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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I quickly moved on to another disposable Game Boy Advance game, Santa Claus Jr. Advance by Neon Studios, released in Japan in 2002. Another side-scrolling platformer with double-jumping and collecting, Santa Jr.'s gimmick is that you don't play as Santa, but as a boy wearing the big man's magical coat who must save Santa from an evil witch who hates Christmas. The lone highlight was a level-end screen showing Santa chilling on his sleigh and throwing what looks to be a gang sign.

Two PC side-scrollers offer animated-GIF-quality graphics and instantly forgettable gameplay. Kewlbox's Adventure Elf from 2003 has more evil penguins plus unique obstacles like yellow snow, reindeer droppings and out-of-control fruitcakes. Christmas Tale, a 2002 release from Alive Games, has Santa solving puzzles by stacking presents and kicking around ice blocks. I installed and deleted both within five minutes.

2002's Santa in Trouble from Joymania seems to be the lone 3-D, Christmas-themed platformer, but it plays as boringly as its 2-D counterparts. More a tech demo than a game, Trouble plunges you into a snowy world of floating platforms that Santa must double-jump to and from. Avoiding grumpy-looking trolls in sweaters and toques, Santa collects presents on his way to each level's end while you listen to a MIDI music mix that's 99-percent Christmas carols and, inexplicably, one percent "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Sure, all of these games are Christmas-themed, but none of them evokes any Christmas spirit. In Santa Claus Jr. you give presents to children located around each level, but it's just a variation of the "find a whole bunch of things" mechanic from most platformers. I don't particularly associate violence with Christmas, either, and most of these games involve monster killing, enemy destroying or animal crushing. Throw Santa into the mix as the one busting heads and we've strayed a long way from the warm and fuzzy feelings that old Saint Nick is supposed to symbolize.

Two other games - Soft Enterprises' Christmas Carnage from 1994 and Fiendish Games' Santa's Gone Postal from 1999 - drag Santa's good name even deeper through the mud. The former lets you blow open Mr. Claus' stomach from a Space Invaders-style turret, while the latter puts you in the shoes of a hunter disguised as Kris Kringle who blasts bullets into crude polygonal elves and reindeer.

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When I booted up the freeware game Santa Ride! I thought my hunt was over. Made in 2004 as an interactive holiday gift from Hungarian racing-game developer Invictus, it looked promising. You race Santa's sleigh against a time limit through a 3-D course while collecting presents. A sequel from 2006 adds the even-more-Christmasy goal of delivering presents to certain houses on the track. Both have the best holiday ambiance of any game yet. The environments glow white with snow. Buildings are icicle-laden and merrily decorated with candy canes, colored lights and lawn ornaments. The games feel like racing through a town made of those ceramic "Christmas Village" collectibles that adorn your grandmother's living room.

Unfortunately, they're no fun to play. The controls are awful, and the races are over in a snap. Other than the awesome idea of Santa giving his trademark "Ho, ho, ho" with a press of the "H" key, the games are a wasted opportunity. Had Invictus developed the Santa Ride concept into a full release, they may have had the best Christmas game ever. A sleigh-ride simulator where you deliver presents to children would certainly fill a niche. (And it couldn't have done worse than Invictus' other titles, which include the horrible Monster Garage game.)

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