Memories of falling in love with video games are so often entwined with a sense of the Christmas period.
For a youngster, December 25th has long offered a prime opportunity to secure video games that pocket money alone couldn’t cover. If you really had been good for a whole year, you might even manage to secure a new console or computer. And the time off school provided a rare chance to fill days joystick in hand.
But the relationship between Christmas and games doesn’t end with gift buying. Over the years, numerous game companies have celebrated the festive season by sharing some of their strangest creations; often playful, sometimes rough around the edges, and frequently technologically distinct. And it appears the tradition of creating peculiar Christmas curios was at its peak through the 1990s.
Stalwarts from the UK game development community had a particular knack for making unashamedly lo-fi, knowingly silly creations that poked fun at game design conventions as much as they celebrated the birthday of the Lord Jesus. And they were often given away for free as magazine covermount disks.
The wildly eccentric Cannon Soccer offers a beguiling example, coming from britsoft powerhouse Sensible Software, and glued to the cover of the Amiga Format magazine’s Christmas Special at the close of 1993. Sensible Soccer: European Champions had debuted a year previously, becoming a sensation. Meanwhile, as Christmas 1993 loomed, the studio was getting its strategy shooter Cannon Fodder ready for launch. Promoting that game, of course, would require a demo disk.
Never one to be too concerned by convention, Sensible Software released a covermount disk quite unlike any other. Cannon Soccer – perhaps leaning into the lore about Christmas games of football between the trenches of WWI – thrust the gameplay of Cannon Fodder onto the pitches of Sensible Soccer. Players controlled a squad from the shooter, and essentially unleashed firepower into an unarmed football team. A scattering of Christmas trees and snowy patches reminded you that, yes, this really was a Christmas game. And perhaps the bloodiest of all time.
"At Sensible Software we made cover disks for light relief between months and months of long hours and hard work on our regular games,” Sensible Software co-founder Jon Hare remembers. “Cannon Soccer was our greatest ever cover disk. The game was England vs. Germany, the players were all in military uniform, the ball was a grenade and every 30 seconds it exploded killing everyone nearby. It led to some great and unpredictable gameplay as you had to try and get rid of the ball before it was too late, but you also had to try and score and play in the normal way. You could open up enormous gaps in the opposition midfield by simply blowing them up with a well timed chip. Oh what fun we had."
A year earlier iconic British studio Bullfrog had released its own Christmas coverdisk game in the form of Psycho Santa – strictly a horizontal shoot ‘em up with faint flavours of Defender. It was charming, odd, and unlike the team’s seminal works Syndicate and Populous – rather lacking in polish and finesse. Like Cannon Soccer, a tongue appeared to be firmly pressed in cheek for the release of Psycho Santa – which is perhaps the reason these festive curios are so fascinating.
Earlier still DMA Design had released Christmas skinned demos of its beloved rodent saving puzzler Lemmings, originally under the ‘Xmas Lemmings’ name, with separate compilations of exclusive levels coming to PC and Amiga in 1991 and 1992. Those demos even turned into a short series of full releases – the beloved Holiday Lemmings games that debuted over the following two years.
On the matter of full Christmas games with an unconventional charm and animal leads, Moley Christmas released for the ZX Spectrum in 1987, and asked players to take a game from the programming stage to distribution on magazines – something of an unintended prediction of the future of Christmas games. The first few players to complete the game and provide proof would even receive a bundle of games from the publisher. It’s hard to get more Christmassy than a game that actually delivers gifts.
Elsewhere, SEGA commissioned the famous Christmas Nights sampler in 1996, realised as a modest seasonal extension of NiGHTS Into Dreams, and featuring the debut appearance of a 3D sonic Sonic the Hedgehog.
Considerably more distinct – and far ahead of their time – were the infamous ‘Christmas cards’ from adventure game pioneers Sierra. They would send interactive DOS-based ‘living cards’ on disk to the likes of retailers from 1986 to 1993, apparently to help show off hardware capabilities. Resplendent with pixel art that pushed technological boundaries at the time, users could customise the cards to their wishes. Today the emailled ‘eCard’ almost feels tired and hackneyed. In 1986, Sierra’s effort saw Christmas teeter on the cutting edge. In fact, just a year previously the outfit Thoughtware released its own ‘Jingle Disk’ for the Apple II and Commodore 64, but most remember the Sierra examples with greater clarity.
Over in the world of demoscene, where teams and individuals craft and code rolling computer artworks that showcase audio and visual prowess, technological experimentation is a bedrock of the subculture. So there’s little surprise that there are a bounty of Christmas-themed demos, even as far back as this 1981 Atari example credited to Claus Buchholz. Equally, the closely related form that is the cracktro has often leaned into Christmas with playful subversion – adding traditional flourishes to the demo-like intros to cracked game copies. And taking a more formal approach, Commodore even released its own official festive demo back in 1982.
Today, developers might furnish Call of Duty with a temporary snowball fight through the winter holidays, offer Christmas cosmetic items in the likes of Animal Crossing, or provide full seasonal DLC as seen in Saints Row IV. But all those things are so polished and carefully delivered. It is perhaps only demoscene that today keeps the flame alive for peculiar, unpolished and characterful Christmas computing alive.
A wealth of Christmas demos continue to be made, and can come a great deal closer to the spirit of games like Cannon Soccer or the Sierra living cards – in style, tone, flavour and technological approach. Creativity and innovation still exist in plentiful supply elsewhere in games and their close relatives today – but so too does that more focused concern on polish. It may seem odd in the era of game jams and early access, but today’s equivalents to Bullfrog appear rather less keen to share scrappy little novelties like Psycho Santa.
And yet gaming and Christmas continue to be part of one another – because gaming gifts make great presents. Bitmap Books, of course, offers a wealth of choices on that front – perhaps Game Boy: The Box Art Collection, which is perfect for settling into as you stuff yourself with Christmas dinner leftovers, and maybe warm yourself on a Sierra living card fireplace while admiring the stunning artwork within The Art of Point-and-Click Adventure Games.