Saturday, 24 December 2016

Missed Classic 32: Crisis At Christmas (1986)

Written by Joe Pranevich


Merry Christmas! Time flies when we’re playing great games and it’s already time for another Christmas special. In previous years, we looked at two holiday “classics” from 1984: Merry Christmas from Melbourne House and A Spell of Christmas Ice. This year, we have a new holiday treat to share with you: 1986’s Crisis at Christmas, a text adventure for the ZX Spectrum. Our Christmas games so far have been a mixed bag: Melbourne House’s offering was not much more than an early form of adware while Christmas Ice didn’t even get its title on its packaging. Will we finally break the mold with a good game? Before we can find out, I need to introduce some players first: Tom Frost, Tartan Software, and “type-in” code magazines.

The first surprise as I researched this game was that “Tom Frost” was not a holiday-themed pseudonym but rather a real-life gamer and game designer from Montrose, Scotland who tried his hand at nearly every aspect of our industry. By 1984, he was reviewing games for Micro Adventure magazine, had won a £400 prize (and the title “Britain’s Best Adventurer”) by being the first person to verifiably complete Incentive Software’s “Ket Trilogy”, was starting up his own mail-order software business, and won second place in the “Cambridge Awards”, a contest sponsored by CASES Computer Simulations (CCS). The latter also netted him a distribution deal for his submission, a World War II adventure titled 1942 Mission. To make this all more impressive, Mr. Frost did all of this in his spare time. In his “real life”, he was a 49-year old “quality control chemist” for a nearby lab. He was a man of many talents!

Tom Frost (right), “Britain’s Best Adventurer”

One of the first products from Tom’s new software company, Tartan Software, was the “Adventure Builder System”, a development kit to allow others to easily publish adventure games for the spectrum. That system is probably worth a post on its own, but I was only able to find a handful of commercial games written with it and most of those were distributed by Tartan itself. A stripped down version of the kit was even released as a type-in in Sinclair User magazine.

In a later interview, Tom claimed that he started up Tartan Software to give him a platform to sell games because he was rejected by other publishers. By 1986 he had only published one game himself, the curiously named Spy Trilogy, a James Bond pastiche. This may not be true: thanks to a quirk of Mobygames, most of Mr. Frost’s catalog is not included there. They only accept credits for standalone games, but almost everything distributed by Tartan was a combo pack of two or more games. That has forced me to research using other great sources (primarily World of Spectrum), but I caution that enough of the release information is fuzzy that I’m not sure the exact order his titles were released in.

He looks familiar somehow...

Crisis at Christmas was not initially distributed by Tartan but rather as a type-in feature for Sinclair User magazine in their January 1987 issue. (Cover dates are generally one or two months ahead of reality; this issue would have shipped in time for Christmas 1986.) Before researching this post, I only vaguely remembered type-in software. As a kid, I had a few books of simple software for the Commodore 64 that I forced a babysitter to type in for me, but I remember very little of it ever working. It was far too easy to make typos, especially when we didn’t understand what the code was doing.

If I thought that was hard, you cannot even imagine the difficulty that a young player in 1986 would have had with this software. The code provided in the magazine is five pages of extremely tiny print, divided into four columns. Some of it is recognizably BASIC, but the majority is nothing more than endless streams of numbers. Using a ruler, I estimate somewhere close to 2500 lines of code. I’m absolutely impressed by the gymnastics Mr. Frost is doing to code an assembly-language game in BASIC, but seeing it printed out makes my eyes water. I can’t imagine anyone successfully entered it all in without errors.

There are PAGES of this to type, but at least you get a star!

Fortunately, the game was subsequently re-released by Tartan Software as The White Door. Having already played the game as I type this, I assure you there are no white doors in it, but he renamed it so that it could take its place as the second game in his “Door” series: Open Door, White Door, Green Door, Red Door, and Yellow Door. I’m not familiar with any of the other games in the series to know if and how they connected. Tartan continued producing games at least through 1992; I count fifteen games designed by Mr. Frost plus a few more by other developers. After that, I do not know what became of him or his company. I know he was starting to work on games for the Amstrad CPC, but why he chose that instead of a more universal platform like the PC is a mystery to me. I welcome any gaming historians to come and help me figure out what became of “Britain’s Best Adventurer”.

Enough of that! Let’s play the game!

Remember kids: don’t drink and game.

We get a few introductory notes as the game begins: our character arrives home on Christmas Eve just after the babysitter put his (or her) kids to bed. Before we can relax, we get a phone call from our spouse that her (or his) car has broken down and she won’t make it home in time to help us put the presents in our children’s rooms. Worse, we neglect to ask her where the presents were hidden before she hangs up. If only they had invented cell phones! It will be up to me to locate the presents and stash them in the kids’ rooms before morning. One nice feature off the bat is that we can select whether we are playing as the husband or wife. Female protagonists are rare in adventure games and having the choice is a nice touch.

