Today there exists a notion that games may soon emerge as a means to report on global news. The idea is that absurdly efficient modern development tools might let a creator spin together a playable game in the moments after a story breaks. Playing the news? Sure sounds engaging.
That’s a fascinating concept from the frontline of where games are at in 2022. But 38 years ago – a time when home gaming was still in its relative infancy – Gremlin Graphics’ somewhat eccentric series about a burrowing mammal was already parodying and commenting on real world events. And that series, of all things, was the genre-hopping, ostensibly daft Monty Mole. Monty played a key role in Gremlin’s emergence as a Britsoft icon – a story told in Bitmap’s own book, A Gremlin in the Works. For now, though, let's focus on the Gremlin mole’s seasonal misadventures.
A Gremlin in the Works by Mark Hardisty
Monty’s creator Peter Harrap seemingly had the headlines in his mind when he set about building the Monty games. The first entry in the series, 1984’s Wanted: Monty Mole, was inspired by the UK miners' strikes of that time, even featuring a pastiche of a figure of the moment, union leader Arthur Scargill. Next followed Monty is Innocent, set in a prison, and created at a time when a boiling point was nearing with regard to conditions in UK penitentiaries. 1987’s Auf Wiedersehen Monty, meanwhile, was eccentric and clownish – and also found time to make comment on the European Currency Unit in the years before the Euro arrived.
And then there was Moley Christmas. Like the Christmas demo disks we looked at last Christmas, Monty’s festive outing was released as a cover mount freebie, in his case with Your Sinclair magazine. It came at a time when Spectrum magazine publishers were doing all they could to outpace their rivals in terms of how generous they could be with games included on the cover, in a movement sometimes referred to as the ‘Spectrum cover tape wars’.
Perhaps realising that those looking for a restful festive gaming session wouldn’t be so up for comment on pressing social and welfare issues, Monty’s dev team stepped away from leaning into the headlines. Instead, though, they decided to go with parodying the game development production process – and perhaps the pressure put on studios to get something out for Christmas above all other priorities. Nothing else fills you with more seasonal cheer, we know.
At a fundamental level, Moley Christmas follows the template set by Auf Wiedersehen Monty. It’s a classic flick-screen platformer in the tradition of Jet Set Willy, with a focus of skipping between single-screen areas exploring and collecting items as you endeavour to recover game source code from a pixelated interpretation of Gremlin’s own studio, get that code to the tape duplication plant, head to the Your Sinclair offices to ensure your creation is ready for magazine distribution, and even make you way to a newsagents to stock the copies yourself.
Yes, Moley Christmas was very meta indeed. A cover-mounted tape game about creating and distributing a cover-mounted tape game is about as inward and self-referential as it gets. And yet, at the time, it did feel like it offered a peek inside the world of game dev. And it was also surprisingly good.
Ultimately just six single screens in length, Moley Christmas still managed to pack in a relative feast to explore and unearth – a surprisingly nuanced example of a densely packed, undersized delight. It might also have been a little more demanding than most would expect from a Christmas game. There were some rather arcane puzzles and clues, for example, including granular details tucked into the instructions that give essential hints as to progress. Miss them, and you might be entirely stuck. The less than gentle difficulty curve ultimately served the fact that Moley Christmas was also a deeply competitive game, and in a rather special way.
Determined players that did complete Gremlin’s festive curio would be presented with a message. Be the first to send that message into Your Sinclair, and you’d be sent 15 games from the magazine’s own software library. In other words, it was a promotional entity to thrust momentum into other games of the time.
Moley Christmas is also particularly impressive from the perspective of technical polish. That’s a somewhat surprising fact considering free Christmas specials are so often defined by a playful, knowingly lo-fi spirit – more like festive jokes told in computer game form than works of great finesse or refinement. And yet in his holiday adventure Monty passes through a world boiling with vibrant, fluid animation, smart realisations of clash-free colour, and amazing amount of world-building detail.
Not that Moley Christmas was entirely free from the lo-fi. For one, the cassette tapes cover needed cutting out of a page in the magazine, before neatly folding. No firm, glossy card stock or fine, rich printing. This was a Christmas gift you had to pack yourself. As such, years later, it's very hard to find a copy with anything like a ‘mint’ cover.
Now, Moley Christrmas might not be Gremlin’s most significant contribution to gaming culture, but it somehow captured a lot of that iconic British studio’s unique character, output and approach. It was a game overflowing with personality, quality, smart ideas and playful allusions. You could feel the development team’s hand and personality in each screen, and it was quietly innovative too, exploring an atypical distribution channel for what was ultimately a full game from a commercial series. In realising there might be bigger picture gains in making Moley Christmas a promotional entity rather than one sold from the shelves of stores, Gremlin could clearly see potential beyond convention. That, perhaps, is a defining spirit in the amazing story of the once-modest Sheffield studio that changed gaming forever. Again, if this tale has whet your appetite, our own book A Gremlin in the Works documents the amazing rise and legacy of Gremlin.
As for Monty himself, his star has rather faded. He made a brief return in 2013 when Games Britannia (established by Gremlin in the Works’ author Mark Hardisty) and the gaming charity Special Effect hosted a competition for school children to design a new game starring the titular mole. Steel Minions Studio adapted the youngsters design for full release, making Moley’s last appearance in culture an equally admirable and impressive one; Monty: Revenge of the Mole.
Since, Monty has been all but quiet. Perhaps, though, one day he’ll return. And what better time for that to happen than Christmas?