While I don’t have much stake in the religious side of the Christmas holiday, I enjoy the consumer side of things. One could deconstruct the event and pull out all the evils that exist within it, from borrowed cultural traditions to completely obvious ploys to get people to spend more, but when you get past all the indignation, you can start to appreciate the warmer side of things. It is, by no coincidence, very near the winter solstice. It’s the darkest time of the year (for the northern hemisphere), and therefore the best time to start focusing your attention away from how cold and dark it is outside. The lights are bright, the food is warm, and people are socially pressured to be nice to one another for a while. So while you may find yourself frequently forced into social situations at every turn, it’s the one time of year you can say, “Hey, dick, it’s Christmas!”
It’s also that time of year when we bust out all the classics of holiday media. The radio turns into a putrid cesspool of pop stars singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and cable TV piles on It’s a Wonderful Life. That’s fine with me, aside from the fact that a period working in retail absolutely destroyed any appreciation I had for Christmas music, but I spend a disproportionately greater time playing video games than watching movies. Unfortunately, while movies have such timeless classics as A Christmas Story and Jingle All The Way, very few games fully embrace a holiday theme. There are some, most of which are relegated to short indie experiences and themed events existing within the massively multiplayer niche of our hobby, but pickings are slim.
Here are three games you might not have considered adding to your list of digital holiday experiences. None of these titles are strictly Christmas games, making them more Batman Returns and less A Nightmare Before Christmas, but hopefully they’ll help you get in the scene.
Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes
Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes isn’t a Christmas game by any stretch of the imagination. It would be fair to chalk its inclusion up to the fact that I spent a chunk of the year diving into the notorious Army Men series, and it’s therefore fresh in my mind. But there’s a reason for it to be here: Level 14 – Living Room. When you jam the password HXMSTR into either the Dreamcast or N64 version, you’ll be dropped into the giant living room of a family celebrating the season. Mountainous presents litter the floor, a giant tree dominates a corner of the room, and a fantastic medley of classic Christmas tunes play over the plastic carnage.
Above all, though, it’s just a fantastic level. While the quality of the Army Men series is shaky at the best of times, Sarge’s Heroes benefited from some terrifically ambitious level design, and the living room is the pinnacle of it. It’s a relatively linear journey that loops between couches, has you use rulers to jump gaps to the coffee table, and climbing presents to the high ground. This being an Army Men game, it certainly isn’t perfect. There’s a stairway that invites you to battle your way up to the top, but it doesn’t go anywhere or serve any real function. It’s likely that this was originally supposed to be the level’s finale, but for whatever reason, it was dropped but never removed.
Regardless, one of the best ways to experience Christmas is from the perspective of a toy.
Diddy Kong Racing
Stepping up from one level based on the Christmas season, Rare’s Diddy Kong Racing features a whole land. Well, sort of. In all honesty, Snowflake Mountain seems directly developed as a series of winterized tracks, but the developers couldn’t help but drop in a few symbols of the holidays in tracks like Frosty Village. Add to this that the soundtrack for the area consists of ringly, jingly sleighbell songs, and you wind up with something that tastes a lot like Christmas.
Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there isn’t a way to skip directly to Snowflake Mountain, but it’s only the second world in the game, and you don’t have to fully complete the first to get there. The other downside is that Diddy Kong Racing is a pretty fun game, and it’s likely that you won’t want to stop after clearing the winter wonderland, so your Christmas experience will likely come coupled with a few volcanoes and sandy beaches. It also continues Mario Kart’s tradition of folding vehicular combat into the toy car racing, so it’s also likely that those holly jolly songs will be drowned out in a cacophony of screaming animal characters.
Speaking of which, this being the N64, you can rope in three friends for a little Christmas carnage. Nothing reminds people of the holidays like the gift of a homing rocket.
Toejam & Earl
So we go from a Christmas level, to a Christmas world, to… nothing at all. Toejam & Earl for the Sega Genesis has neither a Christmas bulb nor a snowflake to be found, yet for me, it’s become a holiday tradition to force someone to play through it with me. Why? Because it perfectly captures the best part of Christmas: presents.
Toejam & Earl was designed with a commitment to random experiences. Not only is there a mode that sends you through procedurally generated landscapes, the items you pick up come gift wrapped. Presents are strewn across the terrain, and you never know what each will contain until you crack it open. It could be tomatoes, high-top sneakers, or even an extra life, or it could give you the hiccups or kill you instantly. Once you open a present, you know that every other gift with the same shape and wrapping paper will include the same item, which provides a risk and reward dynamic, as you know that any of your gifts could contain a wrench that mucks up the rest of the game. The worst of all is the randomizer, which scrambles and hides the contents of the presents, making you start your collection from square one.
Presents are central to the game’s theme, the concept that everything revolves around. What did Santa bring you? Something to defend yourself with or a trick that will harm you? Sometimes it’s literally Santa wearing a jetpack that you get presents from. And if aliens receiving presents from a rocket propelled Saint Nick doesn’t perfectly embody the spirit of Christmas, I don’t know what does.