I start in the lounge and have free reign to explore the house. With the exception of the basement (too dark) and the attic (more on that in a moment), we can go everywhere immediately. Rather than narrate it out, I will run down what I found. I also drew a map!

The Ground Floor:
  • The starting room contains a note and a glass of sherry. The note tells us not to drink it; it’s for Father Christmas. 
  • A nearby study contains the first hint: a day-planner (they call it a “diary”) with a note that says “Boy-D” and “Girl-U”. My guess is that this is hints at which present goes to which kid. 
  • The kitchen has a hand-towel, scissors hidden in a drawer, and the entrance to the basement. It’s too dark to see down there, so I expect to find a light source soon. We also get a note that we (the husband) do not go in here very often. That sounds vaguely sexist, don’t you think? 
  • I find the flashlight (“torch”) in an alcove and batteries for it in the pantry (“larder”). It takes me some time to figure out that I have to “insert battery” as the parser wrongly believes “put battery in torch” means I want to drop it. I have no idea why. I also realize that we have limited space in the inventory so I ferry anything not nailed down to the room where I started. 
  • With the flashlight in hand, I discover a locked chest in the basement, but no way to open it. 
  • Other items include a pair of boots (on the patio), some string (in a garage cupboard), a chisel (in an outside shed), and wrapping paper (in a cubby by the stairs). 
Completed map of the game.

Upstairs:
  • Our bedroom contains a ton of stuff: a key hidden in a jewelry box, a red poncho in the wardrobe, and an ottoman that I can’t do anything with yet. I suspect that is the key to the chest, but it doesn’t work because the lock is rusted. Do I need to find oil first? 
  • The two kids' rooms (son to the north and daughter to the east) are inaccessible. When I enter, the kids wake up and see their dad instead of Father Christmas and the whole thing is ruined. I will need a disguise... I also find shaving foam in the bathroom. Is this going where I think it is going? 

With that, I’ve seen everything and start solving puzzles. I turn first to the chest in the basement. The key from the bedroom doesn’t work in the rusty lock and I never found any oil. What else to try? Eventually I try the direct approach and force the lock with the chisel, scoring us our first present: a ZX Spectrum! Unfortunately, I have no idea where the second present is except that it may be “up”. An attic? I haven’t found a path there yet so I work on being able to enter the kids’ rooms next.

I know I need a “Father Christmas” disguise so I work out that I can put on the boots, pancho, and even a dollop of shaving foam to make a Santa passable in the dark. That works, but then I learn that I need to wrap the present first. No problem! I can “wrap” it with the string, wrapping paper, and scissors. I deliver the present to my son’s room and am halfway there!

Knowing that the second present is “up” (from the diary), I type “look up” in every location until I find a trapdoor in the upstairs hallway. I am not able to reach it, but there’s a hint that I can stand on something. The Ottoman? It is too heavy to move, but after some experimentation, I realize that it can be opened to reveal blankets and other items. Do British Ottomans really have storage compartments? I had no idea! Moving the Ottoman still requires me to inventory-shuffle as it can only be moved when it is empty and when I am carrying nothing else. Once it is in place, it is no difficulty to get into the attic, unlock a second trunk, and collect a doll. I wrap it and put it in my daughter’s room and win the game! For completeness, I play again as the wife: there are some text changes (more on this in a moment), but otherwise it plays the same.

Whew! I’m glad I only dreamed all of that.

Time played: 1 hr 35 min

Just like in years past, we will not be using the PISSED rating scheme for this game, but rather the curiously similar “EGGNOG” scale. If you need help converting between the two, I recommend laying off on the holiday beverages.

Enigmas and Solution-Findability - This is a fun little romp with a couple of real puzzles and dead ends. If you drink the sherry, for example, your kids wake up and think you are a drunk! It’s about the level of challenge I hope for in a holiday game. Score: 3.

Game UI and Items - Crisis uses a stripped down version of the “Adventure Builder System” interface and it’s not bad. The parser is rudimentary with some tricky wording, but there’s good use of color. Score: 3.

Gameworld and Story - We have a basic but interesting premise with a fun area to explore. There’s not much challenge to it, but it feels like a real place. Predicating the whole misadventure on forgetting to ask your wife (or husband) where they put the presents is silly, but we’ve seen worse. I am disappointed it turns out to have been a bad dream. Score: 3.

The wife isn’t allowed into the shed. What decade is this?

