A Clich

Christmas in Britain is heralded not by sleigh bells, the first flake of snow, a date on the calendar or an extra bucket of coal for the fire. You know it’s officially The Season when you hear Slade‘s time-honored, glam-rock anthem “Merry Xmas Everybody!” floating on the stale, thrice-recycled air of the overcrowded shops.

But when you hear Noddy wailing his winter war cry as Halloween decorations still litter the shelves, it becomes increasingly harder to get into the Christmas spirit once December finally rolls around. People are full of sagely advice on how to recapture the essence and excitement once felt around this time of year, but it generally involves some kind of charitable volunteer work, baking cookies, shoveling the snow off some lazy pensioner’s driveway or going to church for a fresh head full of Christian guilt. That might be alright for people who care, but what about the rest of us?

Well, just like every other problem we Escapists face throughout the year, this one can be solved by videogames. Gamers are fortunate enough to be able to bend the haughty, altruistic Christmas pseudo-wisdom of the socially conscious to our selfish needs by applying their Dickensian doctrines to our computers and consoles. So, for all you forlorn gamers out there who’ve lost the spirit (or had it taken from you), here’s a few tinsel-topped tips to rejuvenate your Chrimbo charisma.

Visit Old Friends
The best place to start is getting right back to your gaming roots. The majority of us who’ve grown up with games did so because of those computers and consoles we unwrapped one unfashionable Christmas morning in the ’70s or ’80s.

Times have changed considerably, and these days, whenever we want something, we just buy it on the tick. There’s no saving up, waiting for birthdays or holding out for the commercial season to roll around. As much as our must-have-it-now society has made kings and rich men of us all, it’s also robbed us of the excitement which comes from eager anticipation.

Back in the day (when only the wealthy owned credit cards), the months of painstakingly waiting for December 25th increased the value of our desired systems dramatically. The long weeks of absence while waiting for the wrapping paper to come away instilled a fondness that’s still going strong today, and one that’s distinctly lacking from any game system we’ve acquired in recent years.

With any luck, you’ll still have your old warhorse stashed away in the attic, and there’s no better way to kick off your Christmas buildup than by blowing the dust off an Atari 2600 or a tape-loading, 8-bit computer that lit up your holiday season two decades ago.

Of course, back then, there weren’t widely available online multiplayer games or wireless networking. Those square eyed memories will come flooding back all the more vividly if you can get some other likeminded 30-something with a gap in his soul to come round and play a few sweaty-palmed, white-knuckled games of Target: Renegade or Commando. Classics from a Christmas long forgotten – waiting to take you back to a simpler time when games were 2-D, sheep were scared and men were proud.

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And don’t be tempted into using an emulator. Waiting 10 minutes for a game to load from an audio cassette is a major part of reliving the experience (not dissimilar to the enduring wait for the computer in the first place), and a few games of “dead arm” or “slaps” while the loading screen of Green Beret taunts you from the 14-inch TV screen will be almost as nostalgic as the game itself.

It’s the Thought that Counts
Each year offers you another chance to recreate that long lost feeling of seasonal satisfaction.

If your family’s anything like mine (and I’m sure it is, with perhaps a few less alcoholics, if you’re lucky), no one has any idea what to buy each other. Maybe your parents got tired of storing your childhood in their spare room and gave away that old computer or console, so asking them to take to eBay’s virtual high street and track down another is a pretty decent way to put some of the excitement back into your cold, gray December.

Despite being something of a manufactured sentiment, a self-inflicted wait for your computer controlled youth to begin again on Christmas Day will be well worth it, and also offers you the opportunity to spend time researching and acquiring games (again, not emulated, but on their original media), and poring over old magazines to whip you up into the prerequisite, pre-Christmas frenzy.

Oh Baby, It’s Cold Outside
Reliving the past is not the only way videogames can bring you closer to Christmas, of course. Modern titles offer something older games cannot: visual realism.

What with global warming, overpopulation and mass poverty bumming out the holiday season, it often simply doesn’t feel like Christmas. The blazing hot winter sun, the decorations being on show for quarter of the year and people stressing out about overbearing family commitments at the beginning of November all conspire to make Christmas feel like any other month. But by carefully selecting your videogames to match the time of year, a certain “winter wonderland” essence can ring throughout your well decked virtual halls.

It may sound obvious, but throwing up some powder on the slopes of your favorite snowboarding title goes some way toward making up for the lack of real snow outside. Any variant on this theme (like snow mobiles or sleds) can be equally suitable, and should a few flakes of the real stuff actually start to fall, the effect is exponentially increased. Snowboarding games also serve to remind us – in our ever increasingly sensible adulthood – of the fun side of snow, and stems the downbeat grumbling about muddy sludge, wet feet and frozen car windshields.

This harsh side of winter is also well represented in games such as Max Payne; which eloquently waxes lyrical of the biting wintry sleet and is replete with satisfying, crisp, crunching sound effects of the snow underfoot. The game’s morbid theme would undoubtedly help the statistically increased number of manic depressives who appear around Christmas to reminisce about a less cheerful seasonal experience. We cater to everyone, at The Escapist.

Special mention has to go to the wonderful Sega Saturn Christmas special of NiGHTS Into Dreams. This was a modified demo of the original NiGHTS game, which was initially a little tricky to get hold of. It was bundled with the console in Japan around Christmas ’96 and was either given away with other full price games or on the cover of official Sega magazines. The demo made excellent use of the console’s internal clock, and when December 1 rolled around, the scenery took on a winter wonderland theme.

It also changed at other times of the year and was replete with hidden extras, but the real charm is in the magical Christmas fantasy dreamed up by Sega’s finest. Christmas NiGHTS into Dreams reappears every year on eBay, so get bidding.

When a Child is Born
Much as I endeavor to avoid the fact, we’re all growing up. Inevitably, this makes parents and people of increased responsibility out of many of us, but a cunning gamer can put this side effect of maturity to good use.

Some friends of mine were around the other day with their 4-year-old, and the way she took to my Xbox 360 was a matter of some astonishment to her parents. Indeed, she quickly had us all involved in her game in one way or another, and very soon, my friends were wondering if a console might be a more sustainable and family-oriented Christmas gift than yet more plastic dolls in pink cocktail dresses. This is another way in which we can revive the videogame-oriented Christmas spirit: by passing it along to a new generation.

By getting our kids excited about the prospect of a computer or console being rammed down the chimney on Christmas Eve, we can apply everything we’ve discussed for rejuvenating the holidays, while also enjoying them vicariously through the new experiences of an uninitiated gamer. It shouldn’t be too difficult to get them excited about games, once they see your anticipation building alongside their own. It provides them with a wonderful portal through which they can relive the Christmas experience in years to come (when Slade will undoubtedly be heard at the back end of July), and keep the tradition of seasonal gaming going strong.

Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.

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