It’s a one-off day early for our regular roundup of quick-fire reviews and impressions of everything under the spotlight at Retro Arcadia this week, old and new and a bit of both… As long as it’s a Christmas game!

I’m going to begin with the one I’ve just turned off as I write, and it’s on Sega Saturn, and it’s called Christmas NIGHTS Into Dreams! This is actually from a very cool old demo disk from 1996 and is based on plain old NIGHTS Into Dreams from earlier that year by Sega’s Team Sonic, and is a kind of 3D Sonic prototype meets Super Mario 64. This version is effectively one complete level, including its boss, dressed for Christmas but only if you enter a date in December when it asks at the start, otherwise you get the regular game stage demo! There’s not a lot to the gameplay – collect festive tokens to light candles on a Christmas cake to rescue the Christmas Star or some such nonsense, and despite some 3D textures that you’re better off not getting too close to nowadays, this is really fun, very addictive and a real audio and visual Christmas feast! Loads of presents to unlock too, from soundtracks to mini-games where you play as Sonic himself, and they’re just through extended rather than expert gameplay, which is certainly no chore!

A chore is one way of describing XMAS-oid on the ZX Spectrum though. You could also call it cruel and infuriating, or even just pure filth! Addictive as hell though, and once you start there’s no way you’re stopping until you’ve beaten it! This was released as a demo with WOOT! Tape Magazine back in December 2020, and created by Dave Hughes and Sergio Vaquer Montes, and while they clearly hate you a bit, they don’t hate you enough to put you through more than one level before you’re rewarded with a very Spectrum festive surprise! You play as a hydrogen atom with plenty of inertia behind just left, right and thrust, as well as a penchant for a panic (then death) inducing bounce off the walls into the opposite direction at the slightest touch. You need to get all the Christmas crackers scattered around the level while avoiding nasty critters, including what appears to be the evil Eugene from Manic Miner, then get out to save Christmas. Apparently. And it’s much easier said than done, and you’re going to detest every wonderful second! Shoutout to my friend and YouTube retro gamer extraordinaire Nick Jenkin for the introduction to this one just a few days ago, so check out his video review and the rest of his fantastic channel here.

It might have only just appeared here, but I actually put together our deep-dive (so to speak) into Maria’s Christmas Box on the ZX Spectrum back in September, which isn’t a massively Christmassy time of year, but during my tour of other versions I got quite taken by the Amiga one and promised myself I’d come back when the time was right, and that time is obviously now! It turned out there was a pretty decent game of poker behind some downright bizarre graphics on the 8-bit systems, but the mouse control and a bit more pace made all the difference on 16-bit, and I can’t really deny those far higher quality digitisations of my favourite eighties Page 3 girl didn’t do any harm either. Good game of Christmas cards though!

When I was putting that together, I did briefly consider the subject of favourite Christmas game, and while the shortlist is definitely a short list (with most of its contents on this page!) there’s no question that my all-time favourite Christmas game is the sequel to my all-time favourite shoot ‘em up, Deathsmiles II: Makai No Merry Christmas! Okay, like everything else, it’s obviously no Deathsmiles, and the gothic exuberance of the original is lost a bit in the move to bonkers festive polygons, but it’s still a 2009 bullet-hell from Cave, and that makes it pretty fantastic in all other respects! This was actually another one I was saving for Christmas after getting the Deathsmiles I+II Collector’s Edition on Nintendo Switch a few months back, although I might have had a few peeks in the interim because as much as I adore the original, I’ve never been able to get the sequel running properly on MAME or other nefarious means so it’s mostly first time! A lot of fun though, and I’m over the moon to be able to play it properly at last at any time of the year!

The other game that got a mention to try and distract from the sleaziness of my Christmas strip poker feature was Special Delivery on Commodore 64, which I think might well have also been the very first game I ever played one there! I wouldn’t say it’s a stinker, but it’s very 1984, with you gadding about on Santa’s sleigh, avoiding lightning while you catch presents from angels in the clouds. Collect enough and you land on a roof, climb down one of three ladders in a very oversized chimney, dodging unspecified baddies on the way, then creep around a crude 3D house to deliver them under a tree while avoiding its inhabitants. As Prince once said, they say the first time ain’t the greatest but I tell you, if I had the chance to do it all again, I wouldn’t change a stroke… Great days!

Still on the C64 but several decades later, Santa’s Rats is a homebrew from 2021 by Marco Giorgini that I just missed out on covering in time for last Christmas, but have had loads of fun with since, Christmas or not! It’s a ladders and platforms game set in houses in a small town on Christmas Eve where the rats have joined forces with other animals to fill houses with dangerous presents as revenge for the traps left to get rid of them, so you need to not only deliver the right presents under the trees but also remove the bad ones, all before morning comes. It might be new but it knows old-school challenge, and it’s got a great-looking Santa and a cool soundtrack to boot. Give it a go if you haven’t already!

