Retro Review: “Home Alone” (NES, Jolly Jinglings Special)

Welcome back to Jolly Jinglings, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things merry and bright!

The original Home Alone film was released during the holiday season of 1990, making this year an anniversary of sorts. So what better time to take a look at one of the video games inspired by the classic feature film?

For those too young to experience it, Home Alone really did take American pop culture by storm when it was released in theaters. Despite being a relatively low-budget movie as a family comedy, Home Alone became one of the top grossing films of all time, and even held the title of highest grossing comedy until The Hangover dethroned it nearly twenty years later.

The surprise success caught many off guard, which might explain why the video game adaptations of Home Alone didn’t hit consoles until 1991, including the version developed by TH*Q and released for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

So is it a Christmas miracle or a stocking filled with coal?

The Home Alone game puts the player in control of Kevin McCallister, the young scamp portrayed by Macaulay Culkin in the feature film. Your mission is to avoid capture by Marv and Harry, two burglars who have invaded your posh family home in search of pricey personal treasures and trappings. Kevin must either hide or use a variety of traps to stun the two intruders. These include toy cars, nails, paint cans, a tarantula, etc., each yielding a slightly different stun duration inflicted on your pursuer. If you can hold out for a full twenty minutes, the police arrive and arrest Marv and Harry.

Wait, that’s it? Yeah. Not only is Home Alone a twenty minute game, at most, but it also only has one single stage: your house. There’s very little variety as a result, as you’ll race across the same landscape over and over again to stay one step ahead of the burglars.

It wouldn’t be a Hollywood movie if grown men didn’t pursue little boys

You almost certainly won’t beat Home Alone in one go, as surviving for the full twenty minutes is not an easy task. Your two pursuers are slightly faster than you, but they’re also pretty dumb. If you lay a trap right in front of them, they will run right into it, though if you try to hide while they are in the same room as you are, it won’t do you any good. It’s also difficult to pinpoint what objects Kevin can hide behind, and identifying them will require some trial and error. He can hide in the Christmas tree and at least one of the house’s beds, but oddly not all of them. In fact, I couldn’t find a single hiding spot on the third floor of the house.

Home Alone does give you a map in the pause screen, but it doesn’t show hiding spots or the location of the enemies. Instead, it highlights your own location and the location of your active traps, so it’s only helpful if you are trying to get to a more reinforced area or if you need to replenish your trap inventory.

The controls are a different story. While picking up and placing traps is intuitive enough, going up and down stairs is a chore. You have to be lined up with almost pinpoint accuracy to successfully descend/ascend them, and if an enemy is in hot pursuit, you’re likely going to be caught. Given this, I found that my games eventually fell into a loop of running up to the third floor, going down the left pipe, running across the front to the treehouse, then running back across the third floor, all the while dropping a trap whenever Marv or Harry get too close. Trying to manage with the staircases was just too much of an ordeal, though I’m sure if you practiced enough, you’d be able to master them.

If you do put in the work to complete the game, the one-screen ending kinda sucks.

It wouldn’t take much modding to make Home Alone a Custer’s Revenge spin-off

So is it really all bad? I can’t lie, it’s not great, but there are some positive points. The concept itself is an innovative one, and the action of the game actually matches the Home Alone license fairly well. There aren’t many other 8-bit games quite like it, so it gets a few points on originality.

Aesthetically, Home Alone looks okay for NES fare. The few characters there are do animate well enough. The music, which is passably decent, starts to drone on after a while. Thankfully, the tunes change when you are in the treehouse or the basement.

It would have been nice to see the different traps have varying effects

Had I received the NES version Home Alone for Christmas in 1991, I almost certainly would have been disappointed. But if I was a big fan of the movie and brought it home from Blockbuster as a rental, it might have been enjoyable enough. I could see passing the controller between my brothers and actually having some fun as we all try to beat each other’s time before inevitable failure. It’s really not that bad in small, infrequent doses.

As it stands, I didn’t pick up Home Alone for the NES until much later in life. As part of my current collection, Home Alone is a deeply flawed but unique game that can be fun if I don’t invest too much effort into it. One of my kids has just discovered the Home Alone movies, and she really enjoys watching me play it, so I’ll keep it around for a while. “The bad guy is going to get you, daddy!”

Are you better off with Mega Man, Contra and Final Fantasy? Of course. But if you find a copy on the cheap and still have some nostalgia for the movie, why not give Home Alone a whirl?

Later versions of the game removed the image of Macaulay Culkin from the Game Over screen, likely due to licensing issues

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