The Video Game Critic's
Christmas Holiday Special
Here's a special collection of holiday-themed games to get you in the spirit of the season. I would highly recommend playing any of these titles 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.
The Grinch (Konami, 2000)|
System: Game Boy Color
Not only does The Grinch perfectly embody the spirit of the beloved animated film How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), it's very unique and super fun. The game is best described as Pac-Man (Atari 2600, 1981) meets Metal Gear Solid (PS1, 1998), believe it or not.
The introduction is conveyed through beautiful illustrations and mischievous music. Each stage is a set of colorful contiguous screens that take you through festive Who-Ville locations strewn with gifts. You'll gather them up while creeping through snowy streets, hedge-lined parks, and even venture into houses. All while avoiding the gaze of wandering Who-Ville residents.
It's best to take a slow, deliberate approach. Should you fall into their line of sight they'll dash at you, causing you to frantically fumble around looking for an exit. It is possible however to fight back by creating a cache of snowballs. Few things are more satisfying than nailing a Who in the face with a snowball!
The one flaw I could find was with the controls. It's easy to get hung up while trying to make turns into the horizontal "aisles", especially when there's some crazed kid on your heels, trying to give you a hug. To properly navigate these narrow passages you need to line up your feet with the openings, which can be tricky.
I love the artistic visuals and melodic tunes. The stages are brimming with holiday cheer and the characters are animated with style. I love how the Grinch slinks around menacingly, flashing a huge grin upon clearing a stage. Despite the limited resolution the game is loaded with thoughtful, subtle detail. The Grinch is a lovingly-crafted gift that is all-but-guaranteed to brighten up your holiday season. Note: Reviewed on a Retron 5 console.
Deathsmiles I & II (Strictly Limited, 2022)|
System: Nintendo Switch
I loved the original Deathsmiles (Xbox 360, 2010) with its anime style, manic shooting, and rich Halloween theme. It was such a treat I was totally bummed when its Christmas-themed sequel was only available in digital format. Well, thanks to this great Strictly Limited release, I finally own a physical copy of Deathsmiles II.
In the first Deathsmiles the destruction quotient is off-the-charts as you direct your rapid-fire at flying eyeballs, grim reapers, and rampaging trolls. The first stage takes place in a port where you blow pirate ships into wooden shards. Later stages include a haunted graveyard and a swamp inhabited by a witch. You play as one of four flying, giggling Japanese girls, and yes their voices are annoying.
The controls are first-rate. You can fire in either direction or activate a "target" attack which locks onto a nearby enemy. You also have smart bombs that obliterate everything on the screen. While you're met with substantial resistance, the collision detection works very much in your favor. Though your character is sizable, she only takes damage when hit in her heart.
The opening stage of Deathsmiles II reeks of Christmas as you glide over a snow-covered village all decked out for the holidays. You'll face seasonally-correct adversaries like snowmen and disembodied Santa boots. The villain is "Satan Claws" riding a demonic reindeer boss! The festive music sounds vaguely like Jingle Bells.
Unfortunately subsequent stages lose their holiday spirit. The next three feature generic suburbs, an underwater stage, and haunted ruins that would be more at home in a House of the Dead (Saturn, 1996) game. I do find it interesting how the boss in that level is called "Nice older man". Yeah, a nice older man trying to kill you! These stages reprise enemies from the first game, including pig chefs armed with butcher knives.
Both titles are fully configurable. You can adjust the difficulty, continues, and screen appearance. You can save high scores to online leaderboards, or disable that garbage! Offline scores are also recorded, although not with initials.
The original Deathsmiles is a classic but the sequel feels like a bait-and-switch. It's still fun but the 3D layers make it hard to tell what you can shoot and what's in the background. That said, if you enjoy shooters and have never experienced Deathsmiles, this two-for-one deal is a no-brainer. The games are too intense to play for hours on end, but if you're in the mood for an adrenaline rush, fate smiles upon you.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Destineer, 2009)|
We Wish You a Merry Christmas puts the player in a cozy living room with a tree, fireplace, and all sorts of yule-tide activities. You can decorate the tree and play Christmas carols on the radio (which sound beautiful by the way). You can toss wood in the fire and roast marshmallows. Opening your advent calendar reveals bonus items like ornaments to hang on the tree.
