Christmas is a time for friends, family and snuggling up in front of the fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate and a controller. Time off from work or school gives you the perfect opportunity to catch up on your gaming, so why not play a game that puts you in the Christmas spirit? These are the Best Christmas Video Games.
Back in the early ‘90s, all sorts of video games released bonus Christmas content, and Christmas Lemmings was one of the best examples of the practice. The beloved puzzle series about leading a tribe of helpless critters through obstacle courses to safety actually saw four straight years of holiday releases. In '91 and '92, we saw simple four-level demos, but ’93 and ’94 saw full-blown retail releases. The fundamental gameplay remains the same, but the levels are all winter themed and the Lemmings themselves are decked out in Santa suits, adding some festive cheer when you accidentally lead half of them off a cliff to their doom.
Jazz Jackrabbit: Holiday Hare
The now largely forgotten Jazz Jackrabbit was co-created by Cliff Bleszinski, who would go on to create Unreal Tournament, Gears of War and other franchises that don’t feature smack talking rabbits and are worse off for it. It’s kind of like Sonic the Hedgehog with a gun, except way better than when Sonic actually tried it with that terrible Shadow the Hedgehog game.
Like its contemporary, Lemmings, Jazz Jackrabbit featured several “Holiday Hare” mini-expansions. The addition of candy canes and Christmas trees to the already cartoonish world was a stroke of thematic genius, as there’s something oddly soothing about blasting tortoises while acid-wash versions of Christmas carols rock away in the background. If you want your Christmas gaming to have a little more pop while still being light and relaxing, Holiday Hare is the ticket.
Nights Into Dreams is one of those games that hardcore fans won’t stop talking about over two decades later. The cult hit is whimsical, beautiful and simply fun to play, and Christmas Nights went the extra mile in adding some holiday cheer to the already relaxing game. It only contains two re-skinned levels from the main game, but it’s hard to object to its price of free. The simple story of the game’s heroes retrieving a star for a Christmas tree contains lots of clever and subtle little additions—the game has a winter theme if played in November or January, while December gives it an explicit Christmas theme complete with Jingle Bells in the soundtrack and characters dressed as elves.
Even the time of day affects the weather somewhat, and you can also find cosmetic changes and Easter eggs if you play on New Year’s, Halloween and April Fools. There are an impressive amount of hidden touches for what’s basically a demo, and the gorgeous Christmas setting makes it well worth checking out.
Donkey Kong Country 3: Dixie Kong's Double Trouble
While some of you may have found a copy of Donkey Kong Country 3 under the tree in 1996, you probably don’t think of it as a Christmas themed game. What you probably didn’t know at the time is that the game hides a festive secret—input “MERRY” into the file select screen and you’ll jazz the game up with some Christmas trappings. The bonus levels will play holiday music, while their stars become bells and their bananas become presents. It’s not a huge change, but if you’re using the holidays as a chance to replay an old-school favorite it adds a nice touch. It would be nice to see more games throw in some little Christmas secrets like DKC3 did, because how cool would it be to unwrap a game and discover some holiday bonuses once you fire it up?
Duke Nuke: Nuclear Winter
Not every Christmas themed game has to be family friendly. This expansion pack to Duke Nukem 3D was criticized for recycling some levels from the main game, but time has probably healed that flaw unless you’re a hardcore fan who has the game memorized.
The simple absurdity of draping the ultra-violent Duke Nukem in Christmas decorations and music is worth witnessing. Duke’s on a mission to save/stop a Santa Claus that’s been brainwashed by aliens, and along the way he’ll battle elves, snowmen and monsters wearing Santa hats and reindeer horns. Even the strippers wear festive clothing and dance in clubs full of lights and trees, which can raise some conflicting emotions about how you view the holidays. But if Christmas shopping and visiting obscure family members is stressing you out, shooting your way through a North Pole toy factory is a good way to unwind.
Saints Row IV: How the Saints Saved Christmas
If you’re looking for adult Christmas fun but want something a little more modern, this Saint’s Row IV DLC is worth checking out. The already ridiculous world of Saint’s Row is taken to the extreme with a holiday movie mash-up that parodies 'Die Hard', 'A Christmas Story', 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas' and every other movie you’re probably sick of watching (except 'Die Hard'. No one gets sick of watching 'Die Hard'). It’s not exactly the most subtle and nuanced Christmas tale ever conceived, but watching all of the game’s over-the-top criminal caricatures get into the Christmas spirit is funny and oddly charming.
