It’s time to talk about time.
On both the micro and macro level, time is the enemy of all gamers. Videogames, unlike many other entertainment mediums with strict “running time” limits, can have wildly variable playtimes. Super Mario Bros. and Persona 5 are both great games, but one can be finished in about fifteen minutes, and the other takes roughly that long to make it through the first menu. This can be simultaneously a feature (“Wow, movies end in two hours, I’m going to be playing this game forever!”) and a bug (“I just want to go to bed, why is this stupid dungeon still going?”). Time keeps on slipping, and nobody wants to “waste” their time getting up to this boss that keeps murdering your digital avatar and turn it all off (without saving!) because you have no idea how long it will be before you can beat this damn Wolfgang character. Sunk time fallacy: the game.
This approach to time also bizarrely encapsulates how gaming works in the real world: you only have so much time to play so many games. Your more dedicated (re: insane) gamers have backlogs, aka a list of games that are right there and ready to go, but maybe I’ll get to it later. I have to beat this 80 hour JRPG before I get to that 90 hour JRPG, and then, maybe, I’ll get to the portable rerelease of the 120 hour JRPG. … Are we there yet? Look, I own a lot of videogames, and, while, in my heart of hearts I know this isn’t true, there’s some part of my brain that truly believes I’m going to play through every damn videogame I’ve ever purchased, from Deadly Towers to Persona Q. And the only thing holding me back is that I have, ya know, a life, and maybe there are rare occasions when I’d rather be stomping around the neighborhood with some (real life, fleshy) friends, and not just exploring my 17,000th dungeon. In short, my only problem is time, and, if I had more of it, I’d have beaten that trilogy of Mass Effects. And, yes, if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that one only has less time for hobbies as they grow older, not more, so, ya know, I’m hoping I can get to replaying Mega Man Legends before my thumbs fall off in the upcoming, inevitable Cyber Wars.
Given all this, it’s kind of surprising more games don’t have set time limits. Yes, you’ll see this in games based on sports with quarter limits (like the footsball) and other competition-based games (hi, Smash Bros!), but even something like Street Fighter and its round timers is basically a lie. This match will be over in a maximum of ninety seconds (times three or so rounds)… except in one player mode (assuming the game has a one player mode) you know damn well that beating M. Bison could take the rest of the afternoon if you’re not that familiar with your chosen fighter. And suddenly ninety seconds has become nine hours and don’t you have to wake up in the morning for your wedding or something? Ugh, stupid M. Bison.
Today’s game actually does have a set time limit. Home Alone for the NES is a game that will always take twenty real world minutes, because the point of the game is to “survive” for twenty minutes (presumably the amount of time it takes for the local constabulary to arrive). Save for the miracle of pausing, a game of Home Alone will always only take a maximum of twenty minutes.
And it will be the longest twenty minutes of your life.
It’s one thing to say a game will only last twenty minutes, but it’s another thing entirely to be told that the “win condition” is surviving for twenty minutes. What could be “this should be a fun way to kill twenty minutes” quickly becomes an event wherein you are watching the clock like a hawk, because every second “wasted” is a second closer to your goal. What’s more, the basic gameplay of Home Alone encourages the player to not play the game. Kevin McCallister must thwart the (two) Wet Bandits with a variety of interesting traps (okay, they’re all just boring squares that Kevin drops on the floor, but they’re supposed to represent interesting traps), and… there’s no other goal. You’re just dealing with a pair of immortal, but stunnable, enemies, and you don’t have to do anything other than endure their onslaught. As a result, it seems like the best option is to find some corner somewhere, block the only entrances with a trap or two, and then, when the thieves finally come calling, trip ‘em and run over to the other corner. While you’re waiting for the burglars to arrive… may as well grab a soda or something, I don’t know. The entire point is that you’re trying to kill time, and any time the Wet Bandits are over at the other side of the building falling over a picture of a bucket, you’re in the clear. Another thirty seconds off the clock while Kevin just sits there! Yay!
Except… well, I have some bad news here, but watching your 8-bit hero doing nothing while you’re playing a game that encourages doing nothing… it’s just a little bit boring. In fact, when you’re a kid sitting in your basement playing a videogame wherein you watch a kid sitting in his basement organizing an inventory of boxes… Okay, that’s a lot boring.
And this is why, while a time limited game may be fun, a game that is dedicated to running out the clock is maybe the worst idea in gaming. When time is the overt enemy in a videogame, the only design options are resetting the clock as a punishment (which, obviously, guess what happens when Kevin is caught by a crook) and rewarding the player through… wasting time. Considering videogames are built to be pretty much the opposite of work (… fun?), the concept of watching the second hand click by like you’re waiting for Mr. Slate’s assistant to pull the cord on that bird is the antithesis of the way any videogame should work. Videogames are supposed to be an enjoyable way to spend time, not a way to squander your life doing nothing. Every minute watching Kevin loaf around his tree house is a minute I could be loafing around my tree house!
Maybe there is a place for “limited time” games. Maybe people would enjoy such experiences, as we live in a very regimented society (“I have exactly a half hour before Post-Apocalyptic Sexy CW Teens comes on, I wonder if I’ll see a save point before then…”). Maybe such a thing would be a hit. But, in the meanwhile, we have Home Alone, a game that reminds us all that when time is the enemy in a videogame, boredom is the only abstract concept that wins.
FGC #267 Home Alone (NES)
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System for the purpose of this review. For the record, there are many other versions across many other systems (probably to be expected of the most popular movie for kids of… No, I’m not going to look up what year, it will make me feel too old), but they all have vaguely different gameplay. In some of the versions, you actually have to do stuff.
- Number of players: I’m kind of surprised they never made a Home Alone movie that, like, featured two kids? Maybe they’re left home alone, and they don’t like each other, so they have to learn to work together when the bad guys show up. A lesson is learned, and someone has to walk on broken glass. Just like Die Hard. Errrr… anyway… one player.
- Favorite Trap: I guess the spider? All the traps seem to be exactly the same, and the only difference is how long a bandit is knocked down. As a result, the more active traps (like our friend the spider) don’t move at all, and, even more unfortunately, you can swing paint cans from the ceiling. Lame.
- Get ‘em early: Considering the Wet Bandits start all of five feet from Kevin and move with a hedgehog-like swiftness, I wonder how many people never got longer than five seconds into this game.
- Did you know? There are apparently two different versions of this game: one where Kevin appears on the game over screen, and one where it simply says “Oh no!” without Kevin’s screaming face. Apparently I own the “only oh no” version. Considering how easy it is to get captured, I’m kind of amazed that no one noticed this “glitch” on the kill screen. Then again, this game was probably only made by like six dudes anyway…
- Would I play again: I just don’t have twenty minutes to waste.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Mario Bros! For the Atari 2600! It’s the classic Nintendo game in classic Atari form! Please look forward to it!