The Best and Worst Christmas-Themed Video Games

Santa claus with a joystick playing video games at home

Key Points

  • Christmas video games are a mixed bag. 

  • Seasonal gaming events give you warm fuzzies but also could use some improvements. 

  • In 2022, Batman: Arkham Origins was the best Christmas video game out there, but 2023 may bring something even better!

  • Prepare for new releases this year that should be on your Christmas shopping list.  

Christmas and commercialism have gone hand-in-hand for a long time. Brands seek to capitalize on the holiday spirit and festivities, no matter what you celebrate or who you celebrate with. This notion of goodwill to all men has inspired some of the most noteworthy visual masterworks of the season such as Charles Dickens’ (and the Muppets) A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life with essential holiday themes of peace, kindness, kinship, and love to all. 

Then there are Christmas video games and it becomes a bit of a shit storm. Most games created specifically with Christmas in mind miss the mark with experienced gamers. The games that are most successful at provoking the holiday spirit are the popular non-seasonal games that add a temporary seasonal element to them. What are some of the best and worst Christmas video games? What makes gamers giddy with holiday cheer?

Check out the options below to decide where to spend your virtual holiday season!

Group of video gamers play during Christmas

The Weather Outside Sure Is Frightful

What makes a good Christmas game? For some, this includes family and friends around the table playing a board or box game like Monopoly. Others gather around the TV for a family-friendly video game. Common family video games include Mario Kart, classic split-screen Halo, or Mario Party. These games are common at Christmas as well because there aren't many good Christmas-themed games. 

Video games suddenly count as Christmas-themed when they feature holiday-themed locations, scenes, or a narrative loosely taking place during wintertime. Despite these characteristics, there is little that lives up to the storytelling standards set by movies such as A Christmas Carol or How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Plenty of live service titles do Christmas and holiday-themed events, with seasonal game modes, cosmetics, and plenty of Christmas bell jingling reworks in their soundtracks. Why is this the case?

For one, it's easier to roll out a seasonal event or location that consumers purchase in-game. The second reason is that modern video games are big business and aren’t actively making decisions that might hurt their bottom line — a Christmas video game is only sold for a handful of weeks in the year. 

As a result, the holiday gaming market is saturated with blatant seasonal cash grabs and flat-out crappily designed games meant to capitalize on those warm holiday fuzzies. 

To help you understand this niche corner of the video game medium, you need to know some of the horrors Christmas-themed games have wrought. In comparison, it's clear that developers have made strides in the right direction.

Below are some examples of how not to do a Christmas video game.  

Video gamer tries on VR goggles during Christmas

The Grinch (2000) 

There is an unavoidable sense of irony in showcasing this example. A family-friendly game springing out of a live-action adaptation of a Christmas classic might sound like a surefire success but it flopped.

Described as clunky, frustrating, and the most carnal sin of all, boring, The Grinch is less than stellar. It received middling scores and is best summed up by one reviewer “If you have a little brother or sister who asks for this game for Christmas, you might find a few hours of amusement yourself, but only a few.”

The same is said for most movie tie-in games — except for GoldenEye 007, you beautiful, beautiful gem. For this reason, The Grinch serves as the only movie tie-in featured on this list and as a warning to developers. Tread lightly!

Terror in XMAS Town (1995)

Doom’s influence is felt throughout first-person shooters and its Pie in the Sky game engine is no small part of that. Its accessible nature helps developers and aspiring devs alike to craft the experiences they’ve been dreaming of, including this Doom-styled Christmas shooter. A demo is available for free here if you don’t have anything better to do.

Playing as an unnamed protagonist of Xmas Town, you must save Santa Claus from demonic polar bears. There isn’t much else to say beyond it’s just the original Doom with a Christmas coat of paint and even less of its charm and gameplay loop. Please do not buy the full version of this game. 

Christmas hat with Grinch shadow

Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees (2004)

Bringing The War on Christmas to new heights is the flash game Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees. As part of a marketing campaign by none other than the National Christmas Tree Association to combat the rise of plastic and other artificial trees, Mutant Artificial Trees demonstrates that not everyone is made out to be a game developer.  

Unlike flash games such as Happy Wheels and Interactive Buddy, Attack of the Mutant Artificial Trees is a simple web game that lacked any creativity or charm. Your objective is to pelt these plastic tree demons with snowballs that emerge from cardboard boxes like a seasonal variant of Whack-a-mole.

Successful only in spurring a news cycle of controversy and public beef, in-game messages told players that “artificial trees […] are sucking the spirit out of Christmas.” Additionally, the game visuals included cardboard boxes with labels that read Made in China and 100% Fake. These poorly-disguised persuasive attempts left a bitter taste for the unfortunate few who played the game.

Whether you have played or even enjoyed some of these games, Christmas video games have been some of the worst imaginable. The good news is that there is significant room for improvement! Maybe there could be a Christmas miracle with a Doom holiday game. It would rock and you know it! 

Spreading Holiday Cheer

Most modern game renditions of the holidays come in the form of timed events, usually running from the first week of November to the beginning of the New Year. Often these types of events bring snowflakes, hot cocoa nameplates, Santa hats, and plenty of jingle bell soundtracks. 

