It's time to spread a little holiday cheer. I'm posting this in late 2022 and we sure could use some after the past two seasons. If you're reading this at some future time where the early 2020s seem like better days then you really need some help.
What are "better days" though? I immediately think of the late 90s. It was the time when I was no longer a teen but not a full adult. I could drink and rent a car (not at the same time of course) but I didn't have to think about mortgages, paying for my kids' college, or anything else important. I suspect when most people think of "better days" it's a period like this. There were probably bad things going on in the late 1990s but I was oblivious to it.
Let's all remain oblivious and journey back to this time. Specifically, let's visit 1998.
There it is, Windows 98 in its most basic form. Let's ruin it by installing a bunch of late 1990s to early 2000s Xmas sampler CDs. You remember these I hope. They're these oddball collections of Xmas art, music, and games that retailed for $0-$10. I've found many of them for $1 at garage sales and others are online because the publisher is out of business. Certainly these will spread some holiday cheer. They have to, right?
Why do I want to destroy a perfectly good virtual machine you ask?
Would you believe this started as a walkthrough for The Dark Eye?
If you're unfamiliar, it's a mid-90s PC CD-ROM game based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe. "Mid-90s" and "Edgar Allan Poe" seem like an appealing combination. I received a free copy of this when I was working at Electronics Boutique. The publisher sent all, or at least my, store(s) a free promotional copy. I got stuck at what I feel was close to the end. Almost 30 years later I decided to try again and write a walkthrough along the way.
I created this nice Windows 98 virtual machine and installed it. It wasn't long before I remembered why I didn't go back sooner. Stylistically this is definitely my thing. The creepy artwork and atmosphere are easy to get lost in. The gameplay itself is so very, deeply boring. It feels like playing 7th Guest but without the puzzles. You sort of walk around and find places to jump into Edgar Allan Poe stories. Then it's a semi-interactive retelling of something you likely already know well. At certain moments in the story you have to do this character swap thing. You usually start as the victim and have to switch to the killer. I got stuck in The Cask of Amontillado where no matter what I did I got a bad ending.
I didn't even make it through one story this time. Rather than delete this virtual machine I'm going to destroy it.. with Xmas samplers. Ho. Ho. Ho.
There's no logic to the order I'm doing these in. I'm starting with one called 1,000 Christmas Clipart. Perhaps that means I'm doing these alphabetically by ISO name. As of this moment it can be downloaded here: https://archive.org/details/1000-christmas-clipart. Some of these I ripped myself since I have a hoarding problem, even then I'll direct you to an archive.org link if it exists.
So far the installer looks average for the time.
After a couple seconds the installer opens a page with instructions. Nothing festive here yet. It ultimately installs a program that doesn't run. The help file wasn't very helpful.
It's OK. The clipart can be browsed just fine in Windows Explorer. Maybe I'll write a little program to convert these to to PNG.
You know what, let's use one of these pieces of art to create a holiday festiveness meter for the rest of the programs. More on that soon..
The way their program handles multiple languages is interesting. They create the same folder structure with pointers to the English directories.
So that's it for 1,000 Christmas Clipart. How festive is it?
Sorry, it's not very festive.
Next is The Christmas CD-ROM brought to us by Memorex. As I understand Memorex only exists as a brand today. There's a version here https://archive.org/details/christmas_202003 although my copy looks a little different.
This installs three applications. One of them is this launcher which also includes buttons for the other two things. So this window is the only one you need to launch. I think I need to try re-running this in a lower color mode.
Why use one Visual Basic navigation control when you can use them all? Let's fire-up the clock first.
Note: this clock either has some Y2K bug or the time sync on this virtual machine is off. There it is though. A little countdown window. Neat. Now let's look at the wish list.
It's just a catalog of other products by the same publisher. Whatever. On to the thing I'm most excited about, animated holiday lights for your desktop.
Oh. Great. I guess that's a no go. The address shown is someone's house so I blurred it. What a different time it was.
There's also some clipart.
The wallpaper couldn't install but the error helpfully tells you where to copy it from.
I decided to go with the wallpaper I'm calling "Santa delivering presents to the house located at the foot of Mordor".
There are also some sound effects. These are probably also on one of the sound catalogs shown in the wish list.
There's also a game included that sort of looks like Lemmings but ran at like 1/2 frame a second.
Alright, how festive is The Christmas CD-ROM brought to us by Memorex?
I think if the lights worked this would have been much more festive.
