Much in the same way that Die Hard and Gremlins are Christmas movies, there are games that make use of the holidays, and in many of these examples more specifically the Winter months, as key components to their settings and stories, thus becoming “Christmas games”. These are some of my favorite or not… non-traditional holiday-themed games. For my purposes here, I am selecting titles or spin-offs – DLCs episodes, etc – which take place either directly at Christmas or make use of a strong Winter theme. I’m exluding singular or grouped “snowy” or “wintery” levels from much larger games, along with things like Skyrim or Kholat, which simply have large frozen, mountainous regions. Some of these are fairly common, but others you may not have considered previously. These are presented with no specific order, and are my choices. Please do leave your picks, even outside my parameters, in the comments.
Yakuza is a criminally under-played series, and one that is fresh on my mind as I currently play it for review. Yakuza 5’s story takes place over multiple locations, and in a few instances over multiple years. The bulk of the narrative here takes place prior to Christmas. The second part of the five-part game is played in Tsukimino (Sapporo) during the Snow Festival, based on a real annual event. Lovable ex-con, and hulking Yakuza with a heart of gold, Taiga Saejima, is on the run during the festival. One of the many side missions of the game, called sub-stories, has Saejima donning a Santa suit and taking down some thugs with Yuletide glee to really enforce the Winter theme (see blow). Later in the game, while hiding from the police, Saejima is given the choice of slacks and dress shirt or – you guessed it – a Santa suit, in order to hide while he makes his way to a park full of giant Winter-themed snow and ice sculptures with Christmas music filling in the background.
Max Payne is equal parts gangster flick and John Woo homage. Bordering on parody, the slick New York based shooter has one largely important element which holds the game together, “the storm of the century”. The immense Winter storm serves the game in multiple ways, eliminating the want or need for an “open-world” experience, and allowing players to focus solely on the combat between good and evil while navigating the complex network of city buildings. Christmas is only indirectly referenced as means of description, but the Winter storm is discussed in voice-overs from Max and TV/Radio reports throughout the game and plays an integral role to the game’s dramatic conclusion. It is described as being like the end of the world. Two homeless men famously quote an REM song, stating:
Homeless #1: It’s never been this cold, never ever. It’s like the sky is falling.
Homeless #2: Yessir. It’s the end of the world as we know it.
Homeless #1: And I don’t feel fine… I don’t feel anything. Not anything.
Homeless #2: I’m freezing my butt off.
Max Payne’s visuals have not aged gracefully for sure, but running it with high resolution downscaling and some added tweaks from your video card’s control panel can help. The game is still certainly fun to play, though it’s definitely the most challenging of the three entries. The story and its at times over-the-top cliche dialogue still hold up nicely though.
Jazz Jackrabbit Holiday Hare 95
Before they were Epic Games, creators of the massively successful Unreal Engine, and before he was ‘Cliffy B’ the face of the company and its biggest franchise Gears of War, in the early 90s they were simply Epic Megagames and Cliff Bleszinski. Epic was one of the kings of early 90’s Shareware games with an arsenal of side-scrolling platformer, adventure, shmups and RPGs like Ken’s Labyrinth, Tyrian, Jill of the Jungle, Epic Pinball, One Must Fall 2097 (an amazing robot 2d fighter) and the game whose lead character would become the company mascot for a time: Jazz IniJackrabbit.
Jazz was the PC answer to Sonic; a brash, speedster rabbit, heavy on charisma. It’s a fun and fast-paced game that has good visual design, and a variety of weapons. The basic concept of the story from Wikipedia is worth reading: “The game is set in a fantasy world based on Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare”, in which the enmity between tortoises and hares continues even after three thousand years. An evil mastermind tortoise named Devan Shell begins conquering planets, suppressing any native confrontation. One of such planets, Carrotus, is home to a peaceful hare kingdom that, once confronted by Shell, is able to provide enough resistance to fend him off.”
Two shareware expansion episodes were released for Christmas in both 1994 and 1995. The 1995 version is superior, with planet “Holidaius” looking much more fleshed out than 94’s planet Candion. Holiday Hare 95 also has several more remixed Christmas music tracks in mod/tracker style than 94’s repetitive Carol of the Bells cover. It’s a bit of a nostalgia trip, and for me doesn’t seem to run well in Dosbox, but if you can get it working right, it’s a nice call back to early 90’s arcade platformers with an added holiday flare.