Also, you fight to save Santa from a nefarious futuristic warlord named Clawz and you do it while wearing an ugly Christmas sweater and shooting gingerbread men with a BB gun, so it’s really hard to not like this on some level. In fact, if you’re lucky, you might even learn a thing or two about the true meaning of Christmas. Or not. Probably not.
Mission in Snowdriftland is an odd duck. A free Flash game created in 2006 by indie developers with help from Nintendo, the platformer doubled as a Nintendo advent calendar. Completing levels and collecting snowflakes unlocked wallpaper and ringtones for contemporary Nintendo title, but the game wasn’t just a lazy cash-in—the ads were unobtrusive and, more importantly, the gameplay was surprisingly solid. It was similar to, well, a classic Nintendo platformer, complete with beautiful wintery sprite graphics, a cheery holiday soundtrack and a likeable snowman protagonist.
The game vanished in January, but made a comeback in 2010. This time there was no association with Nintendo—the developers instead promoted a variety of indie titles. Unfortunately it now seems to be gone again, but we hope it’ll make a comeback or pop up in some obscure corner of the Internet. It was a sweet, simple throwback to the kind of games we all played at Christmas as kids, and while the ads may sound annoying they were actually a nice way to get excited about titles you might pick up for the holidays. And with all the expenses that accompany Christmas, it’s hard to complain about free.
It wouldn’t be a proper video game list if we didn’t include at least one flat-out crazy interpretation of the theme. In Daze Before Christmas you control Santa Claus as he fights to save kidnapped elves and reindeer, and thus the very holiday itself, from the evil snowman who’s kidnapped them. If that part of the Santa Claus mythology sounds unfamiliar to you, just wait until he shoots fire, uses magic to turn giant rats into presents, and chugs coffee to transform into his blue-skinned demonic alter-ego, Anti-Claus.
It’s a weird one alright, and it’s hardly the greatest platformer ever made, but if you can embrace the insanity there’s a certain dumb charm to it. Some sleigh-flying missions offer variety, and there’s a good mix of visual styles and catchy chiptune takes on Christmas carols. It’s hardly a classic, but after seeing Santa go through crap in countless Christmas specials it’s nice to see him take charge and kick some butt for once.
Costume Quest: Grubbins on Ice
Costume Quest was an adorable and clever look back on the wonders and whimsy of our childhood Halloweens, and its Grubbins on Ice DLC mashed up the two best days on the childhood calendar. You and your friends go door to door collecting candy and doing battle in your Halloween costumes, but in a community that’s celebrating a winter holiday. Oh, and it’s a town of monsters you found through a magical portal. That’s important, too.
The strengths of Costume Quest—simple but compelling RPG gameplay, sharp writing and a world that’s just plain fun to explore—remain on full display in this Christmas expansion. The pair make for a good nostalgia exploring combo, as you can relive the Halloweens where you had to earn your candy instead of just buying it from the stores and then hunker down with some hot chocolate for the wintery add-on. And really, any game where you get to dress up as a giant yeti and a freakish eyeball is worth checking out.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
Perhaps the best game to celebrate Christmas with is one that revolves around all sorts of holidays. Aside from fishing, bug catching and helping your lazy animal neighbors make deliveries to friends who are like, 50 feet away, Animal Crossing is all about celebrating special days. You can visit the latest handheld town to take part in everything from Groundhog Day to Summer Solstice, but it’s the Christmas season where Animal Crossing goes all out.
First snow starts drifting into town, allowing you to assemble snowmen who give you gifts. Then the stores start selling Santa hats, Christmas trees and other festive decorations. The pine trees become decorated with lights, auroras pierce the sky and your neighbors start hinting at the gifts they want to find under their trees. Finally, on Christmas Eve, you can celebrate Toy Day, where a reindeer tasks you with handing out presents to the proper villagers—do it right and you’ll get some toys of your own.
The one flaw with Animal Crossing’s Christmas celebrations is that there’s so much going on it’s difficult to find the time to do all of it in addition to, you know, participating in real life festivities with your loved ones. But if you’re away from home for the holidays, or living somewhere where snow is unheard of, or simply stressed out by all the shopping and party-throwing, it can be nice to escape to an idealized Christmas world for a few minutes, where all the lights are working and everyone’s just happy to see you in a Santa hat.