Monsters and Mistletoe

Monsters and Mistletoe
The (Slightly More Than) Twelve Games of Christmas

Chris LaVigne | 2 Dec 2008 12:33
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It was Christmas Eve and I'd just killed a man. And then another. And another. Next to my TV, a bauble hung from my family's Christmas tree. "Peace on Earth," the motto on it read. I glanced at it briefly before shooting another man in the face.

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Videogames have always been a big part of the holidays for me. I inevitably and eagerly spent my time off from school or work by button-mashing. Until the last few years, though, I'd never really considered how incredibly inappropriate most videogames are for the holiday season. As my parents listened to carolers singing about goodwill to all humankind, I'd be jump-kicking as many humans as possible. Christmas cards on our mantle wished us joy and happiness. I spent hours wishing people would die, then killing them.

My virtual violence stands in stark contrast to my other, more festive holiday traditions. Since I was a little boy, I haven't let a December pass without watching Scrooged, the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ignored for the rest of the year, my Merry Axemas and Muppets Christmas CDs suddenly become daily listening. I'll probably read The Night Before Christmas, and my odds of attending a theatrical performance of A Christmas Carol are very high. Other media have clearly embraced the Christmas spirit. Why haven't videogames?

At Christmas, we try to do right in the world, smile at strangers and reunite with family members. Classic stories like It's a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol remind us people can be good. More than anything, Christmas is a time to believe in the cheesy ideals of peace and happiness that seem naïve the rest of the year. Could a videogame capture that spirit?

I started with the only Christmas-themed game released for a major console: Funcom's 1994 game Daze Before Christmas for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Like many of the games I would play, Daze lets players control Santa Claus and takes some extreme liberties with the mythos surrounding the jolly, fat gift-giver. He wears his red-and-white suit and carries a sack, but also butt-stomps penguins to death and turns into the devil. Players move Santa through wintery 2-D environments and re-enact almost every cliché of the side-scrolling platformer genre, like double-jumping and token collecting. Some touches are nice and seasonal. The world map is an advent calendar. Three levels break from platforming to let you drop presents down chimneys while flying Santa's sleigh. Mostly, though, the game's Christmas connection is a stretch. Sure, you rescue elves, but Santa also shoots magic out of his hands and morphs into the demonic, invincible Anti-Claus when he drinks hot cocoa. Who knew?

Daze felt more like any generic 2-D platformer of the 16-bit era than a genuine Christmas game. So did my next choice, 2004's Santa Claus Saves the Earth for the Game Boy Advance from developer Ivolgamus. Its dramatic title had me excited, but after a few minutes I could barely prevent myself from yawning. Trapped in a magic land by an evil fairy who doesn't want kids to get any presents, I controlled Santa (again) in a side-scrolling platformer (again) and battled enemies blocking his progress (again). Swinging his sack to attack foes, Santa disintegrates if he touches them - a bit too traumatic for younger audiences. The thought of Santa dying chilled my heart in the same childlike way Optimus Prime's death in the original Transformers movie numbed my soul for many months.

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