Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Favourite Games at Christmas

Our Christmas Tree this year.
The other day I actually got a few hours to myself and I decided I'd game for a bit. With a newborn son it's become increasingly difficult to find time to game (or do anything else, for that matter), so when I saw the opportunity I didn't hesitate. I put a few hours into Bravely Default and it was a blast.

It got me thinking about how one of my favourite things to do during the Holidays is play games. Not shockingly, of course, because when I was a kid that would have been when I'd receive most - if not all - of my new games for the year.

Although in the last few years my favourite Holiday tradition for gaming has been chilling by the Christmas tree with whatever game is currently in my 3DS, there are certain games that I like to boot up around Christmas, or have fond memories of playing at Christmastime, so I thought I'd share a few of those with everyone. 'Tis the season!

Battle the evil Kremlings for your lost Banana Horde!
Donkey Kong Country was probably my most anticipated title ever released on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and in 1994 I was not disappointed when I found it waiting for me under the Christmas tree. I didn't even care about Donkey Kong from the arcade, or any of its ports and sequels on the NES, but the pre-rendered 3D environments that had been teased in Nintendo Power Magazine had me frothing at the mouth to play this game.

And it did not disappoint. Donkey Kong Country is one of the best platformers ever developed and really put Rare on the map as a household name in the video game market. The engrossing surroundings, tight controls, and plethora of secrets, coupled with the ability to switch between characters at will, made DKC a top contender for best platformer on the SNES. And this is in a world where Super Mario World is already on the system. It was also so accessible. My little sister (who is not a gamer) and I would play this - and its subsequent sequels - together and she could easily play along, even if I had to help out with the more difficult stages.

Then there's the music. David Wise's soundtrack is probably what made me love video game music to this day. Whenever I throw this game on around Christmas, and I hit those water stages, or the any of the levels in Gorilla Glacier, I'm blasted right back to 1994, feverishly tackling the challenge of DKC.

Take on the role of  Raziel the Wraith as he battles for revenge.
The Sony Playstation was such a surprise for me and really changed me as a gamer. All for the better, of course. I was a "Nintendo Kid" and had no intention of getting a PSX (my preferred acronym for Playstation), but after watching my best bud Cole playing his I eventually saw the benefit in owning one and I actually received my very own Playstation with a copy of Metal Gear Solid (the game that really sold me on the PSX) on a frosty Christmas morn. So why am I not writing about Metal Gear right now?

I don't really know how to explain it, but Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, always comes to my mind when I think of Christmas gaming memories. What makes it especially odd is that I've never owned a copy of Soul Reaver.

It was nearing Christmas one year and on the street I grew up on all the neighbours would get together and have this big outdoor Christmas party every year, where we'd drink hot chocolate (hot toddies for the adults) and light up a huge Christmas tree. I was a teenager during the PSX years and I remember I was being all angsty and didn't really want to join in on all the Christmas cheer.

As a sidenote, I went to the party and had a blast. You're never too old for Christmas!

Previously that day I had gone to my local video store (my Mecca) and picked up Soul Reaver to play for the weekend. As I awaited going to the Christmas Party (we called it the Light Up) I crunched a few hours in Soul Reaver and was just whisked away. I had played some of Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and it didn't really grab me, but the story of Raziel, the Elder God, and this gothic 3D-rendered vision of the world of Blood Omen was absorbing. I can remember playing hours of this game as the light of all those Christmas lights bored through the blinds on my bedroom windows, illuminating an otherwise black room; the perfect twilit ambiance for playing Soul Reaver.

Run free as Super Mario takes the jump into full 3D!
Everyone's seen the Nintendo 64 kid, and anyone that was into gaming in the mid-90s can remember the fervor surrounding the Nintendo 64 during Christmas of 1996. For me it wasn't as much about it just being Nintendo's newest console, but also the intrigue surrounding that strange new controller.

I had not yet seen a "3D controller" - even though I would play Nights Into Dreams with the Sega Saturn 3D Control Pad in the not-so-distant future - and reading about the analog thumbstick in Nintendo Power just had my mind hopping as to how it would work.

I can remember being in a Canadian Tire during that Christmas season and seeing that they had three kiosks set up; one with a Sega Saturn playing Panzer Dragoon, one with a Sony Playstation playing Battle Arena Toshinden, and a Nintendo 64 with Super Mario 64. The Sega Saturn I had seen; a friend owned one. The Playstation I had never seen before and I can recall my exact thought of testing it out: "The controller is funny. There are too many buttons on the top." And then I laid my hands on the Nintendo 64 controller, ironically the strangest controller ever conceived, and yet it just made sense.

I tenderly held the controller in my hand, and wiggled the analog stick just a little and saw Mario react on screen in full, glorious 3D. And that was it. Even at a young age I knew I didn't want to ruin what could be an amazing Christmas morning, if I were lucky enough to receive an N64.

And I was that lucky. Santa is such a badass. I got the Nintendo 64 and the game I'd wanted to play for so long: Super Mario 64.

The next few weeks were a blur. Another friend of mine got an N64, as well, and although we'd never spoken it aloud, we were heatedly racing one another to see who could collect all 70, and then all 120 stars, first. We'd call each other up each day and rattle off which stars we'd discovered, never giving quite enough information and giving away the secret. The tallies continued to grow, and then on New Years Eve 1996, as the world slowly turned another year older I collected my 70th star and took down Bowser one final time.

Over the next few weeks I took my time and savoured the game, finding those last 50 stars hidden around the beautiful and enthralling 3D world of Super Mario 64. I didn't know it at the time, but I was building one of my favourite Christmas memories, which lasts to this day. I'm not sure if there's any other game that makes me think more of Christmastime than when I boot up Mario 64. The two have become inexorably intertwined in my mind, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Hope you enjoyed,