It’s Christmas Eve, and even though the stockings have been hung, and the halls have been decked, I find myself thinking about the strange absence of Christmas themed media as it pertains to video games. It seemed like, for a while, when the holidays rolled around, there was always a blockbuster movie to go along with it—lord knows the Hallmark Channel has that all wrapped up now anyway—but there were never any video games that deal with Christmas, or ones that put you in the role of jolly ‘ol Saint Nick.
So, to celebrate Christmas, I’ve compiled a list of the five best Christmas games that are set on or around Christmas!
Kicking off the list, we’ve got the “Die Hard is a Christmas movie, insofar that it’s set at Christmas,” entry. Bayonetta 2 begins with some pretty open, and hilarious holiday flair; as everyone’s favourite witch goes Christmas shopping with her foul-mouthed stereotypical Italian cohort Enzo. Rodin even shows up in full Santa garb once some begrudged angels show up to start wreaking havoc on the city.
While the rest of the “christmas” game itself doesn’t really indulge in Christmas iconography or spirit, some may argue that Bayonetta’s main goal of rescuing her best friend from the clutches of Hell is very much in the Christmas spirit—friendship, goodwill and all that; but that would be a stretch. However, the reality is, much like everyone’s favourite edgelord Christmas movie pick, a bloody, violent piece of action media is technically a Christmas product, so long as it’s set around that day. Hallelujah, Holy shit.
Viscera Cleanup Detail: Santa’s Rampage
If you don’t remember Viscera Cleanup Detail, it was a unique little indie game that came out back in 2015. The premise was simple: so many games are focused on the beefy action hero, blasting his way through alien space stations and underground facilities, but nobody ever considers the mess that gets left behind, and the unappreciated workers who have to deal with it. Players take on the role of a space janitor, coming in after a bloody shootout, and making sure the scene is clean and ready for work tomorrow.
The Santa’s Rampage DLC was a great little bit of dark Christmas game comedy, much in the way of Gremlins, or even Krampus, where players find themselves in Santa’s workshop on—as Weird Al famously put it—the night Santa went crazy. The Christmas workload and demands of children finally got to the big guy, and he tore up his workshop and murdered every elf in the vicinity. I really like this DLC because, not only is it a hilariously grim take on the season, but it highlights the effects of mass consumerism, and what the stress of Christmas can do to a person.
But this is perfectly balanced by Viscera Cleanup Details’ chill, zen-like gameplay of slow, methodical cleaning. Furthermore, it touches on that one element of Christmas that no one really thinks about—once all the presents have been furiously torn open, and the turkey is consumed, someone’s gotta clean up the mess—and it’s usually your poor mother!
Kingdom Hearts 2 (Halloween/Christmas Town)
Kingdom Hearts is a fantastic mess of a series, and one that, upon revisiting, I’ve realized was never as good as our teenage minds convinced us it was. But by that very same notion, it was probably the timing of the game that made the inclusion of a world, based on The Nightmare Before Christmas, resonate with such effect—as my faux-edgelord teenage brain thought Jack was so deep.
The Nightmare Before Christmas has had two bizarre video games, neither of which were particularly bad, but they didn’t really stand out either—what can you expect when adopting a property like that for a game. Oddly enough, both were released around the same time, in October 2005, which is infuriating to me since it is not a Halloween movie.
The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge was a God of War-style Beat ‘em Up with rhythm game singing segments (not actually featuring any new music); and The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King was a Metroid-style exploration action game.
But what you’ll notice about both of these entries is that neither of them has anything to do with Christmas. That’s why Kingdom Hearts 2 is a standout example for me of a Christmas game set on and around Christmas, as it’s inclusion of The Nightmare Before Christmas actually follows the movie to some degree—unlike the first Kingdom Hearts.
