Christmas time is here again and what with food, free time, and family to play with it’s not a bad time to game. For many of us, Christmas is where our gaming lives began as consoles became our favourite under-the-tree surprises, and even in the years that have followed, games have formed a critical part of our festive experiences. Developers obviously feel the same way, with tons of games designed to send our bells jingling. Today, we revisit a few titles that have succeeded over the years in giving us that festive feeling.
Banjo Kazooie – Freezeezy Park
Owen Atkinson: While I got a few good chuckles out of Clayfighter 63 1/3’s demented take on Frosty and Santa – beating each other senseless with candy canes and the like – the standout Christmas moment in games for me is Banjo Kazooie’s Freezeezy Peak.
From the moment you drop into this winter wonderland, festivity is coming at you from all angles. Sleigh bells rustle gently in the energetic background music, menacing snowmen pelt you with snowballs, and enormous presents make up parts of the terrain. Even the level’s entrance is designed to look like an advent calendar (sadly devoid of chocolate).
In your travels through this snow-dusted plain, you’ll hunt out lost presents for some sad polar bear cubs, compete in a sled race, scale a giant snowman and protect a Pikmin-like procession of fairy lights as they bounce towards an enormous tree. Even though I grew up in Queensland, where Christmas falls right on the cusp of a blazing hot summer, this crisp snowy land filled with presents, decorations and fun things to do seemed like everything Christmas should be.
I think this was because all the oversized Christmas-themed features brought back so many memories of childhood, looking up in awe and excitement at our glittering tower of pine needles (alright, green plastic) and curling up underneath with presents as big as my head. All it needed was a fluffy cat trying to edge me out of the way and it would have been just like home.
James Pond II: Codename Robocod
David Tierney: When I think of Christmas, one game instantly jumps to mind: James Pond II: Codename Robocod. In this 16-bit 2D platformer, our super-secret, non-battered fish agent is on a mission both perilous and of the utmost importance: to save Santa, to save Christmas, and thus to restore Christmas cheer. James is out to prove he’s the biggest fish in the pond.
It’s hard to think of a more Christmassy theme, or a more motivating goal than having to save Santa Claus. James Pond won me over instantly through its bright colours and festive levels. The stages are situated throughout Santa’s workshop, so you’ll find yourself navigating around levels bursting to the seams with toys and sweets. Throughout, James faces many adorable and deadly foes: cake people, raging red buses, and a giant teddy bear.
It’s unusual to think of, but as with nearly all 16-bit era games, James Pond was actually quite difficult. I didn’t even realize, until quite recently, that you actually got to save Santa when you passed it! So I suppose in many ways, like an unwanted present, the giant teddy bear brought naught but tears. Maybe I should’ve written about a more cheerful Christmas game… like the Die Hard Trilogy.
Kingdom Hearts II – Halloween Town
Tara Jayne: For me, Christmas is always about that Christmas ‘feeling’. The feeling that is almost impossible to describe but you know when you get it. Maybe it’s when you’re putting up your Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, or even when you hear the melody of your favourite Christmas song… It’s just that spirit that rushes over you and fills you with warmth. My favourite part is watching movies that really invoke that sense of Christmas spirit. We all have something that does it to us; gets us feeling all merry – so when I see that a video game can also capture that spirit, well, we’re onto a winner, aren’t we…
My Christmas gaming pick is Kingdom Hearts II’s Halloween Town episode for that very reason. I really feel like it does such a great job at exploring that feeling of anticipation and wonder that you get around the holidays. I also love that stylistically, Halloween Town looks different to the rest of the game.
I’m a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas as it explores a gothic-style Christmas that appealed to my teenage self, when I just wanted to stand out and be a bit more alternative. Getting to play through a mini continuation of the movie was a real treat for me; Jack and Sally are such cute characters! I loved how this episode of the game had a message which related back to Sora’s own relationship with Kairi. I’m a romantic at heart so seeing the sentimental meaning of Christmas played out on screen in an amazing video game was almost too much for me to handle.
Christmas NiGHTS Into Dreams
Chris Mawson: Whilst they’re not strictly Christmas-themed levels, the delightfully wintry Ice Cap Zone from Sonic 3 and the snow-filled Blizzard Bluff course from Crash Team Racing both conjure up festive season feelings for me. It’s more because I received both games as Christmas presents in my youth, rather than any obvious seasonal link besides all the snow and ice, though.
So with that said, it’d be remiss to write about Christmas in video games without a nod to Christmas NiGHTS Into Dreams on the Sega Saturn, which thoroughly ticks every gift-wrapped box. Directed and produced by the dream team of Yuji Naka and Naoto Ōshima, respectively, NiGHTS was ahead of its time in many respects, with its unique premise continuing to receive critical acclaim to this day.
Christmas NiGHTS, a festive-themed two-level sampler for the game, was given away in various forms in December 1996 – although I didn’t get to play it until its European release a year later.
More than just your average demo, Christmas NiGHTS uses the internal clock of the Saturn to alter its theme depending on whether it’s actually Christmas time or not, and comes complete with its own, suitably themed story: that of protagonists Elliot and Claris having to retrieve a missing star to go on top of the Twin Seeds City ‘tree’ (actually a decorated tower). Cute!
Playing the game during Christmas time causes item boxes to become presents, Nightopians to dress as elves, and Ideya captures to be replaced by Christmas trees. Furthermore, the title’s background music is replaced by Jingle Bells, and the boss theme is changed to a more festive variation. There’s even an appearance from Santa.
From all of us here at Power Up Gaming, we hope you have a superb Christmas, and wish a happy holidays to all of our readers. Can you think of any memorable Christmas-themed moments in video games you think we should have mentioned? Let us know in the comments below!