Sweet Home is a game that Shinji Mikami considers a massive influence on Resident Evil. Based on a movie released alongside the game in 1989, Sweet Home tells the story of a group of people who venture into the mansion of the recently missing artist Mamiya Ichirou to take pictures of his work, specifically a series of magnificent frescoes. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned and they soon find themselves trapped inside, looking for an escape. Just to make things worse, the ghost of the artist’s wife haunts the place, along with an assortment of horrific beasties. So, as a precursor to survival horror, how scary is Sweet Home, or perhaps more importantly, how scary can horror be on an 8-bit system with 48 colors and five sound channels?
The influence this game had on Resident Evil is clear from the very start. From the mansion setting, the puzzles encountered within and, perhaps most tellingly, the short sequence that plays whenever you open a door. The infamous ‘door slowly opening’ scene is here and is just as initially charming but unskippable as it was in the PlayStation games it helped to spawn.
Despite this link to the survival horror genre, this is very much a traditional RPG in the style of Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy; Resident Evil rooted its gameplay in Alone in the Dark. You’ll find yourself negotiating just as many menus as the traps and monsters, which pop up in random battles as you explore the mansion.
You take control of five characters, Kazuo, Emi, Asuka, Akiko, and Taro, each one with different attributes and unique skills, who must work together in order to survive the horrors within Ichirou Manor. For example, Kazuo carries a lighter around with him, which is useful for brighten up dark passages, as well as setting things on fire. Akiko is a nurse and your only source of curing should one of your party get poisoned or injured by an enemy. Taro carries a camera, which is needed to take pictures of the frescos painted around the mansion, while Asuka, for reasons probably best left to herself, wields a vacuum cleaner--for vacuuming stuff, of course.
Emi, the little girl, is probably the most useful of them all, as she is the ‘master of unlocking’ and has a key that opens most of the locked doors. Each person has their uses, which is why it is handy to keep them around. A tough challenge, as, unlike most RPGs, where all you need is a phoenix down and a party member’s demise is merely a temporary inconvenience, in Sweet Home - death is permanent.
Obviously, if a character dies, they take their ability with them to the grave, so in the interest of fairness and balance, hidden around the mansion are items which allow other members to use the skills of the others, but you have to find them first. This is easier said than done, so keeping everyone on their feet is a must. There are even sections where spirits float around and collision with one will take that person and dump them in a random location, sometimes far from the others. You suddenly find one of your party alone and you have to make the decision either to backtrack or try and rejoin them on your own. The tension builds, you feel vulnerable and suddenly, these 8-bit pixels start to draw you in. You feel nervous. You feel scared.
The story also casts a sinister veil over the proceedings. It is drip fed to you via notes scattered throughout the game, bloody scrawls on the walls and the occasional talking skeleton, detailing the final hours of a team sent in prior to you with the same goal, and hinting at something far bigger than just some traps and monsters. The reason behind Lady Mamiya becoming this vengeful spirit is absolutely brutal - a real rarity in games from this era - and something that is left open to your interpretation after the end credits have rolled. It’s without a doubt one of the more adult storylines on the system, holding it’s own alongside modern horror classics like Silent Hill and making a mockery of a lot of its peers.
The notes you find also mention that the way out is something to do with the frescoes, so you begin exploring the various areas in search of them. Video game designers are never ones to believe in the old saying ‘strength in numbers’ and you have to split your team up into two parties of two and three from the start. Should one of them run into a difficult battle along the way, you can call upon the other team for help. You actually have to run the other team to their location to join in the battle, against a tight time limit. This makes for cautious play, keeping both teams within a short distance of one another and causes a couple of adrenaline pumping runs through the building when you are up against the ropes and just have to make it.
Of course, if you don’t make it, you can always pray.
Praying is essentially the equivalent of ‘magic’ found in most other RPGs. When selected, you have to stop a fluctuating power bar to decide on how strong its effect will be. There are also trap sequences, such as a falling chandelier, where you can pray for help when you move to avoid it. Unfortunately, these traps do so little damage you’ll find yourself not really caring whether the chandelier crushes you or not – they just become an annoyance. The difficulty of the enemies tends to make steep increases in certain areas, so expect to spend a bit of time grinding out battles until you are strong enough to overcome them. It’s power-leveling and, worst of all, it’s artificial difficult which is hateful, regardless of what game you are playing..
Oh, and for those paying attention, you can add "the missing team in the mansion before you" and the "storyline unfolding through reading notes" to the list of Resident Evil comparisons. In fact, one of those notes describes the place as "the home of residing evil." Cute.
As an RPG, Sweet Home is competent. Compared to other NES RPGs, especially the Final Fantasy series, it’s very short, mainly due to the restrictive setting of the mansion, although there’s multiple endings, dependent on taking certain actions during your playthrough and specific party members staying alive. It also features a few gruesome cutscenes, which are more than likely the reason this game wasn’t released outside of its native Japan. The gameplay is hardly groundbreaking, but the unique setting and unsettling tone make it well worth a look.
As one of the earliest precursors to the "survival horror" games seen today, it is a true curio and one that offers insight into one of videogames’ biggest franchises.