So, I Stopped Updating VGJunk

There hasn’t been a new VGJunk article in nine months – wow, nine months, really? Even I didn’t think it had been that long – so as you can probably tell, VGJunk is closed for business. I really should have mentioned something about it earlier, but the unpleasant finality of saying “right, VGJunk is over” kept putting me off. I thought maybe I’d come back to it, and I did try a couple of times, but those attempts were non-starters so here we are at The End. I also held out through October just in case a new Halloween Trick or Treat game was released, because I’d have come back for that. I know, I’m as disappointed as you are.
So why did I stop? Normal, boring life reasons, I’m afraid. Lack of time, mostly. For a big chunk of VGJunk’s run I was acting as a carer, which resulted in a situation where I didn’t have a job to go to but I also couldn’t get out of the house much; a fertile breeding ground for bad jokes about long-forgotten ZX Spectrum games. That’s all changed, and amongst other things I’m working full time - and after spending all day typing things into a computer in an office I’m not exactly desperate to come home and spend all night typing things into a computer. VGJunk articles may look like amateurish, hurriedly-cobbled-together things, and that’s because they are – but each one took a pretty long time to put together and that’s time I just don’t have any more. I can scarcely believe I kept up the schedule that I did, frankly.
I also felt like I was getting into a bit of rut, writing articles just for the sake of having put something out that week, and that the standard of quality was slipping below my admittedly very low bar. There’s no fun in forcing it, and I started VGJunk to be a fun thing that would occupy me during some of the roughest times in my life. In that sense, VGJunk was outshone its goals, because I did have a hell of a lot of fun writing these hundreds of thousands (millions, even) of words.
So that’s that. Will VGJunk ever return? Probably not, and it’s especially unlikely to be in its old format, but never say never. I do love writing, and I’ve been tentatively getting back into writing some horror fiction and stuff like that, but that’s a hobby that I’ll most likely keep to myself.
As always, a big thank you to everyone who read, shared and commented – VGJunk’s readership was overwhelmingly a bunch of kind, insightful and funny people, and I’m very pleased to think that I provided you with some entertainment over the years. The articles will stay where they are for the forseeable future while I think about archiving them somehow, and if you have a particular favourite VGJunk article, please feel free to let me know. I’m still around on Twitter @vgjunk, and hey: we’ll always have *NSYNC:Get to the Show.

Best wishes to you all,



Hello there. It’s been a while, huh? That’s real life for you, always getting in the way and being an endless slog filled with responsibilities and hardship whose heavy burden is only lifted by the sweet embrace of death. I kid, I kid, I’m doing okay, I’m just busy and tired – but I can’t stay away from VGJunk forever, so I’m going to ease myself back in with a look at another selection of home computer game cover art! This time all the featured games have “knight” in the title, for no other reason than me thinking “hey, I bet there are a bunch of computer games with ‘knight’ in the title.” The process by which I select topics for VGJunk articles is not a deep, scientific one. Anyway, let’s get cracking!

Knight Force, PC

Now that’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see on the cover of a game about knights – a warrior in shining armour facing off against an enormous dragon. A classic image, I’m sure you’ll agree, harking back to the tales of Saint George, although as far as I recall Saint George didn’t have access to a magical sword that crackled with lightning. He just had, you know, God. Take this as a baseline, then, a typical cover for an eighties computer game starring a knight. Nice and straightforward, even if now that I look closer I realise that the dragon has weirdly human knees. What else do we have?

Knight Flight, Sinclair QL

Already things are beginning to get a bit weird, with a knight who gives off a futuristic vibe despite there being nothing on his armour that couldn’t have been created by a medieval blacksmith with a very forward-thinking sense of fashion. He reminds me of Ramirez from the Highlander movies. I think it’s the earring. Forget about the knight, though, and take a look at that thing on the right. What the hell is it? A staff? A sword with the worst handle imaginable? The unholy offspring of a giraffe and a dolphin? Because that’s definitely a dolphin’s head, wearing a vaguely Roman helmet. A dolphin with a very human-looking eye. Is that going to be the theme of this article? Creatures with one human body part? Whatever the dolphin stick is, it’s making me want to play Knight Flight just to find out, so on that evidence this must be good cover art.