In Kingdom Hearts 2, not only does this version feature a fairly unique interpretation of the movie’s Christmas Town, but it sees not only Jack, but Sora, Donald and Goofy in festive attire. It even features an appearance by the Big Guy himself—and there’s something heartwarmingly hilarious about seeing our Keyblade-wielding anime hero get genuinely excited about seeing Santa Claus. Interestingly enough, Santa tells Sora that he is actually on the Naughty List for something he did in grade school, reminding players that at some point, Sora did have a life beyond Hearts and Darkness.
Christmas NiGHTS Into Dreams
NiGHTS Into Dreams is a very bizarre game that I got very obsessed with as a kid, despite never owning a Sega Saturn—although this could be attributed to my love of the Sonic the Hedgehog comics, which for a short while, ran a series based on NiGHTS. It featured both a genuinely unique look—fresh from the kooky mind of Yuji Naka—and a gameplay style that was part time-attack, and part action. The titular NiGHTS was a colourful, carefree jester who flew around in people’s dreams and defended them from evil forces known as the Nightmarens.
Naturally, when it was released in 1995, it had nothing to do with Christmas, but later that year, Sega released Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams—which was part of a promotional sampler disc for the Sega Saturn that was put out around the holiday season. In terms of gameplay, it was essentially identical to the standard NiGHTS into Dreams, albeit paired down to one level, and completely reskinned with excessive Christmas flair.
The titular NiGHTS’ outfit is recoloured red, and altered slightly to resemble that of Santa’s coat; the plot is centred around finding the star off the top of a Christmas tree; and features some neat little presents players could unlock, and even featured a clock feature that would change the game based on certain days of the year.
I actually remember playing this briefly at a Blockbuster (ask your parents), and while it may only be tangentially related to Christmas, for a holiday so lacking in good Christmas video games, Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams genuinely manages to capture the Christmas spirit—being both a neat little holiday offering, that may have resulted in a Christmas day Sega Saturn, but also a pretty solid game in its own right.
Animal Crossing (Toy Day)
When it comes to games that really capture the Christmas spirit, I can think of no better example than Animal Crossing. Christmas—or “Toy Day” as it’s called in-game to be as inclusive as possible—has taken many forms throughout the several entries in the series. In the beginning, it was as simple as Animal Crossing itself; just talk to Tortimer or Jingle the Happy Reindeer to receive gifts.
Due to the limitations of the Nintendo DS, Toy Day—as well as many other holidays—were omitted from Animal Crossing: Wide World, but as that was the first in the series to include multiplayer, players could create their own version, meeting with friends and exchanging gifts online.
In Animal Crossing: City Folk, Toy Day was a bit more…commercialized; as players would receive gifts from Jingle, and could trick him by changing outfits and accessories for more gifts. However, Animal Crossing: New Leaf really nailed Toy Day and made it feel like a month-long event that players needed to really invest in.
In Animal Crossing: New Leaf, throughout the month of December, villagers will drop small hints in conversation about what kind of gift they’d want for Christmas. Players will have the entire month to purchase a Santa outfit from the Able Sisters, and on the night of the 24th, Jingle will appear and inform players that he needs help delivering the gifts.
I can remember my first Toy Day, and how genuinely bummed out I was that none of my villagers got the gifts they wanted—something I’m sure many players and even individuals can relate to. The next year, I spent the whole month jotting down details in a little notepad, so when the big day came I could make sure everyone was happy.
It felt like I had done a genuinely good deed; I took the time to listen, and pay attention and deliver the thing the villagers wanted most, trivial though it may seem. It felt like I really was playing as Santa—making my list and checking it twice and making everyone happy on the day. And the special reward of Jingle’s photo for getting everything right was the cherry on top.
There’s a very special, nostalgic feeling I get from Toy Day. It’s the sense of calm and quiet that came from walking through my snowy town at night—thanks to the game’s real-world clock mechanic—coupled with the festive, but wholly unique Toy Day theme, added an extra layer of peaceful charm to the holiday affair. That is the reason that, even to this day, I make sure to boot up Animal Crossing on Christmas Eve, just to experience Christmas in the way only it can offer.