Christmas is here, and what better way to celebrate Santa's birthday than to fire up some festive retro gaming goodies! The 'Christmas game' was a popular gimmick in the 8-bit and 16-bit home computer days. Games were cheap to produce and to purchase, so developers could create a quick Christmas game on a small budget and release it at a low enough price for parents to buy for their kids as a stocking filler. There was also the free cover tape given away with the computer magazines at the time. The December issue of a games publication was the perfect place for Christmas games, and well known developers such as Team 17 and Sensible Software produced short, seasonal versions of their hit games for these give-aways. The ZX Spectrum had an excellent Monty Mole game called Moley Christmas, given away with the December 1987 issue of Your Sinclair. The Commodore 64 also got in the holiday spirit, with one memorable title being Frosty The Snowman, given away on the front of Your Commodore magazine in 1990. The Amiga was also home to a wealth of Yuletide treats, with Christmas versions of Cannon Fodder, Lemmings, ATR : All Terrain Racing, and Fire N Ice all gracing cover disks over the years. PC users were not left in the dark either, with an enjoyable Xmas edition of Jetpack, and some frantic platform action in the form of, not one, but three, Jazz Jackrabbit Christmas specials.
In comparison, the 16-bit consoles were sorely lacking in festive cheer, with only Daze Before Christmas and James Pond 2 : Robocod representing this magical time of year. This lack of Christmas games was mainly due to the higher development costs as well as the cost of the cartridges themselves, rendering a novelty Xmas game an unprofitable endeavour. The 32-bit days were even more Scrooge-like, with only two festive games. One was the awful Santa Claus Saves The Earth on Sony's Playstation, which was about as popular as the Grinch, but the other was the SEGA's Christmas NiGHTS, one of the most fondly remembered Christmas games ever made.
After this the genre went into hibernation, with only poorly made Flash games to get you in the festive mood. Recently the Xbox Live Indie Channel has been home to many Yuletide games. Unfortunately, with the exception of Johnny Platform Saves Christmas, they are universally atrocious and will have you screaming bah humbug after only a few minutes. PC gamers have had more luck though, with modern remakes of the games mentioned above, as well as many freeware or cheap indie games that are actually quite fun to play. I have braved the cold and searched high and low for the best games for you to enjoy this Christmas. So grab some mulled wine, Eggnog, or other appropriate beverage, and discover some great retro gaming treats to accompany your reckless over indulgence of chocolate and mince pies!
Frosty The Snowman 1 + 2 (Commodore 64)
Frosty was given away with Commodore Format in 1990. It is a sidescolling, flick screen game where you run to the right to obtain a present before returning it to Santa, who is back where you started. It's split screen 2-player, but you could play solo if you wished, ignoring the bottom screen. While fun, it is brutally hard, with many cheap deaths and pixel perfect jumps required. The excellent chiptune rendition of Frosty The Snowman makes up for it though and it offers fun in small doses. Frosty The Snowman 2 is the homebrew developed sequel that came out in 2008. It improves on the original in almost every way. The graphics are nicer, and the game isn't quite as unfair (though still very tricky). There are chiptune versions of more Christmas songs that you can listen to, from Band Aid's Feed The World, to the horrendous Fairy Tale Of New York (here in surprisingly catchy, upbeat form).
Holiday Lemmings (Amiga / PC)
Lemmings is the popular suicidal rodent puzzler that tasks you with getting the directionally challenged critters to the exit door. You have a limited amount of 'moves' you can use on the lemmings such as bridge builders, diggers and blockers. Christmas Lemmings started off as two free demos given away on magazine cover disks, but due to their popularity they received 2 official 32 level releases. The Christmas games provide the same addictive puzzling as always, only this time the lemmings are wearing Santa hats and the stages are covered in snow and decorations.
Christmas Jet Pack (DOS)
Jetpack is a simple 2D platform game released in 1993. The game takes visual inspiration from Lode Runner, but the gameplay is different in that here you use a jetpack to propel yourself around the levels. You must collect fuel to keep the jetpack operational, and must find all the emeralds located in a level in order to open the exit and advance to the next. This free Christmas edition basically just changes the graphics to festive sprites and has you playing as Santa, dropping presents under the trees rather than collecting emeralds. It is simple old school fun and still plays well today.
