Home Alone (DOS)

Recently, I was trying to remember what was the first computer game I ever played. I believe I’ve narrowed it down to The Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe – or perhaps some plain text version of Blackjack on a 5 1/4″ floppy – I really can’t be sure. I do know that what we’re about to take a look at is… well, one of the first PC games I owned. Yes, definitely up there in the top three. And that’s good enough, yeah? So join me as we take a retrospective look at a game that, I can say with absolute authority, I have definitely played at some point before.

Who needs police when your foes are live-action versions of Wile E.Coyote?

I hope I don’t need to cover the plot of Home Alone, but you know what they say about assumptions, so let’s make this quick. Kid gets left behind when family leaves for Christmas. Notorious cat burglars intend to rob kid’s house. Kid sets a variety of devious traps to stall burglars while he waits for the cops… or does he even call the cops? If he knows the criminals are coming, why aren’t the police called first? How is it again that he has to defend himself from two grown-ass criminals by himself? Again, my memory.

The standard console and computer versions have you controlling the kid, navigating some simple platforms, searching for loot, and securing said loot in the vault. The DOS/Amiga version goes for something much truer to the final part of the film (as does the Genesis version – which, by the way, is one of my first JGR reviews!). The premise is that you have one accelerated hour to rush around, collect traps, and deploy them around the house. In the second phase, you have to avoid the two burglars while leading them into your prepared pits of pain.

Phase One is simple enough. There’s nothing to avoid; you’re simply learning the layout of the house and finding trap materiel. You can hold three objects at a time, and any object you can pick up will blink when you pass by. Press the F1 key to snag the item, and F2 to cycle among the objects in your inventory. With an object highlighted, you will now see large yellow arrows pointing to where you can deploy the item. Smack the F3 key to lay your cunning snare. Placement options are fixed in the sense that blowtorches can only be placed on door frames, toy cars can only be placed at a few points along a hallway, but there’s no single location for each trap.

So many possibilities.

Placement is a consideration, as many traps will only work one way. You can put a heavy bag of flour on either side of a door, but you’ll need to have some idea of which way you’ll be leading a bandit to actually trigger it. You’ll also need to consider your own path, since you can set off traps yourself in the second Phase – they actually just disappear instead of harming you, but now you’re short one critical defense. You’ll want to leave yourself enough room to jump over floor-based objects and completely bypass wall-mounted ones.

A wristwatch at the top of the screen tracks how much time you have. When the clock strikes 9PM, Phase Two begins. You can’t place any more traps at this point, and instead must avoid/lure both bandits through your house of horrors. Each sprung trap counts as a hit, tracked with tally marks on the main display. After ten hits, that bandit will give up and leave. But if either one of them comes in direct contact with you, you’re captured and the game is over.

I may have been a little flippant about the premise up to this point, but it actually turns out to be surprisingly tense. Memories of Rainbow Six (of all games) came as I found myself having to think quickly on my feet – the plan immediately gone awry when I saw the crooks were coming from two different entrances. Ten hits per bad guy is a lot, so every single trap becomes crucial. If you miss one, or accidentally knock one out of play with your bumbling jumps, you have very few options for recovery.

I’ve shot Harry in the nuts with a BB rifle. This was a family film, by the way.

Having to use yourself as the bait is also a brilliant idea that keeps the player on edge. Traps will not activate unless you are on that same screen, so you can’t prepare a nasty gauntlet and wait in safety for the hits to rack up. This forces you to always be nearby, and always in danger. The bandits will mindlessly lope after you through rigidly linear hallways, but there are a few ways to reverse direction (or escape) if you need to guide them through a different path of torment. First, a successful trigger always stuns them briefly, and you can simply run past them. Second are a few shortcuts (laundry chute, treehouse) that quickly and safely warp you to a different section of the house. You’ll have to use these to taunt both bad guys through every trap.

Nearly every household object turned weapon from the film is present here. Grease guns make slippery puddles, fire extinguishers blow disorienting smoke, and bowling balls land with precision on tender toes. You can use most of the items in exactly the same ways or locations as the movie (like the BBQ starter heating the front door handle), though you get no bonus for following the script. You can also find a BB gun and a spider for emergency uses. The BB gun counts as a hit the first time it’s used, and then briefly pauses a bandit each time after. The spider crawls around on its own randomized path, and freezes a crook (though causes no damage) any time they cross paths.

Graphics look great. Lines are crisp, colors vibrant, and even the few digital stills from the film look sharp. Animations are pretty good for what they’re meant to convey, but there aren’t enough of them. It’s good fun to see the bandits stumble on some marbles before finally falling, but less impressive when you realize this the same reaction to every floor trap. There’s another animation for falling objects, and one for overhead traps, and that’s about it. It’s disappointing, because the painful reactions are pretty much the punchline of the joke. When the results of your traps are limited and canned, it takes away from the potential humor.

Sound is also generic and doesn’t quite fit. There’s a nice spread of support – Adlib, PC speaker, even the MT-32 – but the music itself doesn’t mimic the film’s award-winning score, or the Christmas music it was based off of. There are no effects beyond simple bleeps and bloops either.

The biggest issue is replayability. You’ll need to take a few runs to learn the game and the locations of traps, but once you beat the bandits, there’s not much reason to come back. A stopwatch does run during Phase Two, so you can try to beat your best time, but that’s about it. The house’s floorplan never changes, traps aren’t updated, and there are no additional modes or challenges. I would also imagine once you get the patterns and timing down, the tension I talked about quickly disappears and never returns.

It’s a fun game and a strong premise that, unfortunately, doesn’t last too long. It’s got more in common with an old arcade game (Elevator Action comes to mind), though without the leaderboard or score system to go with. Still, it’s deeper than it seems at first, certainly worth a run through, and a very worthy execution of the license. That’s not too shabby, in my opinion.


The Good

Surprising amount of strategy (especially when you’re expecting none at all) that will require a few attempts to get the hang of. Excellent graphics.

The Bad

Weak sound. Limited reasons to replay it once you’ve sussed out a workable plan. Not to sound like a sadist, but there aren’t enough pain animations.


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