Thursday, 16 July 2015

Home Alone (1992 Mega Drive review)

When it comes to childhood power fantasies, none come close to beating Home Alone. Sure, some kids may want to be the indestructible Superman, but that's pure fiction. In reality, a kid could theoretically deter a pair of criminals with a set of improvised booby traps in a house they're trying to burgle. The lengthy life experiences of being an adult tells us that in this scenario the child and/or thieves would be killed, but when you're a kid you can buy into the reality of the situation but also not be traumatised by accepting in the Looney Tunes consequences.

Home Alone was of course a 1990 movie directed by Chris Columbus and written by John Hughes in which a kid is left home alone and takes it upon himself to protect his house from two burglars. If you're my age its a classic and when rewatching it last Christmas, I was impressed by how well it held up. It thankfully does well with the cartoon violence without making it a total farce like some other movies. I think it was a hit with kids because it was about a smart, resourceful child out smarting two adults.

Its too bad there was never a good game that let you play this out. Oh wait, there was but nobody ever talks about it. Then I shall talk about it. Home Alone on the Sega Mega Drive developed by Brian A. Rice Inc.

In the Home Alone game you are tasked with not only defending your own home, but an entire neighbourhood from The Wet Bandits, a pair of bumbling burglars. The inclusion of multiple houses obviously differs from the plot of the movie but as an excuse to have more varied locations, I'm fine with it. Besides, you did see them rob other houses in the film.

There are four things you'll be doing in Home Alone in your quest to protect the neighbourhood:

Setting up traps in the different houses, because its not a Home Alone game without that.

Getting between each house on your sled.

Making weapons.

Running around the house to stop the criminals.

Pretty varied stuff for a 16-bit movie tie-in. The objective of the game is to 'survive' 40 minutes of continuous criminal attacks on the 5 neighbourhood houses. You can't permanently defeat The Wet Bandits but you can deter them by filling up the 'pain meter'. Hitting them with traps, weapons and the house hazards will fill it and once full, they'll drop all their loot and leave (only to return later). The Wet Bandits' objective is to break into the houses' safes and take the goods. This is is indicated by the loot gauge and if it fills the house is then 'flooded'. If all the houses are flooded then its game over. Think of each house as a life. Basically you have to keep the loot meter from filling up and you stop it by filling the pain meter. Its an interesting concept for a game and pretty unique for a time where most movie tie-ins were simple platformers. I also find it an enjoyable game to come back to and score attack as you're given a rating at the end. You have to make sure at least one house remains by the time the police arrive. That being said, if you want even a semblance of challenge from this game then you should aim to not lose a single one.

Setting traps is the most obvious thing you'd expect in a Home Alone game. When entering an empty house you're presented with a blueprint and can lay them out. These are the only traps you have for the entire neighbourhood so you got to make sure you spread them out evenly. Unlike all of the other consumable items, you can't collect extra traps- the ones you have have to last. While setting out all the various traps is enjoyable, a lot of them are functionally identical. The marbles, grease, ice, micro machines- uh 'toys' all just make the victim fall over and that's it. I would have liked more varied effects- perhaps the grease could make an area slippery for whoever walks through it. Maybe the marbles could be more spread out over the floor than the other traps. The ice could send the victim careening across the floor and they end up slamming into the wall. Thankfully there are some traps with unique effects. The tacks will slow someone without knocking them down, the blowtorch is unique in that it can only be placed above doorways and the tar, possibly the most useful trap of all, will slow enemies to a crawl. Other than the blowtorch, Kevin can also become victim to them so you've got to be careful when navigating the house. One thing sadly missing are the iconic paint cans. The game features a lot of stairs so why not include them? Oh well.

