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Season’s beatings: the most effective Christmas-themed video games

Christmas is a time for overeating, arguing with your relatives, and trying out the fantastic new gadgets you found under the tree, whether they were addressed to you or not. If you’re lucky enough to get hold of one of the best games consoles this year, you might be wondering what to play on it – and even whether there are any suitable games with a snowy aesthetic and chimney-based levels.

Games and Christmas don’t have a great history together. Once, it was de rigueur to have a slippy-slidey ice level in your platform game, but it’s not enough to just be wintry, otherwise Skyrim would be a Christmas game. Some games had Christmas-themed promo copies, or unlockable Christmas levels or skins, or just holiday fun. World of Warcraft has snowball fights, Diamond City in Fallout 4 puts up decorations on the 25th, Dead Rising 4 lets you craft festive items to kill zombies with.

But what we haven’t had recently is a really good game about Christmas itself, such as Mega Drive platformer Daze Before Christmas or the Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer game for the Wii, which consisted of motion-controlled minigames.

So while we wait for video game adaptations of It’s a Wonderful Life and Muppets’ Christmas Carol, here are some of the best – or indeed only – videogames set at Christmas.

Christmas NiGHTS Into Dreams (Saturn, 1996)

Sega’s weird flying jester game NiGHTS Into Dreams received a festive spin-off in the form of a free promo disc presumably designed to make more people buy the doomed Saturn console for Christmas. It didn’t work, but leaves behind this interesting artefact which is bundled in with the 2012 HD remasters of the game for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and is also available on Steam.

The disc contains a full level from the main game, but if the console’s clock is set to December it’s dressed up in Christmas decorations, snow, elf costumes and appropriate trees, while the music switches to Jingle Bells. Changes also occur on New Year’s Day and April Fools Day.

Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (MSX2, 1990)

Dashing through the snow, on a one-man murder spree… trails of footprints in the white stuff have been used in the Metal Gear Solid games, but this predates them, and in its original incarnation wasn’t available outside Japan. Set on Christmas Eve, Snake sneaks into Zanzibarland to rescue a kidnapped scientist and destroy a walking nuclear tank. There’s no mention of delivering presents, but saving the world once again surely counts as Christmassy behaviour.

Stardew Valley

What do you mean, the Feast of the Winter Star isn’t Christmas? It has a big tree, gift-giving, takes place on the 25th of Winter, and has a weird legend attached about people following a special star. You can even spot Santa on the shipping summary screen as the 24th turns to the 25th.

Batman: Arkham Origins’ Cold Cold Heart DLC (PC and console, 2014)

Mr Freeze as a Christmas villain seems obvious, but this expansion to the open-world action game is actually set on New Year’s Eve. This means there’s a bit of Christmas still hanging around, but the desultory atmosphere of the merryneum – that bit between Christmas and the new year – means Gotham City doesn’t feel very festive.

The DLC puts Batman in an ‘XE’ extreme environment suit to fend off the ice and snow, which unlocks thermal batarangs and hat-based takedown moves. Mr Freeze makes for an interesting antagonist, quite detached from his Arnold Schwarzenegger incarnation, who’s just trying to save his dying wife’s life.

Die Hard Trilogy (PC, Console, 1996)

Die Hard is a Christmas movie, so this is a Christmas game. Three games in one, the first is a thirdperson shooter that broadly follows the plot of the film as you shoot terrorists and rescue hostages in a tower block, right up to a showdown with Hans Gruber himself.

Die Hard 2 is a first-person on-rails shooter probably designed for use with a lightgun or mouse, because with a controller it’s an exercise in frustration. Die Hard With a Vengeance is a driving game in which you race around the city defusing bombs. Astonishingly, there was a sequel, Die Hard Trilogy 2: Viva Las Vegas, that came out in 2000, seven years before Live Free or Die Hard.

Hitman Holiday Hoarders (PC, console, 2016)

This Christmas Themed mission for the Hitman World of Assassination games lets you dress Agent 47 up as Santa, and as such is completely worth the price of admission. Sadly, the only presents you’ll be delivering are the sweet release of death, which can be achieved in typical Hitman style using a shovel wrapped in Christmas paper. There’s also a battle axe, propane tank, toy tank, frying pan and the usual arsenal of weapons both improvised and obvious. Helps Christmas go with a bang.

Shenmue (PC, console, 1999)

Shenmue encourages you to take your time, and when its clock ticks around to December 15th a Christmas transformation takes place at the shopping street in Dobuita. The most expensive videogame ever made (at the time) also switches out lamp-post flags for Santa’s face, and changes the music for Christmassy jingles, something that happens in the real-life streets of Yokosuka.

Bayonetta 2 (Wii U, 2014)

This under-appreciated game opens with the titular shape-shifting witch wrapping presents… but that’s where the Christmas theme stops. Fighting angels, traditionally the good guys in the nativity story, might have been a bit too much for a festive-themed game, so it falls to Bayonetta to kick them in the face in levels that are sadly not festooned with snow and decorations. Still, it’s a nice way to start.

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS4, PS5, 2020)

Ah, Christmas in New York City. The carol singers, the snowy streets, the… Tinkerer?

This relatively little-known Spider-Man villain has a whole army of high-tech criminals, and he’s going to war against an energy company for what we’re sure are excellent reasons. While Christmas provides the setting for the game rather than a central pillar of the plot, it also serves to distinguish the game from the first Marvel’s Spider-Man, which came out two years previously – without the backdrop and atmosphere the season provides, the two games would be extremely similar.

Home Alone (PC and console, 1991)

The festive theme in games can be a bit tenuous, with little more than a smattering of snow to lift the winter blues. Home Alone, however, is 100% Christmas. It’s actually different games, by different developers, depending on which platform you choose. The NES version is from Skyrim devs Bethesda Softworks, and prefigures modern survival games by asking you to survive an attack from the movie’s bandits for 20 minutes, knocking Harry and Marv unconscious and finding hiding places.

On the Mega Drive, Sega’s game asks Kevin to protect several neighbourhood houses from the robbers, starting him off with a BB gun and escalating to a rifle and even a mortar launcher, which we don’t remember from the movie.

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