Of course, the mini-game collection is the main attraction, each supporting up to four players. Deck the Halls plays like turn-based Dr. Mario (NES, 1990) as you strategically place toy soldiers, snowmen, and drums on a grid. While neat in concept, it's so easy it feels like it will never end. That's a recurring theme. Whether you're bouncing presents into the air, making hot chocolate, or tossing gifts off Santa's sled, the challenge just isn't there and often neither is the control.
Elf Bowling is the highlight. Ten little elves stand at attention as you wing a bowling ball down the icy lane, causing them to cover their faces in anticipation and shout with their high-pitched voices "get ready - here it comes!" and "hold on tight!" When they get slammed and their stiff bodies go flying all over, it's hard not to laugh at their little screams.
Elf Hunt is a find-Waldo style activity where you scour a colorful illustration for a lengthy list of hidden items. It sounds dumb but I was hooked! You can also send a Mad Libs-style letter to Santa. Mine was rather creative and I'm glad this game isn't online. We Wish You a Merry Christmas is shallow in terms of gameplay but exudes enough holiday spirit to earn a passing grade.
8-Bit Xmas 2017 (RetroUSB, 2017)|
This multi-game cartridge has got to be one of the coolest items in my collection. Its transparent shell houses little Christmas lights that blink as you play, and in place of a label is an LCD screen that displays the title you're playing. Amazing! Of course, you'll need a top-loader NES system to fully enjoy the festivities. RetroUSB has been releasing holiday-themed NES titles since 2008 and 8-Bit Xmas 2017 includes nine of them up to 2016.
Most are four-player party games, but the original 8-bit Christmas (2008) is simply a snow scene with Christmas music. I don't know what the letters "NA" stand for, but I like how the little flakes of snow pile up. Snowball Fight (2009) is a chaotic free-for-all with players sliding along each edge of the screen while hurling rapid-fire snowballs over a field littered with rocks and snowmen. If you don't have four people on hand the CPU fills in nicely.
Jolly Joyriding (2011) puts you on Santa's sled, dropping gifts into chimneys. The momentum in this game is pretty crazy, making the sled hard to control. Fireplace Bash is a Warlords (Atari 2600, 1977) clone that's way too slow. Biplane Dogfight is probably my favorite. Taking a page from Triple Action (Intellivision, 1981), you shoot down adversaries while trying not to stall. Santa's Blaster (2013) is a rapid-fire space shooter where you blast spinning, swirling formations of colorful shapes.
Killer Queen Arcade (2014) is an odd platformer that looks a lot like Pikmin. I couldn't figure it out. 12 Seconds of Christmas (2015) features an amazing rotating Christmas tree on its title screen, but the game is perplexing. You're some kind of jumping flea trying to stack items to reach platforms and somehow solve each room. The final title, Xmas Pinball, is addictive despite its floating physics and mushy collision detection. Okay, so a lot of the games feel like hacks and you have to power the system off and on to switch between them.
Do you know what puts this collection over the top? It's the dozens of harmonized holiday tunes that play throughout. They are very well done and so much fun to listen to! In addition to traditional Christmas carols there are more contemporary tunes like Feliz Navidad and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree. They even included my personal favorite It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. 8-Bit Xmas 2017 is a little pricey ($75) but it's worth every penny to dazzle family and friends around the holidays.
Santa Claus Saves the Earth (Telegames, 2002)|
System: Game Boy Advance
I had my trepidations about Santa Claus Saves the Earth. It was published by a company known for releasing previously discarded titles, and that name. Sure enough, this resembles a generic platformer retrofitted with a vaguely Christmas theme. The main character doesn't look like the real Santa, especially with those sunglasses. Uncle Santa is more like it.
