Sunday, December 24, 2017

Top Ten Christmas-Themed Video Game Levels

It's Christmas Eve and in but an hour's time it will be Christmas here at SuperPhillip Central HQ. This brings up a nice opportunity to go into one of my favorite topics of discussion: video game levels. But not just any video game levels, Christmas-themed video game levels! I won't go in as in-depth on the design principles on display like I do with my Best Levels in Video Game History series of articles, as I prefer to keep it light for Christmas Eve. A whole slew of games from past and present are featured in this top ten list, including Super Mario Odyssey, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered, and some goodness from Diddy Kong Racing as well. SuperPhillip Central will see you tomorrow for even more holiday cheer, but for now, read this list and add in some of your personal faves in the comments.

10) Winter Crash - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered (PS4, XB1, PC)

Originally only available to PC and Mac players when the map released with the original Call of Duty 4, Winter Crash is the bash that is back, Jack, and it's the perfect map to play during this festive season. Sure, some might prefer to lounge around with family singing Sleigh Ride (the one with the sleigh bells jingling, ring-ting-tingling too), while others just want to slay in general. Preferably with an automatic weapon on the battlefield. Winter Crash is structurally the same as the Crash map, also included in the original Call of Duty 4, but Winter Crash alters the mood a bit with a nighttime sky, snow to slosh around on instead of sand to seep into your soldier's combat boots, and a whole array of Christmas lights and the piece de resistance, a glowing Christmas tree in the center ground of the map with nicely wrapped presents underneath.

9) American Consumption - Splinter Cell: Blacklist (PS3, 360, Wii U, PC)

As a kid and in my teens, I found Christmas to be a magical time of year. Toys, games, teddy bears, presents under the tree, stockings hung by the fireplace, and so forth. Now that I'm much more cynical, I see it as consumers doing their best to make themselves happy with materialistic items, going into debt in the process. Me included, as I especially still love presents under the tree, so that makes me a hypocrite.

Regardless, it's the perfect segue to Splinter Cell: Blacklist's American Consumption is a brilliant level with some of the best controlling third-person stealth gameplay this side of Metal Gear Solid, just without the ridiculous story. It sees Sam Fisher (probably a clone because I know the REAL Sam Fisher has the voice of Michael Ironside) sneaking his way through a proliferation of Christmas decorations and theme park attractions, as he slices through the necks of enemies like a knife through a Christmas fruitcake. It's one of my favorite levels in Blacklist, as I originally played it around Christmas time a year or so ago.

8) A Little Light Snowfall - Yoshi's Woolly World (Wii U, 3DS)

We begin our look at a staple of snow levels, being in a platformer of some type, with a 2D platforming journey through a winter wonderland obstacle course in Yoshi's Woolly World. The light snowfall in the level's title comes from the frozen over precipitation that has left traces on the ground, and made the level's platforms especially slippery. There are some more hefty piles to be found from mounds of snow that fall upon either Yoshi stepping foot on them or hits them with an ball of yarn. There are opportunities for flight as well with the help of Lakitu's cloud, a chance to become large and smash through enormous ice cubes and enemies alike effortlessly, and traverse through this chilly but colorful winter landscape. What I like about this level in Yoshi's Woolly World is how elements of the environment can be interacted with to provide a robust lineup of challenges for Yoshi to endure.

7) Snow Kingdom - Shiveria - Super Mario Odyssey (NSW)

Mario games generally give off a sense of warmth, and it's no truer than in his latest 3D platforming adventure which spans the globe, Super Mario Odyssey. His entry into the frozen lands of Shiveria is met by a massive blizzard, frigid temperatures, cold water (dangerously so), and not a friendly face to be found. Upon entering into a hole, Mario uncovers a town full of adorable seal creatures wearing Eskimo outfits. Times aren't happy at the beginning, but by the end, Bowser's forces have retreated and normal life can resume. What was once a snowstorm so massive that you couldn't see well, you can now see across the distance of several football fields. The blue sky greets Mario hello and the Shiverians can go on with their lives in their cozy, rosy, and warm town with holiday decorations. Maybe some special racing can be done, too!

6) Halloween Town - Kingdom Hearts II (PS2)

In the land of The Nightmare Before Christmas' Halloween Town, you can bet your bag of bones that Jack Skellington is preparing a bold plan to bring the cheer of the holiday season to the otherwise Halloween 24/7 town. While Sora, Donald, and Goofy don Halloween costumes for the level, fitting right in with the city folk, Mr. Skellington wears a full-on Santa suit. Perhaps Jack's wearing a Halloween costume, too, while I'm thinking of it... Many locales from the film are included in this Kingdom Hearts II re-imaging, including a colorful display inside of Santa's Workshop. It's a perfect mixture of two of the most popular holidays around.

