snowman” and “use nose”, but neither of those commands are well understood. Fortunately, this game has a “vocab” command that gives you a list of understood verbs. In this case, “give” and “put” seem to be my best options. Just telling it to “give nose” does not do any good, but then I remember that this isn’t “Colossal Cave” or “Mystery House” so I type out “give nose to snowman”. That works! Obviously, the parser understands real sentences and I bet that anyone that had played Melbourne House games before would have known that. Either way, the snowman is happy to have his nose back-- but only happy for a moment because it falls off again and I am told that it is lost forever. What a downer. Is there a way to fix this later? Do I need to find glue? What would affix a carrot onto a snowman better? I have no idea, but I will keep my eyes peeled for a better solution.

I open up the workshop with my key and enter it. This part of the shop contains a bunch of hard-working elves making toys, so whatever “industrial dispute” the box alluded to must not be in force here.

I explore the workshop quickly and this is what I find:
  •  To the north, a window from which I can see reindeer pulling a sleigh circling the workshop, apparently waiting for me. I can open the window and when I climb out, I end up back in the snow maze.
  • To the east, another sleigh but this one without reindeer and only half-full. There’s also a Santa suit and boots.
  • The the south, I find piles of completed toys, letters from children, and a star-emblazoned book. The book is particularly special as it is a catalog of excellent games by Melbourne House! I bet some of these would make awesome gifts.
Do you think any of these are “Missed Classics”?

I also read some of the children’s letters-- they are addressed to me, after all. The first one is from a little girl that would like a dollhouse, as well as her brother who wants a cricket bat. I wonder if they would prefer a copy of “The Hobbit” instead? I read another and that kid wants both a cricket bat and ball. Obviously, this is a UK game because I cannot imagine many American kids longing to play cricket, but to each their own. The modern player in me is a bit concerned about the sexist stereotyping of the toys that the children are looking for, but this was 1984 after all. I try to pick up the “toys”, but the game tells me that I am being greedy. I get the hint: instead of asking for generic toys, I ask for the items from the letters directly: a cricket bat, cricket ball, and a dollhouse. That works and and they have joined my inventory! I read a few more letters, but they seem to be repeating those two so I move on.

I also seem to have picked up another object: an “ordo felves”. I have no idea what this is or whether it came with the letters or when I helped the snowman. It does not have a description, so I am not sure what it is. I initially thought that it might have something to do with cricket (Google suggests not), but perhaps I will figure it out. I doubt it is coincidence that it spells out “ord of elves”, but what it does I have no idea. Do elves generally come in ords? Is that like a flock of elves?


Complete this line: “My other sleigh is a …”

I head back to the sleigh to try to solve what puzzles might be there. It does not let me enter the sleigh, or do much of anything with it at all, but I can pick up my coat. (The boots? No, they seem to be nailed to the floor or something.) I search the pockets and discover a whistle! I blow it and it does not seem to do anything here, but it is obviously important.

On a hunch, I head out to the front of the workshop again-- through the window, of course-- and blow the whistle in the front yard. The reindeer which had been circling land! I get in the sleigh and tell the reindeer to go “up” and just like that, the game ends. I win!

After a brief victory screen, the game informs me that I scored 75 out of 100. Not bad, but there are obviously things that I missed. Has anyone discovered any items or puzzles that I passed up? I’m especially curious about the “ordo felves” and whether there is a puzzle related to it that I might have missed.

Time played: 30 min
Total time: 30 min
   
Ho! Ho! Ho! Tell your parents to buy our games!

Final Score

Now comes the hard part: to tell you how I feel about this short little Christmas vignette. Ratings are always difficult and if you have beaten the game and have found puzzles that I missed that might affect the score, please feel free to argue with me in the comments. But argue nicely, it’s Christmas!

Also because it is Christmas, I cannot be properly “PISSED” at this game. So, in honor of the season, I present to you my very own (but suspiciously similar) rating system, the “EGGNOG” scale.

Enigmas and Solvability

As I stated above, I am a bit concerned that I may have missed a puzzle or two, but what I found of the game was relatively sparse. The closest the game comes to a real puzzle is the search for the snowman’s nose, but in the end that segment appears to be completely optional. Finding the whistle took only a basic understanding of adventure game tropes, and I’m not sure at all what all of the toys I picked up were used for. I suspect that they mainly contributed to my score, but I will be glad to be corrected. Given all that, I regret that I can do no better than give this game a “1” for puzzles and even that is a bit of a holiday stretch.

Game UI and Items
I have a feeling that someone reading this will find the love of cricket as this game’s best quality

The game plays very similarly to other illustrated text adventures, and even has the graphics-with-text-at-the-bottom layout established by “Mystery House”-- but I suspect there is a technical reason for that. My suspicion is that Melbourne House repurposed their existing game engine for this effort, but in this case it is a good thing because it demonstrates a level of polish that exceeds that of the limited story. I especially liked the “vocab” command for reducing trial and error around figuring out what word to use, and the “help” command seemed to give a reasonable hint the only time I used it. That said, this game lacked a “save” feature, but given its short length it obviously did not need one.

