Get in the holiday spirit with these festive game levels

December 22, 2012

Trees are decorated, delicious cookies are baked, tacky sweaters from your grandmother are worn mainly to not look like a jerk, gifts are given and multicolored lights make certain neighborhoods visible from space. But we gamers know that there’s another important part of the holiday season: using that extra time off work (or school) to get in some quality game time. We’re in a bit of a festive mood here at Snackbar, and we want to help you get into one, too! Here are some of the best levels to do it.

Freezeezy Peak (Banjo-Kazooie)

Every gamer worth their salt knows that you can’t talk about Christmas-themed levels without giving lip service to Freezeezy Peak. Featuring a giant snowman in the middle of the world to climb, a big Christmas tree that you must decorate by clearing a path of enemies for bouncy decorative lights, a slalom race against Boggy the Bear and, of course, the mysterious Ice Key (which is a story in and of itself, but let’s save that for another time), Freezeezy Peak is the quintessential Christmas level. The music is jolly and festive, and perfectly suits the winter wonderland of a level. If you haven’t played Banjo-Kazooie and experienced this level, then shame on you! The whole game is a great example of how to make themed levels.

Christmas Nights

Released as a promotional disc for the Sega Saturn, and acting somewhat as a demo for Sega’s flagship Saturn title Nights Into Dreams, Christmas Nights was a single level from the game, redecorated with a Christmas theme. It looks quite pretty and festive; there are mountains of unlockables hidden as rewards for doing well, such as playing through the level as Sonic (which, sadly, was the closest we ever got to an original Sonic platformer on the Saturn). It even uses the system clock to provide bonus content during December! Plus, for a limited-release special disc, it’s not as hard to find as you may expect, so I recommend it if you’re in the mood for something a little lighter.

Frosty Village (Diddy Kong Racing)

As I said earlier, Rare was excellent at creating imaginative, vibrant and diverse worlds in its  games during their heyday. The track is exactly what it sounds like: driving around a tiny, snow-covered hamlet at night, passing by the town square, a snowy street and a gorgeous waterfall near the finish line. The track is peaceful and soothing to play, and is perfect for playing on a cold, winter night. Most holiday-themed levels attempt to capture the celebratory energy and fun of the season in their design, and while Frosty Village still is undoubtedly a Christmas level, its more subdued approach puts it in a thematic category all its own.

Snowhead Temple (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask)

Hey, no one ever said that winter levels had to be festive, or even remotely cheerful. Majora’s Mask as a whole certainly doesn’t come close to either of those adjectives, and it is just as relevant in the Snowhead Temple as it is everywhere else in the game. The main tone of lifelessness and loneliness pervades the dungeon, and acts as its unique thematic traits. Since each region in Majora’s Mask represents a stage of grief, Snowhead Temple is meant to reflect bargaining, often accompanied by desperation in attempts to evade suffering or loss. The granite and ice-filled interior denote a cold and empty place, that could care less about you or your quest. The boss of the dungeon, Goht, being a bull, signifies the sense of frustration and arrogance that comes with failure during bargaining. All of this makes for a remarkably deep bit of symbolism that I’m sure unfortunately flew over the heads of the younger audience that initially played the game.

Shadow Moses Island (Metal Gear Solid)

Left alone to sneak and fight your way through a secret military base in the barren tundra of Alaska, you have to use your wits and luck to make it out alive. This is the premise that led millions to jump onto the third (or fourth, depending on who you ask) entry into Konami’s famed Metal Gear franchise. While a fair time of the game is actually spent indoors and inside the military facility, the psychological space that Shadow Moses Island puts you in more than serves its purpose.

Hoth (Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire)

One of the reasons 3D was such a huge deal was because there was a big market demand to have games that could visually perform on the same level as movies, which is why it was always used as a metric for graphical fidelity in that era. One of the first franchises used to put the new generation of hardware to the test was one of the most popular science fiction series of all time: Star Wars. This is the main reason why the Hoth battle in Shadows of the Empire was such a great winter level: it played to the strengths of the license by replicating one of the series’ big battles, and played to the strengths of the hardware with a tundra setting that inherently requires less draw distance and could put the focus on detailed enemies. There’s just something that feels right about seeing a movie that has been tastefully and effectively translated to an interactive medium.

Ring Rink (Ristar)

Okay, this one is a bit of a personal choice. Ring Rink is a great winter level because of the creative ways it uses the mechanics of ice and snow to make a level that has unique mechanics even within the game. The level starts with a skiing intro akin to Sonic’s snowboard intro in Ice Cap Zone, and later uses some rather neat puzzles like a vertical ice maze where you must time your jumps correctly to move on and a novel miniboss at the end whom you must beat in a snowball fight. The thing that really sets this level apart, though, is its music. It works around the Genesis’ sound limitations by using lots of low-tone chimes and xylophone sounds to deliver a delightful arctic ditty.

These are just a few great winter levels. What are your favorites?