Noises and Pretty Pixels - Other than the opening graphic, there are no images in this game. I know that Mr. Frost’s other adventures featured rudimentary graphics but I assume they had to be stripped out for a type-in. Other than that, all we get are beeps. Score: 1.

Overworld and Environs - Not much fancy here, but the text descriptions are complete and it’s a nice touch that some of the descriptions change depending on whether you are playing as the husband or wife. That said, most of the changed descriptions come off as sexist today. The dad built the patio with his bare hands! The mom does all the cooking! The game loses something by defining its characters in this way. Score: 2.

Gregariousness and Thespianism - I’ve already mentioned the text and the sexism, but overall the prose was put together well and the introduction brings you into the story. Score: 3.

If we tally all that up, we get (3+3+3+1+2+3)/.6 = 25. I will use one discretionary point to dock the game for the sexism. It wasn’t just the room descriptions; for example, why does the son get the computer while the daughter gets a doll? That hardly seems fair. Is there any wonder why not enough women go into the sciences?

That leaves us with 24 points and our best Christmas game ever! Congratulations! It’s as good as Hugo’s House of Horrors!


I regret that I have been unable to contact Mr. Frost or to even confirm whether he’s still with us (he’d be 79 today). While I haven’t played any of his other games, I wager that he was better known to UK audiences than US ones. As a guy that loves and writes about adventure games, Mr. Frost seems like a kindred spirit even across decades. His story is fantastic and if anyone knows anything else about our mysterious author, please let me know. Has anyone played any of this other games? Why was the “Ket Trilogy” considered so difficult? Have any of you played it?

Up next from me will be Zork I in a week or two. I’ve beaten the game now and it’s just a matter of reporting on it.

9 comments:

  1. I have a vague recollection of once copying a program line by line from a computer magazine, probably for the Commodore 64, but can't remember what it was about - it definitely wasn't this game.

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    1. There were tons of these for the C64 in the US, but most at least had the secondary value that you could LEARN from them.

      This... not so much. Most of the code seems to be a bootloader to get the huge list of numbers (actually raw machine code) to run the actual game. Very little to learn from that and endless opportunities for error. Disk mags were a much better platform for this sort of thing.

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  2. Happy Holidays, Merry Winterval, and a seasonal greeting to all my fellow adventurers!

    I thankfully never had to copy out a program from a magazine like this, although I did do a few BASIC programs when I was at school. I never got the coding bug though, so much preferred when they switched to the cover disk, which was sometimes the only reason to buy a magazine.

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  3. A hearty ho ho ho to all!

    And I've never drunk Eggnog - don't think it ever caught on in Australia - I've got to try it some day.

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    1. It isn't very well known in my part of Europe, either - it's one of those English traditions we hear so much about, but never see anywhere. I tried it last year, inspired by the EGGNOG rating (or at least kids' version, without the alcohol). It's great if you have a sweet tooth, otherwise, it might be too sugary for you.

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  4. I dug in a bit more into the "Ket Trilogy" since writing this. It seems to have been a part of a weird 80s fad in the UK for games with a prize attached for the first winner. From what I have read, they didn't age very well because when you take away the prize all you have left is games that were deliberately designed to be too difficult to really enjoy.

    "Mountains of Ket" is the first in the series if anyone wants to try it. The reviews aren't very good. I might spin it up at some point, but I have more than enough games to play right now...

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  5. I entered several short games into a computer from printed text - 101 BASIC Computer Games, by David Ahl, is still on my shelf. (Worse - I actually remembered the author's name, although I then checked the book to verify it).

    I also worked professionally (around 1975) on a mini-computer that had to be booted by hand-keying the bootstrap loader using switches on the front panel.

    Although needing to type in a large string of numbers is painful and error-prone, it could be a sign of well-written software. Good programs tend to be data- rather than code-driven. Of course, it it was actually machine language rather than data, that's pretty much a nightmare... but still understandable in an era in which every byte mattered.

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    1. I'm not sure honestly and I haven't spent the time to make sure that I understand what is going on here. I know that various interviews with Mr. Frost discuss his dissatisfaction with the speed of BASIC code and his "Adventure Builder System" for the Spectrum produced machine code. But for a type-in? Not sure.

      If anyone wants to spend more time looking, I've uploaded the full code here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bwpm2DPszgAQa2NCVHBWbVlDeTQ/view?usp=sharing

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  6. After feeling bad for Mr. Frost not appearing on Mobygames, I've submitted two of his games to them (1942 Mission and Adventure Builder) and we'll see if that helps his memorability somewhat.

    Almost all of the rest of them are all released in compilations, even if they are just compilations of his own game (generally one game on each side of a mailed tape) so Mobygames doesn't really have a good way to credit him on those. It's a bit inconsistent but I have had games released only in compilations rejected by them.

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