News Article

Talking Point: Why Is It So Hard to Make a Good Christmas Game?

Posted by Philip J Reed

Coal in the stocking

Merry Christmas, everyone! It's that magical time of year again, a time for all of us to indulge in Christmas movies, Christmas music, Christmas TV specials and Christmas video games!

Alright, we admit... not so much the last one. But that poses an interesting question: why not? Christmas-themed video games have been around for decades, but how often do you find yourself playing them? If you're like most gamers, your answer is somewhere between "never" and "what, come on, really?" So why is the concept of a Christmas video game such an inherently flawed one?

Christmas seems to bring out the best in people, but it rarely has that effect on video games. In film, Christmas magic has given us such classic mainstays as It's a Wonderful Life, White Christmas and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, all masterpieces in their own rights, and all films that wouldn't even exist without their connection to the holiday. TV specials like A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer struck gold with funny, touching explorations of what Christmas means to us, and the holiday would seem just a little more empty without them. And while many people claim to be irritated by Christmas music, it's hard not to make an exception for the contributions of John Lennon and The Pogues with Happy Xmas (War is Over) and The Fairytale of New York respectively.

In short, Christmas manages to elevate those art forms. It provides a rich emotional palette to draw from, and it provides us with a cultural common ground to help us feel united in our feelings of good cheer.

So, again, what of video games? Or, to put it less politely, why are so many attempts at Christmas video games downright horrible?

At least part of the problem seems to be that many developers don't care much for quality when it comes to Christmas games. They see them as a seasonal cash-in and nothing more: people will buy it because it's Christmas-themed, and that's enough for them. Of course we could make the point right back that more people would buy it if it was both Christmas-themed and good, but that's another story.

For the purposes of this article — and indeed this website — we're going to focus on Nintendo's download services for our sampling.

Between WiiWare and the eShop, we have seven explicitly Christmas-themed games. Two of those games were simply repurposed from Halloween-themed games released two months prior, which should give you an indication of just how much effort was invested in these.

If we look at the scores for all nine (the Christmas seven plus the Halloween-skinned versions) we see the following scores: four 1s, a 2, two 3s, a 4, and a 7.

That's embarrassing.

The four 1s — the lowest score we give on this site — went to:

The 2 went to Just Sing! Christmas Vol. 3, whose two earlier releases scored the 3s. Apparently hollering Christmas carols into your DSi while tinny music plays in the background isn't as fun as the developers thought. Who knew?

Christmas Wonderland, the Santa-heavy rejigging of Halloween: Trick or Treat, scored the comparatively impressive 4. This is mainly due to a somewhat improved experience; for example, the two dead-eyed twins from the heart of Creepytown, USA no longer hover over you like two spectres of death, and the candy cane hint items make more sense in this environment than they did in a haunted house. But that doesn't mean it's fun, and that's the problem with every game on the list above, too.

Developers on all consoles have been demonstrating for years that they can take ideas that sound shaky in concept and turn them into runaway hits. An Italian plumber jumps on turtles to save the princess? A blue hedgehog rescues woodland creatures from their futures as automatons? Aliens with plants growing out of their heads help to rebuild a space ship? None of that necessarily sounds particularly enticing in itself, but strong gameplay, striking presentation and a lot of imagination helped them to grow into beloved franchises.

If Super Mario had been released with its protagonist wearing a Santa hat instead of his iconic cap, would the game have been any less good? Of course not.

So why hasn't anyone succeeded in releasing a truly good Christmas game? If Super Mario had been released with its protagonist wearing a Santa hat instead of his iconic cap, would the game have been any less good? Of course not. If Sonic the Hedgehog collected gifts instead of rings and reached a chimney at the end of each stage, would the game have been less fun? And what if the Pikmin were helping to rebuild Santa's sleigh? As silly as all of this might sound, the fact remains that the gameplay experience in each case would have been strong enough to sustain the game, and we'd still remember them fondly today.

You'll notice we didn't talk about the game that received a 7 above, but that's because we're saving it to make another point. The game that scored a 7 is Christmas Clix, a falling-block puzzle game that far and away outscored any of the other holiday games we've discussed here. Think about that, before we move on: a 7 is "far and away" the best score any Christmas game has received. Just let that sink in.

Christmas Clix succeeds mainly because it takes a tried-and-true formula and riddles it with Christmas imagery. It's no Tetris of course, but it's fun, and when it comes to video games that's what matters most. Unfortunately it also fails in some crucial areas, in particular the fact that it only offers support for one player. A Christmas game you play by yourself is probably about as depressing an experience as a Christmas party to which nobody shows up, and falling-block puzzlers are perfect for two-player action. This suggests that the developer preferred to take an easier path to release, something that's emblematic of all the games listed above. Its hefty 1,000 Point price tag is also a problem, and perhaps Nintendo – with its control of pricing — expected the spirit of Christmas to encourage consumers to fork over an inflated price.

We hope that it's clear now that some developers on these download services view the holiday as an excuse to earn extra cash for minimal work. We must ask: why not release a quality game to your customers instead? Surely a Christmas game should be a gift to them more than a gift to yourself?

