The Video Game Critic's Christmas Special

Updated 12/9/2012

Here's a special collection of holiday-themed games to get you in the spirit. I would certainly recommend playing any of these games during the month of December, ideally while it's snowing outside. In addition to my normal grades, I've assigned each game a "holiday spirit" rating, ranging from one to five candy canes.

Christmas Carol Vs. the Ghost of Christmas Presents (Left Turn Only, 2012)
System: Intellivision
Grade: A+
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This is a pretty amazing new homebrew, and the fact that it happens to be a seasonal title is a sweet bonus. Christmas Carol's title screen features a decorated tree, colorful gifts, and a harmonized rendition of "Ring Christmas Bells". The game itself is a little less festive but still includes a variety of holiday elements. You control a green elf, and you probably wouldn't know she was a chick if you didn't see the game's box cover. Each stage is a frozen cavern maze lined with ice blocks and icicles. The light blue color scheme is very easy on the eyes, especially over the deep black background. Gifts of various colors and sizes are scattered throughout each maze and your goal is to snag them all. The controls are super responsive as you scamper around the maze, occasionally darting through a tunnel on the side. The straightforward nature of the game is appealing, but the tricky maze configurations require quick thinking. You're pursued by a gift-stealing ghost and a psychotic snowman that enters the screen after unleashing a bloodcurdling howl. This mentally unstable snowman will strike fear into your heart as he wobbles around the maze while waving those freaky stick arms of his. If he catches you, your character freezes into ice before crumbling into a pile of snow (eat your heart out, Sub Zero). You can confuse your adversaries by grabbing a snowflake, and there are plenty of these around so don't hesitate. Between stages you're treated to some very cute and surprisingly entertaining intermissions (a la Pac-Man). The challenge ramps nicely, steadily becoming faster and more frantic. This is a long game that packs a heck of a lot of content. It comes packaged in a classic Mattel-style box, along with an instruction booklet and two overlays. The glossy manual is a lot of fun to read and really gets you in the spirit. Christmas Carol Vs. the Ghost of Christmas Presents is a quality title that every classic gamer will appreciate having every December. The official site for the game is CarolsVsGhost.com.


Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (Red Wagon, 2011)
System: Wii
Grade: C
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This bargain bin title is based on the classic Christmas television special by the same name. It recounts the story of how Santa came to be, explaining how he got his name, why he uses chimneys, how he got flying reindeer, etc. The cut-scenes are computer-generated (naturally) and they are a lot less fun to watch than the stop-motion animation of the show. Still, it's a good story with some touching moments. The 25 stages offer slow, easy platform action aimed at the younger crowd. The 2D gameplay is nicely combined with rotating 3D scenery. It's satisfying to collect huge snowflakes and mail while hopping around trees and rooftops. The icy pine trees and quaint stone houses look terrific, and everything is covered in a fresh blanket of snow. Christmas music plays throughout the game, including the memorable tune "put one foot in front of the other" straight from the special (a personal favorite). The sound effects are a little harsh, but you can lower them via the options menu. Bonus stages let you cobble together toys by motioning with the controller. The difficulty is easy, but locating every item in each stage (like the elusive green stocking) is a modest challenge. The game is brimming with holiday cheer, but too often it's interrupted by pesky load screens. In stages where you have to deliver presents, the load screen kicks in whenever you enter a house, and the constant pauses are unbearable. The entire story takes under two hours to finish, but you can always go back to master individual stages. For your efforts you'll unlock goodies like stills from the show and a "Super Santa" mode. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town is heavy on nostalgia and holiday spirit, but its replay value is limited. That's okay, because you'll only want to play it in December anyway.

