Sunday 24 December 2017

Mega Drive Review - Home Alone (Game 151)

'Home Alone' might be a licensed game based on a film that hasn't aged well, but perhaps it's still a game worth unwrapping.

Developed by Sega of America
Published by Sega
Released in 1991

I love Christmas. I listen to festive music on repeat, lapping up the Christmas movies and TV specials. To be honest I never understand why all people don't cherish the holiday period. Even if you don't celebrate the specific day or have had a past event that has tarnished December 25th, I find it surprising that people resist getting swept up in the warmth of "the most wonderful time of the year". Some people seem to go out of their way to say how much they hate Christmas, claiming it's become over commercialised or excessively self indulgent. They hate something without even trying to embrace it, they don't even look to see if there's something in it that might appeal to them. I can't be too critical though. I do a similar thing when I turn my nose up at film tie in games. Even before I've tried them I'm convinced they'll be rubbish, after all more often than not this presumption is true. However there are numerous examples when a film tie-in can be superb, as proven by my recent experiences with 'Aladdin'. I had very low expectations when I got 'Home Alone' and in truth, I bought it solely because it was festive and I had played 'RoboCod' to excess. Given that it's set at Christmas I thought it would be the ideal game to play at this time of year, but I didn't expect much. Amanda Dyson of Mega magazine said the game was a wasted film license; a "grotesquely over-priced and pathetically under-developed mockery of a game". Flux magazine called it the 14th worst video game of all time. But while I wouldn't say 'Home Alone' is an incredible game, I would argue that such criticism is undeserved.

The game is of course based on the 1990 Christmas comedy; a film adored by a generation. I hadn't realised just how big the film was though. 'Home Alone' was the highest-grossing live action comedy film for over twenty years, taking nearly half a billion dollars. No wonder there were game adaptations on numerous consoles.

The film follows the exploits of an eight year old Kevin, who has been left alone in the family home over Christmas. Initially he enjoys the freedom but when Marv and Harry attempt to break into his home things become a bit more dangerous. To defend himself and his family belongings, Kevin lays a series of traps to thwart the so called Wet Bandit burglars. 

It's a premise that actually seems perfect for a video game application. Setting traps to defend your home from a hoard of invaders is after all what you do in a tower defence game. In fact the Mega Drive 'Home Alone' game is probably closer to this genre of game. It's a refreshing change as most of the eight other adaptations on rival systems seemed to be typical side scrolling platformers.  The Super Nintendo version for example is a game where you simply have to find items and hide them from the bandits. It's a terrible game made in a hurry to capitalise on the public' enthusiasm for the film.

The Mega Drive version is far deeper and in many ways it is comparable to ‘Spy Vs Spy' to a certain extent. The game replicates the last third of the film when Kevin battles the Wet Bandits. However while in the film it is just his parents who have left for Christmas, in this Mega Drive game it seems the while town has left Kevin alone. Now he must protect several houses in his neighbourhood.

The game starts from a top down perspective. The Wet Bandits are driving around in a van preying on the five vacant houses. Unbeknownst to them Kevin lays in wait, traveling by battery powered sled between the homes. If Kevin enters a house that the burglars are in, the view shifts to a side on perspective. In this play mode Kevin must stop Marv and Harry by shooting them with various homemade projectile weapons. Kevin initially starts with a simple BB gun, but his armory grows as he finds random items either in the stage or on the world map. On standard mode the game automatically combines these and presents the player with a number of humorous weapons to use against Harry and Marv. Each weapon has varying range and damage, however it's difficult to be too tactical as their stats seem, initially at least, somewhat random. Hitting the robbers with any weapon increase a pain meter. Once this is full the Wet Bandits will retreat and abandon their robbery. The game seems vaguely reminiscent of 'Clock Tower' with the bandits suddenly bursting through doors and stalking the protagonist through the property. However, despite being an ominous presence Kevin does not have his own pain meter and the burglars can't actually harm him. Like the film, when caught the Wet Bandits will simply tie Kevin to a wall and the player can escape by furiously tapping buttons. It's more of an inconvenience than anything and Kevin is more predator than prey.  If the player doesn't brutally assault the thieves they will steal things from the house, filling their loot meter. If this fills before the pain meter reaches the top, Kevin will have failed to save the house and it'll be flooded. The robbers will move onto another target and Kevin won't be able to re-enter the building.

The game takes further inspiration from the film as Kevin can also lay down several traps throughout the house, presuming he enters a home before the bandits. Unlike the firearms which can be reloaded, Kevin has a limited number of traps which will quickly deplete. The player must make a decision how best to use the limited supply.

