House of Christmas Cards

As it’s the season to be jolly, and the occasion to deck the halls with Amiga Boing baubles and holly is now upon us, I thought I’d delve into a festive game, and a lesser known one at that just to spice up your customary Yuletide preparations.

Originally previewed in Amiga Action in June 1991, and CU Amiga and The One in June 1992, ‘Galactic: the Vision Game’ resembled Christmas about as closely as fending off a cybernetic revolt in 2084.

Work commenced on the project in October 1990, and took 18 months of sporadic development to reach its current state. Galactic came to fruition through the combined efforts of Stavros Fasoulas (design, programming, graphics, sound effects), the late Amiga demo scene author/musician, Jussi Pietilla (music), and Antti Toivainen (sound effects).

The author of the eccentric title – inspired by arcade classics such as Pengo and Defender – had tried in vain on numerous occasions to secure a backer, despite basking in the glow of a 90% review score courtesy of the late programmer, Jukka Tapanimaki, writing for Finnish magazine, Pelit, in April 1992. Grandslam were one such name bandied about, yet the deal fell through as negotiations turned to the bottom line, and common ground could not be established.

As erstwhile employee ‘Steve Sargent’ tells it…

“I was working for Grandslam at the time and I **really** wanted to publish this game. Stavros was demoing it on our stand once at ECTS and we had a long line of people queuing up to play it including all the Bitmap Brothers, the Sensible Guys, John Philips… It was a beautiful piece of work.

I think Stavros wanted 25K for it but our financial bods didn’t want to go that high… Especially as at the time the version we had wouldn’t run on newer Amigas (like the 1200).”

It wasn’t until many months later when readers of British Amiga magazine, The One, began writing to the editor to discover why the quirky title remained missing in action that the publication hit upon the brainwave to adopt the floundering Robotron-Bubble Bobble mash-up and publish it themselves.

Following a seasonal makeover, it was renamed ‘Galactic: The Xmas Edition’ and finally released on the January 1994 cover disk (technically the Christmas edition given the UK’s ridiculous system of pretending we’re all time travellers).

Minus the originally intended two player option and some semblance of a conclusion, the game is considered unfinished, albeit perfectly playable, and a lot of fun according to the feedback it received.

“Stavros eventually got tired of hawking it around so he cut the number of levels down, added the Xmas theme and released it as a cover disk on The One Amiga I think…

I bumped into him a few years later when he came into Renegade (I think) and barely recognized him.”

– Steve Sargent

At this stage Stavros was better known for his Commodore 64 back catalogue, and collaborative synergy with music maestro, Rob Hubbard. His most affectionately remembered titles, namely Sanxion, Delta and Quedex were published by Thalamus between 1986 and 1987.

The Finnish developer – born of a Greek father and Finnish mother – went on to work on a game called Cargo in 1988, however, it was never published and a compulsory stint in the Finnish Defence Forces meant his coding career had to be put on ice.

On returning from a protracted sabbatical, the Commodore scene had become a dying ember of its former development inferno, hence the switch to the Amiga platform.

In partnership with artists, Janne Oksanen and Miha Rinne, Stavros began working on a game delineated as a cartoony blend of APB, Spy Hunter and Grand Theft Auto. Although development of ‘Private Investigator Dollarally’ commenced in 1991, it wasn’t ready to be published until well into 1994 owing to the demands encroached upon Stavros by the supervision of a certain fantasy realm beat ’em up project.

Regrettably, Renegade, the prospective publisher pulled out of the deal in the wake of Commodore’s untimely bankruptcy. Any plans to collaborate with Sony to release P.I.D. as the PlayStation’s launch title also fell by the wayside as Stavros decided to call an end to his programming career at the tender age of 26.

Prior to this, emerging from the demo scene, Stavros joined forces with Ilari Kuittinen in 1993 to found the games development studio, Terramarque. In 1995 Terramarque merged with another studio rooted in the demo scene, Bloodhouse headed by Harri Tikkanen, forming the portmanteau Housemarque. Ilari Kuittinen remains the CEO, and Harri Tikkanen the creative director of the resultant fusion to this day.

You may have seen these names used in association with Super Stardust and Elfmania, and there’s a logically sound reason for that – they produced them. Dot-joining at its finest!

It’s rumoured that at some stage Stavros spent time living in San Francisco totally cut-off from the world of technology, though there’s no corroborative record of him having left any kind of imprint whilst there to back up these Chinese whispers.

I’ve been reliably informed by a former colleague of his that the international man of mystery suffered a mental breakdown around the same time Bloodhouse and Terramarque merged and subsequently moved to Sweden where he still resides, while no longer being active in the games industry. My source hasn’t spoken to him for six years so is not aware of his current condition.

If you ever read this, Stavros, I hope your health has since improved, life is all you’d hope it to be, and you have a great Christmas. You certainly made mine memorable back in ’93.

