Vertigo Gaming may be best known for making Cook, Serve, Delicious!, but they also made more than a few fantastic freeware titles back in the day, one of which is particularly fitting for this time of the year. The Winter Solstice is, despite its name, a game about winter as a season. Or rather, it’s a game about an abstract play in the San Aruba Amphitheater in the middle of a desert about a blizzard representing the season of winter. Anyway, you play as a blue paper lantern on a string shooting gel at lights and other paper lanterns to make them pop and spark.
The Winter Solstice is primarily a score attack game, and a fairly short one at that, but what it does it does well. The controls feel quite accurate for a paper lantern on a string; the lantern can be moved horizontally and upward easily, but gravity is very much a concern as it will rapidly fall towards the stage floor when not moving up. Hitting the floor won’t damage the lantern, but it does cause it to bounce, which can make it significantly more difficult to dodge projectiles.
The lantern’s attack is where The Winter Solstice differentiates itself gameplay-wise from many other score attack games. Pressing and holding the left mouse button will cause your lantern to rapidly spew beads of blue gel, which are heavily affected by gravity, but will bounce off of the ground and hanging boxes. Meanwhile, enemies are divided into two categories, colored lights and larger lanterns. Lights swarm in by the hundreds, are not actually dangerous, and explode in a single hit so they are purely there for getting a high score. Lanterns on the other hand will destroy your lantern on contact, take a good number of hits, and will even shoot out dangerous projectiles in various patterns depending on the lantern color, making it a priority to destroy them both for a large point boost and to prevent multiple lantern groups from being on-screen at the same time. To add a bit more in the way of replayability, giant snowflakes (also on strings) will dip down from the ceiling from time to time and collecting them will temporarily turn your gel-bullets purple, making them hit lanterns harder and doubling the point value of anything they destroy.
As interesting as the gameplay is, it is the aesthetics which make The Winter Solstice stand out. This is an abstract, festive celebration of the season and it is wonderful to look at. Light-destroying gel and enemy bullets aside, all the details make the play and the theater feel real, if remarkably bizarre. Everything is suspended by string and it is easy to imagine machines just out of sight guiding the lights through their air current-like patterns with a few workers manually guiding the larger and more complicated pieces and tossing down snow-like confetti. The stage and thin, color-appropriate curtains are ever-present and running out of lives causes the backstage area to become visible through the curtain. Even the props go a long way to making this unusual theater feel real – sparse and looking somewhat cheaply-made, there are just enough props in each of the six ‘acts’ to set the scene and to make this truly feel like a tightly-budgeted local annual play.
Of course, the main draw comes from the spectacle of seeing and hearing the hundreds of lights pop, fizz, and spark as they are hit, all while listening to the pleasantly calm soundtrack. Score attack games are often all about having a high-energy, adrenaline-fueled rush, and there most definitely is a sense of excitement when the time comes to race towards a snowflake and then pop as many lights as possible while you still have a point multiplier going, but in this game everything comes together to create such a mellow tone that I sometimes wished that I didn’t need to worry about dodging bullets.
You don’t always need a holiday to feel in a festive mood, so sit back, relax, and enjoy watching and playing this colorful celebration of the season itself.