Jazz Jackrabbit Holiday Hare 94, 95, and 98 (DOS)
Jazz Jackrabbit was a popular DOS platform Run & Gun game that plays like a bizarre cross of Sonic The Hedgehog and Contra. You shoot across the colourful stages at breakneck speed, firing your blaster at any of the animals and other enemies that stand in your way. It was well received by PC gamers yearning for some console style gaming on their desktop system. The Christmas editions were released as freeware by creator, Epic Megagames, and offered up the same mix of high speed platforming and blasting, only this time with snow covered levels and other festive items. The music is also very catchy, with some pretty funky, high energy renditions of popular Christmas tunes.
Fire & Ice Christmas Special (Amiga)
A freebie given away on the cover of Amiga Power magazine in December 1992, Fire & Ice Christmas Special is a short, one-level, demo of the main game. You take control of Cool Coyote once more, only this time donned in a Santa hat and fake beard. You have to navigate the slippery ice level tryign to locate the broken pieces of a key, while firing snowballs at penguins and Eskimos who are then be frozen and can be shattered. It's a mildly diverting platform game with cutesy graphics that offers quite a challenge. It also includes a ludicrous 'rave' style Christmas theme tune that will make you laugh (or cry).
James Pond 2 : Codename Robocod (C64, Amiga, ST, PC, Mega Drive, SNES, PC, DS etc)
Robocod is an excellent game, with the titular fish-robot hybrid bouncing his way across some zany levels, avoiding all manner of strange enemies and collecting a seemingly endless supply of random items for points. The Christmas link comes in the form of the game's objective which is to rescue a set amount of elves in each stage, before rescuing Santa himself and saving Christmas. The original Amiga version was sponsored by Penguin chocolate bars and so had them plastered throughout the game as backgrounds and platforms. These were thankfully removed for the Mega Drive and SNES (called Super Robocod) releases. It is an enjoyable romp and a game that stands the test of time rather well. It certainly wins the award for Christmas game that appears on the most formats, with even more recent consoles such as the Playstation 2 and Nintendo DS getting conversions.
Daze Before Christmas (Mega Drive / SNES)
Daze Before Christmas is one of the very few 16-bit console Christmas games, letting you take control of jolly Saint Nick himself. It is standard platforming fare, but it possesses bold, colourful graphics, and the gameplay is fairly enjoyable. Santa even turns into an evil version of himself if you collect the coffee dotted around the levels, granting him temporary invincibility and the ability to bash enemies with his sack (cough). Being released late in the 16-bit console's lifespan it wasn't a very good seller. This fact makes it highly collectable today, and it commands high prices when copies pop up on Ebay. For non collectors though there is always emulation.
Christmas NiGHTS (Sega Saturn / XBLA)
Christmas NiGHTS was born due to the creator of NiGHTS : Into Dreams being inspired by the Holiday Lemmings game. This led him to devise a Christmas version of his own game. It was given away on numerous magazine cover CDs in 1996, as well as being bundled with many new Saturn games. It features 2 snowy stages decorated with many Christmas presents, stars and trees. The music played throughout the demo are remixes of Christmas carols that are instantly recognisable, and add immeasurably to the game's joyful atmosphere. The Saturn’s internal clock tells the game the date, and so on Christmas day, New Years Day and more, you are treated to special occurrences, including on screen messages and even an appearance from Claus himself. Christmas NiGHTS is one of the best Christmas games ever made. It is also included in the recent XBLA edition of NiGHTS as an unlockable.
Dangerous Xmas (Gameboy Advance Emulator)
An excellent unreleased tribute to Rick Dangerous, Dangerous Christmas puts you in the well worn boots of Rick again as he fights to retrieve his stolen Christmas presents. A homebrew title that can be played on PC via a GBA emulator, it is outstandingly good fun, and just as tricky as the games that inspired it. The levels look great, with snow capped trees and log cabins as well as wrapped presents, candy canes and snowmen littering the colourful stages. Those familiar with the excellent Rick Dangerous series (see here) will be instantly at home with the tricky jumps, patrolling enemies, booby traps and instant death spikes! It's certainly one of my favourite games to return to at this time of year. It is short, but offers enough challenge to keep you playing it well after the Christmas left overs have been thrown out.