The first stage takes place in a mineshaft where you hop between platforms, collect tiddlywinks, and bash cavemen with your sack. Snowballs later prove a much more satisfying weapon, shattering enemies on contact. The jumps are floaty to the max, but I like how you can fall from any distance. You can even climb across ropes hand-over-hand, a la Tomb Raider (PS1, 1997).
You'll avoid standard dangers like flames, spikes, and plungers. Crates contain goodies, but you can only open them by throwing snowballs downward which is really bizarre. You'll need to scour every maze-like level to obtain the necessary keys. I did gradually warm up to Santa Claus Saves the Earth.
The graphics aren't bad, with characters having a somewhat claymation appearance. The scenery isn't very Christmas-y, save for a few stages with snowy mountains and icy trees. What are these clocks and pictures of clowns doing on the walls? The music is obnoxious; I had to turn down the volume completely. The game has a score, three continues, and a password feature. Santa Claus Saves the Earth may not be a genuine Christmas title but it's really not a bad little game on its own merits.
Daze Before Christmas (Europe) (Sunsoft, 1994)|
System: Super Nintendo
Hearing of my quest to review every Christmas game, a helpful reader recommended this terrific Santa Claus platformer. Since it was only released in Europe I am reviewing a reproduction. Daze Before Christmas sets the tone nicely with stages presented via one of those "countdown to Christmas" calendars. The controls feel ultra responsive as Santa bounds over snowy hills, ventures through ice caves, and scampers through houses. Some stages offer mystical scenery or factories with machines that wrap Santa into a present.
Enemies like penguins, rats, spiders, and jack-in-the-boxes transform into collectable presents when you hit them with your wintery snow attack. At first I thought the idea was to collect all the presents, but apparently they are just bonus items and your main goal is just reaching the end of the stage. The festive scenery hits all the right holiday notes with rolling snow drifts, frosted windows, gently falling flakes, and giant climbable candy canes. Actually the snowflakes look more like feathers from a pillow.
The festive music offers renditions of several traditional Christmas carols but there are also some generic tunes thrown in. The difficulty is easy and the first snowman "boss" is probably the weakest you'll ever face. Most stages are enjoyable but there are a few tedious scenarios like "wood factory" and "flooded basement".
In one stage you fly over England dropping gifts into smoking chimneys and the London skyline looks amazing. Collecting special icons power you with life and invincibility, but it's the hot cocoa icon that really caught my attention by turning Santa into a... demon?! Is he supposed to be Krampus?!
Daze Before Christmas has a fun pick-up-and-play style, but some parts are confusing. Santa tends to blink while touching innocent objects like reindeer or elves. Is he taking damage?? My niece Brooke, who otherwise loved the game, voiced similar concerns ("Did I just kill that reindeer?!") Daze Before Christmas has some issues, but as a holiday treat this is hard to resist.
Christmas Crisis (Philips, 1995)|
System: Philips CD-i
If this game doesn't get you into the Christmas spirit, nothing will! Christmas Crisis is kind of like a Mario game starring Santa Claus. More than just super fun, the game exudes holiday cheer with snowy stages, festive music, and Christmas-themed bonus icons. The gorgeous stage backdrops depict cozy cottages in dreamy snowscapes.
The controls are responsive as you hop Santa up the screen, scooping up items on his way to the chimney. You'll snag ornaments, wreaths, gifts, angels, candles, and sugary confections for bonus points. The pleasant Christmas tunes sound like they're being played on steel drums. Santa must steer clear of toy cars, trains, and planes. It's not a good idea to leap over these things because the collision detection is unforgiving. Fortunately Santa is armed with a supply of snowballs. You only throw them at an arc, but more times than not they find their target.
My biggest complaint is the way certain inanimate objects that appear to be part of the background (like snowmen) can be fatal to the touch. The levels are short and sweet and it's fun to play for high score. As icing on the cake, there's a 3D flying level that takes you through a pre-rendered Christmas village! Christmas Crisis is not just a great CD-i title; it might just be the best Christmas game you'll ever play.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Red Wagon Games, 2010)|
The first time I played Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I found myself checking my system for a bad connection. It turns out this game employs a static filter for that old newsreel appearance. I think it looks terrible but my friend Chris thought it had some charm. The story mode consists of short minigames interspersed with lame cutscenes narrated by a snowman who sounds nothing like Burl Ives.