The next thing you'll become accustomed to is making weapons. This is a fantastic element and adds a lot to the 'kid defence' premise beyond just traps. The game defaults to 'beginner' difficulty and with this on, the game will automatically create weapons for you. At this point I strongly recommend switching to 'expert' mode before you start because beginner has less weapons and traps to play with. Weapons are comprised of 3 elements- a platform, an operator and a type of ammo. Generally speaking, operators and ammo are always linked together whereas your choice of platform changes how the ammo will be used. Cans will make powerful mortars whereas crossbows will make weak yet reliable rifles. Ammo usage, the shooting angle, the amount of pain dealt and the time the enemy is incapacitated all seem to vary with the type of weapon you make. The best weapons are the ones that use rare parts like the sonic boom generator and the flashbulb shotgun. Am I the only person who finds it strange that this gun actually fires a lightbulb rather than creating a flash? All of these weapons will add to the pain meter as well as help you get around Harry and Marv. You get bonus points for varying the types of ammo you use. The results are completely cartoony with some results being pretty out there. Being hit by a ball turns you into a giant ball? What? Needless to say, they didn't digitize Joe Pesci screaming in agony and resisting the urge to call an 8 year old boy a motherfucker.

When you're not in a house, you're in the open world and can freely explore the area between the five houses. Kevin rides along on his battery-powered sledge (does such a thing even exist?) and can freely enter the houses. In fact, The Wet Bandits won't wait for you. You may be out in the open and suddenly see the dreaded loot meter appear. Its then a desperate matter of searching for the house they're in by seeing where their van is parked. Alternatively you can enter the houses at random- if the pain meter appears then you're in the right place. One house in particular parks the van about a god damn mile off the beaten track so like I said, just quickly enter each house to check if they're there or not. You can also ram into the van and you'll bounce off completely unharmed. Never mind attacking grown ups with home made electrical spark guns, whats this about the game teaching kids to ride their battery power sleds into traffic, huh?

One of the game's biggest challenges is the limited ammo. All of the weapon parts, including ammo, is finite, meaning once you've emptied a house, its empty for good. The only place where pickups respawn is in the open neighbourhood where breaking snowmen will provide a random pickup. Chances are you'll at one point run out of ammo and end up desperately scouting the open world for snowmen. Why snowmen contain rubber bands and batteries I have no idea. Elaborate decorations? Actually, speaking of that- snowballs are a type of ammo. Shouldn't you be able to just make them outside? As a last resort you have a BB gun but its incredibly weak and barely keeps Harry and Marv down for a second. This thing uses its own exclusive ammo and yes, it is entirely possible to completely run out of every type of ammo and be utterly defenceless and it sucks, My only advice here is to actually leave the house and grind the snowmen. 'Grind the snowmen'. You really have to ration your ammo in Home Alone, which is something I'll get back to. Oh and you can run out of sled battery which also, really, really sucks because it means you can barely move and its really a matter of luck finding a replacement. The item layout is random with each playthrough so if you're particuarly unlucky you can have a pretty miserable experience where you collect loads of platforms and operators but no ammo to use them. If anything, Home Alone teaches players how to ration their belongings and not be wasteful.

There are 5 different houses, all with different layouts and each one has a unique hazard-

The Mansion
This is Kevin's home and the house he defends in the movie. As such, its the most generic house with 3 long floors. The gimmick here is a spider that crawls around on the ceiling and drops down on any character that wanders by below. I'm guessing its supposed to be Buzz's pet tarantula even though it doesn't really look like it.

Colonial House
This is the tallest building and is protected by, of all things, a ghost. The ghost will wander in through the walls and electrocute anyone that he sees. The ghost is such a powerful force that this is possibly the easiest house to defend and you should save your traps for the others. This is also the only place in the neighbourhood that has bothered with Christmas decorations this year. Shame on these people.

Country House
Like the mansion, this place is generally unremarkable. The hazard, a crazy pissed off cat, is only a threat if you touch it. Its not much of a threat against The Wet Bandits so I suggest using more traps here. Also the image of a cat ripping a child's face off is pretty funny. Thats the type of wholesome family entertainment this game provides.

