Product: The Micro User 12.11
Publisher: The Micro User
Compatibility: BBC B/B+/Master 128
Reviewed by: Dave E
Originally published in EUG #73

Over the years there has been a steady throng of discontent murmuring away in the backdrop of a few forum postings in relation to the educational programs, of which there were thousands, produced for the BBC Micro. Why, ask many, have the BBC micro websites only archived arcade games? Where are all of the educational games I enjoyed as a youngster?

The answer is, shockingly - gone. Apart from Where Is Father Christmas?, that is, which survives only because it was distributed on the cover disc to December 1994's Acorn Computing. Before I get into reviewing this kiddie adventure, I'll very briefly explain why BBC educational titles fell into the abyss.

Most BBC Micro games of this genre were distributed only to schools, and a quick browse through the pages of A&B Computing, which had quite an extensive educational section each month, shows they were incredibly expensive to purchase. Because many schools had strict budgets to stick to, there was also the very real question of piracy in schools for the software house to combat. The result was that BBC Micro discs were protected to such a degree that they made Kevin Edwards' efforts look like the equivalent of paddling after a speedboat.

Just as with games like Superman: The Man Of Steel, the incredible protection systems hitched onto the program code have proven impossible to crack. Hence these games have been effectively hoist with their own petards - schools either threw away the original discs when computers moved on, or donated their collections to enthusiasts who keep them, begrudgingly, in huge cardboard boxes; gems of programming destined to remain locked in their plastic slip-covers forever more.

Where Is Father Christmas? is therefore actually quite a rare thing. Apart from Granny's Garden (which is available but very difficult to find in emulated form), it is one of the only 'survivors' of this genre. Tragic but true. In addition, I believe it's actually the only kiddie adventure that exists for the Electron apart from The Magic Sword.

The game itself is typical of the kiddie adventures for the BBC Micro, although surprisingly here it's done in Mode 2 rather than Mode 7 (which is why the game also works on the Electron). Pictures are sometimes *LOADed and sometimes plotted, depending on their complexity, whilst double-height, text fills the bottom half of the screen describing your location and asking you very simple questions.

I don't know if it's just me, but whenever these games start with something like "Father Christmas' workshop has been empty for days. No-one knows where Santa has gone. Will you help to look for him?" I just instinctively type NO. I remember Little Red Riding Hood at school used to respond to Will you help?-NO answer with "That's not very nice!" and I would then type I'M THE WOLF and then leave the message displayed for all to see. I can't express my rebelliousness with Where Is Father Christmas? though, because when I answer NO, it just recursively squeals at me "If you don't help, no-one will have any presents. Will you help (you bastard)?" and forces me to comply. Alright, it doesn't call me a bastard. It should do. I am one.

Assuming you're not however, or that you do indeed have a young child itching to find Father Christmas, this is quite a lovable game. It's very colourful, every location is illustrated and slightly different, and there are a host of cuddly characters to meet including Robin Hood, a reindeer, a winking snowman and of course Santa Claus. You can't actually die, even if you fall in the thin ice whilst sledging, and the playing area is small whilst the controls simply ask you to type the first letter of the place you wish to visit, e.g. G for Garden.

Clearly a lot of thought has gone into putting it together so that young children will enjoy the quest. However, because I have the intellectual capacity of an amoeba, I have not succeeded in completing it. I found a rather nice horn and every time I moved the computer asked me if I wanted to blow it. I did so eventually because I got sick of seeing the prompt. Whereupon Robin Hood turned up and did his Sir Alan Sugar impersonation, sacking me and leaving me to do my departing voxpop surrounded by jack-in-the-boxes and drum-kits! Disheartening, yes, I think I would go so far as to say that. I'm close to tears. A four year old child would be in floods.

When the game ends, you are simply informed "IT'S THE END OF YOUR TURN" and you actually have to SHIFT-BREAK to start again. I think this is a bit unprofessional in an otherwise excellently put together game. Surely "ANOTHER TRY? (Y/N)" wouldn't have taken long to implement.

I haven't played a lot of these educational games for children for obvious reasons (in that they seem to bring out my immature and slightly bizarre side) so I cannot really say if this survivor was a brilliant example of the genre. Still, whether it is or not, it's a nice little game for your youngster to explore if the nipper's not quite ready for an iPod yet.