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The evolution of Santa Claus

Above: A rare fluke

Seeing as Christmas is (as of this writing) tomorrow, it’s as good a time as any to take a look back at Santa’s career and chart the ways in which his digital self has evolved alongside our favorite hobby. More importantly, though, it’s an excellent chance to make fun of all the bizarre, misguided and occasionally horrifying ways developers have tried to shoehorn the old man into their games over the years, for God knows what stupid reason.

Twenty-four years ago, primitive bands of humans crouched around fires deep within their inhospitable caves, telling each other wondrous stories of a man who would bring parcels of warm hides and delicious treebark to children who could avoid being accidentally eaten by their parents. These myths and legends gave birth to Special Delivery: Santa’s Christmas Chaos, a Commodore 64 game that stars what appears to be a long-haired woman who’s mounted a reindeer’s severed head on the prow of her speedboat:

Records from those prehistoric days are sketchy, so it’s difficult to be sure (or to care) whether this is the first appearance of Santa Claus in a videogame. But one thing is certain: it is easily the fugliest.

Five years later, Commodore 64 programmers (British ones, anyway) had developed a firm enough grasp on the hardware to produce a creature that was somewhat recognizable as Santa. It was also recognizable as a pile of bricks, but the key features were there, so the developers called their game The Official Father Christmas and sat back, content to fade into obscurity.

They also produced this somewhat less flashy (but cleaner-looking) version for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, a computer that - for older European gamers - is roughly analogous to Jesus:

Santa’s next notable appearance was in another Commodore 64 game (people were still using C64s in 1990? Seriously?), Santa’s Xmas Caper. This Santa represents an amalgam of the Cave Painting Santa (note the more easily decipherable flying sled, this time with an entire reindeer) and Father Christmas, with his red stocking cap and white beard clearly visible. The point of the game was apparently to fly around and collect presents, which seems like a viable concept for a computer game until you consider that 1990 was also the year Super Mario World came out in Japan.

Also, like The Official Father Christmas, Santa’s Xmas Caper was also ported over to the Spectrum, apparently with less effort than goes into making your average pancake.

Above: Someone please explain to us why this is worth waiting for a program to load from a cassette tape, of all things

After graduating from college in 2000 with a BA in journalism, I worked for five years as a copy editor, page designer and videogame-review columnist at a couple of mid-sized newspapers you've never heard of. My column eventually got me a freelancing gig with GMR magazine, which folded a few months later. I was hired on full-time by GamesRadar in late 2005, and have since been paid actual money to write silly articles about lovable blobs.