Sega’s Christmas Nights is the best Christmas video game

Twenty-five years ago, Sega took its acrobatic, theater kid Sonic follow-up Nights Into Dreams and spun it off into one of the industry’s great examples of fan service. Part demo, part expansion, part companion disc, Christmas Nights was a celebration of video game bonus features wrapped in a Christmas aesthetic, given to players for free in that period when game companies were discovering just how cheaply they could produce CDs.

Despite the Japanese box art proclaiming “Only This Winter,” for many fans the game has become an annual tradition.

In some ways, playing Christmas Nights now is just an excuse to play more Nights, since there’s still little else like it. Sonic Team’s game came about when studios were experimenting with how to make 3D platformers. Nintendo went for open 3D stages in Super Mario 64. Naughty Dog funneled players through narrow paths and side-scrolling levels in Crash Bandicoot. And Sonic Team got rid of jumping, in part, in favor of a character-based racing game where you floated along a 2D plane with a 3D world behind you.

Nights earned extensive critical acclaim, but didn’t reach anywhere near the sales of Mario and Crash, and never became big enough that competitors started copying it. So playing Nights now doesn’t feel like the first iteration of something that has been refined for 25 years; it feels like the best version of something we haven’t seen since (apart from a disappointing 2007 Wii sequel).

As a follow-up bonus disc designed to help sell Sega’s Saturn hardware in Japan, Christmas Nights offered Sonic Team the chance to drench its game in decorations and holiday-themed music, and to overload it with “presents,” like a karaoke mode, a time attack mode, and a music player. The developers also leaned heavily on Saturn’s internal clock to unlock features on different days and at different times of day, which — apart from the the obvious surface-level concept — is why some folks like to play it on Christmas, where they can see different background effects throughout the day. Sure, you can change the clock and do that any time (and the game includes unlockables year-round, even if you don’t mess with the clock). But if you’re going so far as to pull out a 25-plus-year-old console to play it, sometimes it feels nice to do things the way they were intended.

If you want to play Christmas Nights on something a bit more modern, you can find it inside the PlayStation 3, Windows PC, and Xbox 360 ports of Nights — the latter of which is playable on Xbox Series X. Those versions are missing a few things from the Saturn original, though, like the bonus mode Sonic the Hedgehog Into Dreams, where you run around in 3D as Sonic — which was awkward even by 1996 standards, but gets a pass considering how rare guest characters were back then.

Anyway, consider this your public service announcement. There’s no bad time to play Christmas Nights, but on the 25th anniversary of the day the game was named after, it’s rarely felt more appropriate.