'Tis the season, as the saying goes, to be jolly and play lots of video games. And yet there aren't very many Christmas-themed video games that are all that good. There's Elf Bowling as perhaps the epitome of stupid Christmas games, but then most of the others, like Santa Claus Saves the Earth, are so obscure that they're almost unplayable.
So what, then, are we left to play for Christmas? Luckily there are still plenty of games that come close to the essence of Christmas, even without being overtly related to the season, and yet more that are especially enjoyable in light of the season. So here are 10 games to consider playing in the weeks surrounding Christmas.
#10. Killing Floor
This is one of the very few games in the list that actually tie in with Christmas. Killing Floor is an online co-op FPS where your team fights to survive waves of onslaught from zombies, with excellent shooting mechanics and fun, addicting gameplay. The developers have made a "Twisted Christmas" event, so from now until January 4th all of the zombies will be decked out in Christmas-themed skins, including snowmen, elves, reindeer, nutcrackers, gingerbread men, etc. You can also play in a couple of Christmas levels (including Santa's Workshop) while Christmas music plays over top. Killing zombies has never been this spirited before.
#9. Animal Crossing
Pick any one of them, really. The Animal Crossing games are social simulators where you play a character in a small town, which plays out in real time based on the clock and calendar of your system. Meaning that if you play at 11:00 Christmas Eve, it will be that same time in-game. All sorts of Christmas things happen this time of year, from trees outside getting decorated like Christmas trees, to being able to decorate your house with Christmas motifs, and special events with the townsfolk. To top it off, you can go online and mingle with other players and enjoy the Christmas spirit together.
#8. Harvest Moon: Save the Homeland
Any Harvest Moon would be a good choice for Christmas, because they're peaceful games about tending your farm and mingling with townsfolk, filled with the kind of simple magic that revolves around the holiday. Save the Homeland gets an extra special bump because, unlike others in the series, it has a more concrete goal with an actual ending: you have one year to save the town from being demolished to make room for a new theme park. This makes the game a much quicker playthrough with a firm feeling of resolution at the end, but the premise is especially charming for Christmas time.
#7. The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie's Revenge
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a weird holiday item, because it can be relevant to both Halloween and Christmas. I've not actually played this one myself (it's sitting on my shelf of PS2 games), but it plays kind of like a rudimentary version of Devil May Cry as you control Jack Skellington on a quest to stop Oogie Boogie from becoming the Seven Holidays King. This includes venturing into Christmas Town to fight evil baddies and saving Santa Claus, which, if you enjoyed the movie, can be an aesthetic delight for the season, even if the gameplay isn't all that great.
#6. Sam & Max: Ice Station Santa
Here's another game that I haven't played, so I can't recommend it personally, I'm just here to mention it. This one kicks off season two of the episodic series, with the duo finding out that the giant robot from the previous episode / season was a gift from Santa. Sam and Max go to the North Pole and basically find that a demon is running amok there, and set out on quests to get rid of him by consulting the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future. The Christmas theme is a nice touch, but I've heard good things about the series in general, so it would be interesting to try.
Machinarium is a simple point-n-click adventure game, the kind where you navigate screens in a city and solve puzzles to get to where you need to go. You play as a hapless robot trying to reunite with his girlfriend after she's kidnapped by a couple of bullies, and save the city from total destruction in the process. It's a game that drips with charm and style, largely due to the hand-drawn graphics, the calm, soothing music, and the cute way the characters talk via pictures in speech bubbles. It has nothing to do with Christmas, but the simple motif of trying to reunite with a friend can be heart-warming this time of year.
Much of what I said about Machinarium applies to Ico. It's got nothing to do with Christmas, but its gameplay and atmosphere are charming enough to make the season even more special. This is a simple puzzler / platformer with you helping a princess escape from a giant fortress and defending her from shadow monsters. There's virtually no dialogue and only minimal cutscenes, but the game manages to strike a bond between the player and Yorda (the princess) in a way that doesn't happen too often in video games, and might therefore be a more appealing choice of game to play during Christmas.
#3. Shadow of the Colossus
Do you ever need a reason to play Shadow of the Colossus? It's one of the most artistic games of all time, and perhaps the singular game to embody the word "epic." Continuing the trend of games about rescuing girlfriends and princesses, Shadow of the Colossus is all about a young hero sacrificing his soul to bring a dead girl back to life, by vanquishing colossal denizens at the order of a sacred god. The romantic subtext makes this one a fine choice for Christmas, and its epic scale is appropriate for the grandest holiday of them all.
#2. Indigo Prophecy / Fahrenheit
This one is a bit harder to sell, because it's not related to Christmas and its central plot is about murder and the occult. But it is set in winter (and as luck would have it, Christmas is during the winter), and Indigo Prophecy / Fahrenheit captures that bleak feeling of winter pretty well. Most of the gameplay is unique and innovative, and the story is engaging (up to a point, at least). Not the warmest, most up-beat kind of game to play for Christmas, but it might satisfy the cravings of your inner Grinch.
#1. Super Mario 64
Venturing into each of the worlds within the paintings is tremendous fun, and there's a lot of great things done in this pioneering 3D platformer that have never been done as well since. For Christmas, pay special attention to the handful of snow levels, and visit some of the Lethal Lava Lands if it's too cold outside. If you're like me and this was one of the most revolutionary, memorable, mind-blowing games of your childhood, then it will be a special heart-warming treat to come back to this Christmas. Super Mario 64 gets my top recommendation because it's one of the most magical gaming experiences of all time, period.