Well, the holidays have arrived, and it looks like we made it. They said it couldn't be done, but here we are—ready to celebrate with our favorite holiday songs, our favorite holiday movies, and, naturally, our favorite holiday video games.
It has been said, notably by the late Roger Ebert, that video games are not art. They may be fun, they may be innovative, but they are not "art." Video game fans do not like to hear this assertion. (Regular people don't like to hear either side of this inane argument at all.) But if video games are art, why don't they have Christmas staples like movies, music, and literature do? Where's the video game equivalent of It's a Wonderful Life or "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer"?
It's tough to claim your medium is ready for the big leagues unless you have some canonized holiday classics. Well, I'm going to argue that video games do have some Christmastime classics that you can download and play when you're trying to avoid talking to your family.
Christmas NiGHTS (1996, HD re-release in 2012)
If video games have an It's a Wonderful Life–level holiday classic, at this point, the honor goes to Christmas NiGHTS, a two-level bonus addition to the Sega Saturn's NiGHTS into Dreams... The ellipses are part of the title. So is the weird capitalization scheme. Whimsy!
NiGHTS is a peculiar game, like many of Sega's best efforts. It tries to recreate the feeling of dreams, particularly those dreams where you're an androgynous court jester flying through rings over the countryside collecting orbs. What Christmas NiGHTS does is make that countryside snowy and transform the orbs into Christmas orbs. Plus the music now has a nice jingle bell rhythm to it.
Christmas is a time where being whimsical and sentimental is encouraged, and so Christmas NiGHTS is the best way to experience a game like NiGHTS. Don't ask questions about the name or what the hell is going on, just let the holiday cheer wash over you..
Christmas NiGHTS is available to download on the PlayStation Network and XBox Live Arcade.
Batman: Arkham City (2011)
You know how Die Hard is pretty much the best Christmas movie simply by being a great movie set during the holiday? That's Batman: Arkham City.
Arkham City is widely regarded as a terrific title, having won multiple Game of the Year honors and other awards. It's the first time ever that players have been able to experience the true feeling of being Batman—gliding around the city, solving mysteries, chasing bad guys, and busting skulls. And isn't that what this season is all about? Plus, snow just looks good highlighting Batman's black costume.
Batman: Arkham City is available to download on the PlayStation Network, XBox Live Arcade, and the Wii U.
NBA JAM (1994, HD re-releases in 2010 and 2011)
"He's on fire!": Bad to hear about overcooked turkeys, great to hear about nailing three consecutive shots on your opponent. We all love NBA JAM, there's no need to preach the merits of one of the best video game experiences ever created. It's an enduring arcade classic that anyone can play and enjoy.
But JAM should also be added to the holiday canon thanks to the kooky teams you can play as. Sure, you've always been able to dunk with Bill Clinton or George Bush on the hidden teams, but recent editions have included additions of turkeys, Santas, and elves. What better way to settle tension between you and your racist cousin than to dunk on his Santa and Elf team?
NBA JAM is available for PlayStation Network, XBox Live Arcade, Wii, and iOS.
Snatcher (1988, re-released in 1994)
Hideo Kojima, the auteur and self-described genius behind the Metal Gear Solid franchise, made this cyberpunk adventure/virtual comic experience in 1988 for the Japanese MSX computer; it was released with upgrades in the early 90s for CD-ROM consoles, and came out in North America and Europe on the SEGA-CD platform.
The game is included on the list because it, too, features a Christmastime setting. One of your informants disguises himself as Santa Claus to escape the clutches of the evil robots ("Snatchers," 'natch) that have come to dominate this hellhole of a city. Obviously, only you can stop them.
Unfortunately, despite being something of a cult classic, Snatcher remains only available for the SEGA-CD (ports to the Saturn and PlayStation One only exist in Japan) and copies of the game go for nearly $300 on eBay and Amazon. Maybe ask Santa for it next year?
Santa Claus Saves the Earth (2002)
Honestly, this one doesn't count. This entry on the list is pure padding on my part. Here's the thing, though: There really aren't many holiday-themed video games. The few that try to cash in on the season, like Santa Claus Saves the Earth, tend to be thoroughly broken and cheaply produced.
The only reason anyone knows about this game is because it features Santa Claus. Thus, when people occasionally make lists of "holiday video games" this somehow ends up being included, simply for the lack of options. It's the same reason Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" ends up being played every year.
Santa Claus Saves the Earth is available for the Game Boy Advance and PlayStation if you're feeling masochistic.
Wii Sports Resort (2009)
Our final entry does not have a winter theme, although the vacation resort setting is enough of a "holiday" to merit inclusion. The real reason Wii Sports Resort is a holiday classic is because it is truly a game for the whole family.
The title is a nice little demonstration of the uses for the Wii Remote Plus, with mini-games including sword fighting, wakeboarding, golf, archery, piloting, and bowling. Wii Sports Resort earned praise from all of the traditional game review outlets and remains a staple of holiday gatherings for my family, and probably others too.
It's incredibly intuitive and the mini-game offerings are a clear upgrade from the original Wii Sports that was such a hit with the elderly. The Wii really shines when you see how much grandmas take to it, and for a moment you even feel a bit of honest-to-God holiday cheer watching three generations of gamers try to knock down some virtual pins.
Wii Sports Resort is available for Wii or Wii U.
Follow Grant Pardee on Twitter.