I find it immeasurably hard to write about Sweet Home, though I love the game and feel it's largely been overlooked by gaming culture I also know that in the past it has had a lot of attention from horror enthusiasts – anytime there's a Horror Hall of Fame the game comes up and I've read numerous 'best of' horror articles that mention it.
But I do feel it deserves writing about, especially since, even in retrospect, it's still a solid horror experience – not something you can say about a lot of horror games from the 80's/90's.
Though I never played it myself when it came out (I was 2, so go figure), growing up an RE fan and stumbling upon the game one day I felt like much of what I had always loved about the Resident Evil games had been distilled into a single game, with all the survival aspects increased and the difficulty amped up – so if you weren't creeped out by the atmosphere you were likely worrying about low health or where to find supplies.
Something that, relatively speaking, has stood the test of time well.
Most people if they know the game will know the game as Resident Evil before Resident Evil, and possibly the fact the game contains the line 'in the house of Residing Evil', an obvious link to the franchise that would later develop out of it. But whereas Resident Evil was an attempt to marry a high-budget Hollywood action film with traditional Japanese horror themes, Sweet Home was pure Japanese horror – psychological terror, wrapped up in a bizarre ghost story.
Originally based off a rather obscure Japanese horror movie of the same name, apart from using the general plot and character names that's pretty much where the similarities end: The house in the film seems more like a country home, whereas the house in the game is a literal mansion, with dozens of rooms and several floors – not to mention a balcony view of what looks like some trees at some distance below; there is only one antagonist in the film – lady Mamiya, whereas the mansion in the game is full of monsters and paranormal forces out to get the characters; and the events of the film seem over in a night, the events of the game seem almost like an expedition, given the size of the mansion and how long it takes for the characters to escape.
To this day I'm still unsure why this film was picked to be the basis of the game, or indeed whether there is any real connection (apart from some details being similar) between the two, but for whatever reason it was a good excuse to make a scary RPG.
So what does the game do well?
Like any good horror game the first thing that strikes you about Sweet Home when you play it is the atmosphere, the build up starts almost the second you start the game but it's only after a few minutes of wandering that it begins to get to you. Perhaps it's the simplicity of the Nes music, but the simple jarring tones of the background music can be incredibly unnerving, especially with the intermittent flashes of lightning that occur as you wander round the mansion - whilst we're on the subject of music the 'encounter' music is also somewhat disconcerting, the screen seems to freeze when you meet something, then the music starts and it takes a second or two before you know what you're fighting.
It's hard to explain in words, but there's a subtle tense gap between encountering something and the actual fight, not helped by the variety of enemies you can face – some very weak, others capable of killing you in a few strikes, dependent on your level. Aswell as the music though there are a lot of visual props and events common to horror (both games and movies), the moving of furniture to attack you, ghost sightings, weird noises, random animals round the mansion, blood scrawled walls, corpses that come to life, hidden messages. All this whilst you walk the creaking boards of a dishevelled and apparently near collapsing mansion.
The game is also pretty difficult – generally, as the enemies you encounter can both do a lot of damage and inflict dangerous status ailments but also because an integral mechanic to the puzzle solving (and something that obviously inspired elements of RE's design) is the carrying around of certain special items.
You have five playable characters who you can assemble into parties, and each has an item with some use around the mansion – a lighter to burn rope that blocks off corridors and doorways, a first aid pack to heal status ailments (but not recover health), a key to open the most common type of locks, a vacuum cleaner to tidy up piles of debris that get in your way or clean frescos, and finally a camera to take pictures of said frescos (important to solving the mansion's puzzles and progressing.)
But the game also features permadeath – individual characters can die, yet your game continues, yet those same character's items can't be recovered. However you can find replacement items for all the special items – a replacement key, disposable camera, matches, brush, pills; which is helpful, but losing a character and picking up replacement items comes with it's own worries – as each of those replacement items takes up a slot of your now smaller inventory space.
So you either have to be very careful about keeping everybody's health up or levelling up to decrease damage (because they can die fairly easily, especially early on), or be willing to put up with the loss of inventory space and have to hunt down replacement items.
