Every Christmas, with an almost mind-numbing regularity, it happens. You spot the DVD-shaped package under the holiday tree, and your hopes instantly level up — could it be Madden 06? Soul Calibur 3? An Xbox 360 title that clues you into the contents of that large rectangular package nearby?

Then, the magical morning arrives, your fingers shake as you shred the brightly-colored wrapping paper, only to discover … 187: Ride or Die.

Looks like somebody shopped the bargain bins again.

You have to admit it isn’t easy. Parents, friends, and relatives — especially if they’re not gamers and think your hobby qualifies you as some kind of social malcontent/sociopath–in-training — are easily confused and overwhelmed. And can you blame them? With several hundred new games to choose from and more game platforms than there are days of the week, it’s all too easy for good intentions to turn into bad games.

We’ve got your back. The following is a cheat sheet of sorts, a guide to matching the right game to the right situation. Leave it on your spouse’s side of the bed or on the kitchen table next time you’re at the ‘rents place. Or mail copies to all those who’ll be in to you for at least one Christmas gift this year. You can even take it to the store yourself if you like. We won’t tell a soul.

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1. Gifts most likely to give Hillary Clinton and Jack Thompson (and maybe your parents) conniption fits: Grand Theft Auto Liberty Stories (PSP) and Gun (Xbox, PS2, Xbox 360). Now that Rockstar has shrunk the GTA experience into a portable package, you can now offend people on the bus and in study hall with profanity and violence just like you can in the comfort of your own home — how great is that?

Gun, meanwhile, does for the oeuvre of Sergio Leone what 50 Cent has done for rap music — ratchet the violence factor into the stratosphere. Yes, we watched Deadwood and read our Louis L’Amour. We knew the West was wild, but was it ever quite this bloody? With viscera splattering the screen after every knife fight, and explosive kills sending cowpokes rocketing through the air like bloody ragdolls, it’s a wonder this country ever made it out of the 1800s. Props to Neversoft for finally getting the feel of a Western game right.

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2. The gift you wanted to give (and get), but probably can’t: the brand-new Xbox 360. Between Microsoft’s questionable pre-holiday distribution strategy, retailers’ over-eager pre-order sales, and the fact that early buyers are now selling theirs on eBay for as much as $2,500, the hard truth is that if you weren’t one of the lucky ones to score this holiday’s “It” gaming gift during release week, you’re basically screwed until early 2006 at the very least. Hey, you can always slip a raincheck under the tree, right?

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3. Gift to give someone you’d rather not see for the next six months: why, of course, it’s Civilization IV (PC). Sid Meier’s turn-based series has always been a massive time sink, but installment four ups the ante further by overhauling and streamlining this ridiculously deep game to make it even more accessible to newbies. If you’ve never experienced the joy of assimilating a civilization by building a Wonder on its borders, you don’t know what you’re missing. Get going, Gandhi!

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4. Gift for the wannabe Steven Spielberg in your life: The Movies. Toss out your 8mm cameras, all you Kino-philes, and fire up your PCs. A great concept — building and managing your own movie studio, right down to making actual westerns, horror flicks and romance films — meets the ability to distribute finished products over the Internet. And they said those fan films of Half Life and World of Warcraft were weird…

5. The 2005 Christmas fruitcake: Soul Calibur 3 (PlayStation 2). Normally, the absolute last thing you want to receive is a Christmas fruitcake, one of those bricks of nuclear waste all a-twinkle with nuts, prunes, and those red and green things that might be cherries. (Or not.) The latest installment in Namco’s classic one-on-one brawler is the best fruitcake ever, loading up the package with all sorts of new goodies: a character creation-feature, overhauled environments, three great new characters, and … a real-time strategy campaign? Okay, maybe that last one is one nut too many.

6. Gift for those who like to kick it old school: Capcom Classics Vol. 1 (PlayStation 2, Xbox, Gamecube) The wave of gaming nostalgia continues unabated, with at least six or seven collections of classic games competing for your wistful dollars. The best of the bunch belongs to Capcom, which pairs up three versions of Street Fighter II with lots of top-down shootin’, side-scrollin’ goodness. (The gift for those who’d like to simply kick old-school down the stairs is Tecmo Classics. Outside of Tecmo Bowl, this is possibly the worst cash-grab I’ve seen all year.)

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7. Gift for the artier-than-thou gamer in your life: Shadow of the Colossus. You’ve seen him. You may have even been him — the guy who’s always arguing that games aren’t mindless entertainment, they’re art. Exhibit A ends the argument: as you puzzle out the ways to slay 16 literally gargantuan beasts to save your dead sweetie, you’ll fall in love with this magnificent, solitary action-puzzler. Boiling a gaming experience down to aseries of beautifully stagedboss fights?Genius.