The cold and frosty nights are drawing in, the high streets of Britain are festooned with gaudy lights and decorations and credit cards across the nation are maxed out. It can mean only one thing - Christmas is just around the corner!
As with the summer holidays, the Yuletide season normally sees an explosion of homebrew game development; it's one of the many reasons I love this time of year. Last Christmas, PC gamers around the world whiled away the long winter evenings playing through Podunkian's tongue-in-cheek stealth epic 'Merry Gear Solid' and the festive 'Holiday Hills' from Free Lunch Design, but so far this year (and note that I'm typing this at the beginning of December) I've been struggling to find any seasonal content to include in our Christmas issue.
My fruitless search led me to Ian Jeffray's website, in particular the page currently hosting Paradise Games' back catalogue of GBA releases. For the last couple of years, Ian and the rest of the Paradise team have entered the Christmas game development competition hosted by www.drunkencoders.com, winning the competition in 2005, and being unfairly placed at a considerably lower position in 2006. After playing their games extensively I had a brainwave; perhaps Paradise Games would be interested in working with RGCD to create some sort of Christmas-themed compilation for our readers? A few emails later and the Paradise/RGCD Christmas Double Pack GBA cart was born.
So what do you get for the bargain £5.50 price tag? Limited to 50 copies, the double-pack (which is a deliberately erroneous title as the cart actually includes a third hidden game..!) contains both Santa's Chimney Challenge and Santa's Skidoo Scarper; arguably the best Christmas themed releases to grace the GBA platform. The latter title is particularly impressive, but we'll get to that in a moment.
To be fair, in comparison to the aforementioned PC releases, both of Paradise's Santa titles should really be considered as score-attack style mini-games; the player's goal being to ultimately complete both with a 100% score. The first of the two is 'Santa's Chimney Challenge', an ace little Blitz clone which sees you dropping presents down chimneys as a considerably more festive alternative to dropping bombs on skyscrapers. As with all Blitz style games, the challenge here is in getting the timing right; a task that is made considerably more difficult as you progress through the five stages due to your sledge's ever increasing velocity. Complete the tricky fifth screen and you are given a percentage score based on the time taken and number of presents wasted; it's simple stuff really.
'Santas's Skidoo Scarper' is a considerably more technically impressive game that most noticeably uses a very different perspective to the majority of other GBA releases as it requires the player to hold the console on it's side (effectively displaying the game in 'portrait' mode). Thankfully Paradise have catered for this conceptually awkward method of presentation by arranging the controls so that the game is equally playable on all GBA models (to the point where it makes you wonder why this wasn't used in some commercial GBA ports that traditionally suit the portrait format). As for the game itself, Skidoo Scarper puts the player in a race against the clock to successfully drive Santa's Skidoo through the icy wastes and back to his home, collecting a full set of presents (and avoiding collisions) on his way. There are multiple paths to take through the map, each facing the player with a variety of score-increasing collectables, hair-raising jumps, and brown-pants inducing turbo boosts. Surviving the course without losing all your lives is demanding enough in itself, but on completion you are scored against the time taken and presents collected - your target being to complete the race in less than 90 seconds with the full range of different coloured gifts. Considering my personal record is currently at just under three minutes, I think it'll be a while before I achieve a perfect rating.
And on the subject of perfection, it's worth noting that one area where Paradise Games consistently excel is in the flawless presentation of their productions. From the sampled speech boot-sequence and cracktro-inspired menu system through to the beautiful pixel art, animation and audio of the games, it's clear that hours of work went into ensuring that the finished product ended up looking and sounding as good as possible. The games may not have a huge amount of depth, but what's there is genuinely enjoyable and the multi-boot nature of the cart makes it easy to instantly switch between any of the games for short bursts of retro-gaming bliss. The budget price tag and strictly limited production run make this an essential purchase for GBA homebrew fans this Christmas, and as for the hidden game... Well, if you can't find it yourself then just drop us (or Paradise) a line!
James has explained the basics here so let's dive straight in. Chimney Challenge is really deadly simple, with just the single button control. It starts far, far too easy but then has a learning curve steeper than Mr T's hair. Then just as you adjust to this it ends abruptly, which is a little disappointing. Having the high score based on your hit percentage is a pretty good idea, but this highlighted it wasn't quite as obvious as it might be to work out where on your sleigh the presents are going to drop from. It's an enjoyable occasional bash but that's all.
Skidoo Scarper is the newer of the two games here and the experience shows, how Chimney won and this lost the competition I have no idea. It's better at getting responsive controls out of the GBA than even most commercial games and is definitely the star of the pack, the only major gripes are that sometimes it's really not obvious where you should go, at least one route resulting in an unfortunate dead end you couldn't possibly have known about. The other downside I'd bring up is the sideways controls, which I found considerably more awkward than the boss did.
I don't want to seem like I'm talking either game down though because this pack fulfils the patented Duds criteria that a hand held game should be enjoyable when you have five minutes to spare. You can complete either of these games in that time and have a damn good time doing it. If you buy just one GBA cart this year, make it Blast Arena Advance. If you buy two, make it Motocross Challenge. If you buy three (...please be it this time - JM) then yes, pick this up. In fact, if you're buying for kids, make this choice one; it's gaming for short attention spans done really quite well.