Knight Tyme, Commodore 64

Oh yes, we’re going to be seeing a bunch of knight / night puns in this article. This one definitely has a futuristic theme, what with the spaceships and the Basil Wolverton-esque aliens, which makes it interesting that the knight himself looks, well, just like a regular knight. Maybe that’s a space helmet. And space greaves. And a space cape. Hang on a second – that belt, the little skirt, the circular clasps holding his cape in place… if this knight wasn’t copied from a picture of Doctor Doom I would be very surprised. However, he’s got one thing that Doctor Doom doesn’t – one small red stick. Quick, someone find this space knight a drum kit and he can join a Def Leppard tribute band.

The Black Knight, ZX Spectrum

“Oh, bloody hell, there’s no knights in this clipart collection. Guess it’ll just have to be a cartoon wizard, then.”

Demon Knight, Commodore 64

Here’s a game that I’m sad to report is not an adaptation of the Tales From the Crypt movie Demon Knight, a film that stars Billy Zane giving it more ham than all the butchers in Spain and an appearance by the late Dick Miller. Hop on Youtube some time and search for “demon knight billy zane” and you’ll see what I mean. This Demon Knight features no Billy Zane, but it does tout itself as “a terrifyingly difficult adventure,” something that is not communicated by the cover art. You know what this cover art reminds me of? Doing brass rubbings on a school trip. Chilling.

Killer Knight, ZX Spectrum

From a Demon Knight to a Killer Knight now, with another futuristic space-knight. Now you might be looking at this cover and thinking, “hey, this sure looks like it would be a Bomberman clone,” and I can see where you’re coming from. Those definitely look like bombs and the knight’s visor gives him something of a Bomberman-like appearance, but no. It’s actually a Donkey Kong clone. The knight throws cannonballs rather than barrels, and while obviously I cannot one hundred percent confirm that there isn’t a gorilla under that plate armour I’m fairly certain it’s just a bloke. Other than that it’s Donkey Kong, except really bad. I do quite like the cover art, though. It’s fun trying to decide if that thing coming out of his head is a white feather plume or he’s blowing a jet of steam out of his head in the manner of an angry cartoon character.

Knight Fall, ZX Spectrum

See what I mean about the knight / night puns? Anyway, this isn’t a very interesting cover but I included it because it’s by Pirate Games and that seems like a very dangerous thing to call your computer game company in the days of home taping. The risk of someone seeing it and thinking “Pirate games? Don’t mind if I do!” surely outweighs the benefits of having a cool skull-and-crossbones logo.

The Knight’s Quest, ZX Spectrum

Oh, but I do so love these hand-drawn, amateur ZX Spectrum covers. They’re just so darned charming, and this is a good example of the form. Sure, the angular visor makes it look like the knight’s balancing a toaster on his head and he’s got one huge blue monobrow, but it’s got character.

Knights of Legend, Commodore 64.

“Grr,” says the knight of legend. “Grrrr.” He’s put a lot of work into projecting a fearsome image of strength: the sword pose that allows him to show off his biceps, the chainmail bib that offers little protection but which does give a barely-impeded view of his bulging abs. Sure, he’ll last about six second in a battle before someone who knows what they're doing rams a dagger between his exposed ribs, but until then ye comely maidens in yon village taverne are going to be feeling a lot less chaste than usual.

Cyberknights, ZX Spectrum

Ah yes, the story of Cyberknight, the warrior from the distant future who can only (ahem) achieve completion by rubbing his groin on steel girders like The Asylum’s version of Tetsuo: The Iron Man. Every construction site and builder’s merchants in Neo-Camelot has posters up warning employees to call the astro-police should the Cyberknight appear, his loins coated with WD-40 and a lascivious glint in his eyes.

Kung Fu Knights, ZX Spectrum

No, not Dark Souls with the Wood Grain Ring equipped but actual knights engaging in martial arts combat. See, the one of the right appears to be using Mike Haggar’s spinning lariat technique, because why not borrow from the best? Given that both combatants are wearing full suits of armour, I imagine that these knightly kung fu battles go on until one of the combatants dies of dehydration rather than because someone landed a telling blow. This is all a moot point, anyway, because the game’s blurb states that you have to punch and kick your way through the game – but then casually drops in that the knight also has a Colt 45. With no disrespect intended to kung fu practitioners the world over, I feel that makes the fisticuffs kind of redundant.

