Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful. And since we’ve no place to go, check out this list of the best winter video games.
And before the internet loons start shouting about Cool, Cool Mountain from Mario 64, or Kamui from Okami, or… if a game doesn’t take place entirely, or at least almost entirely in a wintry setting, then it’s ineligible for this list.
To prove how seriously we’re taking that criteria, that even rules out the phenomenal Winter chapter of The Last of Us, because it simply doesn’t encompass enough of the overall game. Sorry.
11. Rise of the Tomb Raider
This was a toss-up between Rise of the Tomb Raider and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Honestly, Drake’s second adventure is probably the better game, but with the crafting and survival elements – and the fact Lara spends more time in the wilds of Siberia than Nate does in the ice of the Himalayas – means this game has more of the chill factor.
10. Horace Goes Skiing
Horace Goes Skiing is most people’s first snowsports video game, and it’s damn hard. What makes it especially frustrating is that, before you even get to the skiing, you have to cross an extremely busy road to the ski hire shop. Then, once you’ve hired your skis, you need to cross back over the road again, to get to the piste.
Arguably the road crossing segment – like Frogger – is more difficult than the skiing itself, and proves as a frustrating prelim for people who just want to ski.
There were lots of great snowboarding video games in the late 90s. Well, I say ‘great’. They were all of a similar standard, which made them all equally enjoyable, in spite of feeling a bit like a Namco racing game with a gnarly winter sports theme plastered on top.
What elevates SSX above the likes of Cool Boarders and 1080 Snowboarding is that it feels more like a genuine snowsports game, like it has more in common with the freestyle-focused Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater than a bog-standard racing game (with some dudebro style and aerial tricks thrown in).
Pictured: The SSX 2013 reboot, because it’s not as ugly to look at as the 2000 original.
8. Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds
Horizon Zero Dawn was Josh’s game of the year in 2017, and it’s easy to see why. The Frozen Wilds – its first major expansion – deserves inclusion in this list not only because it extends the beauty and scale of the main game into stunning winter environments, but because at 10-20 hours long, it’s a brilliant game in its own right.
7. Metro 2033
Metro 2033 is kind of horrific. That’s meant as a compliment, though: the books upon which the game series is based are supposed to be nightmare fuel, and the fact the games recreate that perfectly is an achievement. It’s like Fallout without the fun, fifties-inspired aesthetic.
When you’re down in the titular subway system, it’s dingy and claustrophobic, which makes the bits above ground – in the frozen wastes of what used to be Russia – even more beautiful and chilling. We’re looking forward to and dreading Metro Exodus in equal measure.
6. Until Dawn
Until Dawn is a bit of a rare beast. It’s a teen horror, but it’s actually scarier than it is funny. It’s a point and click adventure, but it’s thrilling and action-packed. It’s got supernatural threats, but that doesn’t get in the way of the fact that other human beings are most likely to get you killed. And it also features some spectacular presentation and brilliant performances from Hayden Panettiere, Rami Malek and more (though the less said on Peter Stormare’s hideous trek into the uncanny valley, the better).
Oh, and it takes place at a ski lodge, because it is still, at its heart, a teen horror.
5. Metal Gear Solid
Our trip to the Shadow Moses installation, in a remote part of Alaska, was a revelation back in 1998. This was the game that started the trend, moving focus away from Rambo-esque combat and into Snake Pliskin-like stealth infiltration, a trend that continues apace.
While the latter games may be problematic and weird for all manner of reasons – and there aren’t enough adjectives in the world to describe everything wrong with Metal Gear Survive – the original Metal Gear 3D adventure was a spectacular cinematic treat.
4. Alto’s Adventure
Alto’s Adventure is a beautiful take on the procedurally-generated endless runner fad of a few years back. With stunning pop-up book art and a pleasingly simple gameplay loop – of collecting coins, herding errant llamas and outrunning cantankerous elders, all while ramping up massive trick scores – it felt close to perfect.
But the objectives (and slightly intrusive advertising) have a habit of getting in the way of just enjoying the chilled out experience, so when they introduced a ‘zen’ mode in 2016? It became truly outstanding. There are no scores, no objectives, and no pesky elders, and if you end up face first in the powder? You can get up and carry on without having to sit through a 20-second advert.
I’ve been banging this particular drum for a while now, but Steep is the best open world game Ubisoft – who know a thing or two about open worlds – has ever made.
The stuff that’s a bit annoying in Assassin’s Creed, like having to climb towers to scout out new sections of the map? It all makes perfect sense in Steep. The controller buzzes, to let you know a potential new drop zone is nearby, and once you’ve picked it out with your binoculars? The omnipresent Red Bull chopper can drop you off to start a new run in any new section you’ve spied through your binocs.
Steep is open in the same way that Forza Horizon is: there are of course missions and objectives to accomplish, but none of that ever feels like a chore – as it can in Assassin’s Creed or Watch Dogs – when it all just exists to further the exploration and pleasure of traversing the mountain.
2. The Long Dark
I both love and hate The Long Dark.
It doesn’t revel in misery or require an appetite for endless repetition and supreme muscle memory like Bloodborne or Super Meat Boy, nor is it as truly nihilistic and random as a proper roguelike. But there is a quiet malevolence in the darkness, of a hand that ever-so-slightly leans upon the other side of the scale, to ensure it’s always tipped just out of our favour.
There is food, and there is firewood, and there is shelter out there in the frozen husk of Canada, but to venture out for it is a risk. Ultimately, it’s a risk you will always have to take, eventually, a decision you will always have to make.
This is the brilliance of The Long Dark’s design: that it always feels so finely balanced, even with its reliance on random generation for the dispersal of precious loot. You may know the map and you may have strategies that you favour, but every scenario is different, with that degree of uncertainty and chance to contend with. And yet every time, still it all feels like it was especially created by a dastardly creator, just for you, to test your fortitude.
To quote another fantasy romp, where ancient warriors with massive swords spend their days absorbing souls from powerful beings to nurture their own immeasurable strength: “There can be only one.”
Skyrim might not be the best RPG ever produced. It probably isn’t the best Elder Scrolls game, either. But it is astonishing in so many regards, from the jaw-slackening sight of dragons to the scope and reach of its story and the tangled inter-factional webs it creates. Lots of games offer you the opportunity to ‘play your own way’ – everything from Deus Ex to Telltale’s adventures – but few games allow you to not only make seemingly significant branching choices, but also to personally embody the character you create, quite so much as Skyrim does.
You’ll never create the perfect character or have the perfect game in Skyrim, but that’s all part of its charm. That character is an extension of your being, and you get to live a vicarious existence in a remarkable fantasy world through them, feeling conjoined to your digital avatar more than most any other game. Play it on PC with a survival mod, essentially a Long Dark/Skyrim mashup, for a true experience of winter.
Also – getting back on the winter theme for a moment – the setting of Skyrim is glorious. It’s a remarkable and dramatic environment for a remarkably dramatic game. Combine all that with the fact that you can now play it basically anywhere, on the Nintendo Switch? That just elevates things even further.
More from Thumbsticks
- The 11 best video games of 2017
- 7 things that may be cut from the Final Fantasy VII Remake
- The 3D Super Mario games ranked, from worst to best
- The 10 best tennis video games of all time
A note from the Thumbsticks editorial team
If you like what we do, then please consider supporting us via Patreon or buying us a coffee. Every penny we earn is poured back into the site, into giving new and aspiring writers an opportunity, and into bringing you more quality content to enjoy. And if you are an aspiring new writer, read this.