Monday, December 1, 2014

“Home Alone” on the NES!

Would you believe it’s one of the most terrifying games of the 8-bit era? 

I don’t think anybody considers “Home Alone” to be a truly great movie, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s a movie anyone out there doesn’t enjoy. As far as yuletide cinema goes, it’s definitely in the upper tier -- maybe not as good as “Christmas Vacation” or “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” but hey, what else is.

Two things have always struck me about the film. First is just how weird the premise of the flick is -- it’s a comedy about child abandonment and home invasion, more or less anchored around a booby trap thematic. The only thing weirder is how popular that little mash-up proved with the general movie going masses -- to crib a line from “Dogma,” Chris Columbus had to have made a pact with Satan for that thing to have taken off the way it did. Simply no other explanation will suffice to explain the brief conflagration that was, for a time at least, Macaulymania.

Considering the insane popularity of the film -- which no marketer in their right mind ever thought would have become a cultural phenomenon on par with the Ninja Turtles -- it’s really not all that surprising that the 1990 film wound up inspiring a couple of video games.

While “Home Alone” found its way onto a bevy of platforms -- the Genesis, the Game Gear and the Game Boy, among them -- probably the most interesting was the version released on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

While the other games were very much platformers with a bit of strategy tossed in to the mix, the NES game took a very, very different approach. Instead of a basic hop and bopper with “Home Alone” window dressings, the NES game is almost a deconstruction of the film itself. In short, the Nintendo iteration of “Home Alone” is basically what the scenario presented in the movie would be like in real life -- a goddamn survival horror experience.

I remember renting this game way back in the day, and since the instruction manual wasn’t provided, I was really confused. The entire game is really just one screen, and there’s no clear objectives … it’s just you commandeering a little Kevin McAllister, traveling across gaudy backdrops at a snail’s pace. No doubt empowered by cocaethylene or something, the Wet/Sticky Bandits ran twice as fast as I did, and I was downright miffed that neither the A or B buttons did anything when I pressed them. I just sort of figured I got a broken cartridge, turned the damn thing off after 15 minutes, and went to my bedroom to cry over wasting $3.50 and also not having a father figure in my life. But yeah, mostly the part about the “broken” NES title.

Aww...the sheer whimsy of an abandoned second grader being pursued by merciless criminals!

Well, I ended up replaying the game on an emulator lately, and I was really surprised by what I experienced. Granted, it’s not a great game by any stretch of the imagination, but I really appreciated it for at least trying something different … and in my opinion, just a teensy bit subversive, as well.

The title employs a variation on the “catch-me-if-you-can” style of gameplay, which was popularized by “Pac-Man” and later refined by games like “Halloween” on the 2600 and the really, really underappreciated Famicom offering “Nuts and Milk.” As would any real eight-year-old going toe-to-toe with hardened criminals, your avatar is utterly powerless against the dual threat of pixelized Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. If they touch you, it’s an automatic game over -- presumably, because they brutally murder you offscreen.

The premise of the game, then, is deceptively simple. The whole playing field is basically a four-story house, and you’ve got 20 minutes to run around without getting captured. The only defense your character has is a collection of little obstacle icons (which are represented as little “Shinobi” item boxes) which represent various traps from the film … light bulbs, broken Christmas ornaments, etc. There’s a big catch, though; you can only use the items once, and once they’ve been used to foil the looters, they disappear from your inventory.  Oh, and just like Inky, Blinky, Pinky and Clyde, every time you off Harry and Marv, they come back even faster and ten times as pissed off.

All of this sounds insanely easy, but trust me, this game ain’t no walk in the park. You have got to be really careful with how, when and where you drop off your death traps, and while there are a few select hiding spots throughout the game, you can only use those once, too.

My favorite part in "Home Alone" was when Kevin turned into a 40-year old retard at the end.

As far as the game’s connection to the film goes, it follows the plot of the film the best it could, I suppose. In addition to the three story house (complete with a Christmas tree room, a kitchen, and for some reason, no bathroom), there’s also a subterranean basement and third-floor-adjacent treehouse to muck around in. The only thing missing from the title is an assist from the Shovel Killer, ultimately.

Crafted by Bethesda (yes, that Bethesda), “Home Alone” is actually an early forerunner to “Clock Tower” and especially Tecmo’s underrated “Deception” series. Despite the cartoon sound effects and the chirpy music, the game has this pervasive dread to it that’s hard to describe. It’s almost like the developers themselves picked up on the abject horror of the film’s premise and decided to make a game that reflected that non-canonical terror. The end result is one of the more pulse-pounding games on the NES, and an early 8-bit “horror” title I’d put on par with “Friday the 13th” as unsung mini-genre classics from the era

I don’t think the game ever explicitly tells you there’s a 20 minute time limit, so when you actually beat the game, it’s really abrupt. You get a really unsettling “victory” screen, followed by a “Paperboy”-like post-game map, showing you your final score and where you used your booby traps.

Yes, the game is pretty flawed, in most respects. The graphics are subpar and there’s not a whole lot of replay value once you actually figure out how and where to hide (you can probably beat the entire game by simply stowing yourself away in the treehouse, retreating when necessary, and repeating.) That said, the strangely aggressive atmosphere definitely makes this one worthy of at least one afternoon of play … and it makes for a hell of a complement to that one Michael Jackson game on the Genesis, too!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting read. Though I have to say the Genesis version is like an improved version of the NES, where you protect five houses instead of one over the span of 20 to 40 minutes, depending on difficulty. You can set up traps in houses before the Wet Bandits arrive, Hard mode also lets you craft your own weapons and things like that. It's some good stuff. (You probably know this already though.)


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