Knight Games, PC

Here’s some cover art that’s just straight up good, a bit of classic fantasy illustration that nicely captures the brutality of medieval combat. Seriously, how hard would you have to whack someone in the noggin on order to break the handle of your mace? I think we can safely say that the knight in the foreground has been thoroughly bested in these knight games. Oh, and don’t let the quality of the cover art fool you; I’ve actually covered Knight Games in the past and it’s a bit rubbish.

Knights of the Desert, Commodore 64

“I say, Stanley, I’m sure that these two-hundred foot tall mounted knights are going to put the fear of God into old Jerry, eh?”
“Too right and no mistake, sir. Almost makes me wonder why we bothered with the all the tanks, sir.”
“Ours is not to reason why, Stanley. Let’s just hope that there is plenty of hay waiting for us in Tobruk.”

Knight Lore, ZX Spectrum

I feel like someone would call me out on it if I didn’t include Knight Lore in this article. So here it is. It’s not a very interesting cover. An engraving of a three-headed demon whose heads have all simultaneously realised that they’ve just stood in dog muck with no shoes on. Like I say, not thrilling, but here it is.

Knight Moves, PC

Hell yeah, a jack o’lantern! Picking knight-based games to cover finally pays off. Halloween seems like so long ago. Nice “tablecloth from an Italian restaurant” look you’ve got there, pumpkin man. But we’re here for the knights today, so let’s take a look at the chap in the centre and then suddenly realise that he’s wearing socks. Are those chainmail socks? Good god, imagine walking around wearing heavy metal boots filled with small metal rings. No wonder the “knight moves” in question seem to be a kind of hobbled, contorted lunge.

Knight Orc, Commodore 64

Is that supposed to be a pun on “nighthawk”? Previous experience suggests that it is, but this is also a cover depicting actual orc knights, jousting from atop giant wolves and presumably have a whale of a time. They probably want to get their direwolves to the vet, mind. That much bleeding in the mouth is a sign of serious gum disease and I imagine it’s hard to get Dentastix® on the blasted plains of Mordor.

Future Knight, Commodore 64

Oh yeah, now we’re talking. Definitely my favourite of today’s covers is Future Knight, where a future knight with a face that I’m sure is ripped off from a Turrican cover rides a future horse with what appear to be spiked nipples just below its neck. A blast from his laser-lance explodes a goblin, who appears to have already been laying down and begging for mercy, while another goblin and werewolf look on. A jet of fire blazes from the horse’s arse, so if the bottom falls out of the monster-slaying business then at least the Future Knight can clean up at the Grand National. Truly an awe-inspiring sight, I’m sure you’ll agree. But wait a minute, I’m sure I’ve seen that horse somewhere before…

It’s the braying, number-spewing disco-bingo equestrobot from the cover of Sachen’s unlicensed NES game Lucky Bingo, a cover that I have claimed in the past is possibly the greatest videogame cover of all time! That’s a position I’m sticking with, but Future Knight’s cover is still pretty bloody fantastic.

Knight Rider, Commodore 64

Finally for today, here’s a picture of David Hasselhoff. You’re welcome.



It seems as though it’s become traditional for me to start these year-end reviews by saying “man, what a horrible, wearisome year 2015 / 2016/ 2017 / 2018 (delete as appropriate) was on both a personal and a broader social level.” Perhaps 2019 will be less dreadful, but I wouldn’t bank on it. My plan is to start putting a pound in a jar every time I see something on the news that makes me say “what the fuck,” and with Brexit coming up I reckon that by around April the jar will be full enough for me to buy a small uninhabited island to live on.Actually, I’ve got a lot of big life changes coming up at the start of the year and they’re going to affect how much time I can put into VGJunk. There’ll definitely be fewer articles and probably a very irregular schedule. It sucks and I’ll miss spending so much time writing bad jokes about old videogames, but that’s life. For now, though, let’s take a look at some of the winners and losers from 2018’s batch of articles!

