For many of us, our passion for gaming is firmly rooted in childhood. Christmas and the winter holidays are often a time of fond memories and nostalgia that nurture this passion and calibrate our preferences as we grow into adulthood. The combination of an extended break from school, the opportunity to spend extra time with family, and of course the potential to receive special gifts creates a perfect storm for the development of formative gaming experiences.
I asked This Old Neon‘s editorial team to reflect on some of their special Christmas memories, and I encourage all of you to share your own stories with us in the forum.
I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old when I first pushed a game beyond playability. It was Activision’s Spider Fighter, and it’s certainly no coincidence that I still love, own, and play the game to this day. We were spending Christmas in Ottawa that year, and my uncle had an Atari 2600. We had one of our own, but it was always a treat to play his because we shared almost none of the same games. Since the adults were busy getting everything set for the big dinner, they were more than happy to have me out of the way and in front of the tube for a while. I went straight for Spider Fighter, with its bizarre box art, and instantly fell in love.
Now, I’m not sure if the game has a true kill screen, but as far as I’m concerned, I got close enough. Like most games of its type on the Atari, Spider Fighter used basic palette swaps to mark new stages. It’s an endless game, and the 2600 didn’t display a ton of colours in the first place, so things would get decidedly trippy as you pressed on. But that day, I went so far beyond psychedelic that the shooting devolved into a kind of meta-game running beneath an advanced vision test. I remember facing colour combinations so cruelly devoid of contrast that I rode out my final lives just shooting blindly until the familiar game over squawk greeted my ears. I’m not sure what I got for Christmas that year, but no kid forgets the first game he breaks.
I think the best gaming Christmas gift I’ve received was in 1990, when I got Dragon Warrior II, for the NES. I had already played and loved the first one, filling the sparse story in with details and side stories that I added with my imagination. This second started with a short non-playable sequence where an NPC is seriously injured by demons while a castle is being attacked. He staggers all the way to Midenhall Castle, which you later learn is a long walk. That scene was a brilliant start to an epic game with so much more depth and breadth than I’d expected. Having multiple party members and confronting multiple enemies in the same fight added a level of complexity I’d not encountered before in an RPG. I played that game for countless hours and have since revisited more times than I can guess. I’ve probably beaten it fifteen times? I’m not sure…
I remember my mother being apologetic to me that Christmas and explaining that, since they spent the same on me and my sister, that game had resulted in my having fewer gifts. I didn’t understand why she felt that way and honestly hadn’t even noticed the difference. I felt like I’d gotten a gold mine. How is it that she, someone who knew nothing about games, could anticipate what would be perfect for me? Was it love or luck? A bit of both, I suspect. The memories of receiving that and playing it for my first time will resonate with me for the rest of my life.
One of my favourite gaming memories is the Christmas I unwrapped our Super Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a gift for the whole family, but by the end of the NES generation, my dad and I had established ourselves as the household’s de facto gamers, which is probably why I had the honour of ripping the paper off that big mysterious box in the middle of the pile. I can still remember the intoxicating smell of fresh plastic and styrofoam as I rushed to unpack and hook up the new system. My sisters and parents were happy to join in a lengthy session of Super Mario World that day, thrilling at meeting Yoshi for the first time, clumsily learning how to control Mario’s new cape, and finding sneakily hidden exits as we took turns with the controllers. We made it all the way to the Forest of Illusion before holiday social responsibilities forced us to stop for the night, but our rapid progress didn’t prevent us from spending significantly more time discovering the game’s secrets and mastering special stages over the coming year.
My entire family has been able to come together for several sessions since then, and it is always amazing how easily and readily gaming can serve as the catalyst for such enduring feelings of togetherness and joy.
The dream of a snowy Christmas always reminds me of the white and grey peaks of my favourite game in the Elder Scrolls series. No, not chilly Skyrim, but the ash-laden mountains of Morrowind and the bleak shadow they cast over swamps, caves, and forests below. No other game has managed to pull me so into the experience of exploration, and in particular the wonder of exploring a rich fantasy landscape.
A key memory for me was exploring a seaside area and noticing the glint of oysters in the water. Thinking of pearly profits I dived in, only to find a cave hidden behind a rock next to the oysters. I popped my head in to discover the cave twisted much further underwater, but threatened with oxygen deprivation I was forced to resurface. I found some herbs nearby to give me a little water-breathing and dived back in, and soon I was wandering through a network of water-filled tunnels with more pearly treats along the way. Eventually the caves led to a metal door, and breaking in I discovered a submerged dwarven ruin. The more I explored the ruin the more I realised it was more advanced than any I’d seen before. I found grand chambers, broken machinery, high-level chests, and of course some awesome loot.
Best of all, I found this without any quests or map markers or hand-holding advice from the game. It was all spurred by the lust for pearls.
The Christmas holiday usually was the time for board games with the family in the past and while throughout the years this habit got somewhat lost, it returned within the last few years. Last year Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, Agricola, Twilight Struggle, Dominion, and the traditional round of Scrabble filled the holidays. This year is already off to a good start with titles like BattleCON: Devastation of Indines, Tragedy Looper, and others like Robinson Crusoe, Mice and Mystics, and Eclipse around the house, waiting to be played. There is nothing better than a couple of board games to bring a family together, but I didn’t realize how much I missed these gaming sessions until the tradition was rekindled.
With our launch last week still fresh in our minds—hopefully destined to become a fond holiday reflection itself—we look forward to another year of enjoying time with our friends, family, and games and creating new memories that will bring smiles to our faces for years to come. On behalf of every member of the team and community, This Old Neon wishes you all a Merry Christmas and a safe and happy holiday season.
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