Home Alone (Sega, 1992)
System: Genesis
Grade: B+
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My hopes for Home Alone were extremely low - we're talking subterranean here. Movie-based games have a dubious track record, and a cute comedy like Home Alone hardly seems like video game material. At first glance it seems awfully complicated. You play the role of the little boy named Kevin trying to subvert the efforts of two burglars. You freely roam your snow-covered neighborhood on a motorized sled, and can explore each of its five houses. An elaborate weapons screen lets you construct weapons from household items like glue, rubberbands, and a hair dryer. In addition, each house has a "blue print" screen that lets you strategically place traps like marbles, tacks, and blow torches. Home Alone requires some patience, but the pay-off is worth it. Each game runs exactly 18 minutes, and in that time you must make the crooks' lives as miserable as possible. The game gets credit for originality. Far from the generic platformer I was expecting, this seems to have been designed from the ground-up with the film in mind. Sledding around the neighborhood is fun, and I love blasting through snowmen to reveal items. The white scenery is inviting, the trees are decorated with bulbs, and the music sounds very Christmassy. Few video games capture the spirit of the season as well as this one. There's no map screen but you can track the thugs by following their blue van. Each house has a distinctive theme including an elegant mansion, a dilapidated house, and an ultramodern house with robots. It's fun to snoop around and collect items, but I wish you could interact with the scenery more - turning on the television for example. When in the same house as the crooks, you can shoot them with imaginative weapons like a snowball bazooka and pepper launcher. Combining random items on the weapons screen can be tedious, but fortunately the beginner skill level has a handy auto-build feature. Still, the screen is far more complicated than it should be. You'll also want to lure the bad guys into traps, and by maxing out their "pain meter" you'll save the house. If caught, you'll just be hung on the wall where you can escape after a few seconds. Home Alone is challenging, fun, and remarkably faithful to the movie. The characters are dead-ringers for the actors, even down to some of their mannerisms. Home Alone is probably too ambitious for its own good, but that added complexity will have you playing this game a lot longer than you expected.

Stella's Stocking (Atari Age, 2007)
System: Atari 2600
Grade: B
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This five-in-one holiday cartridge was released by Atari Age to coincide with Christmas 2007, but it arrived about a month late if I recall correctly. Oh well! Stella's Stocking boasts some excellent production values. There's a hottie on the label (in stockings no less), a colorful manual with fun illustrations, and a gorgeous "fireplace" title screen. The first game, Stay Frosty, is an interesting platformer where you control a melting snowman. Each screen presents a bunch of small fires you need to extinguish while collecting ice cubes to maintain your solid form. The crisp controls and sharp graphics are commendable, but the action is a bit easy and repetitive. The second entry, Tossing Cookies, is a bit of a throwaway title (pun intended) played on alternating screens. In the first screen you guide Santa around on his sleigh as he collects cookies, and on the second screen you toss them at reindeer. The graphics are rough, and the lack of a score limits the fun. Perhaps there's some kind of special ending when you complete all 12 rounds, but we'll never know. The next game, Elf Dash, is my favorite. You control an elf in an out-of-control toy factory consisting of six floors and several constantly-moving elevators. You must collect candy canes, presents, ornaments, and other seasonal icons while avoiding patrolling tanks, teddy bears, and of course the obligatory AT-AT Walkers. If you complete the game within eight minutes, the remaining time serves as your score - a pretty neat idea! Grandma's Revenge is an irreverent take on the "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer" song, and it has an Indy 500 vibe. Controlling a marauding sports car, you run down waves of reindeer, causing the screen to become cluttered with blocky road-kill obstacles. It's pretty crazy, and fun power-ups can cause your car to become huge or transform it into a snow mobile. The final game, Cold War, is a two-player snowball shootout where both players control a pair of snowmen. I like the idea, but the unconventional control scheme is hard to grasp. None of these games really stand out, but they're all pretty inventive and you can't beat the variety. If you're looking for some Christmas fun, Stella's Stocking definitely has some holiday cheer in store for you.

Reindeer Rescue (Atari Age, 2006)
System: Atari 2600
Grade: B-
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Christmas games are few and far between, making Reindeer Rescue a fantastic treat to pull out around the holidays. It may not be great, but it's hard to dislike a game that exudes so much holiday spirit. Through four stages you help Santa bound over rooftops and snow-covered landscapes in an effort to gather up his eight reindeer. Santa is rendered in several colors, and the fluid manner in which he runs put a smile on my face. The houses and snowdrifts in the foreground look blocky, but in the background you'll spot all sorts of seasonal images, including snowmen, trains, and polar bears. There are surprises as well including AT-ATs and snowspeeders from Star Wars! Getting past the third stage is a challenge, and there's some strategy involved in deciding whether to run on top of a snowdrift or underneath it. Santa's health is represented by a string of Christmas lights at the bottom of the screen, which is another nice touch. But what really steals the show is the game's outstanding soundtrack, which plays pleasant renditions of many Christmas carols. These timeless tunes elevate an otherwise average game to the ranks of holiday classic.