Biggest Disappointment

I really wanted Super Star Wars to be a better game than it is, because the graphics and sound make it feel like the closest thing to actually being in a Star Wars movie that 1992 could offer… but the gameplay is a frustrating, overly-difficult mess of endlessly spawning bad guys and pain-in-the-arse platforming. However, I suppose it’s not technically “disappointing” because I already knew Super Star Wars wasn’t great, so instead this award goes to the mobile game Castlevania: Order of Shadows. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a mobile phone adaptation of Konami’s famous franchise to be some hidden masterpiece, but I hoped it would at least be competent. Order of Shadows is not competent, with awful, unresponsive controls and combat that has all the heft and weight of a moth’s fart. Oh, and a special mention should go to Ghoul Patrol for not being nearly as good as Zombies Ate My Neighbors.

Most Shameless Rip-Off

A hard category to judge this year, because I mostly played straight-up bootlegs a rather than legitimate, official games that copied from their peers. There was Jue Zhan Tian Huang, the knock-off beat-em-up that stole sprites from King of Fighters and Street Fighter games to create a side-scrolling brawler that just went on and on and on in an unrelenting death-march of tedium. Oh, and there was Black Touch 96, the other brawler with stolen sprites (and mildly saucy anime girl pictures). I think I’ll have to give this one to Master System platformer Super Bioman 1, the Super Mario Bros. 3 clone starring a Teletubby and “turtles” that look like the result of crossbreeding a turtle and an army helmet. I certainly appreciate Bioman’s sheer cheek, and it ends up being kind of cute in its own off-brand way.

Biggest Waste of A License

I suppose you could argue that turning Street Fighter II into a whack-a-mole game is a “waste” of that franchise’s famous stars, but Ken Sei Mogura: Street Fighter is such a bizarre thing that’s it’s hard not to be glad it exists. I suppose my pick for this category would have to be Gremlins: The Adventure, which wasn’t a bad game but which could have done with a lot more gremlins and a lot less time spent welding metal plates.

Most Pleasant Surprise

Sunman might be an unpolished, unreleased NES Superman game with all the Superman stuff scrubbed off and replaced by a very generic superhero, but it turned out to be more enjoyable that I was expecting and with some extra work I could have seen it becoming a cult favourite. Even better than Sunman was New Ghostbusters II, the never-released-in-the-US movie tie-in. Having played other Ghostbusters games before I didn’t hold out much hope, but New Ghostbusters II turned out to be a really enjoyable slice of top-down zap-n-trap action, with a fun buddy system, adorable graphics and a fantastic soundtrack. Plus, writing about it also lead to actor Peter MacNicol seeing the sprite of himself as creepy baby-snatcher Janosz for the first time ever, so that was fun.

Weirdest Concept

There’s no competition for this category – the prize goes to Super Duck, the arcade game that tells the story of an angel who falls in love with a mortal girl. Then the mortal girl is kidnapped by The Satan, so the angel asks God for help. God’s plan is even more ineffable than usual, because he turns the angel into a duck. The duck travels into Hell. The duck fights monsters by farting on them. I squinted so hard and said “huh” so loud when I saw this that my face almost turned inside-out.

Best In-Game Text

A lot of good examples this year, as there are every year, so let’s begin with one I covered recently; it’s festive HOG Christmas Wonderland 9, and some very strange capitalization from a child who is almost certainly some kind of undercover android on a mission to infiltrate Santa’s lair.

I also enjoyed this worryingly smooth dog from VR Troopers on the Megadrive asking for pizza. Having watched through The Sopranos multiple times, it’s hard not to read “I’m starvin’ here!” in a thick New Jersey accent.

The winner has to be the billboards in arcade skiing game Extreme Downhill, though. The hoardings that read “GOD SAVE ME!” are pretty good, but even they are topped by the ones that simply say “Little Bastard” with no context or explanation.

Best Screenshot

The moment in the fantastically daft Sinister City when the main character slowly rotated a vampire-slaying stake to reveal it was made in China genuinely made me laugh out loud. You could also include a screenshot of the part of the game where a vampire presents a kid’s TV show while dressed as an evil Teletubby. That was good, too.

It turns out I can still be far more entertained by my own immaturity than I probably should be, as proven by this screenshot from Granny’s Garden where I entered “dongs” as a favourite food.

For pure hilarity, however, nothing else from this year can top Mickey Mouse’s facial expression from Mickey’s Jigsaw Puzzles. He looks like he was killed by accidentally sitting on a large metal spike before being stuffed by taxidermist with no hands.