In the past, Christmas games weren't inherently terrible. The Super Nintendo and Mega Drive saw Daze Before Christmas in 1994, a solid platformer that sees Santa Claus collecting presents and dropping them off one by one to the children of the world. It's by no means free of problems, but it's at least a fun and festive way to spend some time around the holiday.

Prior to that we saw Christmas Lemmings, which was a Christmas-themed re-skin of the classic Lemmings PC game. There were actually several different Christmas Lemmings releases, and they served as gifts from the developers to Lemmings fans all over the world.

SEGA Saturn fans fondly remember Christmas NiGHTS, Sonic Team's festive freebie to owners of its underappreciated console. A snowy reworking of the classic NiGHTS into Dreams, this used the Saturn's internal clock to add Christmas decorations long before Animal Crossing's Jingle snuck in.

In each of these cases, though, a previously existing game was repurposed to serve a Christmas function: Lemmings, obviously, was the base for Christmas Lemmings, and Daze Before Christmas used the source code from We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story. Christmas NiGHTS takes a level and boss from the original and adds a seasonal sheen. That may go a long way towards explaining why these games are actually good: the gameplay was developed and honed first, and any Christmas allusions were added later. In the downloadable releases discussed above, that dichotomy was reversed.

Of course, festive games have a very short shelf life, and as developers for Nintendo's download services need to pass sales thresholds in order to get paid it may not be good business to invest significant time and money to create a Christmas game that won't sell for 11 months of the year.

So do Nintendo's download services have any chance of a good Christmas game in the future? Should we just start hoping for Christmas re-skins of titles we already love? World of Christmas Goo perhaps? Airport Mania: The Skyward Sleigh? BIT.TRIP: SANTA?

Maybe. All we know is that our Christmas wish is for developers of Christmas games to worry about providing us with a game worth buying first, and co-opting annual traditions second.

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User Comments (41)

Colors

#1

Colors said:

New game idea: You are a little boy who must take revenge on Santa for not giving you the green bicycle last Christmas. He gave you a red one. Unacceptable. Now you have to defeat him with only your peak physical condition, razor-sharp wits, and a machete. You will also travel to lush locations inspired by real places around the world, such as the GameStop on 67th Street or that junkyard out back.

warioswoods

#2

warioswoods said:

The greatest Christmas games were ones that only used the season as a setting... like Batman Returns (SNES).

Untitled

erv

#4

erv said:

Because it's like marketing some marketing.

Christmas is fun, but also promoted and sugarcoated fun. Marketing that same marketing away is at the very least a paradox, but probably just plain confusing.

SLiM

#6

SLiM said:

This year will be the first year I have done the Christmas event on Animal Crossing: City Folk. I've started two towns, and both times they have been started after Christmas so I miss all the festivities. That will not be the case this year!

Squid

#7

Squid said:

How about you must deliver toys to all of the children in the world, but the presents are actually vaccines to fight off a virus that turns you into zombies! All the adults have turned into zombies, because it affects them first, while the children have yet to be affected. Santa's elves have created a vaccine to fight off the virus, and now that Santa is safe, he must save all of the children and defeat all of the zombies in a race against time in order to save humanity!
or something like that

SkywardLink98

#8

SkywardLink98 said:

Well with online functions in games becoming a more common thing, they could add Christmas levels every Christmas and if they game stays going for awhile you'll get a good amount of Christmas levels.

MeloMan

#10

MeloMan said:

Wasn't Home Alone a good game?...... oh wait, it wasn't. Ah well. I guess one day someone will give a damn and make a good one with a good theme.

CorbsAdmin

#11

Corbs said:

I always fire up Banjo Kazooie on Christmas Eve and play through the Freezeezy Peak level just for fun.

Philip_J_ReedStaff

#12

Philip_J_Reed said:

Because it's like marketing some marketing. Christmas is fun, but also promoted and sugarcoated fun.

True, but the same should apply to any other commercial art forms when they produce Christmas installments (books, movies, songs), and certainly not all of those are inherently awful.

Wasn't Home Alone a good game?...... oh wait, it wasn't
:D It certainly wasn't, but games based on movies could be a whole other article in itself!

I always fire up Banjo Kazooie on Christmas Eve and play through the Freezeezy Peak level just for fun.

As do I with Metroid Prime's Phendrana Drifts. Mmmm...that music and snow...

NintyMan

#14

NintyMan said:

It's not so much if there can be a good Christmas video game but a video game based on a holiday in general. Halloween, Easter, Fourth of July, Arbor Day, Valentine's Day, and the like would be great if there was a team talented enough to make one.

I wouldn't mind Christmas remixes of downloaded games at all, but in a perfect world, there would be no such thing as shovelware and every game was fun and had good quality. Unforunately, that's not always the case and so you have to use good judgement in finding a decent game in the bargain bin.