Toyshop Trouble (Atari Age, 2006)
System: Atari 2600
Grade: A
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It's amazing what programmers can do with the Atari 2600 nowadays. Toyshop Trouble is not only a technical marvel, but it exudes holiday cheer! The originality and creativity of this game is remarkable. I play hundreds of video games every year, yet I can't recall ever having played anything quite like this! Toyshop's main screen consists of five conveyer belts of moving toys with pots of paint lining both sides of the screen. The idea is to paint all the toys their proper color before a timer expires. Each day in December offers a new "wave", often adding a new variety of toy into the mix. A nice intermission screen explains how newly introduced toys are to be painted. Some can be painted a solid color, but most require multiple colors, and sometimes the order in which you apply the colors makes a difference! Quick thinking and good technique is required to paint the toys in the most efficient manner. The controls are excellent, and the fire button allows you to dash - a move that's often handy but sometimes risky. Toyshop Trouble is outrageously fun to play, but it's the toys themselves that steal the show. Not only are there the obligatory fire trucks, trumpets, and trains, but also more modern toys like Tonka Trucks, Godzilla figures, Lincoln Logs, and even AT-AT Walkers from Star Wars! And when I saw those beautiful Atari 2600 joysticks, I couldn't believe my eyes. The multi-colored toys are artistically rendered in a high resolution, and Toyshop's audio features authentic choo-choo whistles and melodic holiday music. Completing the entire month of December poses a serious challenge, and as icing on the cake, there's even an Easter Egg buried in the game. The only thing missing is a two-player co-op mode! With so few holiday-themed games available, Toyshop Trouble is like a Christmas miracle!


Grinch, The (Konami, 2000)
System: Dreamcast
Grade: C
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Most critics wrote this one off immediately, but underneath its rough exterior, this Grinch has a heart. I really like this game's "winter wonderland" vibe. Playing as the Grinch himself, you embark on a series of missions to thwart the holiday plans of the happy "Whos" living in the town below. As the Grinch smashes presents and performs his evil deeds, he discovers blueprints that allow him to assemble elaborate inventions like the Rotten Egg Launcher and Grinch Copter. As you can imagine, your options increase as these contraptions come into play. The graphics aren't spectacular, but the holiday theme shines through with the ornamented trees, snow-covered scenery, and cheery music. The Grinch does have its share clipping and collision detection issues, but they don't detract from the overall experience. The lush, orchestrated soundtrack is terrific, and the sound effects (like walking on the snow) are noticeably crisp. The Grinch is generally fun and easy to play, but a few of the more tedious missions (read: stealth) are bound to turn off certain gamers. The camerawork is better than average, but the controls to select and use gadgets are needlessly complicated. It's rough around the edges, but the Grinch somehow succeeds in spite of itself. This is one of the few video games I can recall with a Christmas theme, making it a nice title to pull out in December.