The next CD up is Family Christmas, Volume 2. The ISO image of the CD is <3mb. Seems like a waste of a CD at a time when 3.5" floppies were cheaper. You can try it out here: https://archive.org/details/family-christmas-volume-2. I'll let the un-edited README explain this one:
Welcome to Family Christmas, Volume 2 in the FamilyWare series of software packages. FamilyWare was founded in 1993 on the belief that family computer users are different from business users. FamilyWare is a family of software products designed to give you a fighting change to keep track of your most important information. Our goal is to personalize the computer for the home. Family Christmas is your family's holiday organizer. Family Christmas acts just like an organized file cabinet where you can store your information and retrieve it in seconds. It helps you manage your holiday shopping, mail and schedules. Record your special memories in the Holiday Diary. Have fun with our "Santa's Sleigh Ride" game, Christmas screen savers, and festive wallpapers. The ultimate holiday gift for your home computer.
When the application starts it asks for a password in case you're concerned about your holiday plans being compromised.
That's not really a bad feature though. It then loads what looks a lot like a FoxPro form. This is a decent program.
The "Christmas Data" section is a general purpose organizer. There's a calendar and various to-do lists. If I had an Android version of this I'd use it. I mean literally of this, no UI changes allowed. The "Christmas Mail" section for example is used to track who sent you a card and whether you sent one in return. That's legit handy.
Outside of the planner it has a side-scrolling Santa game. It's OK.
The wallpaper it installs I think is all meant for tiling but looks OK stretched too.
The real highlight for me was the screensavers. The colors are maybe a little jarring but seeing your screen fill with presents is alright.
Alright, how festive is Family Christmas, Volume 2?
I think this is a case of good things in small packages. There aren't a lot of wallpapers and screen savers but they're all filled with holiday spirit.
Now some publishers know how to cram a bunch of stuff onto a CD. Here's the WizardWorks Holiday Collection. It's available at https://archive.org/details/WWHCOLLECTION. I usually associate WizardWorks with the D&D game bundles. I think they will manage to pull off a good holiday bundle too.
We're off to a good start with the menu screen.
The "Xmas Jukebox" is a midi player. WinAmp with a seasonal-appropriate skin would be acceptable here too. After that there's a clipart collection.
That's some standard art. The included fonts aren't bad.
I think these next images are meant to be coloring pages.
This CD includes a t-shirt maker that was also sold as a standalone product for like $5. In case you're curious, after you designed your shirt you had to mail or fax the order.
There are a few games included in this collection. They all have a distinct QBasic look to them. There's something called "Santa Lander" when you have to pick-up a dropped package then land on the roof. There is no way to lose.
Then there's something called "Santa Safe" which appears to be an example game with very minor re-skinning. This one is probably the only non-QBasic game in the collection.
"Scrooge Squirrel" is a Kaboom! style game.
"Space Tree Attack" is literally re-skinned asteroids.
Last is "North Pole Drop" which appears to be another game programming book example that was just barely updated.
Upon exiting the main menu we have our first signs of system instability.
Alright, how festive is WizardWorks Holiday Collection?
I would have given this a 5 if not for the kernel fault.
Now on to the US Gold CD-ROM Christmas Box - 300 great games collection. It's so "great" it comes on 2 CDs. Check it out here: https://archive.org/details/ugold-cd-2.
I am not expecting much from this. US Gold was mostly known to me as a company that created hasty, poorly-tested collections of whatever they found on a BBS that day. For example, the first CD has a game called "Leapin' Christmas Creepers!". I was fortunate that it crashed immediately after this splash screen.
The included holiday artwork is something you have to find on your own by exploring the CD. Did I mention there is no installer or main program?
The 2nd CD is just a bunch of shareware and trial episodes of games.
I can't waste any more of my life on this. Let's get to the festiveness score.
It has at least a little art so I won't give it a zero.
Over on archive.org there is also something called Paper Models The Christmas Kit DOS PC 1986. I could not get that to run. If you're feeling brave it's here: https://archive.org/details/papermodelsthechristmaskitdospc1986ativision
Let's move on to Christmas for Windows Release 3. It's at https://archive.org/download/christmas-for-windows-release-3. Hopefully I will understand it without trying the first two releases.
This one is not off to a great start. The "Singles", which I assume are songs, don't work at all.
Other things totally crash.
The things that work are not terrible. Here's an application to change all your Start menu icons. The selection is kind of weak though.
It also includes a wallpaper installer thing. These are all tiled and look festive enough.
The best part of this CD is the screensaver collection. For example, it has this one where you can customize the message and number of homes.
Once you've configured a screensaver you like you can save it to a disk as a "card". So you can give your friends & family a virtual card on a physical disk. Interesting idea.
The included games are, OK-ish. In this one you have to coordinate the elves so toys move through the factory.
I have no idea what this next game is.
The other game is a simple tile-matching game. Eh.
Alright, how festive is CD-Christmas for Windows Release 3?
The wallpaper and screensavers are fine.
Let's move on to something a little different - The Music Factory's Encyclopedia of Christmas. It can be found at https://archive.org/details/The_Music_Factorys_Encyclopedia_of_Christmas_Christmas_Photos_and_Videos_from_Ma. Just look at that title screen.