Do you use all the traps to create one impenetrable strong hold, or distribute resources across the whole neighbourhood to try to save them all? Unless you want to see a marginally different ending the first option is the more prudent choice. The game will end when the police arrive and this takes twenty minutes in standard play. To succeed in the game Kevin needs to only defend one home, so it's actually pretty difficult to fail if you dig your heels in one place and wait it out. It's obviously nice to get the best ending and the higher points, but really you'll just want to get through the standard mode as quickly as possible. Completing this unlocks a harder mode which is an awful lot better.

In the hard mode the police will take twice as long to arrive so Kevin will have to defend the neighbourhood for forty minutes. However he can now craft weapons using the items found lying around rather than have the extra weapons randomly given.

With survival games like 'Tomb Raider' 'Dead Rising', 'Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater' and of course 'MineCraft' being so popular it's difficult for modern players to grasp quite how revolution it was to be able to create so many different weapons using random items. In fact it's difficult to think of many mainstream games that included weapon design prior to 'Home Alone'. The items picked up can be turned into weapons on the crafting screen. Each creation has an exciting name like Snowball Bazooka or Glue Mortar and they all consist of three things; an operator, a launcher and a type of Ammo. The behaviour of the gun will be dependent on the choice of platform and operator while the amount of damage it inflicts will reflect the ammo chosen.

The game becomes significantly more varied and entertaining in hard mode. It's no longer a case of deciding which traps to use of which house, there's also decisions to be made regarding when to craft weapons and when to hold out for better ingredients. Each weapon also has a different effect of Harry and Marv too so there's a certain amount of enjoyment to be had seeing the ways they react (similar to the way the film amuses by showing their over the top responses to Kevin's traps). 

When criticising the graphics it's important to consider the game's age. 'Home Alone' came out very early in the console's life so is never going to rival 'Ristar' or 'Dynamite Heady'. The character sprites look nice enough, and it's easy to recognise the characters from the film. The animation however is wildly inconsistent. Firing a gun has far too many frames causing lag when you need immediate response. In contrast walking is choppy, especially when going up stairs which is little more than a couple of frames. The 3D effect on the house walls works fairly well giving each scene depth and it's nice that there's some variation in the backgrounds as each of the five houses have their  own theme. At times you'll be in a futuristic style house, before defending a colonial house a mansion or a dilapidated property. This house is of note because you and the burglars sometimes fall through the crumbling floor. It's a nice touch which presents a new gameplay mechanic but there's sadly little variation in the other houses.

Outside the variation vanishes however. Given that 'Home Alone' takes place at Christmas there is of course snow everywhere but this also means that a lot of the neighbourhood is basically a blank white screen. There's an occasional snowman and Christmas trees dotted about but they repeat quickly. It's a shame the music isn't as festive. A Christmas game is always improved with Christmas music but there's very little in this game. Most of the tracks are very generic; the Future house sounds slightly mechanical, the Country House has a hoedown flavour and the dilapidated house sounds a little spooky. In the Colonial house you'll hear a song that sounds slightly like "Carol of the Bells" which was in the film. But that seems to have been included at the expense of John William's instantly recognisable film score. The game doesn't even have the film's main theme, with the title music sounding more like it was taken from the movie 'Weird Science'.

Despite the average music and passable graphics there's actually a lot to enjoy in 'Home Alone' on the Mega Drive. Yes, the game does get monotonous and you spend a great deal of time waiting around especially when you're out of ammo. Of course there is little incentive to go for the best ending when it's so similar to a normal one, but neither of these faults justifies the slating this game often gets. You have to wonder how much the critics played (though in their defence 'Home Alone' makes no attempt to explain its mechanics). With similar looking icons in the craft menu and no clear goal it's easy to get confused should you not be inclined to read the manual. Kevin in the movie despised his family till their absence made him appreciate their quirks. While not a great game, 'Home Alone' is enjoyable but to appreciate its quirks you do have to put in a bit of effort.

It’s may be a film license game but it's one that tries to offer something original.  Give the game a chance and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised. Like the Christmas cynics it's easy to hate something when you don't embrace it. 

Where did I get this game from?
Handy tip for you. If you want a Christmas based game buy it in March. Like anything festive the price of 'Home Alone' rises during November & December so money can be saved buying before then. I bought my copy on eBay when I saw it for less than £5 delivered. It was admittedly March but for that price you can't go too far wrong. Merry Christmas.

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