Fly_Guy

#15

Fly_Guy said:

If you want to play a Christmas game done right and are a Metal Gear Solid fan look no further than Merry Gear Solid 2. It boasts SNES styled visuals and features codec conversations that don't need to shy away from the original series. Oh yes, and it's free, of course. The single best Christmas game I've ever played. Just watch the intro on Youtube and let it convince you ;)

Oh, and I like how Quote from Cave Story changes when you fire up your game during the holidays :D

Portista

#16

Portista said:

New Super Mario Bros. Wii's Winter levels are a good way to spend Christmas Eve!!! Lol just came up with that idea meself. :P

kyuubikid213

#17

kyuubikid213 said:

Making Christmas-themed games are difficult simply because it would only mean something to play them during that one time of the year...after that, it just gets old.

C-195

#18

C-195 said:

Because Christmas isn't about games silly! :P Seriously though, even a Christmas update to an already great game can be terrible (TF2 players will know what I mean).

madgear

#19

madgear said:

Good Christmas game on the Wii? Sam and Max Season 2 - probably one of the most Christmassy games I've ever played and with a nice bit of Halloween thrown in too.

Edit: I'm also playing through Last Window at the moment on the DS. That's set around Christmas - both of these are great games too.

AutumnShantel

#20

AutumnShantel said:

@Corbs: I love Freezeezy Peak! But Click Clock Wood was my favorite level, so the winter season would be fitting for your idea, too. And the music on the Diddy Kong Racing winter tracks (forgot the name of the world) is Christmas-y too!

Link79

#22

Link79 said:

There's a christmas themed world in Kingdom hearts 2 that was pretty fun. Also the original Banjo Kazooie has a cool snowy world with giant snowmen and christmas trees.

grumblegrumble

#23

grumblegrumble said:

Answer: Because anything involving the colors red and green combined, Santa Claus and gifts just doesn't lend itself to being taken very seriously nowadays.

grumblegrumble

#24

grumblegrumble said:

@Link79 Ooh, I MISS Banjo Kazooie!! You're totally right. That game had lit christmas trees in it, and it was a freaking fantastic game!

TikiTong

#26

TikiTong said:

The only great Christmas game I remember was Santa Claus Saves the Earth for the GameBoy! Ah, good times. Maybe WayForward or retro could make an epic Christmas themed platformer.

sillygostly

#27

sillygostly said:

There were at least 3 quality Xmas themed Jazz Jackrabbit games back in the day (however they were all extremely short and released as freeware).

Maggots

#29

Maggots said:

DLC Mario trades for a santa hat... or a menorah.... hat... errr.... stupid political corectness

fxtek76

#31

fxtek76 said:

Nintendolife why don't you review We Wish You A Merry Christmas for Wii. It was actually not totally horrible. Anyone wanting a Christmas game try that one out but it is hard to find. Much better than that Rudolph crap High Voltage put out.

TheJosdude

#34

TheJosdude said:

You need something like Angry Birds seasons for this a good fun game that covers lots of holidays, but you can advertise the different bits at different times of the year.

Lobster

#35

Lobster said:

There should be some sort of puzzle game, solid game play, idk, Bejeweled-ish maybe, and it should reskin itself on various days of the year. So Christmas you've got like ornaments and presents, first day of summer seashells and beach balls, etc. You could even unlock the skins as the year goes by. It would be a neat gimmick and solve the "all holiday games suck" and "can only play it one month a year" issues.

You heard it here first folks. Now gimme some royalties when it's made. :D

nick_gc

#36

nick_gc said:

"If Super Mario had been released with its protagonist wearing a Santa hat instead of his iconic cap, would the game have been any less good? Of course not."

No, but it would have been stupid.

Geonjaha

#37

Geonjaha said:

Because any game would only make any sense in the Christmas period. It would look stupid any other time of the year - which is why most of the games made are cheap and really not quality material.

Dizzard

#38

Dizzard said:

I think it's because it's generally not serious developers who target Christmas.

Just people trying to make a quick buck, but they make rubbish lazy games.

AlbertoC

#40

AlbertoC said:

@39: My thoughts exactly.

And, what point would make to save the good gameplay ideas to christmas games? Most people would see them as a seasonal fun, and maybe sink before they can be truly appreciated.

eviLaTtenDant

#41

eviLaTtenDant said:

Guess you’ve never been to the North Pole then. All they play there is Legend Of Santa, Call Of Rudolph and Santa’s Row.


As others have mentioned there already is some hilarious Christmas stuff in games and there’s still a lot of potential for more of it. I also thought about something along the lines of what ColorsOfSonic (1.) and Dark Squid (8.) said. Maybe a stranger Santa in the vein of old point & click – adventure characters would work well too. But assuming the retail ones can only sell well during the holidays it would be hard to stand a chance against behemoths like Mario, Link, Sonic and Kirby. And since the best games are always delayed you know you’ve got a problem when your Christmas game only makes it in time for an Easter release.

The general problem with downloadable games (at least on Nintendo platforms, don’t know about the others) is that most often you only get what you pay for. Except for World Of Goo and the episodic Telltale games I don’t see a game there that felt good, deep or fresh enough to be more than a welcome diversion from the most breathtaking retail games.
More quality in Christmas games can’t hurt though so yes I’m all for it. :)

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