It is now the 25th anniversary of the first video game to make a generation of spastic kids grip their controllers in a sweaty-palmed panic attack. It is a game that filled me with nightmares and sent me running from the room on multiple occasions. It is a game that filled me with such anxiety that it was nearly two decades before I would willingly revisit it.
In one of the first outings from Bethesda Softworks (yes, that Bethesda), the NES was the platform that received one of eight different adaptations of the John Hughes film, but by far the most challenging and forward thinking.
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.
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 in this upper-class Chicago suburb 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. There are small traps that Kevin can pick up around the house and place where he chooses, but there are a very limited number of single use traps and Kevin can use each only once. This becomes a real nightmare when you realize that the two super-speed manslaughter bros are impossible to kill. Again, they can only be incapacitated for a few moments at a time, usually allowing Kevin to escape from a dead end room— possibly down a rain gutter or across a suspension wire to his tree house.
Here’s a shot of the complete game map, featuring the three story home, basement, and yard:
And that’s it. You have to survive, and there is no way to hide. There is no safety or seclusion— and you must protect this house! The limited uses of traps means that, without careful planning (and indeed inevitably) you will run out of tacks and wires and marbles, and just be making mad dashes from floor to floor, all while handicapped on speed and double encumbered while using stairs.
Here’s a speedrun of the game (although the world record and any successful game are the same amount of time; 20 minutes exactly):
While Home Alone visibly shook me as a child, it fails to retain the kind of acclaim I believe it deserves. This game was wholly singular in its vision, structure, and uncompromising difficulty. A loss was always a complete loss— even at minute 19 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 brutally singular in its focus and they would often come at you from multiple sides simultaneously, like the “clever girl” raptors of Jurassic Park.
When I look at modern survival horror like Outlast where you exist without fight and only with flight, it seems to stem directly from the game experience of an early 90s NES film adaptation. It’s also worth noting that this is a helluva film adaptation to boot, dropping you into the first hand experience of the child protagonists’ entire third act. When compared against the other versions of Home Alone games built for more advanced platforms— side scrollers all — it’s pretty clear how historically important to the form and genre of interactive fear this home invasion caper became; so much so that its shadow looms large 25 years later.