The inventory in the game is terribly basic with essentially no inventory-based puzzles that I found, but again I may have missed some.

I really want to go “2.5” here, but half-points are not allowed. But really this demonstrates an engine that is superior to “Mystery House” which received a “2”. I am going to keep it at “2” because even though the engine was significantly nicer (as it should be for a game four years later!), there were far fewer interesting items in the game.

Gameworld and Story
This elf is not on strike.

I have to admit that I am disappointed, but it’s entirely Melbourne House’s fault. The inset documentation talks about an elvish “industrial action”, leading me to expect a game where I would solve a pay dispute or get the elves working again. There are some excellent plot ideas there, none of which the game seems to be aware of because this “industrial action” plot is entirely absent from the published game. The game also cannot decide if you are Santa or if you are helping Santa-- somewhat understandable given the fourth-wall breaking, but yet quite distracting. The combination of these two elements makes me suspect that the game is incomplete, or at least did not live up to its expectations.

The gameworld is also a bit “broken”, is the best way I can put it. For example, when you enter Santa’s Workshop there is no way to leave by the door. None. I tried every command I could think of, but the only way I could leave was through the window. The one nice touch to the gameworld was that since you are at the North Pole, you should be able to get back to the Workshop by going north-- even though it only worked in one part of the maze, it was clever and I like clever.

Given both the missing premise and the broken gameworld, I have to go with a “0” in this category. Sorry!

Noises and Pretty Pixels

This elf is thankfully not on a shelf.

 Here’s a challenge: how many times can you listen to “Jingle Bells” before you turn off the sound? That’s pretty much how I felt, and I could only listen to sounds when my wife was out of the room! There are no sound effects that I noticed for anything else in the game.

Graphically, the game is mixed. The art is not terrible, but the colors inside seem washed out and the art is very busy. The few touches of animation are nice, but by 1984 that sort of thing should have been expected.

In total, I think this is a “1”.

Overworld and Environs

So much undeveloped real estate!

When you think of the North Pole and Santa’s Workshop, so many awesome things come to mind. Maybe you are imagining a factory setting where row after row of elves are diligently making toys, perhaps while singing Christmas songs. Perhaps instead you are imagining Santa’s reindeer and their stables, with little reindeer practicing flying in the background. Maybe even you are thinking of Ms. Claus who is always worried that Santa will get cookie crumbs on his newly pressed winter suit. No matter which of those you imagined, this game is a bit disappointing.

What we get instead is a tiny environment: outside, a wintry maze, and four rooms inside. There are no places for the elves or Santa to live, no stables for the reindeer, and nothing else that helps to make this world feel real. The game feels like Christmas, that is certain, but the environment is not particularly special.

Let’s give this a “1” as well.

Gregariousness and Thespianism

The game text was well done throughout with meaningful descriptions on items and there are a few nice little touches, like the hints when you are in the maze, as well as the game chiding you to hurry up and find your way out because “Christmas is coming”. There is still a bit of ambiguity whether you are playing as Santa or not, but I covered that elsewhere. I’m going to give this category a “2”.

Total

Let’s sum it up and see what we get!

1+2+0+1+1+2=7/60 = 12

This is a very low score, but that is perhaps to be expected. “Merry Christmas from Melbourne House” is less a full game and more a Christmas vignette, and one that feels slightly unfinished at that. It was still fun for the 30 minutes it took to beat it, but ultimately not quite a forgotten gem. Still, you have to give them credit for making what is essentially a marketing piece somewhat playable and to that end it did it’s job perfectly: I think I’d like to play another Melbourne House game, eventually. (Most likely, “The Hobbit”.)

I sincerely thought about giving this game the “Still Better than Emmanuelle” award for +2 points, but perhaps that is a bit much. On the bright side, it is better than “Psycho”! Besides, the short duration of this game gave me extra time to play a real holiday classic:


He’s like a ninja turtle, except he never orders pepperoni on his pizza.

I hope you enjoyed this little look at an obscure game. I am looking for other Christmas graphical adventures (particularly those before 1990), so please leave a comment below if you know of any. I have found a decent number of Christmas text adventures, but none of them are illustrated as far as I know.

For your playing pleasure, here they are:
  • A Spell of Christmas Ice (1984)
  • The Elf’s Christmas Adventure (1987)
  • Crisis at Christmas (1987)
  • Humbug (1990) - A text adventure game by Graham Cluley, later better known as an network security blogger
  • Santa Clause (1991)
  • Paranoia (1993) - A “choose your own adventure”-style text adventure game, based on a 1987 gamebook.
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas (1994)
  • The Ice Princess (1995)
  • Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina (1999)
Have a great Christmas and a Happy New Year. We have something even more special lined up for next week. I cannot wait! Happy holidays!

22 comments:

  1. It's not an adventure game, but surely the best Christmas themed game is Jazz Jackrabbit - Holiday Hare http://www.abandonia.com/en/games/26648/Jazz+Jackrabbit+Holiday+Hare+1995.html

    Also, perhaps the sunlight is because Santa is actually Australian, and at the South Pole (last place they'd be looking for him!), especially since it would be closer to Melbourne!