You can play as several memorable characters from the TV special including Rudolph, Hermey the Elf, Yukon, Santa, and Clarice. The snow monster only makes a brief appearance at the end of each game. Each game is motion-controlled, timed, and mercifully short. The first challenges you to bounce toys and gifts air, letting them come to rest in Santa's bag or under a tree. The motion controls are pretty bad. Next you're in Santa's workshop hurling paint at toys on conveyor belts. This would have been great if there were some skill involved. All you do is waggle the Wiimote when a toy is highlighted.
Next is a mildly amusing cookie-baking game where you follow motion prompts on the screen. Finally you "save Christmas" by tossing presents into chimneys from Santa's sleigh. I enjoyed this one and liked the fact that you are delivering the "misfit toys" from the show. The music is festive enough but some of the voice samples ("I'm a dentist!") are repetitive. High scores are recorded for one and two players, but without initials. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a meager offering, but at least it won't take up any more than 15 minutes of your time.
Christmas Country (Creative Media, 1996)|
System: Philips CD-i
After raving about Christmas Crisis (Philips, 1995), I was underwhelmed by this sequel, Christmas Country. Looking back however, this is a respectable little Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985) clone. The game puts you in control of a little green elf, scampering through frigid environments and cozy castles while collecting stars and presents.
The game's most glaring flaw is the complete lack of music once you begin playing. That's got to be worth an entire letter grade! You play in silence, save for the occasional boing of a spring, splash of a fish, or "pop" when you pounce upon a snail, turtle, or ladybug.
The hand-drawn graphics have a certain charm but it's hard to tell the foreground from the background. Santa makes a cameo appearance early on, but much like the torches, appears frozen in time. That said, there are plenty of Christmas trees, snowmen, snowy hills, and candy canes to convey the spirit of the season.
The controls are very good, providing responsive run and jump buttons. You'll want to hold in that run button the entire time, as it facilitates lengthy, floaty leaps. The stages have multiple routes and hard-to-reach areas that beckon your elf. There are also hidden areas, most of which I discovered by accident.
A few stages don't make much sense, like when you jump into water and end up in a dry room below. Conveyor belts zip you around even though they are clearly not moving. During advanced stages bombs inexplicably rain from the sky.
Collecting all the letters to SPECIAL is fun, as it rewards you with a random bonus. Your score is only visible when you pause the game, although it is displayed at the end if you rank in. Christmas Country could be more festive, but it's festive enough, and should appeal to the inner elf in us all. No, I don't know what that means.
Christmas Carol Vs. the Ghost of Christmas Presents (Left Turn Only, 2012)|
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.
Dead Rising 4 (Capcom, 2016)|
System: Xbox One
How does Dead Rising 4 distinguish itself in a sea of zombie games? It's a Christmas title! If you don't believe me just listen to that holiday music and look at the decorated tree on the title screen. This is every bit as Christmas as Die Hard!
Dead Rising 4 puts you in the role of a wisecracking photographer who finds himself in the throes of a zombie apocalypse in the small town of Willamette. There's a lot to see and do. The mall is a fun place to hang out, especially in the area that looks like Medieval Times. In downtown you can have a blast plowing through mobs with a snow-plow. When exploring on foot the scenery is loaded with items, most of which can be used as weapons. Sure there are traditional weapons like swords and machine guns, but you can also swing a lamp or vacuum cleaner. My personal favorite is the high-powered leaf blower!
Capcom has dumbed down the weapon crafting, but not dumb enough for this critic! When I had to combine a handgun and computer I couldn't figure out why the laptop wouldn't work. Usually the two items you need are in close vicinity to the weapon blueprint. You can also outfit yourself with outrageous costumes, and somehow I ended up looking like the guy from Ghouls 'N Ghosts (Genesis, 1989). This made the ensuing cut-scenes look ridiculous.
