Product: Electron User 5.03
Publisher: Electron User
Compatibility: Acorn Electron
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #73

With everyone wishing me Seasons Greetings 2010, my brain got to thinking as to whether or not there's a computer game that really sums up Christmas in the same way that movies like It's A Wonderful Life and The Polar Express do. After wasting precious moments of my life turning this thought over, I realised that, not only is there no game, there's not even any contenders.

There's a big gaping hole in the marketplace which a snuggly Christmas computer game should be filling. Perhaps on the Spectrum or the Amiga the situation is a bit different - they had games like The Snowman (based on the Raymond Briggs cartoon) for example - and the famous Christmas Lemmings. But essentially us BBC/Electron owners just got the same old tired ideas, dressed up with a Christmas 'twist'.

December 1987's Electron User, Electron User 5.03 is typical. No less than three Christmas games are included - Santa On The Tiles, Santa's Dilemma and Santa's Tour. Now I'll admit that there's nothing really wrong with any of these - but they are all variations on a theme, and the Christmas 'twist' could easily have been left aside and left them as passable clones of the games they really are. Confused? Read on.

So Santa On The Tiles is actually Hunchback. Quasimodo has been replaced with Santa, arrows with snowballs, walls with, um, walls, jabbing spear-holding knights with spiky bouncing Christmas trees... You get the idea. There's no sign of delivering presents, there's no sleigh, there's no chimneys to descend. It's not a Christmas game per se - it's Hunchback with a few sprite changes.

That, hopefully, gets the point across. Nevertheless, as a Hunchback clone, the game is surprisingly addictive. It is a hybrid BASIC/machine code number, with large multi-coloured sprites with quite jerky movements (8 pixels left or right at a time). You run left or right and jump the various obstacles littering your path - and you need to remember to run on moving platforms as well. (Don't stand still on them!)

Survival is based on deft manipulation of the controls to move from the left-hand side of the screen to the right. Almost a sixth of the screen on the right is taken up with a picture of a giant chimney - which serves no obvious purpose at all! If anything it looks more like an obstruction. I'd rather have a larger playing area myself.

Anyway, if you attempt to run and jump your way over the nineteen screens provided, you'll find each possible. Something I do particularly like about this game is that the author has clearly put a lot of thought into the levels. He springs snowballs in well timed combinations so that you are often caught on the hop (and killed) many times as you try to take the most obvious route.

The game has a high score table and runs in Mode 5, meaning it's quite colourful. Sound is limited to a few note scales when you jump Santa and when snowballs appear. Of course, it is what it is - an Electron User type-in, so let's not get too carried away. It's ok. Simply ok. For a type-in.

The next program on the disc is Santa's Dilemma which wouldn't be out of place in a compilation of brainteasers. I suppose that, technically, it is a game. However, with instructions that warn you that "the second and third mazes could take many hours to solve", you have a fair idea that the dilemma of the title isn't going to be a case of choosing which stocking to hang up beside the fireplace.

No, frankly, the game's premise is somewhat bizarre and I will do my best to describe it. The idea is that there is a path, through a field of snowmen, to Santa's Grotto. You are Santa but you have forgotten the path. So you are trying to find your way there by trial and error. You wander, therefore, through the field towards the Grotto and hope for the best. As you wander, you cut a trail in the mesh (i.e. the dithered red and black pixels) that shows you have passed through it.

You have no idea as you use the left, right, up and down keys whether or not you are about to hit a solid rock wall. If you do, you get an annoying - make that very annoying bleep.

The really weird thing is that you can get to certain squares from one direction, but not from another, and sometimes you cannot get back to where you started from. It is almost as if you are constantly going up and down floors, without being able to see those floors, and with the previous path shown onscreen to distract you.

The game is probably best played with some graph paper and lots and lots of spare time. Alas, I have neither and gave up on it after feeling quite befuddled extremely quickly. I'll say this for it - it's certainly original. It reminds me a little of something like Push The Bale; if it was on my mobile I'd probably attack it with some venom to discover the logic that permeates it, as I'm sure there will be a completely logical solution.

Finally, Santa's Tour is a variation of the Knight's Tour problem - where you take the Knight piece, and a standard chess board, and try to move the Knight so that he visits every square on the board once, and once only but only by moving in the Knight's manner (i.e. three squares at a time in a L shape). What they won't think of to squeeze Santa into these games? To quote Electron User Santa 'is visiting Squareberry' and 'only has 64 presents' and each of the '64 houses that all look alike' deserves only one gift. No, you have just replaced the Knight piece with a Santa Claus graphic. Just admit it, you bastards.

Whilst I'm here taking a gander at this disc, I will give the rest of its contents a fair crack of the whip too. There's a very simple text adventure called Count Dracula's Castle which is meant as an introduction to the programming of this genre. Note, however, that you need to use full direction commands (i.e. NORTH, not N) to make any progress. There's also two rather interesting ten liners - the first which allows you to control a permanently spinning spiral pattern and move it around the screen; the second which shows 'highlighted' text in Mode 1 and which might be useful for old-fashioned loading screens.

There's also an intriguing 'turbo tape' utility on this disc, which allows you to save programs to tape without the block break (that's the whistling sound you can hear if you save to tape). This speeds your programs up when you load them back into your machine. It works on the Electron and indeed was one of my very favourite utilities in the early days when my Acorn Electron was purely a tape-based machine.

As you would expect from Electron User, this was a fairly middling collection of games to celebrate Christmas of 1987. So my search for a worthy, purely Christmas game on the Electron that truly captures the spirit of the season in the same way the BBC's Musical Snowmen Demo does, goes on...