Best Soundtrack

I’ve already mentioned a couple of contenders for this category, with HAL turning in a fantastic set of tracks for New Ghostbusters II and Super Star Wars’ use of the movie’s soundtracks being one of the best things about the game. Another candidate would be the varied and often surprising soundtrack from Namco’s experimental arcade fighter Knuckle Heads. They’re all good picks, but top of the charts for me is The Surf Coaster’s surf-rock soundtrack for Felony 11-79 – the perfect accompaniment from that game’s hectic (and occasionally janky) smash-and-crash racing action.

Worst Game

This year, I played a bunch of bad games but surprisingly few that lurched out at me as heinous, hateful abominations. Many of them were technically functional but simply very boring, like the seemingly endless Jue Zhan Tian Huang or WWF Wrestlemania: Steel Cage Challenge, a game that takes the larger-than-life razzmatazz of professional wrestling and does an almost frighteningly good job of sucking all the fun and colour out of it. Oh, and who could forget ZX Spectrum “game” SAS Combat Assault, which featured neither combat nor assaults (and I’m dubious abut the main character’s SAS credentials, too). However, I had a good long think about it and I realised that the game I hated the most this year was Vampire Killer. It's a tedious, pointless, unpleasant slog where you drag an arthritic idiot through a series of identical hallways. Nothing you do is important, everything happens at random and opening the wrong door sometimes sends you right back to the beginning of the game. Awful, absolutely awful.

Best Game

It must have been a mediocre year all around, because just as I didn’t play much that was punishingly bad, I also played little that struck me as truly excellent. So let’s dial it down a notch to “pretty good” games – I played a few of those. Splatterhouse 3 continued the franchise’s dedication to beautiful, gore-drenched horror atmospherics and probably has the most enjoyable gameplay of the series, so that was fun. Felony 11-79 is a fiddly, wonky game with strange handling and collisions, but that’s partly what makes it so charming, and when you’re barrelling down the highway and swerving between obstacles, it all clicks and makes for a madcap experience that still feels fairly unique. World Cup Striker is an exciting, all-action football game that plays at a breakneck pace. But you know what? I think I’m going to give it to New Ghostbusters II. It’s just fun. Good, honest fun, especially if you like Ghostbusters as much as I do. Sure, the battle against Janosz drags it down a bit, but I’ll forgive it that one blip. Of course, the only reason it’s getting my “best game” award is because there wasn’t another Halloween: Trick or Treat game for me to play this year – and Christmas Wonderland 9 definitely didn't fill that particular gap.

My Favourite Article

I always enjoy doing articles about cover art, so the ones about snooker games covers and spooky computer game artwork stand out as being a pleasure to write. I also thoroughly enjoyed complaining about Castlevania: Order of Shadows, and I had a lot of fun with the wild, vampire-filled ride that was Sinister City. That said, I’m going to cheat and pick something that’s not an article for my favourite thing on the site this year – instead, it’s A Light Inside, the short visual novel I made for the site’s anniversary. I still feel some residual pride that I managed to create it all in about two weeks, although I haven’t looked at it since and I’m sure if I played it now I’d hate every single aspect of it. That’s just how my brain works, folks.

Well, there we are. That was 2018 here on VGJunk, and I hope you all enjoyed it. Thanks as always for reading, commenting and sharing the site of social media and whatnot, and feel free to let me know if there was an article that you particularly enjoyed this year. I have no clue what the future holds for VGJunk, but I hope there’s still be some entertainment to be gleaned from this sort of nonsense. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.



Good grief, is it really Christmas again already? The passage of time turly is a cruel and bitter wind that leaves your unfulfilled ambitions and fruitless dreams tangled and snarled like tattered flags. I mean, uh, happy holidays! And what could be a better way to celebrate the festive season than with a low-budget hidden object game? That’s right, there’s no better way to celebrate. Stop trying to think of one. It’s hidden object games or nothing, and today’s example is Casual Art’s 2018 jolly-old-saint-nick-em-up Christmas Wonderland 9!