"Encyclopedia" is really an odd choice of words. It's a collection of photographs from Xmas displays all over the United States. You cycle through pictures while public domain holiday music plays.
This is sort of relaxing. It doesn't auto advance though. It's not the kind of thing you could leave running on the monitor in the background. They made a really lazy design choice by having only manual picture changing.
The videos section has a few clips.
And that's everything. It's a collection of media. That's what you're getting. Let's see how it scores..
I'd give it a 4 if the pictures had a shuffle mode that advanced every X seconds.
Who is David Jones and why does he have a Christmas CD? I don't think it's the guy from the Monkees because that was "Davy" right? Check it out here if you're as curious as I am: https://archive.org/details/david-jones-christmas.
I powered off the virtual machine and now it can only boot into safe mode. That's a good sign I'm achieving my goal. After another reboot it worked normally again so we can see what Mr. Jones has to offer on his Christmas CD.
Oh, it's clothing store in Australia. This must be a promo CD they gave out in stores. Already it looks amazing. You can't tell from the screenshot but it is currently playing cheery music.
This is looking like the best CD of the lot. It has a card builder that can email or print cards:
It has some puzzles, although pictured here is the "hard" difficulty:
The memory game on "hard" difficulty is also simple:
The "find me" game is the most interesting:
The "puppets" menu prints some hand puppets and "letter" is like the card builder but for Santa.
Alright, short and to the point. Let's rate it..
I'm going with a high score on this one. First off - everything worked. That's kind of a big deal in comparison to the others. It's simple, cheerful, and was presumably free in the first place. This nicely captures the spirit of the season. Nice work Mr. Jones (or the contractor you hired to build this).
There are a whole bunch of Xmas CDs that are just collections of clip art or royalty free images. I started the article with one and feel like I'm good on clip art now. Let's just power through six (six!) of these starting with DigitalVision: Christmas from https://archive.org/details/DigitalVisionChristmas:
It literally misspells Christmas in the window title. The images are mostly Hallmark Channel families.
Next up is https://archive.org/details/stockpix-christmas/:
I realize I'm trying to destroy this virtual machine but I still have several more CDs to try so I'm going to nope out of this one.
Let's move on to https://archive.org/details/stockdisc-114-christmas:
This is nice. No installer. Just a folder with images. Huh, one of the previous installers decided to associate the .JPG extension with QuickTime.
Maybe this next one will be more interesting, it's https://archive.org/details/planet-art-the-holiday-collection-3-christmas-objects:
There are a bunch of TIF images in the root folder that Windows 98 can't handle by default.
Last up in this set is https://archive.org/details/ImageDictionary16Christmas:
Again no installer. This has the nicest pictures of these six CDs.
Time to bundle these six CDs up and rate them.
By themselves these are pretty low, even as a group they are not inspiring much holiday joy. The last CD by itself accounts for most of this score.
Let's get back to something with a little bit of variety. Like Holiday CD 1993..
I'm not off to a good start with this one. You can try it out - https://archive.org/details/CMAGIC/. It's been a while but this looks like an error caused by running a 16-bit (likely Visual Basic 3) application in 32-bit Windows. Oh right, of course that's the case. The error dialog happens to be covering-up Vbrun300.dll. Anyway.. installing it from a command prompt works just fine.
It requires Video for Windows 1.0 and changes your wallpaper and screensaver without asking. This is not a good sign either.
Alright, let's see what this thing has...
It's a MIDI player, because that was in the Visual Basic 3 programming book they bought. Next is the video player that contains a summarized version of It's a Wonderful Life.
It has some wallpaper tiles and an all-caps font too. They're a little below OK in quality.
Let's give this one a festiveness rating..
There's really not much here and the installation isn't very friendly.
Now last, and probably least..
Look, it's the 1990s, remember? We can't do this 1990s experience right without Barney. I'm sorry, that's how it has to be.
There are 8 activities and they're all geared toward young children. Some of them are decent enough thinking games for the right age.
My kids were born after peak Barney but they played Disney flash games that aren't too far off of these.
The painting part requires a little more coordination than I'd expect from the age of kids this is targeting.
So how does Barney's Night Before Christmas rate?
It works, which again is only a high bar for the CDs reviewed on this page. If I was 3-5 this would be big hit I assume.
This feels like a good place to wrap things up. I didn't achieve my goal in that this virtual machine is still usable. I wouldn't actually use it for anything else though. Creating a new one next time I want to try a 1990s CD game is easy enough. These things are so (relatively) small that creating a separate one for each game isn't a big space commitment.
I did achieve a secondary goal of creating some Xmas vibes. I might even keep this virtual machine around for next time I need a holiday spirit boost. I hope it's done the same for you even if you're reading this in the middle of summer.