Indigo Prophecy / Fahrenheit
Indigo Prophecy or Fahrenheit as it’s called outside of the States makes use of the Winter theme much in the way that Max Payne does. It’s cold and isolating, confining the lead character in many ways. The Winter visuals and settings certainly impact the character and color the city where his troubles reside. Indigo Prophecy is an adventure game which was the second release from David Cage’s Quantic Dream after the 1999 cult classic Omikron: The Nomad Soul. Love him or hate him, Cage’s cinematic-style gaming experiences certainly aren’t afraid to try new things, and lean heavily on intriguing writing.
The game has an strong opening and remains interesting as the mystery around the main character unfolds. However, the narrative does fall apart a bit (or a lot depending on your reaction) near the very end. Still it’s a worthwhile experience that produces some tense moments, beginning with the opening scenes, where the main character has committed murder at a diner and must partially cover up the crime and flee before a police officer discovers everything.
Batman Arkham Origins
Arkham Origins seems to get a bad rap, yet still sits at a very acceptable 75 critic and 7.5 user score on Metacritic, for those that pay attention to those sort of things. Granted, Origins was no City, but then again what game is. Arkham City was basically much a masterpiece, certainly of the beat-em-up and superhero game genres. Origins was a decent take on the adventures of a young Batman, still new to the crime-fighting game. What better settings to test that Bat mantel’s mettle than a snowy Arkham on Christmas Eve where assassins have gathered with one purpose in mind, the death of the Bat?
The at times near-blizzard backdrop creates some amazing cutscenes and just a pretty visual style overall. Gothic architecture just seems to go with winter weather so well. The game doesn’t shy away from from the Christmas setting either, starting off with Batman Christmas music on the menu screen. The game includes a version of Carol of the Bells which serves as the Joker’s theme as well. Presents and Christmas lights fill the city. It’s a fun environment to romp around in and an excellent holiday game.
Snatcher is an early Kojima game that presents itself as an adventure game with simple shooter elements. It has more than a passing resemblance in story to Ridley Scott perennial sci-fi classic Blade Runner. Snatcher also happens to take place during Christmas, featuring a key informant, Napoleon, dressed as Santa. The game’s music is fantastic in a purely cheesy 80’s pop-action sense, however it’s Christmas music is… well… hop on your favorite search engine or video site and search for Merry ‘Xmas Neo Kobe City for a listen to a middling rendition of Jingle Bells.
This title and Policenauts, outside of his brief foray into Castlevania, are perhaps the biggest names outside of the extended Metal Gear franchise for Kojima and were kind of ground-breaking for the genre, as Wikipedia puts it. Snatcher covered adult themes in a mostly mature way (this is Kojima after all, there has to be some weirdness in there) and made use of the popular ‘visual novel’ style to enhance story-telling. Unfortunately Snatcher came very late in the life of doomed format, the Sega CD. As time has progressed, and perhaps due to the mythical status of Kojima, the game has found a considerable following, and as such make my list of holiday games to play.
Duke Nukem 3D – Nuclear Winter
No… just kidding. Nuclear Winter was an “expansion” for Duke Nukem 3D which consisted of a couple of pre-existing levels, run in reverse and mixed up with new secrets and placements. Enemies have antlers or Santa hats. And the new fight is against “feminist elf aliens”. Not Duke’s finest hour, and probably a microcosm of why the character has aged so poorly.
For people that complain about DLCs and microtransaction nickel-and-diming in the modern era, have a look at Nuclear Winter, originally retailing for $20 to try and cash-in on the Duke 3D craze. If you own the Megaton Edition in Steam, right-click on the title and you’ll find Nuclear Winter, though I don’t recommend it. Say what you will about Duke It Out in DC and the uber-cheese that is Duke Carribbean: Life’s a Beach (also both in the Megaton Edition), but they at least provide new levels, a bit of gameplay and some loose semblance of a story. One positive: the MIDI arrangements of Christmas tunes are decent here.
What are Your Top Winter Theme Games?
Those are my main Winter Solstice offerings for you this year. Editor Reid wanted to shout out Sam and Max Episode 201 Ice Station Santa and contributor Rhys throws SSX in the ring, though, technically you can snowboard year-round in many places. Gareth also says, check out The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge, which he describes as a DMC reskin. I’m sure that How the Saints Saved Christmas would be on the list, but I haven’t gotten around to playing it yet.
So that’s what we’ve got for you. What are your choices for Winter/Christmas themed games? Are you mad that I left something out, like Christmas NiGHTS Into Dreams, or do you want to argue the case for Skyrim because the snowy bits remind you of warm cocoa and a countryside Christmas? Perhaps you like the really classy stuff like Elf Bowling?
If so leave us a comment, I’d love to hear the ones I missed or discover new entries to add to the holiday rotation.