You can see it at your local Walgreens: that magical moment, at midnight every Nov. 1, when the Halloween display melts into the ether, replaced by a bevy of festive, possibly toxic, green-and-red confections. Christmas comes similarly early in the game business; unlike holiday movies, year-end software blockbusters have to be sitting on store shelves in time to entice flocks of early-bird shoppers.
This year promises a winter harvest of diverse delights, though there is a clear emphasis on familiar faces and established names. Groundbreaking technology will wheedle its way into American shopping carts alongside intellectual property that dates back to 1928.
Though its most promising features are spread out over multiple months, Rock Band 3's release in the dying embers of October signaled the start of the holiday game glut. On the more casual end of the spectrum, there are many changes designed to improve the title's performance as a party-powering karaoke machine on steroids. But it's on the hardcore end that Harmonix's offering really shines. New "Pro" instrument modes transform the entire idea of the rhythm game, promising exact correspondence between notes heard and notes played, turning an exercise in plastic-instrument frivolity into an actual teaching tool. The retail version ships with a full two-octave keyboard; future bedroom shredders will have to wait until March 1 to get their hands on Squier's six-string electric guitar-controller hybrid.
Harmonix rolled out another big title this year: Dance Central, a gleefully earnest dancing simulator that aims to do for cutting rugs what Guitar Hero did for ripping solos. Taking advantage of Microsoft's Wii-killing, Xbox 360-exclusive Kinect technology (available now), which uses a TV-mounted camera to record player movements, the game weans digital dance off Dance Dance Revolution's cheesy floor pads, tracking your entire body and translating that motion into animated on-screen boogieing.
A number of other games have been released that are calibrated for use with the Kinect, either focusing on fitness (YourShape: Fitness Evolved, EA Sports Active 2) or cartoonish, arm-waving sports-mime (Kinect Adventures, Kinect Sports). Liberated from the tyranny of holding onto a controller, 360 owners will also be able to deploy the Kinect's voice commands, which be useful for browsing through a number of new software features, which include ESPN and Last.fm, streaming direct to your console.
Cannibalizing the past is nothing new when there are profits on the line, but no one does it with the kind of capitalist élan that the game industry evinces. Did you enjoy NBA Jam and Goldeneye 007 in the 1990s? Of course you did. And you'll enjoy them again, now that they're back, sporting upgraded display resolutions and gameplay adapted to modern, button-coruscated controllers. NBA Jam began as a downloadable adjunct to NBA Elite 2011; now that that game has been pushed back, the two-on-two hoops title is getting a full retail release on all the major consoles Nov. 17. Goldeneye is available now for Wii and Nintendo DS; playing as Oddjob is still totally cheating.
Japanese giants Namco Bandai have dusted off Splatterhouse, their goofily gory 1988 smash. Musclebound protagonist Rick is back, still sporting a hockey mask, still dismembering ghosts and ghouls with a blood-soaked two-by-four. The survival horror-brawler hybrid is due out Nov. 23 for PS3 and Xbox 360.
It's been a long time since Disney's iconic character was featured in his own video game, so Junction Point Studio's Epic Mickey is sure to be met with high expectations. Helmed, bizarrely, by legendary designer Warren Spector, who is better known for gritty cyberpunk classics System Shock and Deus Ex, the game promises a slightly more adult — even gothic — take on Disney's least-adult character.
Gameplay will center around a painting mechanic. Using his trusty brush, Mickey will be able to transform his environment, daubing in bridges over otherwise impassable chasms. The judicious application of paint thinner will erase dastardly enemies. Look for Epic Mickey Nov. 30.
If you were to measure the impact of this year's holiday releases using total hours invested as your metric, there's no doubt that World of Warcraft: Cataclysm would come out on top. As the third expansion to Blizzard's megalithic franchise, the game can count on a built-in player-base of some 12 million subscribers, each about as likely to buy Cataclysm as a heroin addict is to buy more smack.
The attractions this time around include two brand-new races — players will now be able to battle their way around Azeroth as Goblins or Worgen (read: werewolves). The expected litany of new dungeons, new loot, and new gameplay tweaks is also provided. The Cataclysm begins Dec. 7. And if you don't know what to get that tween WoWer in your life at the last minute? But her some game time at www.blizzard.com .