It might not be a favourite of mine like Deathsmiles or its sequel but there’s no denying Boogie Wings has a fantastic Christmas level – up there with that Mickey Mouse one on the Mega Drive that I’d love to talk about here but don’t have the player two you need to get to it! We’ll just settle for this 1992 Data East horizontal shoot ‘em up instead, although that label is underselling things a bit! Things start traditional but that hook dangling from your plane will soon be picking up anything not nailed down and chucking it for extra destruction. The fun doesn’t stop there either, with the game turning into a run and gun if your plane gets shot down, at least until you can commandeer another vehicle, from pogo sticks to steampunk toy robots to elephants! This weirdness is reflected in the bonkers level designs too, as well as the bosses, and our Christmas level here is full to the brim with cheer, at least until the crazy giant Santa boss!

Over on the Taito Egret II Mini, I’ve been playing Puzzle Bobble 2X with the added stress of matching symbols on little bubbles instead of colours (for colourblind reasons) on and off for a few months now. I absolutely love it regardless though! This is the vaguely Christmas-themed 1995 tournament-style sequel to the original match-three bubble-popper, and if that concept wasn’t addictive enough then the big demands on added luck to both get anywhere and then rack up a decent score make it pure gaming crack! And as well as the Christmas attract mode, hidden away among the DIP-switches is an option for a New Year one, so no doubt we’ll wheel it out here again next week too!

I’ve been playing loads of Sonic Advance on the Game Boy Advance of late (which also features the best-looking wintry scenes you’ll ever see on the GBA), so while I was messing about on there I took the opportunity for a run out in Mario Kart: Super Circuit, which tends to be the case whenever my favourite console ever is on the go in my hands! Okay, the majority has nothing to do with Christmas, but I couldn’t resist a mention of Snow Land, the first track from the Star Cup. This is about where things are getting challenging once you’re on the bigger engine sizes, but this track is perfectly balanced with some nice obstacles as well as some nice snowmen and Christmas trees! Apart from those, though, I suppose you could say that about most of the tracks on here, and that’s why it’s also one of my top three games on the system!

No question about the Christmas credentials of Psycho Santa back on the Amiga. Er, maybe! Getting to know the Amiga, care of the A500 Mini, has been one of my gaming highlights this year, opening up some really great experiences with the likes of Banshee, Apidya and Zool, as well as new-to-me versions of old favourites like Stunt Car Racer, Battle Chess and a couple of Monkey Islands to name just a few. Okay, Psycho Santa might not make the cut when I’m looking for other games to gush about on there, but I wanted to give something festive a go that wasn’t strip poker, and this was what I came up with! It was a freebie by Bullfrog that appeared on the cover of the January 1993 issue of The One magazine, and while it’s way more polished than you might expect from a cover disk, there’s not much too it – just a very basic take on Defender. Next time I’ll go for James Pond II or one of the Holiday Lemmings instead!

Just about done now, so next we’ll go with Batman Returns on Sega-CD or Mega-CD or whatever you want to call my new favourite (non-handheld!) system, and as you saw the Christmassy screenshot at the top of the page already, we’ll go off-piste with the mad clown one here! This is an enhanced version of the Mega Drive or Genesis platformer based on the 1992 super-gothic sort of Christmas movie, and I’m not just talking the usual enhanced sound either – it’s got a whole new set of 3D driving levels too, and if alternating those with the lacklustre jumping and climbing levels from the original isn’t for you then you can just switch them off and drive around to your heart’s content against an absolutely stunning Gotham backdrop. In a Batmobile! The last couple of stages switch to your Bat-boat too but you’ll be lucky to see them – the time limit a few levels into this very stylish take on RoadBlasters is rough! Fantastic soundtrack tops off an essential Batman experience though!

Okay, before I leave you to enjoy your Christmas, I mentioned something earlier that’s already bugging me and is likely to stop me enjoying mine, so I want to come back to that Mickey Mouse game on the Mega Drive, or World of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to be precise, joining us all the way from 1992! I’ve played through this solo but that’s no use to us here because a few levels in you find The Library, and if there’s two of you playing in there rather than one you’ll find an open Christmas present box that you can both jump into to reveal a hidden Christmas level! For the purposes of including it here though, I’ve cheated, connecting a second controller to my Mega Drive Mini where the game can currently and legitimately be found, and I’ve used the password system (based on some very cool Disney playing cards) to dump me at the start of The Library and I’ve found the Christmas level by inching my way to the box, one player at a time, all by myself. Which I reckon cancels out the cheating! The payoff is worth it though, and while the level is a bit mundane, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Even when it’s a dodgy photo of my dodgy old TV!

And that tops off our Christmas Special, which I’m already wondering how I’m going to follow next year, but there’s plenty of time to come up with something! In case you missed it, don’t forget to check out The Retro Arcadia Top Ten Countdown & Game of the Year 2022 from last Wednesday. Quite exciting it is, too! And there’s also that family-friendly look at a bit of festive strip poker with the aforementioned Maria’s Christmas Box on ZX Spectrum, though it’s so weird that I’d probably keep it away from your family regardless! More end of year stuff coming next Wednesday with a self-indulgent look back at everything I’ve played and completed this year, then I think we’ll switch back to our regular numbered Sunday spot for the next Weekly Spotlight. And with that, all that remains is for me to thank you for being here today and for everything we’ve done together in 2022, and wish you a very merry Christmas!