It’s no surprise there are so few Christmas-themed video games, as it feels odd playing one when the festive season is not in full swing. However, back in 1994, one studio wanted to give a present to gamers in the form of a Santa Claus game. Daze Before Christmas is a traditional 2D platformer developed by Funcom and published by Sunsoft late in the Mega Drive’s life. It was also ported to the SNES, but was only released in a few territories and was on the verge of being cancelled entirely at one point. So does Daze Before Christmas bring joy to the world or deliver coal under the tree?
When I joined Funcom, we generally had one programmer for each project and platform... Whichever platform was farthest ahead had the lead programmer working on it
Daze Before Christmas seemed destined for the leftover plate before Carl-Henrik Skårstedt was brought in to wrap up the programming six months into development. “The game was in pretty bad shape when I started,” he tell us. “The company had two similar projects running, and the other project, A Dinosaur’s Tale, had received more attention. But within days of me starting, we all worked together to bring the improvements from the other project back to Daze.”
Skårstedt was tasked with getting Daze Before Christmas up to speed alongside Olav Mørkrid, who was given the SNES port. “When I joined Funcom, we generally had one programmer for each project and platform, so me on Mega Drive and Olav on SNES. Whichever platform was farthest ahead had the lead programmer working on it. We also had a tools programmer, Eivind Eklund, working on the level editor who also supported the other teams.”
While Skårstedt was coding the Mega Drive version of Daze Before Christmas, Mørkrid was busy porting it over to the SNES. Both games were being developed at the same time, with both working in parallel. "I think nearly all the work on SNES was done by Olav," recalls Skårstedt. "We synchronised a lot to make sure the game worked the same on both platforms. While the Mega Drive version was frequently ahead, it was more of a shared effort than porting between the platforms.”
The game is set around the 24 days before Christmas, with a level screen set out like an Advent Calendar. Most of the levels consist of Santa traversing platforms and taking out festive enemies. A few bonus flying levels, where Santa delivers presents by dropping them down the chimney, appear after boss battles. The game is clearly aimed at younger gamers due to its basic platforming and easy-to-defeat enemies; this was not lost on reviewers at the time, who suggested that the colourful, charming presentation could not mask the simplistic nature of the gameplay.
One idea, provided by the junior producer, was to just add a simple Street Fighter-type battle against Anti-Claus, which I remember arguing about at length
When asked about the game's lack of difficulty, Skårstedt explains that “the game was not supposed to be difficult, so that was one aspect, but we also had a requirement to make the game have 24 levels. That meant we had to stretch the game mechanics out. One idea, provided by the junior producer, was to just add a simple Street Fighter-type battle against Anti-Claus, which I remember arguing about at length. Looking back at the game now, I think the simpler gameplay is refreshing, but I would want to go back and edit the levels to take better advantage of its potential if I worked on it today.”
Skårstedt did have some input into the game's design, but coming into the project late, most of the design choices and decisions had already been made. “I did not have much influence on a high level," he says. "We had received a few pages of design from Sunsoft USA that had been written by Rita Zimmerer. There was really no communication about the design with Sunsoft; [it was] just about finishing the game. But on a mechanics level, the artists had created great animations. We could spend a lot of attention to make the player controls feel good.”
When playing through Daze Before Christmas, you start to notice how short some of the levels are. It feels as though some of the later levels could have been merged with others, as they are mostly devoid of platforms and enemies. However, this was planned from the start, and Skårstedt explains why the empty levels were left in. “As mentioned, we had to have 24 levels, it felt a bit silly to keep the shortest levels in the game, but without them, the Advent Calendar progression screen would not make sense.”
One aspect of praise we can give to the game is its jolly presentation, which stands out from its gameplay issues. Santa and other characters are beautifully animated, and there is plenty of excellent pixel art to enjoy. Daze Before Christmas certainly looks the part, and add in the jingling of bells and well-known Christmas ditties, and this game is sure to raise your festive spirits. “Thanks to our tools programmer, it was straightforward to bring the animations into the game, but what really made the animations work was the amazing work of the artists,” Skårstedt remembers. “Since the artists were working on Amiga computers and programmers on 386 PCs, to update the art, we were walking back and forth with floppy disks. This meant we were able to discuss details constantly."
We were a young team and having fun all the time. We learned a lot while working on those early games
According to Skårstedt, the job he was brought in to complete was straightforward, and he enjoyed his time working with the team. “We were a young team and having fun all the time. We learned a lot while working on those early games. I don’t remember anything particularly difficult during the project, but it was quite a bit of work to do. The producer, Henning Rokling, was very detail-oriented, and I remember sitting down with him for long periods to fine-tune the game’s feeling.”
The aforementioned A Dinosaur’s Tale was developed within Funcom at the same time, and Skårstedt helped with that game as well – but explains that “as far as I know, no assets were intentionally brought over between the two games. The artists had different ideas between the two games. Although we did share code from the Dinosaur’s Tale project and we’d have to manually copy over the functions. Dinosaur’s Tale finished much earlier, so there were still a lot of improvements for us to work on for Daze.”
When asked how he felt about the overall development process, Skårstedt explains that “it was challenging to work on a Christmas-themed game throughout the whole year, so I probably wouldn’t want to repeat that part of the experience.” He also feels that when the game was finished, the final results were what was expected from the design documents. “I doubt I’d have done anything differently without more experience,” he concludes. However, with his work done on the project, Skårstedt was about to get another surprise.
As Daze's development was drawing to a close, publisher Sunsoft was falling into financial difficulties, and Skårstedt was told the project had been shelved. “The game was cancelled, and we were informed [about this] a few weeks after submitting the final versions. SEGA had started production of cartridges while Sunsoft USA closed down. As far as we knew at the time, the cartridges were not finished. When we asked for something as a memento of the devastating disappointment, all we got was a returned press copy.”
As far as we knew at the time, the cartridges were not finished. When we asked for something as a memento of the devastating disappointment, all we got was a returned press copy
It then came as a surprise to all concerned when Daze Before Christmas was released in Australia and the SNES port made its way to European stores. Reviewers at the time scored the game harshly,, but playing it 28 years later, these reviews feel a little unfair. It plays fine, with great controls and a wonderful degree of presentation that captures the Christmas theme well. The criticism means little to Skårstedt though, as he “didn’t see many reviews and didn’t care that much since the game was cancelled, as far as we knew.”
Looking back on Daze Before Christmas, it's easy to see why many gamers would have dismissed it on release. It came out at a time when the platform genre had been flooded with every type of character, movie franchise and game setting. The world of gaming had moved on from traditional 2D platformers, and Daze Before Christmas didn’t bring anything new to the table. This was also the time when some lucky gamers would start getting their mitts on shiny new Saturn and PlayStation consoles, which may also help explain its limited release and poor review scores.
When the snow settles, it feels that time hasn’t been kind to Daze Before Christmas. Although it’s easy to complete and some of the gameplay is more 'smelly sprouts' than 'turkey crown', this is a great Christmas game that evokes festive joy. It also had an interesting development and release that Skårstedt can now look back on and smile about. He finishes his memories by explaining, “we had fun, thought the game was cancelled and then somehow it wasn’t. The fact that anyone knows anything about the game at all is pretty unexpected to me!”