One of the best horror games ever developed came out for the Famicom in 1989 from Capcom. It was a rare, licensed game that was somehow better than its source material.

This piece originally appeared 2/23/15.

Deceptively called Sweet Home, it was an RPG that was loosely based on a Japanese horror film of the same name. Even all these years later, the game mechanics hold up brilliantly and its terrifying atmosphere make it easy to see how it inspired the original Resident Evil.

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In fact, Resident Evil began as a remake of Sweet Home before taking on an undead life of its own. But Sweet Home’s significance goes beyond its historical footnote status as precursor to the Biohazard’s that have become synonymous with survival horror. Much of what made the original Resident Evil a classic comes from this 8-bit romp and its almost constant sense of tension and pressure. I would go so far as to say Resident Evil’s recent struggles are rooted in leaving behind the schematics laid out in Sweet Home.

The Story Behind the Mansion

Horror is often at its most terrifying when it can channel our instincts, arousing both empathy and antipathy in a single stroke. Relatability, particularly for the protagonists, is key, but so is the primeval terror that puts them in mortal danger.

The first Resident Evil excelled because of the sense of mystery behind Spencer Mansion that forced both the gamer and character into a situation where they were helpless, lost, and confused. What in the world was going on? While Jill and Chris’s police training would normally propel them into hero status, even they’re not prepared for what awaits. The situation is made more despondent when they find out the members of S.T.A.R.S. Bravo team were brutally wiped out (with the exception of Rebecca Chambers).

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In Sweet Home, the characters don’t even have a police background. Five regular people (two men and three women who are part of a television documentary crew) enter a mansion in the hopes of finding the lost frescoes of a famous Japanese artist, Ichirō Mamiya, who disappeared many years ago. The crew doesn’t have any weapons in their inventory and are locked in by the evil spirit of Lady Mamiya, making them especially vulnerable.

Even with the limited graphics and palette, the eponymous Sweet Home evoked horror through its dark corridors and disturbing backgrounds. Random battles and gruesome monsters amplified the sense of tension. The infamous Resident Evil cut-to-the-door loading screen had its origins here, as did the anxious sense of anticipation of wondering what was coming next. The house has traps that hurt you, a forerunner to QTEs that require the correct option to avoid dropping lights and obstacles like massive boulders. There are strange puzzles that require strange items to solve, creepy dolls littered throughout, and obstacles that can curse or paralyze the characters who will then need to be rescued. Unlike other RPGs where resurrection is a spell or a bottle away, deaths are permanent in Sweet Home. The stakes are high because, once a character dies, that’s it.

The mansion in Sweet Home is a character all to itself. The long narrow wings are marred by lightning. The lakeside is host to one of the eeriest monuments in the game and requires a short boat ride to reach. The east garden holds the generator and hounds that seem like distant relatives of the terrifying Cerberuses from Resident Evil. The fountain overflows with the blood of its victims, staining the whole room in crimson. The dire milieu goes hand in hand with the mystery of the house. At first, the main point of Sweet Home seems to be to escape the mansion alive, much like Resident Evil. But as the characters progress, the story is revealed through journal entries, talking corpses, skeletons expressing regrets, and blood messages written on the wall. A horrific series of murders is revealed in a poignant scene in the basement sequence.

When your characters first enter, they hear what sounds like a baby crying. They reach an old incinerator, and below is one of those evil dolls that are haphazardly scattered about. The doll suggests children were burned in the incinerator, and we, as an audience, can’t help but wonder if the dolls we’ve encountered in previous rooms are the spirits of those burned kids.

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Once you make your way past the blue spirits that will scatter your team members, you come across five coffins. Inside one of them is a corpse. Two have skeletons. One is empty and the fifth has a key you need to unlock a diary. It’s never explained outright who the dead are, or who placed them in the coffins, but we can make our own conclusions. In that sense, Sweet Home plays out like a documentary, stripping away the layers to uncover the crimes that happened years ago. The only difference is you’re the one documenting, recording, and interpreting the events.

