Video games and Christmas make for a perfect match. There’s nothing like peeling the wrapping from a long-awaited new game on the day itself, of course, but it’s equally about having all that blissful time away from work and study to tuck into some digital distractions.
Once or twice across one’s young life you might even get to tear open a new console or home computer after a sleepless Christmas eve night. Around 30 or 40 years ago you could even sling your parents the line that a computer was a powerful homework machine able to magically revitalise your educational prospects… when in truth it was all about gaming.
But those Christmases where you received something to play games on were the really special ones. For most of us retro gamers, it was games themselves that shaped and defined so many festive memories. And if you look back at Christmas number ones from the gaming sales charts of the 1980s and 1990s, not only do you unleash a hit of powerful seasonal nostalgia, but also a sense of the medium’s journey from a time when arcade ports ruled supreme, to the era when major gaming IPs eventually swallowed up almost any capacity for yuletide variety.
So, peering back at the festive charts, what are the games that shaped so many Christmases?
(One disclaimer before we tuck in. Most of the figures come from the official UK sales charts, which only began to take games seriously from 1984 onwards. Picking titles prior to that year took a little digging around through sometimes conflicting data and sources, so a pixelated pinch of salt may be required if you want to be particularly meticulous about sales data.)
1980 – SPACE INVADERS (Atari 2600)
Way back at the opening of the eighties, the arcade era was still in full swing. As such, home gaming machines asserted their relevance by offering up the most accurate arcade ports they could muster. 1980 itself marked a decade since the original release of Atari’s iconic arcade shooter. Over that period, it had become a cultural and commercial phenomenon. At the turn of the new decade, a Space Invaders port was finally ready for Atari’s own home console, the 2600 (AKA the VCS), offering the already three-year-old console its killer app. The proposition of having access to Space Invaders at home was clearly tremendously appealing, with the game topping the Christmas charts for both 1980 and 1981.
1982 – PAC-MAN (Atari 2600)
It was a similar story in 1982, following Space Invader’s two years at the top, with the Atari 2600 port of another arcade icon taking up the most space in Santa’s Tardis-like sack. Pac-Man – famously an early attempt at making gaming more inclusive and less violent – brought a sensationally popular gaming IP to living rooms while appealing to a much wider audience, further establishing the 2600 as a pivotally important contributor to the evolution and cultural presence of the medium. As such, it marked an important moment for the home gaming industry, making clear that diverse appeal was starting to matter just as much as the link to arcades.
1984 – GHOSTBUSTERS (Sinclair Spectrum and Commodore 64)
By 1984 the home computing movement was enjoying life at full momentum, and licensed games based on the likes of popular movies were making publishers handsome profits across devices like Commodore’s C64 – a machine amassing a remarkable software library at the time. So it’s little surprise that the year’s hit movie Ghostbusters was the source material for the year's most popular game – which thrived on both Commodore and Sinclair’s computers. With a near impossible-brief six-week window to make the game, Activision chose to rework their existing rough game concept Car Wars. With the game selling two-million units by 1989, that Car Wars concept clearly had some chops.
1992 – SONIC THE HEDGEHOG 2 (Mega Drive, Game Gear, Master System)
Following a round of Christmas gaming number ones based on licensed IP such as WWF Wrestlemania and Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, in 1992 a certain SEGA hedgehog mascot took the number one spot with his second outing. Released across Mega Drive, Game Gear and Master System, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was a game inspired by the best in game design, and free from the stifling needs of matching a movie or sports release. In fact, for the following five years a FIFA game would take the top spot. But although the era of major series was dawning, there were still a few Christamses left that wouldn’t all be about Call of Duty, FIFA or… well… Call of Duty and FIFA.
1998 - ZELDA OCARINA OF TIME (N64)
As the new millennium dawned, a Nintendo icon (and one of the greatest games yet created) finally got a shot at the top of the gifting list. Ocarina of Time offered perfect fodder for filling the holidays, with its world being so immersive, charming and – relative to the time – vast. By late 1998 – around 18 months after launch – the new Nintendo machine had truly found its footing, and there was so much hype around the arrival of the new Zelda, it was almost inevitable it would be the most unwrapped video game on Christmas day 1998.
1999 - TOMB RAIDER 4 - THE LAST REVELATION (PC, PlayStation)
The Last Revelation certainly isn’t Lara Croft’s most critically esteemed outing, nor her most famed. But in 1998 games had truly become a permanent stalwart of mainstream culture. While she had three previous adventures behind her, as the millennium dawned Croft captured the spirit of a movement that saw games starting to influence fashion, nightlife, style, product design, celebrity culture, and more. So, as a true celebrity of that era, it was her game that made its way down the most chimneys in 1998.
Following Lara Croft’s moment at the top, to date FIFA has taken a further seven Christmas number ones, taking its total to 12, while Call of Duty has seized nine. Between those, occasionally a title such as Red Dead Redemption or Assassin’s Creed will punch through. Perhaps, once another 20 years has passed, those very chart placements will fill us with all manner of warm nostalgia for a better time. The fact remains, however, that Christmas number ones once offered gamers a more diverse spread of options, even within the context of the rise of licensed IP. Of course, games aren’t only about the number one releases. Whatever your most treasured gaming gift was, why not whip it out this year as the rest of the world opens copies of EA FC 24 (FIFA’s rebranded iteration), or perhaps Hogwarts Legacy?