Monty's Christmas (PC Freeware)
Monty Christmas is my personal favourite Christmas game of all time. It is both highly playable and has a lovely Yuletide feel to it. It also contains the best plot to any video game ever. Here Monty Mole finds himself tasked with finding all 100 pages of the Retro Gamer Christmas issue in time for publication. If he fails it is a trip to the Job Centre to sign on. This remake, by the talented Trevor 'Smila' Story and Scottige, is based loosely on the free ZX Spectrum title Moley Christmas, but this game feels much more like Monty On The Run or Auf Wiedersehen Monty, only speedier and set in the Retro Gamer offices. It has a wonderful visual style that looks like an advanced 8-bit game, with extra graphical trickery such as nice little firework explosions when you collect a page. The music fits the game perfectly and is catchy enough to not become irritating with extended play. The intricate stages you navigate are interesting to discover, adding a real sense of exploration to the game as you hunt all of the magazine pages. It has a handy save system, where the game saves after completing a zone (of which there are four). Brilliant fun.
Pen Pen Xmas Olympics (PC Freeware)
An exceptionally cute skiing game featuring an adorable penguin named Pen Pen. You have to qualify in the Ice Town Xmas Olympics at a variety of events such as slalom, downhill race and ski jump. The slopes contain multiple obstacles that must be avoided and presents and coins that need to be collected. It is simplicity itself, and enjoyable to boot. It is the kind of game you would expect to find on a touch screen phone, but here it is in full screen PC form. The graphics and sound are full of charm and festive spirit and the gameplay is simple, yet tricky to master. A highly enjoyable Xmas diversion.
Merry Gear Solid 2 : Ghosts of Christmas Past (PC Freeware)
This is the sequel to 2006's Merry gear Solid : Secret Santa, in which your objective is to retrieve Santa's hat from an extremist group who hate Christmas. It is an entertaining spoof of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, with quirky dialogue that often pokes fun of game elements the franchise is known for, such as constantly interrupting calls to your character, and exaggerated death cries. You sneak around the snow capped levels and indoor shopping malls, avoiding detection and defeating bosses. It is quite absorbing for a novelty game, and everything is highly polished. The graphics especially are very good, and the sound really gives you an authentic Metal Gear experience. Well made, amusing and entertaining, it comes highly recommended.
Johnny Platform Saves Christmas (Xbox Live Indie)
Johnny Platform manages to be the only Christmas title on the Xbox Live indie channel even worth considering. While this sounds like a half hearted compliment, the game is actually good fun. You control a strange, twitchy little critter in a Santa suit, and must perform certain requirements to open the exit door. This can be collecting all of the coffee cups dotted around the stage, or bouncing off the heads of enemies, dispatching them in classic platformer style. There are some minor puzzle elements too involving the pushing of boxes and detonating of bombs to break walls, so it keeps you interested. It's fun and unpretentious and is a nice way to spend a few hours this Christmas.
Tired of all the Jungle Bells, jolly snowmen, candy canes, and Christmas lights? Then how about some seasonal action horror. Say no to fairies, elves, reindeer and Santa, and embrace dark corridors, hideous demons and blood splattered snow.
Cold As Hell : Special Edition (Doom Mod) (PC)
Cold as Hell is an excellent total conversion mod for the original Doom and Doom 2 games. Doom needs no introduction, but what many people don't know is that it still has a thriving mod community making maps, graphical overhauls, and conversions such as this. With source ports such as Zdoom, the original game can look amazing even today, with high res graphics, cool lighting and particle effects, and full 3D models. This particular mod is a kind of survival horror experience set in an abandoned military base in a snowy landscape in the 1950's. It has new weapons, a reloading system, bleeding that needs to be contained with bandages, and a whole new hub level system which you can travel around with the right security keys. There are notes, often blood soaked, laying around the base that give clues to what has happened, and it really excells in giving the player a sense of isolation and desperation. The project has been around since 2004, but 2008 saw an enhanced special edition that contained much improved graphics and some additional voice acting. Think classic Doom mixed with Silent Hill and you will get a good idea of what to expect.
There are also countless Christmas mods and addons for the older first person shooters like Doom and Duke Nukem. The Duke Nukem : Nuclear Winter pack is mildly entertaining, but the Xmas based sprites are pretty poor for an official release. Much more amusing is the Doom 2 mod, Xmas Nightmare. With jaunty Festive songs accompanying your murderous rampage you blast elves, presents, Reindeer zombies, Daleks and even Santa, wielding a shotgun no less. It is extremely silly, but highly entertaining.
So there you have it, Christmas is here and now you have many Yuletide gaming treats to keep you occupied until the new year. I hope that I was able to bring some unknown titles to your attention, and that they bring you much joy in this season of good tidings.