Galactic originally starred ‘King Rudolph, the Emperor’ (can you be both simultaneously?), though following the revamp we play the role of an equally grammatically dubious protagonist.

“Welcome to the world of magical castles, weird creatures and hidden treasures. Welcome to the world of Rudolph, the Santa”.

Hey ho (ho and indeed ho), one night he dreams that the illustrations of sundry critters from his deck of cards have become sentient, sprung to life and are running amok throughout his kingdom (shouldn’t that be Lapland?).

Being the most benevolent chap in the known universe he decides he should round them all up before exiting from his deep slumber and pulling off his best Postman Pat impersonation in time for Christmas day.

“One Xmas when Rudolph the Santa was sleeping and dreaming about Jenny Abrook… something strange happened and he had to wake up”.

Jenny Abrook was The One’s art editor at the time, though also worked in a variety of roles for other PC, console and Amiga publications. She was even involved with the production of the official Simpsons comic at one stage. Stavros may have developed a soft spot for her, who knows?

Much like Bubble Bobble, Galactic is a deceptively simple game on the surface; one that can be played on various technical levels depending on your knowledge of the mechanics and your ability to execute the more advanced manoeuvres under pressure (kid’s Christmas dreams are at stake!). Its multifarious nuances are drip fed to the player – the more time you’re prepared to invest, the more you get out of the experience.

This makes perfect sense given that it was initially conceived as a coin guzzling arcade game that would require magnetic appeal and a long shelf life. The Amiga version emerged only as a tech demo for the preferred coin-op platform.

The aim of the game is to pelt your opponents with the now creatureless playing cards, transforming them into energy or bonus point collectables. You must clear each level within the given time frame in order to move onto the next.

Note that all the cards are of the heart suit as we are spreading love and happiness, not death and destruction, what with it being Chrimbo, the season of goodwill and all that jazz.

Otherwise a lame allusion to “killing with kindness” or “too much love will kill you” would have worked here. Thanks Stavros. Pfft. “Darling, you give love a bad name”.

Upon impact, the critters become trapped in the ‘phantom zone’ – I mean cards – and begin falling to the ground. Catch them before they hit rock bottom and they boost one of your two energy bars, or alternatively, scoop them off the floor where they’ve turned into toys for a points bonus.

You live out two lives concurrently – represented by pink and yellow suits – and can flip between them by touching a miniature wandering blue Santa, as you do. It’s certainly a novel twist to the depleting independent lives trope, one you can really exploit as a survival mechanism once you become adroit at body-swapping.

Whenever alternately coloured gribblies bash into one another they become trapped inside crystal balls. They can no longer be harvested in this state so have to be released through your royal highness’ Midas touch. There’s no gold (or Skittles) involved, that’s just me waxing lyrical, as One does under these circumstances.

The list of ‘If this, then that’ rules are seemingly endless, and would explain why a risk-averse publisher may want to steer clear when mass appeal is the prime directive.

Shoot the multi-coloured bricks to release toys.

Collect coins to access the treasure room.

Bricks transform objects that land on them in all sorts of imaginative ways.

Ransack the treasure room to earn milk (?!?)

Santa swears and his face turns purple when he’s hit by two or more enemies in quick succession.

“Listen to Eric Clapton: Layla”, the scrolling text helpfully suggests.

“Hello to Tanya without the song”, another message… erm, shouts out.

Further complications are introduced by glass bricks and the effects dropping a crystal onto them has, and the provision to paint them various colours with a brush.

A medley of bonus stages come into play betwixt the central action. These include a joker offensive operation in which your weapon is rendered useless, an underwater section and a Nordic love chase, amorous Queen of Hearts dodging exercise. Then there’s the Robocod or Parasol Stars style umbrella that can be employed to help you gather clusters of bonus items as you descend the levels.

Endearing idiosyncrasies aside, Galactic is quite the technical feat. As well as running smoothly at the speed of light (well 50 fps anyway), it incorporates 32 colours plus a further 128 for the text, and 6 channels of sound.

Galactic is precisely the kind of cavalcade of originality that Jon Hare specialised in during his early years – the novelties like Wizball and Twister that only clawed their way free from the circus cage trailer thanks to a rare breed of financial backers who were willing to take a punt on off-the-wall concepts. Rare at the time, they’re practically extinct today.

“Santa Rudolph will be back!”, a hopeful in-game assertion assures us. Barely here in the first place, and almost twenty three Big Days later with not a whiff of the piquant aroma of reindeer dropping incense to savour, I won’t be allocating it a valuable slot on my Christmas wish list.

“Life may not have dealt you a great set of cards… but who says the one with better cards will win?” …is what I would have concluded with if Manoj Vaz hadn’t got there first.

Merry winter solstice holiday celebrated in the manner appropriate to your religious or secular persuasion of choice!

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