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  2. Merry Christmas everyone!

    I suspect "100 % machine code" would have meant something in those days, because that kind of game would have been significantly faster.

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    1. I would guess "100% machine code" is letting you know that the cassette will not at any point be pleasant to listen to.

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    2. I figured it meant it was totally compiled, rather then running an interpreted language like BASIC, which would be far faster on machines of that age, but I'm not sure. Where is Cory or another old-timer when you need it.

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    3. Canageek, that's exactly it.

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  3. Please drop me a note in the comments below if you know of any others-- you will not only get CAPs, but also my Christmas appreciation!

    Depends on what you mean by "adventure game", but assuredly all closer than Andy Panthro's two cents:

    the oldest might be the unauthorized conversion of a Paranoia solitaire gamebook -- you can play a recent take on it at http://www.bin.sh/gaming/alpha/alpha.cgi

    then there's the 2000 Swedish Skrotens Hjältar, what appears to be a Myst-like FMV type graphical adventure.

    2007 saw Sam & Max Episode 201: Ice Station Santa by Telltale, inheritors to the Lucasarts adventure game legacy

    In 2010 Big Fish brought us Twisted: A Haunted Carol, a hidden object game -- an offshoot of the adventure game genre.

    I dug these all up using the Christmas gamegroup at Mobygames.com, which features quite a few other non-adventure xmas games.

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    1. Ha, sorry, I didn't see you'd already caught Paranoia!

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    2. Additionally, partially redundant with your list I believe, there are lists of Xmas-themed works of interactive fiction at http://ifwiki.org/index.php/List_of_holiday_games#Christmas and http://ifdb.tads.org/search?searchfor=tag:Christmas

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    3. When I had the idea to play a Christmas game as a "Missed Classic", Paranoia was the one I was thinking of. It's surreal, funny, and quite unique-- but looks to have been done in 1993 so out of scope with where we are now. Quite a shame!

      Thankfully, "Merry Christmas" fits the bill better as a graphical adventure and I can always come back to Paranoia when we get to 1993 games' Christmas. ;)

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    4. Also, my list only went up to 1999. I found some newer ones as well, but historical games are my primary interest...

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    5. Gah, painstakingly thumbed in a reply on my smartphone, but it looks like it was eaten. Back on a keyboard to reproduce it. Paranoia originates as a pen-and-paper solo adventure in a magazine sometime in the '80s, and has been the subject of dozens of unauthorized computer conversions since then -- I'd be very surprised if '93 is the earliest of them. (Then I went on at some length regarding how at Mobygames we're only able to document verified releases, and nothing like "definitely earlier than x" -- the database actually prevents the entry of games with no known release date!)

      Looking forward to seeing Paranoia handled here this time next year!

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    6. 1993 is the earliest I was able to confirm "Paranoia", but even that is a guess based on modify dates in the source code. The game was released as open source (BSD license)-- probably in part because it was an unlicensed rip-off of the 1987 mini-gamebook. I also tracked down the magazine that book appeared in so that I could use its illustrations in my Paranoia post, but it will wait until another year.

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    7. Right on, your research has just filled in some of my blanks! Just going to nip off to Mobygames to share the wealth 8)

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  4. Do you think any of these are “Missed Classics”?

    The Hobbit and Sherlock are probably significant enough to revisit, although The Digital Antiquarian did a pretty good analysis of them.

    I also seem to have picked up another object: an “ordo felves”. I have no idea what this is or whether it came with the letters or when I helped the snowman.

    That has the stink of a source code glitch to me, maybe a dropped space or punctuation mark.

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    1. Thanks! I have "The Hobbit" now and have made sure it works. I am not 100% how I want to proceed with "Missed Classics" that I review. Part of me wants to start in on it immediately, but I am also assembling an ordered-list of illustrated adventure games like Trickster's list and I want to proceed in approximate order when I can. There are a few of those between 1980 and 1982 that perhaps I should play first?

      (Incidentally, 1982 seems to be the explosion year when a number of companies get into the illustrated adventure genre. Sierra seems to have 1980 and 1981 almost to themselves, but my list is still quite incomplete.)

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    2. Could be a dropped H--an 'orde of elves?

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  5. Almost forgot this:

    Jack in the Dark! http://www.abandonia.com/en/games/372/Jack+in+the+Dark.html

    It's technically a Halloween game, but it does involve Santa Claus.

    (I firmly believe the Alone in the Dark games count as adventure games, even if they did also help spawn the Survival Horror genre).

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    1. Well, when we get to 1994, I'm, sure there will be plenty of time to play a Halloween game. (And this one might be on the list anyway.)

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  6. A ninjew? That's both offensive and awesome (Offensively awesome? Awesomely offensive?) at the same time. Does he/she uses the Kabbalah to fuel his/her Ninpo?

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    1. Opinion from a Jewish reader--it looks cute, and it's nice to see a Jewish-themed game that's lighthearted and not designed to teach small children about a holiday.

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    2. Responding to The Mara a YEAR later, I agree: my family is a Jewish household and I picked the game because it was cute in that context.

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  7. I really loved the EGGNOG scale!

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