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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.