Christmas Crackers
Review By: Gringo

Christmas is a magical time of year, so Coca-Cola likes to tell us. It was also special for owners of the old Amstrad CPC 6128 computer. That name was more of a mouthful than some kid allegedly got round some singer's house. Ahem. See, for a couple of years, designers back in the 1980s liked to come up with Christmas-themed titles to release for the Amstrad. Last year, I reviewed one such game, called Official Father Christmas. In the interests of continuity (and having nothing else to review) I've decided to pick on another festive Amstrad game for you happy-go-lucky readers out there. I'll spoil the joy for you in advance and tell you that this game is not even as tolerable as the jaunty day-in-the-life of Father Christmas I linked to a few sentences ago. See, that's my Christmas present to you - revealing the end of this review so you don't even have to continue reading. Here's hoping I pick a good Christmas-themed Amstrad game to review next year. Or alternatively, that the Gringo television cartoon series scores record viewing figures and I can retire to a hedonistic life of bisexual prostitutes and Cuban cigars. At the same time!

1. Snowplough

You're given a brief introduction to this game telling you that winter's here and there's been a heavy snowfall overnight. As chief car park attendant (enticing role, eh?) it's your job to clear the car parks of snow so the greedy Christmas shoppers have somewhere to park. Armed only with a Mini Melter snowplough (no, clueless myself) you have to clear the snow but WATCH OUT! Ponds, flowerbeds and rocks will ruin your machine if you're not careful! Nice of them to warn you, but really the disclaimer should have been in place for the game itself. An insanely loud noise which is a lot like static mixed with the occasional bouncing noise persists as you try and drive what looks like a guy and a cripple in a wheelchair doing the waltz around the car park. As for the obstacles, the flowerbeds and rocks have inexplicably become moldy pizzas and meatballs, and there seems to be a bubble of gum floating round the screen. The Mini Melter/cripple contraption is impossible to control for more than a couple of seconds. I kept driving into either a food product or the car park wall, which also seems to be without an exit. Quite how drivers were meant to get in once I'd cleaned the place is beyond me.

2. Snap

Helpful information - "This is a variation of the card game Snap - played with Christmas cards". The introduction also suggests playing it either "against a friend or play against your Amstrad." It's a tactful reminder that the kind of geeks who play Christmas Crackers are so friendless they actually refer to their Amstrad computers as companions. I chose to play against the Amstrad. A lot of crudely drawn Christmas cards are thrown down on a table and you have to hit a key whenever two matching ones show up. Nobody told me the Amstrad computer was so quick-minded that it could win a hand just seconds before the Snap card would be thrown down, so inevitably I lost. When I did manage to pound the keyboard into submission at what I thought was a Snap, I was told no, and I was quite dumb. In fact, the Amstrad and the card shuffler teamed up against me and shouted, "You need glasses Gringo!" as you can see from the picture above. After trying to hit on the Amstrad halfway through the game, I realised the relationship was never going to be anything more than just good friends, so we said our good-byes and I moved on to the next game.

3. Krimble Kastle

An ominous two-second-warning flashes up when you choose this game. It says "ENTER KRIMBLE KASTLE AT YOUR OWN RISK". And yes, it's all in upper case. This game has the most in-depth back-story. It goes on for five screens and is far too lengthy to repeat here. In summary, the Middle Earth colony of Grange has been at war against the Dark Alliance (getting that festive feeling yet?). Three wizards were enlisted who forced the alliance back to its stronghold of Krimble Kastle (surely that should be where happy elves live?). Even though there's no mention of war ending, for some reason the wizards decided that every Christmas a knight should go the castle and complete three quests. For no apparent reason. Right. Shame the knight seems to resemble Shrek in a jumpsuit, and you have to fend off aliens and bats in your quest to find some badly drawn treasures. You can probably tell - as with most of these games - I couldn't handle the frantic pace and quickly moved on to the next one. It's likely the designers thought up the name first "Hey! Krimble Kastle! Hooray!" and then desperately tried to come up with something to fit the title "Hmm, ogre fights alien bats? Sounds like Christmas to me!"

4. Jet Set Santa

Robin Nixon apparently made this sub-game. I knew it! Nixon's Republican spirit is everywhere, even Christmas! There's no fancy introduction to this game, just the urgent and hastily typed plea "Help Santa make his x-mas tree and collect all of the presents." Obliging, I got ready to wield the complex controls: Z for left, X for right, Enter for fire and Shift for thrust, whatever the hell that threatened to be. Turns out you're Santa (with a jet pack, naturally) and you have to construct a Christmas tree. This is done by picking up bits of the tree with your feet while you zoom around the screen, firing what looks like Pez pellets at floating bundles of spanners and hammers. Once the tree is complete, a load of presents (including over-sized socks and Christmas crackers) fall from the sky. You have to again pick them up with your toes and drop them on the tree. Obvious when you think about it. Except surely all the presents would be destroyed by the intense heat of Santa's jet pack? Never mind, I didn't bother for long and was left in a comatose state because - when you quit - the screen flashes in hallucinogenic colours for what seems like an eternity.

5. Pull The Cracker

Simple enough instructions for this one - "Tap the keys as fast as you can to snap the cracker." Yes, it's one of those annoying games where you have to mash your keyboard at an insane pace in the small hope you'll defeat your arch nemesis The Computer. You're told that whoever taps the fastest will win (obvious) and that it's first to five to decide the ultimate warrior of cracker pulling (less obvious). What freaked me out was the difficulty option screen. You can choose from Eezy Peezy, Okay Kokay, or Rock Hard. Resisting the temptation to make some snotty quip to the PC about its bad spelling, I chose Eezy Peezy. And when it says Eezy, it means really Eezy. I failed to realise I wasn't playing against the computer, and that the game was designed for two people. You know, friends. Failing to fulfill this criterion, I managed to pull the first cracker with alarming speed. A little parcel tied up with a bow dropped out and for a moment I felt truly blessed. I considered trying to get to five wins - competing against no one - but gave that up and moved on swiftly to the final challenge.

6. Name The Carol

This was really a quite sweet little sub-game. Everyone say "aaaaah." You watch a bunch of ghoulishly coloured carolers standing still in the middle of a village where the houses shine warm green lights. For 60 seconds the computer spits out blandly rendered versions of well-known Christmas carols, including O Little Town Of Bethlehem, The Holly And The Ivy and I Kill You, Santa Claus. The last time I sang Christmas carols was years ago, back in school, so I had forgotten some of the more obscure ones. But I still did remarkably well, although even with this - the most tolerable of the games - I didn't get to the end. Blame that on my impatience and the need to have a pee. All in all, I can't really believe this compilation was considered either particularly festive or ahead of its time when it was released. Still, there are not many other games that have a mention of Nixon and Christmas at once. But Christmas Crackers wasn't anywhere near the quality levels of Official Father Christmas, and that's a damning enough verdict itself without the need for elaboration. Some people wish it could be Christmas everyday. When there are games like this around, I'm not one of them. Ho ho ho!

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