Ah, it’s that time of year again. It’s a time to celebrate family and friends, to give back to the less fortunate, and to curl up in front of the glow of a monitor or television set with a nice cup of hot cocoa to play some games and ignore said friends and family. You could also play games with them I suppose; it’s completely up to you.
To celebrate the winter season Wolfman and Spazzy have reunited once more to bring you our picks for games to play during the holiday season. Much like our Halloween Hits article from earlier this year, please note that this is merely a list of games that we think you might enjoy; it is a personal list that is in no way meant to be definitive.
Banjo-Kazooie: Truth be told, there aren’t a great number of games set entirely around a holiday winter scene. Most of the games taking place in a primarily cold environment tend towards the tone of Metal Gear Solid, melancholic stories about being a man/killer robot (we haven’t actually played Lost Planet, so that one might be off a bit). Banjo-Kazooie is here for the reason many games on this list are: that one level. In this case, we’re talking about Freezeezy Peak, arguably the game’s best level and based just as much around holiday fun as snowy weather. The Peak is really more valley, a series little locales orbiting a massive snowman rising from a lake. There are killer snowmen, a gargantuan Christmas tree, sled racing, and even a part where you give presents to a trio of bratty polar bears. And that music…
Super Mario 64: While Banjo’s corporate cousin never hit quite that specific a kind of holiday fun, Mario 64 did codify how winter levels played in 3D platformers; it’s most likely one of the games that helped make it as prominent an environment “type” as it is. Cool, Cool Mountain and Snowman’s Land have so many of the staples: snowmen, lighthearted music, racing down a snowbank, and painfully cold water; the only thing both of them are missing is the common nighttime atmosphere. With the deliberate exception of Mario Sunshine, almost every Mario game since has gone to this well, and it’s clear why. Whether it’s Mario Galaxy’s Freezeflame Galaxy or Mario Kart 8’s Mount Wario, there’s always a festive energy in these levels in particular, and why so many ice levels are among the most fun in their respective games.
Kirby 64: the Crystal Shards: Okay, so Banjo has the presents, and Mario had the look. But winter is also a time of darkness, rough weather, and just a little bit of harshness in the cold. It’s fitting, then, that Shiver Star in Kirby 64 goes through that in its own way. It starts off nice, of course; you ride toboggans in the snow, and navigate some fluffy clouds. But then…it starts to get weird. A haunted shopping mall seems a little out of character, but it only gets more so when you find yourself trapped in a deranged toy factory, one whose products are just the same enemies you’ve been fighting the whole time! It’s an interesting but fun way to up the stakes, and it shows how “holiday” levels can have a little more moxie than just being pleasant.
Dead Rising 4: Listen, horror and Christmas go hand in hand sometimes. From Black Christmas to SIlent Night, Deadly Night, to the Gremlins, the juxtaposition of the gruesome with the merry can lead to some interesting and fun scenarios. The Dead Rising series has always been over the top in the same way many of these movies are, so the Christmas backdrop seems like a perfect fit. If you are the type that appreciates dark humor, absurd situation, and an extreme zombie body count, then Dead Rising 4 might be the Christmas game for you.
James Pond II: Codename Robocod: This game is a fun platforming title that has little to do with being a spy, and even less to do with being a cyborg cop. James Pond doesn’t even had a gun in it, instead opting to jump on enemies in order to damage them in true platforming hero tradition. The game is fun with big cartoony sprites and interesting enemy and level design…the music can be a bit repetitive, though. The plot of the game find James heading to the North pole to stop Dr Maybe (get it?), his arch nemesis, who has taken over Santa’s workshop. So yeah, it’s definitely a holiday game as well.
Cave Story +: Cave Story pretty much started the Metroidvania indie game craze. It is an incredibly influential game in the indie scene, and it is also a game that any fan of exploratory platformers should check out. The Cave Story + release includes a Christmas mode that replaces many sprites and backgrounds with more holiday appropriate visuals. The game is relatively short but offers a ton of replay value, so if you’ve never played it before the Christmas skin is as good of an excuse to do so now as any.
Toejam and Earl: Toejam and Earl is a game about a pair of aliens that crash land on earth and, through the power of funk, must search for the missing pieces of their busted spacecraft in order to return to their home planet of Funkotron. The game is one of the single greatest co-op experiences on the SEGA Genesis/Megadrive, and the wacky enemy design and oddball sense of humor have made the game a cult classic. While the game itself has nothing to do with Christmas or the holiday season, all power-ups take the form of wrapped presents, and Santa himself appears in the game… which is more than enough to earn it a spot on this list.
Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams: NiGHTS into Dreams was one of the premiere reasons to own a SEGA Saturn. The free flying adventures of the titular Knights showcased the value of an analog stick (making its debut here prior to the launch of the N64) and the resulting smooth controls, as well as the colorful graphics, make it a game that is still fun to pick up and play to this day. What does the game have to do with Christmas, though? Nothing, really. SEGA, however, released a two-level Knights mini-game, bundling it with other SEGA titles as well as certain versions of the console itself. This release had bonus content and modes not found in the main game, and, more importantly to the spirit of the list, it was all Christmas themed. Instead of rings, you would fly through wreaths, item boxes became Christmas presents, and instead of any of standards Knights tunes you do all of this while listening to a remix of jingle bells. Honestly, I can not think of many games more appropriate to play over the yuletide. Luckily for those looking for this game, it comes included in most modern re-releases of the title.