(click for larger images)
Yep, that looks like a Christmas wonderland to me. It’s got all your favourite festive treats – petrol pumps, light aircraft, small men on ladders, the works. I’m feeling more jolly already.
Long-time VGJunk readers may well recognise the name of developer Casual Arts, because they’re also responsible for creating my beloved Halloween Trick or Treat series. Those are, naturally, Halloween-themed hidden object games and the Halloweeniness of them is 90% of the reason why I enjoy them so much… but I’m not nearly so fond of Christmas, so Christmas Wonderland 9 is going to have to wow me with its gameplay rather than its aesthetics. I’m already annoyed that Casual Arts have made nine Christmas-themed games but only three about Halloween, so it’s got a lot of work to do.

The game’s “plot” opens with the return of some familiar faces: it’s Mike and Emma, the kids from Halloween Trick or Treat 2. Mike still looks like the version of Sid from a knock-off version of Toy Story called something like Plaything Adventure. Obviously I often exaggerate such things for effect, but please understand that in this case I do find Mike’s face genuinely unsettling. He’s the embodiment of the uncanny valley in Christmas sweater, and I hate him.

Emma also looks creepy, but she’s got more of a “haunted porcelain doll” look than Mike’s “eldritch entity attempts to take the form of a human child to ensnare unsuspecting prey” vibe. Anyway, not content with recently enjoying a sickeningly extravagant Halloween filled with more sweets than Nestle’s vaults, the two most spoiled children in the world have won a competition to visit Santa’s North Pole workshop via a ride on his magical Santa express. I can’t wait until the new year, when the kids stumble across the fabled city of El Dorado during a school field trip.

On to the gameplay, which is exactly what you’d expect from a hidden object game. There’s a list of items at the bottom of the screen, and you have to find those items in the cluttered, tinsel-strewn vista above. Find and click on all the items to finish the stage. That’s pretty much it. In fact, there’s even less for me to figure out than usual because Christmas Wonderland 9 is exactly the same as Halloween Trick or Treat 2: the same layout, the same hint system, even some of the same UI graphics. The only difference is that rather than resembling a jumble sale at Forest J Ackerman’s house, all the scenes look as though they were created by shoving shredded Christmas catalogues into a leaf blower. Not that it’s all Christmas-related items here at the mall, oh no. There’s nothing festive about Uncle Sam on stilts, and the capering clown will obviously be fundamentally opposed to the idea of goodwill to all men. Still, it’s very Christmassy.

In between the hidden object scenes, CW9 serves up a variety of straightforward minigames, just like the Casual Arts’ Halloween games. In this case, it’s a jigsaw puzzle that you solve by putting the town’s landmarks in their proper places on the map. Don’t let this fool you, though. The North Pole in question might seem like it’s right next to the town, but it’s not some temporary grotto filled with families queuing in the rain and a couple of miserable reindeer  – it’s the actual North Pole, where the real, magical Santa Claus lives. If this had happened to me when I was a kid my enjoyment would have been completely ruined by the crushing paranoia that I didn’t belong on the “nice” list, but Mike and Emma take it in their stride, probably because nothing bad has ever happened to them. Well, besides Mike’s face.

As the kids are driven to the train station so they can take the Polar Express to Santa’s workshop, we can take a moment to discuss some of the quirks of the hidden object gameplay. Go and read the Halloween Trick or Treat 2 article, because they’re exactly the same as in that game. See, told you it’d only take a moment.
Oh, okay, here’s some actual information. Some items can’t simply be found and clicked on, you see. Items listed in blue are two-part clues, where you have to drag one item to a specific location, like getting the fuzzy dice from the glovebox and hanging them on the mirror. Items listed in red are hidden behind something, and you have to click on a certain place to reveal them. Mostly they’re easy enough to figure out – for example, it might say “bell” and you find the bell by clicking on a distant church steeple. The optional-to-find golden pumpkins from HToT2 are replaced by golden reindeer, and there are also a few silhouetted items hidden in each scene that you can look for if you just aren’t getting enough hidden object action from the main list.

Toot toot, all aboard the Christmas train, where the kids can enjoy all the luxury and opulence that the Diabetes Express has to offer. The magician not keeping you entertained? Then why not shoot a few hoops with the in-carriage basketball net? This scene sums up CW9 rather well – very busy, extremely garish and liable to make your teeth ache just by looking at it.

