It’s that time of year again, boys and girls. The holly is decking the halls, our gay apparel is being worn loud and proud, and the figgy pudding (whatever the heck that is) is boiling over the kettle. During this wholesome time of year, sometimes a gamer just wants to snuggle up to the warm glow of their TV and enjoy a festive video game. Unfortunately, video games have never taken to holiday-themed special releases in the same way other mediums like television and film have. So what’s a gamer in need of some holiday spirit to do? Well, thankfully, modern day games seem to finally be getting into the spirit of the season (or rather, seasons) and it should only be a matter of time before the entire industry follows suit.
Traditionally, holiday themed games (especially holiday-themed offshoots of established franchises) have been quite rare. Very few games ever seem to feature a Christmas tree, a menorah, or even a jack-o-lantern in its design. The reason for this can be attributed, perhaps, to geography and timing. In the earliest days of the industry, festive and/or goofy off-shoots of popular games were the last thing on developers’’ and publishers’ minds. After all, who’s going to bother publishing a new version of Pong with a Santa sleigh in place of a paddle when programmers were still trying to get a handle on how to properly use color? And then, when gaming shifted from the West to Japan, most games did not see any kind of holiday special simply due to culture shock. After all, when your native population is only 1% Christian, trying to capitalize on the birth of the Messiah through some extra snowy levels of Super Mario Bros. seems like a less than worthy endeavor. However, that is not to say that games of these eras never dabbled in the realm of the seasonal.
The holiday themed games of the past can be separated into two categories: experimental or just straight-up crap. For an example of the former, look no further than the special add-on to Sega’s Nights Into Dreams titled, appropriately enough, Christmas Nights Into Dreams. Included merely as an extra, if you could find it at all, the add-on included two-levels and a new story that actually focused on a Christmas-centric plot. This was actually quite novel, as it showed a lot more effort than just spraying old levels with gooey Christmas juice (though there is plenty of that.) It was a charming little spin-off and one that I wish more games would imitate. Instead, we get shovelware and throwaway titles that replace holiday cheer with cold, hard cynical cash-grabbiness. See games like Elf Bowling to see what I am talking about. It’s bowling. But with elves. Elves that get mercilessly slaughtered by a psychotic Santa’s bowling ball of doom. It’s enough to scar a child for life. And if that’s not bad enough, a game that is called Santa Claus Saves the World should be WAY more awesome than what it looks like. What’s a jolly gamer to do?
Well, like with so many things these days, the savior of the holiday video game spin-off seems to be the Internet, thanks to online gaming and downloadable content. Games like Red Dead Redemption and infamous 2 have featured horror themed expansions that can be enjoyed wholly separate from their respective core games just in time for the last few Halloweens. Why not branch out and consume the whole holiday buffet? If established hits can now afford to be as goofy as they want to be via DLC, what’s a few more December-y holiday themed expansions going to hurt? We are already seeing it with games like Angry Birds, so why can’t the greats like Mario, Final Fantasy, or Sonic get in on the action? How about a few Mario levels where Mario meets Santa? How about a crossover between Sonic and Nights? In this modern age, where the international market is becoming more and more important, something as ubiquitous as Christmas and the rest of the holiday season seems like the path to some serious dough.
As I sit here stewing in my giant bathtub full of eggnog (don’t knock it ‘til you try it,) I continue to ponder the future of holiday themed games. Might we see a Ramadan-themed Assassin’s Creed? Or a Hanukah spin-off for Grand Theft Auto?* One can only dream, and I can dream big. As an aficionado of all of things December, I yearn for the day when these dreams can become reality. Perhaps someday we can get a loving homage to the Star Wars Christmas special from good ol’ Final Fantasy? Now THAT I’d like to see.
* GTA was the most prominent game I could think of to feature Jewish characters. Man, Jewish people really need some better representation in video games. Ditto in regards to African-Americans. How’s a Kwanzaa game gonna get made at this rate, people?