[It Came from Japan! is a series where I seek out and review the weirdest, most original and enjoyable titles that never left the Land of the Rising Sun.]
I love haunted house films. I hate haunted house games. They scare me a bit too much. Okay, I guess I love them too!
Sweet Home is ideal for a genuine Sissypants McGee such as myself. Spooky but not terrifying. Gruesome but not disgusting. The limitations of the NES keep it from being truly horrific, but Capcom still managed to design a game that gets under your skin. However, the reason you'll remember Sweet Home long after you play it has more to do with the quality of the game itself. More than being just an early example of horror tropes in gaming, Sweet Home is one of the very best games ever made -- RPG, adventure, Nintendo, Capcom, whatever.
You need to seek this one out. The nightmares will be worth it!
Sweet Home (Famicom)
Released: December 15, 1989
Current value: $15-30
Fan translation: Yes
For fans of: Resident Evil, Silent Hill, EarthBound
The only times I've ever heard Sweet Home being discussed was within the context of the survival horror genre. It's always thrown into survival horror retrospectives, mentioning its influence without really stating what Sweet Home is about or what makes it so special. I sense I am not alone in blindly accepting its placement in gaming history without looking into its actual value as a game. I had to correct this, and hot damn, am I happy that I did! If more had played it, I imagine Sweet Home would be mentioned in the same breath as EarthBound and Persona for showing what can be done within an RPG once tradition and standards are forsaken.
Sweet Home is a lot of things, but mostly it's an RPG. Or maybe mostly an adventure game? Like Clock Tower, Alone in the Dark, and survival horror games that followed, Sweet Home is hard to classify. It is best thought of as PlayStation-era, slow-paced survival horror where RPG battles take the place of third-person combat. Great, now you are thinking of Parasite Eve! See how pointless it is to describe a game this original?
The game is an adaptation of a Japanese horror film by the same name, which makes Sweet Home an easy candidate for best film-to-game adaptation ever. The movie itself isn't very good, but it shares the same plot, so watching it would spoil the game. Just ignore it. The game came out the same day as the film, which makes me wonder just how long the it was in development. Nothing about it feels rushed in any way. Sure, it isn't very long (15 hours, maybe), but it feels perfectly paced and full of variety in setting and action.
The game opens up with a documentary crew walking to a remote, deserted mansion. They have been sent on a job to preserve the deceased Ichiro Mamiya's paintings (or frescoes) within and come back with some photos. However, their plan is immediately thwarted when the ghost of Ichiro's wife appears and blocks the exit with debris. She's not very nice, and as you unravel the mansion's secrets, you learn she was even worse when she was alive.
This introduction is done with minimal dialog and exposition. Within a minute, you are in control of the group and thrown into the game without any idea of how it works. Without looking at a guide or knowing anything prior, I was able to figure things out pretty quickly -- I imagine most players familiar with older adventure and RPG games will have a similar experience. Talking to characters, looking at objects, and grouping teammates are awkward at first, but they hardly sour the experience.
Hunt them frescoes!
At all times, you have access to five characters who can go solo or be grouped together into teams of two or three. This is important as each character has an item that you will need in order to progress. Akiki has a med kit that will heal any illness suffered in battle, Kazou has a lighter to burn away ropes that block paths, Emi unlocks doors, Taguchi photographs the paintings, and Asuka dusts them and cleans debris with a vacuum. Yeah, I'm not sure why a documentary crew brought a vacuum cleaner but HEY, VIDEOGAMES!
You'll always be 15 or so minutes away from needing a given party member's ability, so you'll never want to keep your crew too far apart from one another. It takes some time to get used to the abilities and how they work, but they'll eventually click. When they do, Sweet Home becomes a brilliant adventure.
Along with these character items, you'll also pick-up other items needed to progress. Figuring out their use is part of the fun. There are times when you'll have to struggle between deciding on carrying an extra potion or a pipe -- not that you have any idea when you would ever use a pipe. The game has a fair amount of backtracking, but it didn't bother me since it gave me an opportunity to level up my characters without the need to grind... EVER!!! We are talking about an NES-era RPG, people! Do you understand how crazy/awesome this is!?!
Battles are another good reason to keep your party together. As you wander the mansion, you'll be thrown into random encounters that will bring up a Dragon Quest-like battle screen. You can attack, run away, pray, or use items, about as basic as it gets. Prayer, your magic attack, drains prayer points, which are also used for puzzles. The only way to recover them or your health are with tonics, which you'll find in random rooms across the mansion. Think of Resident Evil's herbs and you won't be too far off.
It's fascinating to discover where RE got all these ideas from and to see how well they work within the confines of an RPG. You think surviving off a limited amount of tonics would drive you mad, but the game is so well-designed that you'll always find one when you are on the verge of dying. Like Half-Life and Dead Space, Sweet Home does such a great job of drawing out tension by providing health at just the right moment. I never ran into a problem, but I always felt like my situation was hopeless. The game gets easier by the end, but the bulk of it requires you to play smart and use tonics sparingly. If you don't, a character will suffer permanent death. If you choose to go on, you'll be able to find replacement items for the deceased character's key item (e.g. you can use pills in place of Akiki's med kit).