Old House
This is my favourite level in the game for its gimmick of breakable floors. The floor will randomly open up and send anything to a level down. The funny thing about this is that the game doesn't really do 'falling'. There's no fall damage and there aren't even any animations to support it so when someone falls they just stand perfectly still like its nothing. This also means you can't use falls as a means of hurting Harry and Marv although you can delay them greatly by sending them down, away from an unopened safe. You have to have good reaction times to shoot one of them while they're in mid-jump over a hole but the result looks great, even if the fall doesn't register gameplay-wise (as in they don't get dealt extra pain).

Ultra-Modern House
Definitely the most visually different of the bunch, this smart home is full of silver machines and doohickies and... I have no idea. I like the Jetsons styled tubes that replace the stairs. While I may not know what all these electronic gadgets are supposed to be, I do recognise that its protected by a god damn robot that patrols the house and picks up Harry, Marv or even Kevin to electrocute them. Being the only home with an automated defence system, its pretty easy. Even with this elaborate machine though, a little kid still needs to be there to help. The hell kind of expensive home protection system is this?

Once you enter a house the game becomes a relatively standard platformer. You're free to enter a house even if the criminals aren't there if you want to loot it for stuff. I actually recommend doing this as there's a good chance of running out of ammo early on. The controls are really simple. B fires your weapon and C jumps. If you hold certain directions you can jump in different way like holding up forward for a larger arcing leap, handy for getting over your own traps. I find another good trick is using the big vertical jump to get half way up the stairs. This is a good time saver and don't forget- this whole game is a fight against time. Pressing A drops a tyre. You can then jump on the tyre for a massive bounce but sadly they vanish after a single use. Lots of items are only accessible using tyres. The Old House has a hidden floor (a loft/attic) that is only accessible if you use two tyres. Its definitely worth saving two tyres for all of the goodies up there, just beware of the breaking floor that can send you plummeting back down.

As mentioned, attacking Harry and Marv adds to the pain gauge but you can't actually defeat them. Similarly Harry and Marv cant' 'kill' Kevin because... that would be disturbing. Instead, if you get caught they'll hang you on a coat peg- just like the movie. This may not seem like much of a punishment for getting caught but remember that you're fighting against the clock here. Time wasted on the peg gives them precious time to fill up the loot meter. This is why I think this is great licensed game. They took a simple movie concept, made an original game out of it and made sure to throw in plenty of recognisable moments from the source material.

One of the biggest revelations for me while playing Home Alone was when I managed to fit it into a genre- its a survival horror game. Hear me out. Its got all the elements of the genre. Its got limited ammo you have to carefully conserve. It has an unstoppable antagonist that can stop you instantly. You can only delay and inconvenience this antagonist but your player character is far too weak to permanently stop them. And the game has jumpscares.

Well OK, they're not scary I just find it kind of funny how the restrictive camera can work against you sometimes. A lot of the time I'm cautiously staying away from the edge of the screen, unsure of whether or not Harry or Marv are there. Sometimes you ascend a staircase and BAM they're there. All thats missing is a scare chord.

So in conclusion, Home Alone is a pretty fun game that I just wanted to bring to more people's attention. It definitely has some inspired design elements and the neighbourhood defence thing is pretty unique. My only critiques are minor and given the quality of most movie-based games, its easily forgiven. Actually, its worth noting that this game came out in 1992, two whole years after the movie, which may explain its overall decent quality (this was the same year the film's sequel was released). Its also kind of buggy in spots, particularly in the moments where you kick The Wet Bandits out of the house while delivering a terrible joke based on the weapon you used. The animations don't always play out as they're intended but it just makes the game more appealing to me with its goofiness. Its also not a particularly hard game once you know what you're doing and its not very long either given that every game session is going to be a maximum of 40 minutes,. Home Alone does support repeat playthroughs with its random elements and its scoring system so I encourage everyone to give it a go and bring some sweet, painful kid justice to the neighbourhood.