For a survival horror fan, and somebody who appreciates a game where you do have to worry about the bare essentials of survival, this aspect of Sweet Home's design is probably one of the best. Ease of play has always been a big factor in games, and as a result realism often loses out because of it – typically this has meant that games don't tend to make you worry about every bullet or monitor your health constantly, because there will always be more ammo or more health packs further ahead. And while it's true if you know where to look there are enough tonics (the game's health packs) about, the game still forces you to be very conscious of everything that you do and everything that happens to your team.
I think the fact it's an RPG aswell lends itself to this, everything is persistent, there really aren't any second chances or continues - and even on subsequent playthroughs when you know where things are there's not much of an appreciable decrease in the difficulty.
Something a little more minor, but that I think needs noting because it's awesome: The 'surprise events', that dot the game. It's something I think really caught me by surprise when I played it first and still really enjoy, just because of how tense it makes walking the corridors – not only is there the chance you'll run into a monster but you're likely to be hit by random objects. In many respects they're like an early version of the QTEs from RE4; they usually involve some sort of momentary poltergeist activity that you can't foresee - the most common I think is a chandelier falling from the ceiling but there's also spears that come from nowhere and falling statues, and you generally have no idea when something's going to happen.
I like them, not only because they break up the wandering that characterises much of the game but also because I think they help emphasise how hostile the entire mansion is to you - it's not just monsters you have to worry about but environmental hazards aswell. The whole house is against you.
Rather bizarrely, I also think the story of the game is pretty interesting, though the film sets it up as nothing more than a lame ghost story being an excuse for some people to run about a house for an hour or so in the game there's actually some dimension to the story. You start off wondering who this ghost woman is, and why she's trying to keep you out, and indeed who left all these clues hidden in frescos.
It becomes something of a mystery, and as you struggle to survive you find yourself also more and more interested in finding the solution.
So what isn't so great about the game...?
Well, there's the obvious stuff: being a Nes game means you won't be experiencing any mind-blowing visuals or dramatic action sequences at any point in Sweet Home, everything's fairly low key, very slow - something that actually compliments the horror aspect of the game.
It also means that sprites and graphics get reused A LOT, I think there are maybe ten or so enemies in the game, and they all get palette swapped at some point. It's not a huge problem, and given that you're playing a Nes game it comes with the territory, but still.
While a good point the difficulty can also be frustrating, if you don't save regularly then you're likely to lose progress very easily, for some the aforementioned lack of hand-holding could be seen as a big problem – though arguably unlike many games that came out after it Sweet Home is very easily to pick up and play, especially if you're familiar with how RPGs work.
Along similar lines some aspects of the game – some of what makes it so difficult, also can make it quite frustrating. Some of the puzzles are confusing and require going round in circles to figure out – all whilst constantly having random encounters with potentially very dangerous enemies. You will find yourself scratching your head a lot and taking awhile to work puzzles out, and for some, especially those who are used to games where you're told pretty much what to do next or given a clue of some kind this will be very annoying.
On top of this, one of the pretty good (but also incredibly frustrating) mechanics the game has is that some rooms feature poltergeists that can carry you away – at no point do these ghosts ever directly cause you damage, but they do move you to other rooms in the house, potentially forcing you to backtrack, through numerous random encounters, all the way to where you were; the worst part being that each ghost only takes a single character away and later on you can have multiple ghosts passing through a room, each going to a different room. They're mostly easy to avoid (most present themselves as swirling blue lights that circle a room, the other kind resembles a woman who cuts across a room) but it can be incredibly frustrating when you're near completing a puzzle and a single character gets dragged off.
Arguably though it does add to the sense of fear, and accomplishment, when you finally do beat the game. Afterall a lot of what makes horror is frustration and challenge, the not-knowing what's ahead even when you have to struggle on.
For those who want a challenging survival horror experience and don't mind Nes graphics and gameplay Sweet Home can be a very rewarding experience, I've never considered myself somebody who was particularly interested in anything pre-Snes era (atleast in terms of console stuff) but I enjoyed Sweet Home a lot. It's a simple game that does something especially well that many horror games have given up trying to achieve years ago – actually scaring you. It also represents a corner stone in design in what would become the genre of survival horror and of the original Resident Evil games.