Similar to the jigsaw pieces of the story, the mansion begins to unlock itself. Areas that were previously inaccessible open up with the proper tools; the generator will eventually even turn on the lights. Rooms that took forever to reach have doors you can unlock and that the interconnectedness feels organic, as though the house were not only alive, but changing. You could say it is akin to the Metroidvania style of the original Metroid, the sci-fi world of The Guardian Legend, as well as Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (even if the latter could be extremely obscure at times). But Sweet Home has a design that is arguably tighter and more intuitive to navigate. The labyrinthine nature of the architecture weaves seamlessly together with the claustrophobic terror induced by the story.

One of my favorite parts in Resident Evil was the way they revealed the military nature of the zombies (and various beasts) in the image preparation room (or visual data room). The slides on the projector allowed us to figure out what happened on our own. I was surprised a similar projection room existed in Sweet Home where the image of a couple and their baby burning visually reveals the backstory. In Resident Evil, the moment I realized all the undead were part of an attempt by the Umbrella Corporation to manufacture military biohazards, much of the fear I felt dissipated because of its attempt to ground it in reality. I still loved Resident Evil 2, 4, and Code: Veronica, but I never felt anywhere near as scared knowing the zombies were infected humans (or parasites controlling their minds, as in RE4). With Sweet Home, the supernatural undertones stayed intact, and the harrowing tale remained unexplained by technology to the end.

Cooperation is the Key to Survival

Sweet Home was directed by Tokuro Fujiwara, who also created Ghosts ‘N Goblins and produced the Mega Man series starting with part two (he would also go on to create Breath of Fire). So it’s interesting to see elements of both in the game as in the demonic imagery of the monsters (a la Ghosts ‘N Goblins), and the versatility of the items (as in Mega Man). Players could switch between each of the five heroes—who wield a special item—on the fly.

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Years before Fatal Frame had you exorcising spirits with a Camera Obscura, Sweet Home revealed hidden messages in frescoes with a camera and foes that were weak to its flash. Asuka, who is a reporter and art restorer in the film, uses the vacuum to clear the way long before Luigi was sucking up ghosts with his Poltergust 3000. Rounding out the crew is Emi with her special key (reminiscent of Jill Valentine’s lock pick), Kazuo with his lighter that can burn ropes (as well as killer worms) that impede the path, and Akiko who has a medical kit to cure curses. Their backstory is fleshed out in the Japanese film, though it’s by no means essential to enjoying the game. As Fujiwara stated in an interview: “Even the man who directed the film version of Sweet Home, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, told me not to worry if the game didn’t follow the movie exactly… I got to see the movie and take a tour of the film studio, and use whatever essence I thought would work in the game.”

This freedom, granted by the director, allowed Fujiwara to innovate, capturing the spirit of the film without being tied to it.

The five party members have a limited inventory, carrying only two items on top of a weapon and their primary accessory. You need to keep most of the crew together, but they almost always have to be split into teams of three and two (the maximum in a group is three). This necessitates lots of teamwork, inventory management, and cooperation. This could have easily become drudgery, but the designers used the limitations to create opportunities for some clever gameplay while also contributing heavily to the sense of tension. You never knew what you would need to keep or throw away, and one misplaced item might require a trek back through chambers full of pus-dripping ghouls.

In the lakeside, there are a bunch of thorns that will damage you unless you have a pair of gloves. But you only get one, meaning you have to take a single party of three all the way through (which equals six total items minus the one for the glove). You need several wood logs to cross over little rivers, so do you drop the tonics (which cure you), or leave behind a rope that you might need shortly afterward? Considering that this area had the toughest enemies yet, the sense of peril was heightened.

The permanent deaths were especially painful because of the limited item slots. Replacements could be found for the various special tools, but that took up another slot in the item inventory, essentially amounting to three lost slots. It’s fascinating how item management quickly becomes intertwined with a vested interested in keeping each of the characters alive. Survival horror might as well be called item management horror.