A helpful yellow arrow on your map guides you to your next objective and there are always multiple routes and side quests. Occasionally the game enters a Batman-style "investigation mode" where you need to mess around with various cameras and vision modes to obtain clues. Dead Rising 4 is at its best when you need to scrounge for items to overcome adversity. Need to defeat that woman with the flaming sword? Maybe this rocket-propelled grenade launcher will help!
My main complaint has to do with unnecessarily overcomplicated controls. The Xbox One controller has plenty of buttons; why must we hold in certain buttons to perform for basic functions? There were times when I was holding a bomb but for the life of me could not figure out how to throw the damn thing. So I beat somebody over the head with it instead! Inventory management is a nightmare as well. When did Capcom forget how to make games? Despite its horrible controls Dead Rising 4 serves up a captivating blend of gratuitous gore and Christmas cheer. If you're up for some holiday-themed zombie action, you will appreciate Dead Rising 4's brand of seasonally-correct violence.
Santa Claus is Comin' to Town (Red Wagon, 2011)|
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)|
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
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 snowmobile.
The final entry, 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.
James Pond II: Codename Robocod (Electronic Arts, 1991)|
Christmas Notes: An unlikely Christmas treat!
Original Review: For some reason I've overlooked the James Pond series. If not for a reader pointing out this was a Christmas game, I may have never given it a second look. The unlikely premise behind James Pond II is that Dr. Maybe (yeah, that's his real name) has populated Santa's toy factory with assorted baddies. The opening screen exudes holiday cheer as our fish hero approaches Santa's towering factory in a raging snowstorm. The music isn't necessarily Christmas, but it has that same festive sound.
As you enter each door of the factory you explore worlds of stuffed animals, delectable treats, mechanical toys, and board games. These colorful areas are outfitted with all the standard contraptions like floating platforms, spiked pits, trampolines, and slippery slopes. James Pond defeats enemies by pouncing on them, and this is accompanied by a satisfying "snap" sound effect.
James also has the ability to elongate his body to any height and grab on to the underside of certain platforms. He can't climb up on them, but he can move arm-over-arm to reposition himself. You can't always tell what platforms you can latch onto until you try. Likewise, it's hard to tell if certain walls are in the foreground or background.
The best part of the game is snatching up the high-value bonus items like stars, presents, and ice cream cones. There are also alternate routes and bonus areas to discover. You can leap pretty far and certain power-ups give you the ability to fly freely around the stage. The difficulty is fair and continues are available. James Pond II: Codename Robocod is a heck of a lot of fun and even more enjoyable around the holiday season.
Reindeer Rescue (Atari Age, 2006)|
System: Atari 2600
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
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 conveyor 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)|
Every December I pull out this game for some holiday cheer, and every year I like it a little less! The Grinch suffers from a litany of issues, including poor controls, ambiguous objectives, and irritating stage designs. That said, I enjoy its winter wonderland vibe. The holiday theme really shines through with ornamental trees, snow-covered scenery, and cheery music.
The idea is to embark on a series of missions to thwart the holiday plans of the happy residents of Whoville. I like how the Grinch scampers around and the sound of his footsteps in the snow. By smashing presents and performing random pranks the Grinch uncovers blueprints that let him assemble elaborate inventions like the Rotten Egg Launcher and Grinch Copter. The orchestrated soundtrack is easily the highlight of the game, but the sound effects are another story. The Grinch screams OUCH whenever he touches anything - including musical notes. And what's that constant scratching sound?
The control scheme is needlessly complicated. Simply equipping a weapon is a frustrating chore, and using it will probably require consulting the instruction manual. Frequent annoyances include bees that swarm you, police that freeze you, and little brats that won't just leave you alone! Inside City Hall you'll find a maze that will leave you with a splitting headache. When the Grinch dies he exclaims "it's unbearable!" No kidding! Fortunately you can save any time and the pause menu offers checklists of tasks to be performed. The Grinch has enough holiday spirit to keep you coming back each year, but be advised its irritating stages and bad controls may shrink your heart three sizes.