Mike and Emma meet some other lucky young kids on the train, including this young lad whose speech patterns and random capitalization of words are the easiest way to identify him as a highly advanced android. Soon he’ll have spent enough time with human children to perfectly mimic their speech patterns. Then the second phase of the plan can begin.

I love this scene-within-a-scene you get when you arrive at the North Pole. It’s just… some old lady. What stock photo or random catalogue did Casual Arts get this photo from? Do you think this woman has any idea she appears in what you could technically describe as a videogame? She almost certainly doesn’t, but I’d love to imagine that she’s the nan of one of the game’s artists.

I was wondering whether CW9 would have its own equivalent to the Halloween Trick or Treat games’ “spooky dooky” catchphrase, and it seems that “Jiminy Christmas” is filling that role. It’s certainly not a patch on “spooky dooky,” which has become a credo by which I live my life. By the way, “jiminy Christmas” is apparently a minced oath, a non-blasphemous was of saying “Jesus Christ.” With that in mind, please imagine this young girl arriving at Santa’s office and shouting “Jesus Christ!” Frankly that’d be quite a mild reaction, if any of the young kids I know are a guide.

The hidden object formula does get mixed up occasionally – sometimes it might be a spot-the-difference puzzle or, as in the scene above, you’re tasked with finding twenty of the same kind of object. In this case it’s carrots for the reindeer. My favourite carrot hiding places are behind the elf’s ear like a pen and hanging over the door like a festive garland at Bugs Bunny’s place. I’m less keen on Rudolph’s red nose. I suppose that yes, that’s how it would look if a real reindeer’s nose was red but I’m so used to Rudolph’s nose being a clown-like red ball that this just looks weird.

Speaking of weird, I’m not sure about this iteration of Santa Claus. He lacks... joviality. The slump of his shoulders, his tight-lipped smile, the way he says ho… ho… ho... as though he’s being forced at gunpoint – this is not a a right jolly old elf. It’s probably because he’s got to babysit these spoiled kids just before Christmas.

Here’s a minigame where you have to match the elves to their Disney-lawyer-dodging names. There’s an elf called Spooky, apparently. How the hell did a Christmas elf get the nickname “Spooky?” Maybe he’s a goth, in which case fair play to him for sticking it out at Santa’s workshop, which is what Goth Hell must be. There’s also an elf called Handy. Let’s hope he got that nickname because he’s good at fixing things and not for, erm, other reasons.

The kids enjoy all the sights of the North Pole, from the elf village to the ice-skating lake to this, the North Pole village where the elves go about their menial labour while the humans mill about the place wondering whether they could possibly eat another ice cream sundae. Not everyone can eat ice cream sundaes, of course. That little baby in the pushchair, for instance. That baby does need feeding, though, so you have to get a bottle of milk from the chair and feed the baby. Just shove that bottle right in the face of some random baby you’ve never met before. Good going, kids.

Santa himself flies the kids back home in his private plane. More ice cream is consumed. Santa’s hands are off the control stick and one of the items on your list is to replace a missing lever. They’re flying very low over the New York skyline. There’s no way that this journey is going to end well; either Santa’s incompetence is going to cause a crash or he’s going to be taken out by an Air Force fighter jet. At least he can listen to some sweet tunes on the plane’s cassette deck before he goes down in a huge fireball.

Their polar adventure has come to an end and the kids are back at home, but this doesn’t mean it’s the end of the game. Far from it, it’s not even Christmas Day yet – but the house is in disarray and it’s up to you to find the things that are “Wrong” in this scene. Both the jack o’lantern and the kids’ mum being dressed as a witch are classed as “wrong,” so hey, screw you, Christmas Wonderland 9. It also says that Dad being in the back garden mowing the snow is wrong, but I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and he’s out there to get a break from the incessant torrent of Christmas tackiness being blasted at him 24/7.
Oh, and this is also the same family kitchen from Halloween Trick or Treat 2. The Casual Arts Universe is far more expansive that I originally imagined. Casual Arts also make hidden object games about being a cruise ship director and a park ranger. Eight games about being a park ranger, but only three about Halloween. Christmas I can understand, but eight park ranger adventures? C’mon, no-one likes parks that much.

