Yeah, I know, if I was that desperate to discover a Spectrum Christmas game I could have picked Special Delivery (which I am quite fond of) or The Official Father Christmas or even Merry Xmas Santa, but a festive strip poker game starring my favourite Page 3 hottie has got to be way more fun, right? No question, but in case you’re a bit worried about sensitive content, no need – I’ve got no idea about playing cards so she won’t be going that far! And as you’ve probably already noticed, it’s hardly the Amiga version anyway… We’ll come back to all of that later though, but while I will be keeping everything strictly PG, you could always check out our look at Moley Christmas, starring none other than the great Monty Mole, if you are concerned that things might get a bit too fruity!

The Maria in question – the one with the Christmas Box – is, of course, English glamour model Maria Whittaker, who shot to fame in the more innocent times of 1985, when her all-natural sixteen year-old 36DD charms were first plastered all over The Sun newspaper. Before long, she was the working man’s darling, up there with the likes of Sam Fox and Linda Lusardi, but for us gamers of a certain age she will forever be the, er, face of Palace Software’s fantastic 1987 sword-wielding fighter Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, as well as its 1988 sequel Barbarian II: The Dungeon of Drax, alongside Wolf from Gladiators. Impressive suit of armour too!

She eventually got a game of her very own in time for Christmas 1988, Maria’s Christmas Box by Anco Software, who, just a year later, would go on to release my second favourite game of all time, Kick Off on Atari ST! Actually, I think the Spectrum versions of both were done by the same guy, John Mitchell, but we’ll come back to other versions later. Anco already had a bit of form with strip poker games, having previously released Strip Poker II on absolutely everything (right down to Commodore 16) a few months earlier. This was a sequel to Strip Poker: A Sizzling Game of Chance by Artworx, which I don’t think ever came to the Spectrum, and likewise their own sequel, Strip Poker II: A Sizzling Game of Chance. What a shame!

We’re going to leave Suzi and Melissa (although other opponents were also available on expansion disks) and turn our attention back to Maria now. I don’t have the original Spectrum box to hand, but the back of the Atari ST box will probably do… “STRIP POKER has never had such a glamorous challenger. MARIA WHITTAKER invites you to take your seat, clean your screen and settle down to pit your wits and skill against her wiles and charm. Do not let her looks and guile fool you into making rash bets or you will lose all you stand in before you can say MARIA WHITTAKER. If you can keep your cool and take your chances boldly, your screen will sizzle as MARIA reveals the stunning charms and beauty that have made MARIA a household name and a dream girl of millions across the five continents. The turn of a card can make the dream come true.” And I refer you to the images you can see all over this page so you can make your own mind about that if you’re not playing the Atari ST version! By the way, credit to the wonderful Atari Mania for the box scan.

As I know nothing about playing poker, it’s probably worth referring to the instructions next! Right, at the beginning of each hand you have to make a bet of $5, which is done automatically from your initial pot of $100, the same as Maria’s pot. You then get dealt your five cards, displayed at the bottom of the screen, together with some options. Stay means do nothing for now and see what Maria does, but if she does the same the hand will get dealt again at the cost of another $5. However, if she’s already made a bet or raised yours you can’t stay. Choosing to bet lets you put more money into the pot for her to match or drop out, which is your third option at the outset. If you think you’ve got a better hand or you want to try and bluff her into dropping out without losing any more cash, you can raise your bet, from $5 to a maximum of $25, and each player can do that twice in a round. After that, either of you can call, meaning you’re willing to equal the amount the other has put in but not raise it further.

Assuming no one’s dropped out, you can then draw up to five cards to replace any of yours you don’t like the look of, and once you’ve both done that there’s a chance for one more round of betting before you show your grubby little hands then the winner takes it all. I’m not going to go much deeper into the workings of poker here, but apparently royal flush is the best, which is ten, jack, queen, king and ace all in the same suit, then there’s straight flush, which is that again but not in the same suit, four of a kind, full house (three of a kind and a pair), then other flushes and straights, three of a kind, a pair or just the highest card if you’re both desperate. If you or Maria use up all your money, you can borrow another $100 against an article of clothing, which, of course, has to be removed first. Clothing can be won back if you get back over $100 and can repay your debt, or if you lose all your clothes it’s game over.

Between hands, you’re given the option to just go ahead and play the next, or you can stop to get a full-screen “look at the girl” or just start all over again or quit altogether. There is an option to play another girl too, which involves finding where she is on your tape and loading her. Unfortunately I didn’t splash out on this pioneering piece of what would eventually evolve into DLC so I can’t tell you much about that! What I can tell you about though is that this seems to amount to a pretty solid game of poker, if you’re okay for everything to take its jolly old time to do anything! Of course there’s a compulsion to see the next state of undress, but what I assume is the basic compulsion behind playing poker for money also seems to be there, and as a result, once I kind of knew what I was doing, was pretty much hooked on playing this, and have been every time I’ve been back. Which is more times than I’m going to admit to here, so let’s just say I didn’t stop until I’d seen it all!

And what a sight it was, so let’s talk Santa’s little elephant, which has been lurking in the room since the beginning, and the state of these graphics! Okay, while I’ve kept the images family-friendly, I’m not holding back on my feelings here – she looks like Marilyn Manson with big tits and a crack-whore bouffant! And sometimes Michael Jackson. It’s the mouth though, like Heath Ledger’s Joker’s dentist’s worst nightmare! But to the game’s credit, I will admit that things improve the further you get, and in particular the picture where she’s only got the bottom half of her underwear to go is mostly authentic and in proportion – even her face for a change! The cards look alright though, and they’ve done a great job of making all the suits easily identifiable, and while the snot-green user interface could have been a bit more sensitive to the eyes, it’s all giving you the illusion of a decent game of cards. Unlike the sound effects, which thankfully only make a random appearance once every couple of minutes, but remind me of the noises I used to get out of my VIC-20. On my very first attempt!

I’ve run out of family-friendly images now, so let’s quickly mention some of the other versions. I think the Commodore 64’s might look even worse – of similar artistic merit to the Spectrum’s but more blocky and more brown (apart from the weird white bits), ending up looking like Freddy Krueger done in that ancient KoalaPainter, using Koala’s own C64 graphics tablet, except it’s not been connected to the TV so you can’t see what anything looks like! It’s truly horrendous, and makes the Spectrum version seem decidedly sexy by the time she’s got her kit off! The sound is marginally less offensive though, and the playing cards have a nice design about them too, but at this point we really should be looking elsewhere for our Maria Whittaker kicks…

Let’s move to those 16-bit versions, and as we looked at the ST box content earlier, we’ll actually have a go at playing the Amiga one in the interests of fairness. And you know what? I really like this! And not just for the proper digitised nudie photos instead of an unintended gothic freak show either! You’ve now got an easy mode and a hard mode, and some nice sound effects, and everything is just laid out a bit nicer, but the main thing is the mouse control – makes a huge difference to the flow of the game!

I really wasn’t expecting much of a card game built around some frankly embarrassing Page 3 pixel art in slutty Christmas wrapping paper, but all three versions turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable in their own way. There might be something in this poker thing! And the 8-bit versions are genuinely hilarious on top. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of that Sam Fox Strip Poker for all this time after all! The Amiga version though… Possibly my favourite Christmas game ever? Okay, without giving it too much thought, in reality it’s probably Deathsmiles II: Makai No Merry Christmas, so throw in Special Delivery on the C64 and we’ll call it top three! And with that, should it be just about Christmas where you are when you’re reading this, I wish you a very merry one, and if it’s not, maybe stick to the Barbarian pictures or a vintage copy of Penthouse instead!