Toy Commander Christmas Surprise (Sega 2000)|
Review of original game: Though it received little fanfare during its release, Toy Commander has become a cult classic over the years. It lets you drive and fly miniature toy vehicles around rooms of a typical house. With planes, cars, and tanks, this game is designed to appeal to the little kid in us all. You can switch on appliances, race other toys, and embark on search-and-destroy missions. Each room is a miniature world in 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.
Despite its winning premise however I didn't find the game especially fun or compelling. I liked fighting little green army men and searching for hidden items, but item-transport missions are just 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 controls are good but navigating tight areas is problematic. A nice split-screen mode accommodates up to four players, but it can be hard to locate opponents because they are so small! Toy Commander really isn't my cup of tea, but if you find the premise intriguing you should give it a try.
Christmas Nights Into Dreams (Sega, 1996)|
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.
Stay Frosty 2 (Atari Age, 2014)|
System: Atari 2600
Christmas Notes: The toughest Christmas game you'll ever play. One would hope!
Original Review: Well-designed and expertly-programmed, Stay Frosty 2 is one of those quality homebrews that elicit reactions like "this is an Atari 2600 game?" The original Stay Frosty appeared in the Stella's Stockings (Atari, 2007) compilation and really stood out as an innovative little platformer. The idea was to use a snowman to squash flames without completely melting.
This ambitious sequel takes the concept to the next level and really cranks up the difficulty. Special items give you the ability to do stuff like toss snowballs and even double-jump! Hard-to-reach gifts provide "glory seeking" opportunities that net big points. The animation is smooth and I love how the snowman changes facial expressions when standing still.
The music is slightly muffled but the fact that it plays a different Christmas tune for each screen is pretty remarkable. Each level is like a puzzle, and some can be a little onerous. My disdain for invisible mazes is well documented, and I also dislike having to deliberately melt to squeeze through certain passages. There are a lot of narrow platforms that are hard to stay on.
It's no cakewalk, but clearly a lot of thought went into each screen. The manual is pretty sweet too. Stay Frosty 2 is an exceptional technical achievement and a good choice for players who prefer their snowman games extra hard. Note: To properly enjoy after the holidays, move the right difficulty to A to disable the music.
Diddy Kong Racing (Nintendo, 1997)|
System: Nintendo 64
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
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 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
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
Mean Santa is a quirky holiday title that feels just slightly undercooked. Apparently Santa has turned sour on Christmas and is now in the business of stealing presents. Fire up the cartridge and you're treated to the first four notes of "Joy to the World". My friends assured me the rest of the song would be made available in the form of a patch! Your score is the time it takes to visit 15 houses, but it's a shame there's no visible timer.
On the first screen you guide Santa in his sleigh but he looks more like Snoopy. Where are his reindeer? Every few seconds a blocky house appears and it's a challenge to land on the roof without colliding with the chimney. Advanced stages add weather conditions like killer snowflakes and thunderbolts but they only stun you momentarily. A successful roof landing takes you to an indoor screen sprinkled with sharp, colorful items like candy canes, wreaths, dolls, trucks, and AT-AT walkers (yes!).
Collecting stuff is pretty easy but I like how you can complete a game in just a few minutes (unlike the Odyssey 2 version). Mean Santa includes an unlockable "snow mode" but personally I feel those blizzard-like conditions should have been the default. The lack of audio in this game tends to understate the festive holiday mood. Mean Santa is a strange game but it tends to grow on you over time.
Mean Santa (2600 Connection, 2016)|
System: Odyssey 2
Mean Santa for the Odyssey 2 makes a good first impression with large multicolored sprites, smooth animation, and a scenic city skyline. Compared to its Atari 2600 cousin this Mean Santa is slower but a little more involved. On the first screen you steer Santa around on a sled guided by a purple mule. I like the look of those dark skyscrapers but the idea of avoiding chunks of frozen precipitation doesn't make much sense.
Except for the trees scrolling across the bottom of the screen you might not realize Santa was moving. If you have the voice synthesizer equipped you're treated to a "human beatbox" rendition of Jingle Bells. By the end of a stanza a house appears on the lower right, and you land on it to advance to the second screen.