I never thought I’d say this, but I feel a little sorry for Mike and Emma. After going to the North Pole and meeting the real Santa, it must be very difficult to drum up any enthusiasm to come back home and help your grandparents decorate their house – but they can’t duck out of it, because now they know that the naughty and nice lists are a real thing and not helping your grandparents is presumably something Santa frowns up, like proper aeroplane safety. Of course, if they’re only doing good deeds to avoid Santa’s disapproval rather than because it’s morally correct, will Santa know? Is Santa’s judgement based on motives or outcomes? Now there’s something for you to ponder while you’re waiting for the turkey to cook.

I’m not the kind of person who feels entitled to certain things in the videogames they play. Creating any game takes a lot of time and effort, and no-one sets out to make a bad game. That said, sliding block puzzles are bloody awful, everybody hates them and if you put them in your videogame then you should be forced to stick a finger in one (1) mousetrap for every second I have to spend solving the bloody thing. It’s a good job this (and pretty much every) hidden object game lets you skip the minigames, because otherwise you wouldn’t be seeing the rest of Christmas Wonderland 9.

The hidden object parts of the game are fine, though. I definitely enjoy them, although I’m aware that they’re not for everyone. I find them very relaxing, personally, and Casual Arts never go down the route of lesser hidden object games by changing to the colour of objects or making them translucent. An honest hidden object game, that’s all I ask for, and that’s what I got. I might not enjoy the Christmas theme as a much of a spooky one, but it’s still kitschy enough to appeal to my tastes, and I appreciate that CW9 isn’t burdened by the inventory puzzles you get in most hidden object games. I’ve enjoyed HOGs with more of a pretension towards being graphic adventure games, but let’s be honest: they rarely get more complex than “use key on keyhole” and sometimes it’s nice to just get on with the I-spy gameplay without having to gather up the five fragments of the shattered magical jewel first, you know?

Most of the back half of the game revolves around Santa putting the final touches on the Christmas preparations – checking the production lines, staring at clipboards, wondering why they still make so many simple wooden toys when it’s 2018 and the kids all want vape pens and in-game currency for Fortnite. They’re the kind of scenes you’d expect to see in a Christmas hidden object game, and it’s making me want to go back and play Christmas Wonderland 1 8 just to see how many ways the developers could recycle the Santa’s Busy Christmas Period concept. Maybe Christmas Wonderland 5 sees Santa visiting a beach in Miami, or perhaps Christmas Wonderland 7 is about Father Christmas realising that the fall of the Iron Curtain means that formerly communist children have now embraced capitalism and are thus allowed on the nice list, meaning Santa has to go on a mission to Moscow. I’ll probably never find out, because I ain’t spending thirty quid to buy all the other games in the series.
So, I’ve been saying that this is the real Santa, but you might not be convinced. The elves could be small actors, the workshops an elaborate set, the whole thing an extravagant tourist trap. I understand your scepticism, but this next scene puts paid to any doubts.

It’s Santa… in space! That’s right, Saint Nick has blasted though the atmosphere and is now positioned in a low-Earth orbit, where he can deliver presents via a system of carefully coordinated orbital bombardments. I never thought “give Santa oxygen” would be a task I’d have to accomplish in a videogame, but there it is on the list. The reindeer don’t need oxygen. I suspect Santa only needs oxygen because of his unhealthy diet and resultant heart problems.

“Let’s wait until 7am and then head downstairs on Christmas morning” says Mike, proving once and for all that no-one involved in the creation of this game has a child or indeed was a child.

The final scene shows the kids opening their mountain of presents in their giant mansion on a snowy Christmas morning as both their parents look on, after having met the genuine Santa Claus. Yes, I’m jealous. At least they remembered to get the dog a present in all the excitement.

Yes, happy holidays to one and all – Christmas Wonderland 9 is over, and while I didn’t have as much fun as Unnamed Dad here, CW9 gave me enough enjoyment that I don’t feel as though I wasted the three pounds I spent on it. I’m a simple man, just give me a few hidden object scenes that aren’t bullshit and the ability to skip any minigames that are bullshit and I’ll enjoy myself for an hour or two. It even made me feel a little more cheerful about the holidays. It’d be weird if it didn’t, I suppose. It’s difficult to be subjected to such a torrent of unrelenting Christmas things without feeling at least a little holly-jolly.

Man, maybe I will see you again in Christmas Wonderland 10. I really hope they expand on the Santa in Space angle. Martians need gifts too.

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