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

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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