However, you'll want to reload that save for the better ending, since you only get it if all five characters stay alive. A full party also makes the game much easier. Item management is pretty difficult with only two slots per character, so you'll want all of them alive to save you some serious backtracking. Thankfully, the game has a save anywhere feature -- I can't think of many console games that have this at all, not to mention one from the '80s. I can only imagine how spoiled Japanese gamers must have felt when they want from this to Final Fantasy IV's traditional town and item shop structure -- which Sweet Home doesn't have since it all takes place in a mansion. The game is nothing but fighting, puzzle-solving, and exploration. As a result, you'll always feel like you are progressing and just around the corner from a great narrative twist.
Sure, "Metroidvania" sounds good, but Sweet Home deserves to be recognized to be the first game to fully realize the potential of a cohesive game world that connects beginning to end (even if Metroid attempted it first). The structure of the game is absolutely amazing. Every area is full of secrets, shortcuts, and memorable "a-ha!"-moments. Even within the first area, you'll come across doors that are locked and items that you can't reach. You keep looking at them, wondering if you are doing something wrong. Meanwhile, you struggle against every enemy encounter.
Eventually, you'll unlock passages back to the first room, retrieve that awesome sword in the distance, and get through every battle with one attack. I can't think of another game that so seamlessly connects such a large area together.
Nevertheles, the mansion always feels unpredictable as you go farther out and into darker areas. The change in scenery and music helps give every area its own vibe while feeling part of a consistent whole. By the game's end, you'll feel like you went on one long, crazy journey. The top-down view of Sweet Home and RPG approach make it possible for the game to have an intricate layout that is superior to those of Resident Evil and Super Metroid.
Read between the lines (and paintings)
The best games on the NES weren't known for their stories. In fact, other than adventure games, no games back then were. I wouldn't say Sweet Home has a particularly original or complex story, but the way it is told is innovative for its time and keeps it from feeling dated. BioShock may have popularized audio/diary logs in recent years, but Sweet Home did this way before anyone else.
Most of the game's story is conveyed through secret messages, diary entries, and notes laid around the mansion. Unlike Resident Evil, each of these are limited to a sentence or two, so you won't have to read pages full of nonsense in order to get to the point. At the same time, important notes can often be vague enough to leave open multiple interpretations of the game's story. If you ignore most of the notes, you'll still be able to follow the plot, but you'll be missing out on the details.
Another storytelling innovation in Sweet Home is the use of cinematic moments that restrict the player's actions. These scenes force you to play a role as you follow a character and watch events unfold. One scene has you following a strange man, while you trade lines of dialog. I was blown away by it, since I can't think of another game of its era that tried to do anything remotely similar. It's a great storytelling device that pulls you into the game's world and makes you feel vulnerable. The same can be said of the game's cutscenes, which depict some gruesome imagery -- there is a reason this never came to the West!
The end result of all these elements is a story that feels believable and haunting. You'll buy into this bizarre world and its characters. I can only imagine the brilliant things the development team could have done in a Super Nintendo sequel.
Yeah, that right there ^^^^ is kind of gross.
Since you can't have dogs jumping through windows or surround sound audio on the Nintendo, you can't really have jump scares. Sweet Home may not be the scariest game ever (hint: this guy is playing it), but it carries a surreal, unsettling atmosphere despite the limitations of the hardware.
Capcom made the most of the system and managed to craft a horror experience unlike any other at the time. The music isn't very melodic, but it sets a foreboding tone. The enemy portraits in battle are vile and creepy. Every element of Sweet Home works to build a distinct mood to make it a timeless horror classic.
The game has so many clever concepts that add to the overall adventure. For example, you'll need to use wax candles in dark rooms for the first couple hours. This limits your view and leaves you susceptible to traps and other threats. By the time you turn on the mansion's generator and restore power, you'll feel a sense of relief -- one you can imagine the fictional characters sharing.
Sure, Resident Evil was originally intended to be a Sweet Home sequel, and the games share many elements (even the door opening sequences). However, Sweet Home should be recognized on its own for being a damn good game with its own unique setting and aesthetic.
This is the part where I gush more about how much I like this game. Sorry, but I have to ...
Unlike most other mediums, tracing genres to their origin is usually little more than a nostalgia journey within the realm of videogames. You'd be hard-pressed to find a kid now who would take to the original Dragon Quest or Metroid. Sweet Home is the exception to this train of thought.
Even though Capcom's 1989 Nintendo classic is the prototype for survival horror, it is in many ways every bit as good as Silent Hill 2 or Resident Evil 2. It's a strange title that merges so many elements of games we love (Metroid, Resident Evil, Dragon Quest, Maniac Mansion, etc.) that it feels fresh even in 2011. It's a nearly flawless game that isn't only one of the best JRPGs of all time, it's also the best game to ever be released on the Famicom/NES. Who knew? Perhaps Japan.
Can you think of another game from the NES era that scared you?
How bad do you want another game like this (a game that blends Earthbound with Resident Evil)?
Who is grosser: Dude with boils or throwing-up guy?
[C'mon, this isn't funny!]