Brock Wilbur explores the lesser-known horror games of the 20th century.
I’m often struck by how lucky and/or strange it is that being born in the mid-80s allowed my life to coincide with the rise of videogames. I got to grow alongside them and experience so many strange highs and lows – and often retain a sense of at least nostalgic understanding of the joy surrounding genuinely terrible periods of game design. If I was a kid now and looked up many of the titles I’m covering in Monster Closets on say, Wikipedia or some YouTuber’s Retro Jokefest, I would have no understanding of how or why some of these titles carried meaning for anyone. Perhaps leaving behind that kind of record is one of the goals here? I don’t know. Stu is the Virgil to my Dante, and his guidance won’t allow me to stray too far from our path here, dear reader.
I realize that I’m making it sound like this process of revisiting survival horror titles is like journeying through purgatory. And yeah, that’s pretty dead on. Especially in the case of today’s title.
Home Alone, as you may remember, was a movie. It was the story of two adults trying to go on vacation and, despite being excellent parents, their international emotional reprieve winds up completely destroyed by a single child (and perhaps slightly by the negligence of his uncle). As punishment for his sins, the child must defend capitalism in a rich Chicago suburb, against the encroachment of two blue-collar workers. The boy king triumphs over the poor by using his trappings of wealth and privilege against them and also does some light shoplifting of his own to guarantee that no one needs to buy milk on Christmas Day. Also, John Candy is a metaphor for Satan. That part is absolutely true and I invite you all to Google it.
Gang, I’m eating junk food and watching rubbish. You better come out and stop me.
John Candy is a metaphor for Satan. That part is absolutely true and I invite you all to Google it.
In one of the first outings from Bethesda Softworks (yes, that Bethesda) and released by THQ, the John Hughes film wound up being adapted into eight completely different games, released on different systems. Again, what a weird time to have grown up, at least in terms of the wild stuff I got to see the games industry engage in. Will any IP ever again see multiple game adaptations on different platforms, other than a dumb mobile tie-in? Probably not. Hell, you can do Fortnite on your phone now. We don’t even need mobile games to be different from consoles. Anyhow.
On PC, the Home Alone game is about planting traps before the burglars get there and then racing through the house, tricking the baddies into stumbling into your traps without accidentally activating them yourself. On the SNES, Home Alone goes Mega-Capitalism and Kevin’s goal is to get all of the family’s belongings into a safe in the basement. Yes, it’s about saving stuff at the potential cost of his life. Also, the basement is full of ghosts. Hell yeah, weird game adaptation choices! On the Sega Genesis, Kevin is (for reasons unknown) protecting five different houses that he must sled between so he can fire guns at the Wet Bandits before they flood the property. This one has a “pain meter” for the baddies, where they flee once Kevin has done enough damage, which feels like maybe the best version of bringing the movie to an interactive game experience.
Forget those game, though. We’re here today to talk about the NES version. The original Nintendo 1991 nightmare that is my first real memory of being too afraid to keep playing a game, then finding ways to continually rent it, only to get scared again.
Brief aside here regarding Home Alone: a friend once told me that the novelization of the movie finally explained that Kevin’s father was an architect, which is why Kevin had the skillset to draw out plans for his house and where each booby trap was going to be installed. More bizarrely, Kevin’s mother was revealed to be some type of costume designer or fashion lady? That was to explain why they had mannequins for Kevin to string up and animate when he uses shadows to convince the Wet Bandits that he was home? If this is true, I’d like to throw massive props to the ghostwriter who went the extra mile in his work to explain plot holes that no one knew existed.
Back to the game.
In this rare entry in the “trap ‘em up” genre, the game tasks the player (Kevin) with preventing the two criminals who have broken into his house from murdering him. The adult murder men are significantly faster than Kevin and can kill him in one hit. The only thing Kevin can do is place traps that will temporarily incapacitate the individual burglars. By temporarily, I mean maybe five to ten seconds per trap, an amount of time that barely seems to affect the burglars.
What kind of traps are you dropping? Each trap in the game is represented as some logo within a white box. Spiders and a hot iron are easy to figure out. The rest is just a living hell of early 8-bit game design and probably some level of translation error. Not that any trap holds your aggressors for more or less time. It’s all pretty meaningless because the Wet Bandits are entirely off-screen most of the time . . . and as soon as they’re on screen at any point you’re probably dead.
Here’s where things get awful: there are no checkpoints. There are no levels. There are no second chances. The game begins with Kevin calling the police, who will take exactly twenty minutes to respond to a rich, white child in danger. Which means the game takes place in twenty real-time minutes. The limited number of traps are all single use. There are maybe exactly enough traps to survive the whole twenty minutes. This becomes a real nightmare when you realize that the two super-speed manslaughter bros are impossible to kill. Your best bet is to keep shimmying down drainpipes or across a wire to the treehouse and praying to stay alive.
Here’s a shot of the complete game map, featuring the three-story home, basement and yard:
I won’t even get into the fact that Kevin is double encumbered while navigating stairs, most of which are accessible only by locating the single pixel that allows you to start your climb. The Wet Bandits have no such issues.
A child gets murdered, repeatedly and forever, in Home Alone for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Not a lot of people were expecting that in 1991.
While Home Alone visibly shook me as a child, it fails to retain the kind of acclaim I believe it deserves. This game was singular in its vision, structure and uncompromising difficulty. A loss was always a complete loss – even at the 19-minute mark, you were on the verge of losing every ounce of cleverness you had exerted and being sent right back to square one. The AI of the Wet Bandits was brutal in its focus and they would often come at you from multiple sides simultaneously, like the “clever girl” velociraptors of Jurassic Park. As I mentioned before: once you saw them, you were usually dead.
To be clear: it is a bad game. It is not just difficult, it is cruel in how unfair it is. If, like me, you were too young to understand that game design, you kept coming back believing that each new life was the chance to finally go the distance. Yes, the game is beatable, as YouTube informed me years later. Hilariously, people do speed runs of it now, even though the best time you can get on it is, of course, twenty minutes flat.
It’s a bizarre clunky game, but it was also my game. I never beat it but I played so much of it I became the kid who told other kids all his trick and tips. Even though they never helped me. There is nothing else on the NES that boasts this level of bizarre fear, nor survival skills to theoretically survive it. It’s a white-knuckle panic through every second of game time and, in my eyes, the great-grandfather of modern survival horror. It was probably intended to be more fun than scary, but holy God did they miss the mark.