5) Frosty Village - Diddy Kong Racing (N64, DS)

We reach the second half of this Christmas-themed video game level list with one of two racing games occupying spots on the countdown: Diddy Kong Racing. Frosty Village is as close to Christmas as you're going to get playing a kart racer on the Nintendo 64. The trees shine brightly with multi-color Christmas lights, and the cabins at the bottom of the hill after the overpass (which I would imagine is a super sweet sledding spot) make you want to enter inside, put on your slippers, rest by the fireplace, and drink some hot cocoa. But alas -- you can't! You have a race to win in this Christmas racing paradise! Whether in kart or in hovercraft, Frosty Village is an entertaining track that hits me right in the nostalgic feels.

4) Gotham - Batman: Arkham Origins (PS3, 360, Wii U, PC)

Batman: Arkham Origins has a location that is another star of the game alongside Batman and The Joker. I'm talking about Gotham City. In Arkham Origins, all of the happenings of the game occur on Christmas Eve, and it makes for an engrossing city to explore. Snow falls from the night sky, holiday decorations are sprinkled across the blocks, corners, and streets, and the level of discomfort around the city during what should be a festive time is rather daunting. But now for Batman, of course. Batman: Arkham Origins' Gotham has so many meticulous details and areas to explore. It makes me a bit disappointed that more people didn't find WB Games Montreal's take on the Arkham series to be as utterly enjoyable as I did. Then again, I always get disappointed when someone gifts me chocolate for Christmas, as I can't stand the taste, so I know; I'm weird.

3) Christmas Is Here - Bully (360, Wii, PS2)

The town of Bullworth is the locale where Rockstar's Bully takes place with Bullworth Academy positioned right in the middle with an amusement park on one side of town and the downtown districts being on the other. Throughout the course of Bully's calendar year, the town takes on and celebrates various holidays. For instance, when Halloween rolls around, all of the kids around town and students at the academy are sporting costumes. When Christmas comes a knocking, the town is painted with snow, with holiday lights shining brightly, and protagonist Jimmy having some hijinks afoot, such as making an arsenal of snowballs and chucking them for one snowball fight to end them all. Rather than devote a huge budget to a large playground, instead Rockstar used that budget to create a robust, detailed, content-rich, dense, and welcoming town that felt like home for fans of the game.

2) Animal Crossing (Winter) - Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (NSW)

If I was writing a list about Christmas-themed events in video games rather than levels, Animal Crossing and its sequels would find a place on this list. However, since that isn't the case, I can do the next best thing. Mario Kart 8 and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe's Animal Crossing track models itself after the game series it's inspired by, complete with the changing of seasons. However, instead of waiting three months for the next season to come by, one is chosen randomly (or at will if you know the right button to press before the race loads). Each season offers the same track but changes some aesthetic elements. For instance, in Animal Crossing's winter form, the track is raced on under a starry nighttime sky complete with an aurora in the sky. Trees are bare from losing their leaves, snow has accumulated on their limbs, and many sport Christmas lights. The ground is covered in snow, and what makes this version of the track especially Christmas-y is how well the town celebrates it, enveloping itself in holiday cheer from all of the colorful holiday lights. It's a delightful race with a sense of home to it. How did you do that, Nintendo, in a racing game of all things!?

1) Freezeey Peak - Banjo-Kazooie (N64, XBLA)

In their top form, the developers at Rare were geniuses when it came to making fun games. The ideas and creativity blasting out of each and every seam is just marvelous to look back on and think about. Most developers would love to have just one memorable level in a game, but with Rare it continued to release games with some of the most bizarre yet fantastic worlds around. Many platformers have a snow or ice level within them. In fact, I think it's a law that can send you to prison if you don't follow it when making a platformer of any kind. While games like Super Mario 64 had winter wonderlands of its own, Rare released a game a year and some change later featuring a highly creative take on the winter world with Freezeey Peak.

Making the first left turn at the very beginning of the level sees you facing a humongous snowman monument -- fully able to be scaled, mind you. In the main part of the level, snowmen enemies chuckle as they toss painful snowballs at the bear and bird duo. A Christmas tree rests in a corner, waiting to be lit. A bear-hating walrus doesn't want Banjo inside his cave (but won't mind with shaman Mumbo Jumbo's help). Plus, you can't ignore the pleas of the trio of polar bear children who want their Daddy to come home with their lost presents. It's Christmas, for goodness sake!

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