Toy Commander Christmas Surprise (Sega 2000)
System: Dreamcast
Grade: NA
Christmas Notes: This promotional demo can only be found on the Official Sega Dreamcast Magazine disk dated Jan 2001, Vol 10. It features one stage from the game modified with a holiday theme, complete with a Christmas tree and scattered gifts to collect. Also adding atmosphere is subtle mood lighting and frosted windows which reveal snow outside. In addition to controlling a jeep and plane, you'll also control a toy Santa in a jet-pack! The game looks Christmasy enough, but the music is disappointingly generic, making this seem like a lukewarm effort.
Review of actual game: Toy Commander has become a "cult classic" of sorts. Its imaginative premise lets you to control miniature toy vehicles on diverse missions around the rooms of a typical house. With planes, cars, and tanks, this game is designed to appeal to the little kid in us all. You'll switch on appliances, race other toys, or embark on various "search and destroy" missions. Each room is a miniature world in and of itself, and you'll spot some subtle humor if you pay attention (was that a Sega Saturn in the attic?!). Toy Commander's tranquil soundtrack is a good fit for the surreal action, but as good as it looks on paper, I didn't find the game especially fun or compelling. Missions that pit you against little green army men are a challenge and searching for hidden items is fun, but stages that require the transport of objects and interaction with appliances border on tedious. In the racing stages, it's so hard to follow the tracks that you're better off following another vehicle instead. Toy Commander's control is generally good, but navigating tight areas is often problematic. There's a nice split screen mode that accommodates up to four players, but it can be hard to locate opponents because they are so small! This is not really my cup of tea, but if you find the premise behind Toy Commander intriguing, then by all means give it a try.
Check for Toy Commander on EbayAmazon

Christmas Nights Into Dreams (Sega, 1996)
System: Saturn
Grade: NA
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Intended as a promotional disk for Nights Into Dreams (Sega 1996), this highly sought-after novelty CD is fascinating to play, especially during the holidays. Not only does it feature a playable demo of the game's first stage (and boss), but the visuals change based on the time of the year as determined via the system's calendar! Once December arrives, the lush green landscapes transform into a festive Christmas motif. It's hard to resist the holiday spirit with all of the blinking lights, trees, candles, wreaths, ornaments, and elves. Lively renditions of Joy to the World and Jingle Bells play in the background, and there's even a clock on the title screen that counts down to the big day. Upon completing the two stages, you win "presents" in the form of karaoke songs, concept art, and even extra game modes. Christmas Nights Into Dreams must have been very special back in 1996, and it's still a treat today. Reeking of Christmas through and through, this is a terrific addition to any Saturn collection.


Diddy Kong Racing (Nintendo, 1997)
System: Nintendo 64
Grade: A
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Christmas Notes: It's not a Christmas game per se, but Diddy Kong Racing's Snowflake Mountain tracks have an undeniable holiday theme. There are lighted trees dotting the snow-covered landscape and giant candy canes marking the finish line. The best track is the Frosty Village. Set at night, the windows and streetlamps cast a warm yellow glow on the snow. The excellent music is clearly derived from the song Winter Wonderland. If you're looking for something to play this season but don't have any Christmas games, Diddy Kong Racing will do the trick!
Original Review: Diddy Kong Racing takes the outstanding gameplay of Mario Kart and expands upon it in a number of ways. In addition to cars, you can also race planes and hovercraft! The tracks feature tropical islands (always a favorite), snowy mountains, and even a prehistoric world. These scenic courses are well-designed and mercifully short, allowing for quick, action-packed races. Diddy Kong's graphics and frame-rate are gorgeously smooth, and the waterfalls and snow drifts look particularly appealing. The airplanes handle surprisingly well, but I found the hovercrafts a bit sensitive when it comes to turning. A single-player adventure mode lets you unlock tracks to use in the multiplayer modes, and it's madly addictive but never frustrating. Catchy tunes play throughout the races, including a few that sound like Christmas carols in the snow stages. With exciting racing action that places fun over realism, Diddy Kong Racing is a top-notch title for the Nintendo 64.


