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January 10, 2008Glenn Turner

I hate holiday specials.

I know some folks love them, but I've often found them to represent the very worst in episodic/serial storytelling: A timely event is shoehorned into a show, one which disrupts the emotional and narrative flow solely to hammer home an overwrought and trite message. Bah humbug. The only way holiday specials are any worse is when they become holiday flashback specials, reminiscing about all the great previous holiday times 'the gang' have broadcasted/printed over the years. Now that's uninspired!

That's not to say holiday specials can't rise above such conventionalism, or that episodic pieces are incapable of balancing the inclusion of a holiday with the demands of a persistent storyline, but it's pretty darn rare. And, sadly, Sam & Max: Ice Station Santa fails to meet the challenge. While holiday specials are usually forgiven for their lackluster quality, airing right before shows go on break for a handful of stale reruns and football, Ice Station Santa lacks that luxury as it's the premiere of the game's second season. I expected something a bit stronger from this absurdist point-and-click adventure series, something that'd establish the tone for the season, something that didn't whip out the tired Santa/Satan gag.

Should I back up some? Why not. The episode starts off with a bang: (Ex-?)President Max brandishes his gun while Sam compliments him on his diplomatic handling of a previous off-screen action. "Thank my peacemaker!" Max exclaims, as he waves his gun in the air. Oh, it's such an old quip, but a satisfying one! Unfortunately, it doesn't last, as a "I did not have sex with that woman" flyer is quite visible in the background of their office. Does Leno bother with trotting that one out any more? No? Then there's your clue that your joke is dated.

And then, after briefly tangling with a gigantic robot hitman that resembles a vindictive "community college" version of The Iron Giant, I spy Bosco. Bosco, the plot-convenience character (owner of the convenience store, obviously) from the first season. Oh, I had so hoped that he would have been punted from the series this season. Instead of coping with Bosco, Sam and Max rush for the North Pole, off to search for whoever sent the stunted existentialist robot to vanquish them. Sadly, instead we we run into the least-essential characters from Season One: The Soda Poppers, standing there in all their faded (and obnoxious) ex-child-star glory.

Sam and Max have the exact same response to them that I do: severe and utter disappointment. All Sam & Max games need are some basic characters to riff off of. They don't need to be special, they don't even need to be terribly fleshed out, much less recurring. And, apart from a dearth of previously available character models, I can't fathom why they keep forcing the Soda Poppers, these dated and hollow caricatures, upon us. Hell, one of the Popper's 'appeal' is that he can't control his bladder.

His bladder!

Enough. I could overlook their presence throughout the first season, but the second season is a fresh start, a new beginning to cherry-pick what worked in the first season and drop the dross. That means the Soda Poppers. Other Season One mainstays reappear in Season Two as well, including career-shifting Sybil (whose attitude always appealed to me, even if she was little more than a crutch for each episode's puzzles), the ever-amusing Abraham Lincoln, and the slightly-tiresome C.O.P.S. (obsolete-but-sentient computers, thrown in for nerd-cred and cheap tech "laffs"). While half of these are adequate, the other half shouldn't bother showing their faces again.

Sure there are a few "new" characters, if you count Santa and the Christmas Spirits as 'new' (and, technically they are) but, Stinky – the diner operator – is the only genuinely new one (Flint Paper, a P.I. extraordinaire seen through a newly formed hole in our deadly duo's office, is new to the game but not the Sam & Max universe). And while her personality is refreshingly acerbic, her character model seems terribly awkward, as if her chest has been awkwardly pressed.

Throw this mishmash of forced, recurring, ancillary characters into a script with a litany of Tourette's Syndrome jokes, MySpace and YouTube references and, yes, even a riff on Fight Club, and even I could hear crickets chirping while playing the game in the dead of a Chicago winter. Partner these jokes with a plot that features Santa being possessed by a demonic force and Sam and Max visiting the Christmases of Ruined Past, Present and Future and it's a significant step back from the more original episodes of the prior season.

If it weren't for the magnetic discourse between Sam and Max and a slightly interesting time-travel gag that hints at a season-long arc, I'd almost doubt why I'd been looking forward to this premiere for the last few months. But all I have to remember is: despite the re-used and re-gifted characters, despite the tired and musty jokes, at the heart of the season premiere this episode is nothing more than a sidelining one-shot holiday special, hellbent on sapping all the joy and humor from my favorite episodic series, all in the name of the holidays. Ho ho ho.

3 comments for ‘Sam & Max S0201: Ice Station Santa’

#1 Mitchell Dyer Jan 10, 2008 12:51pm

I'm in the middle of Season One right now, and I have a love/hate relationship with this series... I love the dry wit and deadpan one liners, but the puzzles are either made so a fetus could solve them, or so difficult the only plausible solution is me putting my head through the monitor. While I like the games, mostly because they're funny, I wish there was more to it than point-and-click, which is the primary reason I bought it... I'd just like to see it expand, because if Telltale is trying to revive a dead genre, don't leave it the same.

I still enjoy these games and really can't wait to play Season 2, but I just hope there's something, anything to make it feel new again.

#2 Glenn Turner Jan 10, 2008 01:03pm

To it's credit, Ice Station Santa's puzzles aren't too shabby - they're a bit more complex but aren't as maddening as the first season's (except for one stupid bit with Jimmy Two-Teeth. Grr.).

Have you played 'Abe Lincoln Must Die!' yet? That episode is, in my book, the only must-play episode of the Telltale series so far.

#3 JoeAnne May 16, 2009 05:16pm

To be honest I really enjoy holiday specials, because it simply makes them more fun and you feel the X-mas spirit, for example, so much better. After all the eating after holidays I'd wish for 7 seconds to a perfect body just sitting in front of the PC but, it ain't that easy, right?:(