Now the challenge is to navigate Santa through a maze while collecting holiday items like dolls, cookies, toy planes, and candy canes. If you touch the edge of the maze you're transported back to the center of the screen. Most of the time it's annoying, but sometimes it's a good strategy as it can prevent you from having to backtrack. The Odyssey 2 controller is responsive but its springy feel makes it hard to turn with precision. At least you can run by holding in the button, which turns out to be a real time-saver.
The scoring system is unusual. The goal is to visit 16 houses in the shortest amount of time, but that can take a while! By the time you reach the 13th house or so the game starts to feel a little tedious. Voice effects include a creepy chuckle when Santa lands on a roof and "that's easy" whenever he snags an item. There's no such thing as a quick game of Mean Santa on the Odyssey 2 but around the holidays at least I consider it time well spent.
Mean Santa (2600 Connection, 2020)|
I was saving this cartridge for the holidays, and just like my ugly Christmas sweater I came perilously close to forgetting about it! Good thing I remembered because Mean Santa is bursting with holiday cheer (the game - not the person).
Previous versions of Mean Santa have been available for the Atari 2600 and Odyssey 2, but they were less festive than they could have been. This Colecovision edition however boasts exquisitely-detailed graphics and a catchy (albeit repetitive) version of Santa Claus is Coming To Town that plays throughout.
The object of the game is to visit a number of houses in the shortest time. You begin by selecting the difficulty and you'll want to note the "best time" column which gives you an indication of how long your game will last. Easy runs about two minutes and normal is closer to five. For harder levels there's a good chance you won't even survive to see the end.
The game alternates between two screens. First you'll need to navigate Santa's sleigh onto a rooftop, and the visuals are quite good with animated reindeer and ice-encrusted houses. You can even see the wind whipping Santa's hat around. During advanced stages, huge snowflakes and lightning bolts complicate your efforts to navigate safely.
After a successful landing you find yourself in a room of the house where you'll gather up colorful decorations like wreaths and candy canes. In some houses you'll steal presents like dolls, trucks, and AT-AT walkers (always a crowd-pleaser). Hold on - are those Virtual Boys?! Rolling toys like trucks criss-cross the screen, and collecting them feels like a reverse Frogger (Parker Bros., 1983).
Unlike previous editions of the game, the rooms come in variable shapes with beautiful, high-resolution tile and rug patterns. Advanced stages offer hazards like banana peels and sleeping dogs that add an "Evil Otto" element. See Berzerk (Atari 2600, 1982) if you didn't get that reference.
The controls aren't particularly comfortable. There are times when you need to move Santa precisely and with a standard Colecovision controller you'll really need to manhandle that thang. Using a Super Action Controller is less awkward but still a little stiff.
Another big issue I had with Mean Santa is how it plays the same each time. A little randomization could have gone a long way. Still, its bright visuals and upbeat music make it a seasonal treat. If you didn't like Mean Santa in the past (the game, not the person) give this fancy new Colecovision version a try. Note: There's a special code that lets you play as Jack Skeleton for Halloween.
Elf: The Movie (Crave, 2004)|
System: Game Boy Advance
If you're a gamer in need of some Christmas cheer you might want to give this a whirl. Elf the Movie offers a hodgepodge of game styles, and more importantly it captures the good-natured whimsy of the film. You play as a digitized Buddy the Elf (Will Ferrell) and his motion-captured jumps look hilarious.
The first few stages are your typical platform jumping fare with Buddy avoiding polar bears and falling stalactites while collecting candy and bouncing off of gumdrops. The controls are good but it's hard to tell where you're going to land after you bounce high in the air. The winter wonderland scenery looks generic but the orchestrated music puts you in a festive mood. Between stages you're treated to digitized stills from the film and best of all there's no text to read!