If you’ve ever been frustrated at having a huge cast of party members in an RPG but never getting to use them in battle, you’ll be pleased with Sweet Home, which has one of the best RPG battle mechanics ever developed in turn-based games. Sweet Home has a ‘call’ option that allows you to gain the help of other members to assist you during combat. If you have a team of two facing off against a particularly vicious foe, you can call the other members. Assuming there three in the other team, if they reach you in time, they can jump in, upping the odds from 2 against 1 to 5 against 1.

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This also has the added benefit of sharing experience points, as well as giving a sense of unity expressed through the gameplay. You really felt like you were part of a team helping each other with every step and that extended to the many puzzles that required cooperation, as in a room with one of the most powerful weapons in the game. A player has to drop into deadly quicksand in order to retrieve it, while another member has to stand on the plank above and use a rope to rescue that person when they start to sink in.

With each added level, the characters became more powerful. Grinding was never excessive anyway, despite all the random battles. And sure, Sweet Home never had that feeling of isolation that came from controlling one player, as it did in Resident Evil, but there was even greater dread at the prospect of losing anyone or being separated from the group.

Monster Art

One of the subtly unsettling aspects of the Sweet Home is its decision to use the same character sprite regardless of the direction they’re going. In most top-down games, like say The Legend of Zelda, it’ll show the back of the protagonist’s body when they move up. Moving left or right will trigger the direction’s corresponding sprites. In Sweet Home, it’s the same sprite, just pointed in a different direction, and this is particularly unnerving when the character is moving up, as it looks like they’re upside down. I don’t know whether this was because of time limitations or an intentional effect, but it adds to the unnerving feeling.

All the weapons you find are melee items, sometimes placed close to corpses. Axes, spears, and knives are all scattered on the ground, which makes you wonder: what were they used for and who were they used against?

The monster art in the game is some of the best around, particular chills-credit going to the “Man” who starts off as a male turned away from you. When he turns to attack, his mutilated face with flesh stripped off it accosts you with a snarl. Below are images of some of the enemies you’ll face.

Is That a Baby Crying?

Have you tried watching a horror movie without sound? There’s something comedic, almost vaudevillian about seeing a monster kill without sound effects and music. Survival horror can’t work without music and Junko Tamiya composed tracks that were both ominous and catchy. The sense of unease and pressure is palpable in the rapid beats of the battle sequences, especially when you’re calling the second team to help you.

The previously mentioned basement scene has some of the most chilling music in the game, an enigmatic chant that hints at the history of blood burned into the walls. In the dungeon area, the random echoes portend unspoken agony that are difficult to bear and evoke discomfort with something researchers have noted as the horror of non-linear sounds (which in nature are the ultimate auditory indication of fear). Throughout the mansion, there’s an oppressive undercurrent, a discordant fear that wrecks the players. I’ve included a link to a Youtube video of the OST above, though keep in mind it doesn’t have as much significance without the context of the gameplay like a cutscene where one of the characters has his skin melt.

Conclusion

Sweet Home fused gaming genres, borrowing from RPGs, adventure games and horror, plunging into the macabre in a way that most other games rarely have. The gruesome imagery in part explains why it never made its way over to western audiences, although we would feel its influence through the Resident Evil games. If there’s an adventure game/RPG fusion that deserves a sequel, or even a remake, this is it.

Just as the frescoes reveal hidden text with photographs, each time I’ve played through the game, I’ve found an element I hadn’t noticed before, a deeper meaning in a title with limited exposition. I am still in awe of the level design and the way the designers help you discover the story rather than to just be told it. I also love the fact that the game takes place entirely in the mansion. The house is, in essence, one big, convoluted and surreal level, the perfect allegory for the tragedy that is Sweet Home.

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Very few games from the Nintendo era featured different endings based on who survives among your team, as well as the ability to save anywhere, a gracious allowance considering the difficulty. That strange melding holds up even now and feels as natural and comfortable as going home. Just don’t get too comfortable, no matter how sweet a home it seems.

Peter Tieryas is a character artist who has worked on The Good Dinosaur, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2. His novel, Bald New World, was listed as one of Buzzfeed’s 15 Highly Anticipated Books as well as Publisher Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of Summer 2014. He loves writing about retro games, the lives of parasitic bugs, and Bohemian Rhapsody among other things.