For most live service games, just slap that Santa hat on an avatar and call it a day. Halo Infinite’s holiday events include weapon and armor colors to set the mood well enough. Extra music and fun modes take a "meh" event to "That was one of my favorite things from a game this year."

Conversely, the original Overwatch is a great example of running a festive event. Their Winter Wonderland brings hundreds of new unlocks and seasonal modes each year.

On top of that, developer Blizzard — a very topical name, by the way — gifted five-holiday loot boxes which guaranteed holiday-themed unlocks. These boxes ensure players are rewarded for just logging on. These tokens are symbols of appreciation for their players who spend time with the game during the holiday season.

When a player actively decides to spend time with a game during a loud and attention-intensive time, developers should reward that with free updates and a “Happy Holidays” message, such as “Thanks for playing” and “see you in the New Year.” That level of comradery makes an event and game more enjoyable.

Video game controller and Christmas presents and decorations

Rocking Around the Christmas Tree

Some games above feature Christmas locations and/or sections. These are usually bite-sized and trivial but the thought sometimes does count toward something in the holiday cheer department.

Some popular examples of Christmas-themed locations or sections are: 

  • Kingdom Hearts II’s Christmas Town is part of The Nightmare Before Christmas film-associated level. Sora, Donald, and Goofy wear holiday-themed outfits and interact with elves, reindeer, and Santa Claus. 

  • Banjo-Kazooie’s Freezeezy Peak features Christmas trees, sentient Christmas lights trying to get to those trees, sled racing, and the best bear and bird duo tasked with delivering Christmas presents to polar bear children. 

  • In a series known for its memorable bosses, quippy dialogue, and all-around mass hysteria, Borderlands 2 expansion “How Marcus Saved Mercenary Day” serves as an excellent blueprint of how an existing property includes a holiday theme revision.

But isolated locations only do so much to satisfy those clamoring for that Christmas cheer. Only a handful of quality games implement a Christmas feel. There’s just one that stands above the rest. This game is 2013’s Batman: Arkham Origins. Here’s why:

  • Holiday stories are a bit of a trope with the Caped Crusader. If you don’t believe that, look to classic Batman stories like The Long Halloween, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, and Batman Noël. The Long Halloween is a central inspiration point for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy.

  • Largely overlooked because of the series it’s associated with, Arkham Origins still shines among superhero action-adventure games. While primary Arkham developer Rocksteady Studios was in the trenches of developing their trilogy concluder, Arkham Knight, Warner Bros. Games Montréal was tasked with developing a prequel game. 

  • Though not as lauded as its predecessors, the game gets a lot right about a Batman experience and how prowling Gotham’s rooftops feels. It even offers some of the best boss fights in its series. And as is tradition, the events of Arkham Origins take place over one night — this time on Christmas Eve. 

  • This setting allows for interesting shifts to the Batman sandbox. Gotham is blanketed by a sudden blizzard and only the unsavory is out tonight, which creates a natural opportunity for a good story. Christmas lights and trees pepper the environment that is half lifted from Arkham City’s map, half original work. The environment has expanded and gives Batman plenty of options to engage his enemies head-on or from the shadows.  

  • The closest contemporary comparison would be Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, which takes the map of its predecessor and slaps a wintery coat of paint on it while changing a few features. Origins claim the top spot just for overall polish and a satisfying expansion with Cold, Cold Heart, which takes place on New Year's Eve.  

  • Origins’ story is compelling. While it does pale in comparison to the main trilogy, its Christmas backdrop does a lot of the heavy lifting. The inciting gallery of assassins paid by Black Mask to kill Batman before Christmas morning brings the story to an interesting conflict halfway through and another opportunity to mention some cool boss fights.

  • The soundtrack includes a phenomenal version of Carol of the Bells to get your holiday vibes started. Then, the plot delves into the psyche of Batman and his rogues' gallery and Arkham Origins stands above other holiday games. Hopefully, the future sees more challengers to its holiday excellence. 

Santa plays a video game sleigh ride

What To Put on Your Christmas List

As the new year begins, calendars and shopping lists refresh. Even though gamers are difficult to shop for, you can crack that nut with some guidance. With that in mind, here is a list of games to watch for in 2023. Dates are subject to change as is always the case in this industry but here is a handful of what gamers are looking forward to:  

  • Hogwarts Legacy (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC) set to release on February 10

  • The Last of Us Part I (PC port) on March 3

  • Star Wars Jedi: Survivor (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PC) set for March 17

  • The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Nintendo Switch) on May 12 

  • Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X, PC) for May 26

  • Diablo IV (PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC) on June 6

  • Starfield (Xbox Series X/S, PC) is yet to be announced

  • Pikmin 4 (Switch) is also yet to be announced

Santa hand holds up Xbox controller

Auld Lang Syne

What happens next for this very niche subsection of games is anybody’s guess.

Most of the time, it seems a larger company can afford to take a risk and tell a holiday story. A refreshing idea and potential would be to adapt the Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which takes place on Christmas Day.

Of course, there is even more opportunity for a Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Bohdi Day to bring in a fresh perspective. The time is as good as any to start planning for the next holiday season, and plenty of great games are in the mix.

Stay tuned to HaloHype for all things Halo and gaming!

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