Daze Before Christmas: This is a game in which the player controls Santa Claus in his quest to rescue his elves and reindeer from an evil snowman. As far as 16-bit platformers go the game is… fine. It’s not a standout by any means, but the sprite work is solid and the controls work well enough. Not something I would recommend playing normally, but hey, it’s Christmas, right?
Paper Mario: Rounding off the N64 games is Paper Mario, whose late Shiver Snowfield chapter has them all beat. It’s got every trope: noirish mysteries befitting the cold, gifts that warm the heart, decorating snowmen, gorgeous auroras, a tough mountain, incompetent penguins, melodrama, and a palace that uses its ice and snow for all sorts of mind-bending traps. It’s a game more than comfortable with visual and narrative tropes, and the joy it has in playing with them is palpable.
Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong’s Double Trouble : The Donkey Kong Country games are some of the finest platformers ever made, and DKC3 is no exception. The game is set in the “Northern Kremisphere,” which means the game has plenty of snowy locals. More than that, though, by entering the code MERRY, you can actually unlock a Christmas theme for the bonus levels!
Jazz Jackrabbit (Holiday Hare): Jazz Jackrabbit, for those that haven’t played it, is a pretty amazing title. It’s a Sonic the Hedgehog clone for PC made by Epic Megagame’s Cliff Bleszinski, yeah, that Cliff Bleszinski, the guy who’s game development credits include Gear of War. Jazz is a green rabbit, and unlike Sonic, he also is heavily armed. Mixing run and gun elements with Sonic may seem strange, but it really works for the game. A standalone Christmas version of the game was also released, with remixed holiday music and a whole host of festive items and backdrops, making it a great choice for this holiday season.
Rayman Origins: Look, Gourmand Land is fun. There isn’t really anything else here; we’ve got a bunch of fruit glaciers and great music (really seems to be a theme here…), but we aren’t including Rayman Origins because its ice world represents a particular trope in the level type. It’s just really great, and we relish any opportunity to talk up how excellent this game is.
Ice Climber: We certainly couldn’t forgo Ice Climber on this list, being that it’s one of a few games that take place entirely in a wintry environment. But it deserves to be here beyond that, with its chipper theme and the premise of scaling a mountainside to score produce, the most cost efficient presents of all. Nana and Popo’s cute parkas even make them look just a bit like Santa!
Batman: Arkham City: While Arkham City was a serious step back from Arkham Asylum – the writing and storytelling were even worse, and the open world and combat focus devalued how the first game’s excellent stealth system worked – it’s here because it takes places on or around Christmas.
Holiday Lemmings: Lemmings is another game series that saw a standalone Holiday themed release on PC. It’s honestly not all that different from the original game, and like many of the PC games on this list, it includes new stages with a holiday skin. This includes remixed holiday music, snow, and Christmas lights over stages. Still, Lemmings is a fun little puzzle platformer with just a hint of God sim, and you could find much worse games to play over holiday break.
Megaman X (Chill Penguin): Ok, Ice stages are pretty common in Mega Man titles. Heck, the very first game in the series has robot master named Ice Man, and his stage is, appropriately enough, filled with ice and snow. Still, something about Chill Penguin’s stage always stood out to me. It’s a fun stage filled with ice, snow, and robots that throw snow. If that’s not enough, towards the beginning of the stage, Dr. Light, whom I always thought looked suspiciously like Santa Claus, gives you the greatest gift of all: Dash Boots.
Ōkami: A lot of games place their ice levels near the end of the game. I’m not sure if this is just out of following other games, but it’s a sensible place. Ice levels are…harder. The slippery ice physics and cold weather play well with challenge, and the gorgeous landscapes provide a lovely climactic view. Ōkami runs with this; the final main locale Kamui is cold, harsh, tough, and sets up the final act wonderfully. It’s not “pleasant” (though it’s incredibly fun), but it’s good to have games like it remind us about how even the difficult parts of the cold can be great, too.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: And on that note, we’ve got Snowpeak Ruins. Zelda doesn’t go into this environmental trope much, and this version is one of its best. Around the middle of the game, Link has to ascend this mountain, so harsh and unknowable he’s got to rely on the scent of salmon to chase down an intrusive yeti. But once he finally meets him – and enters Hyrule’s customary snowboard race – he gets invited into his manor, and this is where things start to get hairy. The place is starting to fall apart, you have to access parts of the house with an antique cannon, and there’s a terrifying lizard guard with a ball and chain. It’d be entirely miserable without the yeti couple and their amazing pumpkin soup, but Snowpeak is incredible at maintaining a rising tension as the place gets more and more suspicious. The harsh cold of snow and the warmth of a hearth are great for stories about discomfort or claustrophobia (think the Thing, or the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid), and Snowpeak is great at creating an environment that’s just creepy and difficult and harsh enough to be fun and exciting.