Batman Returns (Konami, 1992)
System: Super Nintendo
Grade: A
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Christmas Notes: This may seem like an oddball game for a Christmas page, but as one reader pointed out, Batman Returns clearly takes place during the holidays. There's snow on the ground, huge lighted trees, and holiday displays in department store windows. Heck, even the clown villains emerge from a giant Christmas present!
Original Review: If you thought Batman Returns was good on the Genesis, you'll be blown away by this remarkable SNES game. With a completely different look and feel, this plays more like Streets of Rage or Final Fight. In contrast to the dark, grainy graphics of the Genesis version, the visuals here look bright and crisp. Batman Returns more or less follows the film's storyline, with the Catwoman and Penguin serving as the main villains. The fluidly-animated characters are absolutely huge, and the fighting action is top-notch. Not only can you execute the obligatory punches, jump-kicks, and throws, but you can actually fling enemies into the background scenery! I can't put into words how satisfying it is to toss a thug through a department store window! You'll need to beat down belligerent clowns of all sizes, including fire-blowers, sword-swallowers, jugglers, and skull-headed motorcyclists - to name a few. Should you find yourself between two enemies, you can grab them both and bash their heads together! Superb sound effects accompany the action, so when you slam one evil clown into another, it makes an audible "thud". Your Batarangs and spear gun provide you with projectile attacks, and you also have a supply of "test tubes" that function as smart bombs, obliterating all visible enemies on the screen. Although the Batmobile driving stage isn't as flashy as the Sega CD version, it's still a nice bonus. The snow-covered Christmas scenery is a joy to behold, and some stages feature nifty lighting effects - very impressive for a 1992 game! The dramatic musical score is also outstanding and apparently lifted directly from the film. Is there anything wrong with Batman Returns? Well, Batman looks like he let himself go a bit and picked up about 50 pounds. Also, some gamers may regard the non-stop fighting as repetitive, but in my opinion that comes with the territory. This may be the best Batman game of all time, thanks to its winning combination of tight controls and gorgeous 2D graphics.


How The Grinch Stole Christmas (DSI Games, 2006)
System: Nintendo DS
Grade: D
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Looking for a good Christmas game for your DS? Good luck with that! On television, How the Grinch Stole Christmas is a timeless classic that will delight kids and adults for generations to come. On the DS, you'll be bored in ten minutes. Assuming the role of the Grinch, you sneak around expansive houses while avoiding clueless people wandering in predictable patterns. The top screen keeps a tab on your progress as you snatch up gifts, Christmas trees, wreathes, and other decorations. Once you gather the minimum number of items, you can climb up the chimney and move onto the next house. Unlike most stealth games where you need to remain out of eyesight, the Grinch can walk right in front of people without anybody noticing. Only by touching someone will you find yourself in trouble. Some of these encounters trigger mini-games you can play to "escape" detection. These easy, stylus-driven games usually involve tapping on wandering people (to send them back to their rooms) or avoiding a crowd of sleepwalkers. The Grinch would be okay if it had some variety, but every house looks exactly the same except for a new layout. By the fourth one, you'll practically be begging for some generic platform jumping! The colorful graphics aren't bad, and I like how the Grinch slinks around in a sneaky manner. The jazzy background music is catchy, but doesn't have much of a holiday ring to it. Treats are promised to those who conquer the advanced levels, but getting there will be a chore.


Mean Santa (Duarte/Harvey, 2009)
System: Atari 2600
Grade: D+
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Mean Santa is a quirky holiday title with an strange concept and undercooked gameplay. Upon starting a new game you're treated to the first four notes of "Joy to the World". There's little audio from there on out, and the pervasive silence really tends to understate the festive mood. My friend Scott joked that there was a rush to get this out before Christmas, and a patch was planned to finish that song. The instructions explain how Santa has turned sour and is now in the business of stealing presents. Depending on the difficulty level, you'll need to steal from 5, 15, or 25 houses. Your score is the time it takes to complete your mission, so there's no score if you use up your six lives. The main screen shows Santa in his sleigh against a blue sky with a barren white ground below. He looks more like Snoopy than Santa, and what happened to his reindeer? Every few seconds a blocky house appears, and you need to land on the roof without colliding with the chimney. Advanced stages add weather like snowflakes and thunderbolts, but these only stun you momentarily. A successful roof landing takes you to a black screen sprinkled with sharp, colorful items like candy canes, wreaths, dolls, trucks, and AT-AT walkers. Collecting them is easy, but the lack of resistance makes the action feel a little dull and repetitive. It's like Dragonfire - only slower and without the challenge. Only in the most advanced stages (on hard difficulty) does a roaming dog actually pose a threat. Mean Santa has a few hidden goodies like a "cool" mode and snow mode. It's not a terrible game by any means, but it feels like it's missing something. If you enjoy holiday-themed games you may want to give it a try.


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