Every family that celebrates the Christmas season seems to have their own holiday favorite. Having been born into a family obsessed with a leg lamp and “an official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time,” my favorite Christmas movie has been programmed in my DNA since birth.
A Christmas Story was released in 1983—two years before I was born—and I can’t remember a year where we didn’t spend time with Ralphie’s 1940s family. I can quote sections of the film verbatim, and I have even seen it on LaserDisc. The movie not only shaped my comedy wheelhouse, but also delivers a massive dose of nostalgia from the holiday gatherings of my youth. That is, until the winter of 2021.
Last Christmas, HBO Max gave us their heart in the form of a new holiday classic, 8-Bit Christmas. The film not only won me over with its charm, but it’s filled with a similar magical realism that rivals moments in A Christmas Story.
When his young daughter begs for a cell phone for Christmas, Jake Doyle (Neil Patrick Harris) recalls how he got the best gift during the winter of 1988. Instead of Ralphie’s burning desire for a Red Ryder BB gun, young Jake (played by Winslow Fegley) won’t survive the winter without his own Nintendo Entertainment System. Jake recounts the season full of schemes with his neighborhood pals to get their hands on the highly coveted system, which brings him closer to his Steely Dan-loving goofball of a dad, played hilariously by Steve Zahn. (Friends, let me tell you, we are at peak Zahn right now. Hollywood should keep casting him as the embarrassing oddball dad in everything.)
That first watch was an hour-and-a-half-long giggle fest. I was in tears from laughter, struggling to breathe at how absurd 8-Bit Christmas can get. From a giant department store display Nintendo that talks, to David Cross playing a guy who sells bootleg Cabbage Patch Kids out of his trunk (and also imparts the film’s moral crutch), 8-Bit Christmas felt like a movie made specifically for me. (The film is also set around the Chicago metropolitan area, a city I had just moved from earlier that year. Apparently I’m now a sucker for seeing the Chicago skyline and references to the grocery chain Jewel.) I talked the movie up to anyone who would listen over this past year, remarking that it was maybe the second funniest holiday film of all time, but around November, I wondered if I had been blinded by nostalgia. My devotion to Nintendo runs as deep as my love for A Christmas Story. Was this movie truly as great as I remembered? Was I just laughing because the film references aspects of my childhood?
We had a Nintendo Entertainment System when I was growing up, and I was scared to death of it. I couldn’t have been older than five at the time, but if an adult wasn’t in the room and the system was on, a wave of pure panic rushed over me. I don’t know if I thought the colorful pixelated characters would pop out of the TV and attack or pull me into the worlds of their limited graphics, but I just couldn’t take the chance that either scenario might happen.
Some of my earliest memories are of seeing family members gather around a boxy TV, blowing into cartridges in hopes that they’ll work better, so maybe the zombified state the Nintendo put my loved ones in was the real cause of my anxiety. My dad could get lost in the simplistic Tennis for hours at a time. It even had my mom renting Mickey Mousecapade from our local video rental store on multiple occasions. It’s still one of the few times I remember her picking up a controller for any videogame system. I eventually shook off my Nintendo fear and succumbed to its addictive games and fun characters, making me the Nintendo enthusiast (and apologist) I am to this day.
I got it in my head that the best way to find out if 8-Bit Christmas was as hilarious as I remember was to recreate the exact circumstances of how I watched last year. So I made a fizzy cannabis-infused cocktail, which always makes me feel silly and ready to laugh, and sat down with my wife Brittany to watch. While I’m happy to report that I laughed just as hard as I did the first time, I later realized that watching the film completely sober might have been a more neutral way to find out if it is, in fact, objectively funny. However, I don’t think the results would have come out any differently. I would have still laughed loud enough to alarm our neighbors.
8-Bit Christmas goes to great lengths to pay homage to the structure and style of A Christmas Story, but I find it appeals more to my elder millennial sensibilities. I remember the Christmases when I received the newest gaming systems. Counting the days leading up to Christmas morning, all those desperate letters to Santa, and the dread of how it might feel if what you truly want won’t be under that colorful wrapping paper. But I also remember gathering with my family to hear everyone laugh at all the same jokes we’ve been laughing at for as long as I can remember. A talking Nintendo may never replace the warm glow of the leg lamp displayed prominently in the living room window, but it’s sure nice to have a lot of new lines to quote.
Jack Probst is a writer and record collector from St. Louis. He appreciates the works of James Murphy, Wes Anderson, and Super Mario. Send any and all complaints to @jackdprobst on Twitter. He enjoys writing paragraphs about himself in his spare time.