As a kid, going to Blockbuster with my older brother was the highlight of the month; since we weren’t rich enough to keep buying new games, we had to recycle our games or rent them. Like most normal people, my mother got paid every two weeks; so every two to three weeks, as a family, we went to our local Blockbuster. My brother and I ended up gravitating towards games that looked interesting based on the cover, description, or if it was multiplayer.
Buying or renting games meant getting ones that were either age appropriate for me, the speculation if it would be good, or ones where my brother and I could co-op. To give a little back story/context my mother was a tad bit over protective when she was raising us. Hell, I wasn’t even allowed to play with toy guns, be it Nerf or water, as my mother’s thinking was it would turn me into a killer. So when the few times I could actually go to an arcade without my mom, I would play games such as Time Crisis and Virtua Cop, but especially House of the Dead. This might explain why I’ve never really had the accessibility to have a sweet love affair with any Horror games besides my occasional House of the Dead. So for 1989’s Sweet Home, this is wish fulfillment on multiple levels.
Released for Nintendo’s Famicom in 1989, Sweet Home was developed and produced by Capcom (we are all familiar with the love affair these two companies had in the 80’s and 90’s, right?). Often Sweet Home is sighted as being the father of survival horror games; as well as being the main influence for the initial Resident Evil. Sweet Home is based on and was released in tandem with the horror film of the same name as this old commercial showcasing not only the game play but as well as scenes from the film points out. Kiyoshi Kurosawa, director for the Sweet Home film, also oversaw the game’s development.
Sweet Home sees a small team set out to discover the mystery of the famous painter Ichirō Mamiya, who vanished without a trace, leaving five hidden Fresco paintings behind in his enormous mansion. The team consists of five unique members who enter the mansion and are immediately trapped by a ghost. The ghost tells them that the mansion is slowly but steadily falling apart, thus Sweet Home becomes a race against time as they not only have to document their findings, but more importantly, survive.
You start off in a single room with all five party members available:
Kazuo Hoshino – Leader of the team, who wields the Lighter which can burn certain objects and enemies.
Ryō Taguchi – The camera man, who is essential for progress in the game as he takes pictures of the Frescos. Ryo can also use his camera to inflict damage on certain enemies, such as bats.
Akiko Hayakawa –The healer of the group, who carries a First Aid Kit that can heal any status aliments, i.e. poison, curse.
Asuka – An art restorer, who carries the Vacuum which cannot only clean dirty frescos, but also clear the floor of broken glass blocks movement.
Emi Hoshino – Kazuo’s daughter who holds a multi-use Key, which opens SOME of the locked doors in the mansion.
You start Sweet Home by breaking up the five party members into two groups, one of three and another of two (or be stupid and have all five go solo). While walking around the mansion, you come across standard random enemy encounters, like any typical RPG, including fights with worms, zombies, and killer dolls. BUT that would be too easy! Every now and then, a random object such as a chair or chandelier will fly at one of the characters and you must select one way to move. You take a chance and just guess; if you are right, you dodge and don’t lose any HP. But choose incorrectly, and you end up taking a bit of damage; lose important health and that makes all the difference in this game.
You see, certain mechanics work to add stress; one being once a character dies, that’s it they’re dead, and you can’t revive them (no matter how hard you input that Konami Code, like the stupid bastard you are). Oh, and did I mention there are only a small number of actual herbs to heal you in the game? So you’ll have to be extra careful in how you play and where you go. This gives you the sense that death is looming everywhere. Every floor, every room, even every step could be your last! Literally, because you walk across holes in the floor with pieces of wood at certain points that can snap if used too much, where in the unlucky character standing on it is left hanging for their life. Since each character’s specific item can only be carried by them, and while you can find appropriate items to replace the specific one they carried, the death of a character still comes at the cost of losing one more spot in your limited inventory.
Having to be this mindful puts you on edge, but lucky for you there are an unlimited number of saves and you can load up at any time (So you’ll be pulling a Fallout and be saving every few steps).
What makes Sweet Home so great is the atmosphere it creates from its graphics and cut scenes. Right off the bat, you are brought to that beautiful title screen. The name of the game is dripping downward written in blood and if you look at the background, you see Ichirō Mamiya’s mansion, with ominous clouds in the night sky. When you unlock a door with the key item a cut scene will play. The door creaks open ever so slightly as you wait for the next room to load. Inside the mansion everything seems to be covered with a layer of dirt or grime. Floors have several holes in them or whole sections completely gone. While the tone of Sweet Home is dark, the game utilizes color effectively. Wisps, Ghosts, and the Maniac enemies spring from the screen with reds and purples vibrantly.
Just like with every review I’ve ever done with a distinct soundtrack, I am currently listening to to the Sweet Home OST as I write this review. Between the slow cut scenes of a door creaking open, the sudden jump scares of checking a body, and the gruesome enemies; the music is where it all comes together. It complements the rest of the game so perfectly (like grape juice and gorgonzola cheese). While walking through certain sections of the mansion, you will get the added bonus of having lightning crack and light up your path. Now, usually with RPGs, once you run into an invisible enemy you get the battle start fanfare. But in Sweet Home, it starts off slow, speeding up and then suddenly flashes the monster on screen. When you are close to dying and are stressing to find an herb, it will become the bane of your existence.
Pros: The sprite work in this game is beautiful, enemies like the Zombie or Wisp are vibrant and gruesome with their dripping skin and ooze. Sweet Home doubles with being a good solo game and a group game. Alone, you can play by yourself, in the dark (no innuendo meant, maybe?) or with a group of friends on a Friday/Saturday night and collaborate by taking turns. The music is catchy and addictive and one of the more surprisingly good sound tracks on the NES. The horror elements and over all style of Sweet Home set it apart as one of the best if not the best horror game on the NES.
Cons: Sweet Home does get pretty cryptic with not only its controls but where certain items are located. Considering I emulated Sweet Home and lacked one of those huge instruction books Famicom and NES games always came with, I was playing at a disadvantage. There is no clear way to pick up an item. Instead, you pick up items by standing in front of the desired item; opening your inventory, go to an open space, then select MOVE to acquire it. The game‘s cryptic puzzles require you to think past simple logic (such as the mallet which is used for destroying boulders but is well hidden). You may end up needing a walk through to even start going anywhere.
With encompassing music, story, and game play, Sweet Home is a hidden gem on the NES from the huge library of “Games Never Released in America, Damn it!” For you survival horror enthusiasts, those lovers of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, this must be on your play list to see your favorites’ roots. For everyone else, Sweet Home is still an enjoyable game, be you playing it solo, with the lights out, wrapped up in a blanket, or turning it into game night with your best friends making Sweet Home anything but sour.