The wide variety of stages are enjoyable to varying degrees. The overhead glacier-hopper that reminds me of Congo Bongo (Colecovision, 1984). The controls are forgiving but the stage drags on for way too long. Accidently rub against a polar bear and the game could send you back 20 jumps! Likewise the skiing stage gets so repetitive you'll try to dodge clock icons to avoid extending the time! Once Buddy arrives in New York City he'll need to collect ornaments in a Frogger (Atari 2600, 1982) style level. I like how you recharge your energy by doing laps in a revolving door.
After Buddy lands a job in a mailroom you'll play a series of puzzle games, and the ones with the pneumatic tubes are particularly fun. The snowball battle stage would be a winner if the bad elves didn't appear in such predictable patterns. Towards the end of the game you'll scour Central Park to collect parts to repair Santa's sled.
My main problem with this stage is the blocky city skyline which was a big missed opportunity for some eye candy. The game ends abruptly with some lame congratulations text. An easy romp you can knock out in an hour, Elf doesn't have much replay value but might prove a pleasant diversion around the holidays.
Fast Food 64: Holiday Snacks (CD) (Wave 1, 2018)|
The original Fast Food 64 (Wave One Games, 2018) was a quirky, easy-to-play remake of an obscure 2600 title. You simply moved a chomping mouth around the screen to gulp down digitized food items scrolling rapidly to the left. Holiday Snacks is a more festive version of the game with Christmas music, snowy scenery, and a veritable smorgasbord of food. You'll gobble up turkeys, gingerbread men, ham, candy, pumpkin pie, and hot cocoa among others. One thing you need to avoid are the nasty purple pickles - now adorned with red bows.
The game has a mesmerizing quality but a few new elements get in the way of the fun. The new "power-up" icons make the game feel sluggish and buggy. One icon freezes all the food in place, encasing them in ice cubes. Okay, so now what? Another makes your lips downright tiny, which only serves to illustrate how erratic the game's collision detection is. The framerate struggles to keep up when these power-ups are in play, so I started avoiding icons even more than the pickles!
The bonus catch-the-Oreo-in-a-glass-of-milk mode is less ho-ho-ho and more ho-hum. The stiff controls won't give Kaboom! (Atari 2600, 1981) a run for the money but I did enjoy the cozy scenery. Hey wait - are those Jaguar games burning in the fireplace!? Oh the humanity! Fast Food 64: Holiday Snacks is the type of game you pull off the shelf once a year... and promptly place it right back up there until next year.
The Santa Clause 3 (Disney, 2006)|
System: Game Boy Advance
I don't think I've ever played a Christmas game quite as Christmassy as The Santa Clause 3. I stumbled upon this on Amazon, thought it would make a nice addition to my Christmas game collection, and I was right! From the outset the game won me over with its enchanting winter scenery featuring blowing snow, snow-covered evergreens, and quaint villages decorated in Christmas lights. The soundtrack may not contain any traditional Christmas music, but its festive melodies are just as good.
For the first half of the game you play Santa, leaping between frosty platforms, collecting milk and cookies, fighting snowmen, and solving not-so-challenging puzzles. Have you ever noticed that snowmen are increasingly being portrayed in the media as psychotic creatures? The platform action has all the standard elements like spikes, falling ice cycles, and crumbling platforms. And if you think you suck at jumping between iced-over platforms, don't worry, because you'll be an expert by the time you're done playing this! Tempering the difficulty is Santa's ability to double-jump and float down gently.
Between stages digitized stills are displayed that follow the story from the film. The stages are short and sweet, but you always have the option to return to completed stages to search for hidden items that unlock new features. The one aspect I didn't like is fighting those annoying snowmen who take forever to kill. There are two bonus stages. In one you are an elf scrambling to locate toy parts in a factory. Sadly this elf is less agile than Santa and prone to dying a horrible death in the gears of a toy-making machine. A second bonus stage puts you in Santa's sled, dropping presents onto houses at night.
For the second half of the game you are Scott Calvin (Tim Allen) stripped of his Santa magic. You can no longer glide but you can throw snowballs, so that's something. Just beware of green security guards who are fatal to touch! The game saves your progress automatically. The Santa Clause 3 is an unexpected surprise, and if you're looking for some holiday cheer this lighthearted platformer will not let you down.