A CHALLENGING HAUNTED HOUSE RPG FOR THE NES: SWEET HOME

SWEET HOME for the Nintendo Entertainment System

Pros: A nice-looking and pretty clever vintage survival horror RPG

Cons: It’s an NES game, limited by the technology of that console

Perhaps one of the best games for the original NES (or specifically, Famicom) that few people have heard of (for good reason – explained later), the 1989 cartridge Sweet Home (made alongside a Japanese horror film of the same name, supervised by the film’s director, and arguably one of if not the best NES game with a direct movie tie-in) has been described as being the inspiration for the so-called “survival horror” genre that included games like Resident Evil and the original Silent Hill. Set-up like a typical role playing game but taking place in a world quite different from most games of that genre, the story here concerns a group of five television presenters who venture to a remote mansion in order to photograph the elaborate frescoes (i.e. wallpaintings) that adorn its walls. Unfortunately for the crew (made up of male characters Kazuo and Taro and females Akiko, Asuka, and Emi), the mansion has been taken over by the ghost of its former owner, a vengeful woman named Mamiya. Now locked inside the sprawling, decaying estate, the TV crew has to solve a number or puzzles, fight off the demons and monsters prowling the grounds, and find a way to escape with their lives.

First off, I should mention that Sweet Home, released by Capcom, never saw an official release outside of Japan, which explains why few people have heard of it in the first place. As it stands then, the only way to play it is by using an emulator or by acquiring a reproduction cartridge (the game was translated into English by the Gaijin crew in the year 2000). The fact this game never received a US release is a tremendous shame considering how downright revolutionary this game would have been in 1989 compared to the typical NES platformer. Nevertheless, Capcom didn’t believe that there would be a market for this type of game at the time – which may have been true considering that NES games in America were typically aimed squarely at the kiddie market. I suspect that Sweet Home would have run afoul of Nintendo’s rather strict censorship board – though nothing compared to a game like Mortal KombatSweet Home does have a handful of somewhat gruesome and violent scenes. The slowly developing storyline also has some definitively adult-oriented (and somewhat disturbing) content relating to murder and dementia.

As is the case with the typical RPG, the player here controls various characters who gain power and experience over the course of the game. Characters can wander around independently, or band together in parties of up to three members. Initially, Sweet Home is a bit overwhelming since even the most basic monsters can easily overpower and wipe out the playable characters when the game starts. Over time, however, the playable characters become stronger and are able to take on more dangerous adversaries. The fighting system here is turn-based, with each member of the player’s party having the choice to attack with their equipped weapon, use one of their items, call other characters for assistance (which is very useful for many reasons), run away, or utilize a “pray” command that acts similarly to the “magic-based attack” in other RPG’s.

Each of the playable characters has a special item that is needed to progress through the game – Kazuo has a lighter, Taro a camera, while Emi has a sort of master key, Asuka a vacuum(!) and Akiko a first aid kit. Aside from these permanent items, other items and weapons are found that serve various purposes in the game – often, they are related to the process of solving puzzles that turn up. At the start, the mansion is full of locked doors and has many hidden passageways and secrets, and various items must be found and used in one way or another to unlock other sections of the mansion. Often, a player will have to backtrack and explore newly-accessible areas in order to progress in the game’s story. Item management also plays a big role here since each character can only hold two items other than their weapon and specialty item. It’s also worth noting that there are an extremely finite number of health-restoring tonics available during the game. These are the only thing that will refill hit points, and a player has to know when and where to use these since there are no more around if and when they run out.

Very quickly while playing, one will learn the first and arguably most important rule of Sweet Home: there’s a reason why the “save game” option can be accessed at any time by using the in-game menu. In short, this game is quite difficult, sometimes requiring trial and error to figure out what one has to do. There’s also very little margin for error: when one of the characters dies as a result of battle or by failing a puzzle, he’s permanently out of the game and his special item (many of which are absolutely invaluable – the first aid kit for instance cures all status ailments such as poisoning or being cursed) can’t be used anymore. There are alternative items that can be found in the game and it’s actually possible (but extremely difficult) to beat the game with only one character remaining alive, but clearly, the goal is to finish with as many characters alive as possible at the end of the game – a task that becomes increasingly difficult later in the game. Certain in-game situations are nearly impossible, and must be handled immediately in the correct way or one or more character dies. Ultimately, the difficulty and notion that a player has to think things through before just barreling into any situation ensures that this game never seems like a walk in the park. Even if the player “levels up” the characters extensively to the point of being able to defeat any monster he encounters, some traps and puzzles still have the potential to wipe out playable characters very easily.

Graphics-wise, I think Capcom did a really nice job – mind you, this is an 8-bit game that was made some twenty-five years ago at this point. Having said that, Sweet Home (designed by “Hatchan” and “Tomo”) is one of the better-looking NES games of its day. The monsters all look pretty cool, and there are a few rather striking cutscenes – mainly used to depict the often gory deaths of characters. Level design is at times, quite complex, with different types of terrain the player has to negotiate. In early sections of the story, a candle must be used to illuminate the map, and it’s pretty easy to become lost in the mansion until a player gets his bearings. In this way, the game captures a somewhat claustrophobic and disorienting horror film type of atmosphere even if it doesn’t quite have any moments that I’d define as being particularly scary. Music and sound during the game is pretty solid but again, is definitely a product of its time – the NES technology could only manage a few concurrent tones. Still, every area of the mansion has its own (sometimes creepy) main theme, many of which are catchy and evocative in their own way. I rather liked the problem-solving aspect of the game: like the pretty awesome point-and-click style of NES games like Deja VuShadowgate, and The UninvitedSweet Home certainly makes you think. The RPG format though makes this game seem a lot more complicated, immediate, and engrossing.

In my play-through of the story, despite the fact that I really didn’t search out monster battles, I wound up with maxed-out characters who were able to breeze through each and every battle – right up to and including the final boss. This somewhat made the final section of the game a bit on the underwhelming side – and almost ridiculously easy. I suppose a piece of advice I would give players then is that they maybe should think about NOT maxing out their characters’s stats and abilities. Like I said previously though, the ability to problem solve is often the difference between the playable characters living and dying; stats alone can’t help you in some circumstances. The game offers up several different conclusions based on how many characters survive to the end, and I think most people could easily get several hours of gameplay out of this cartridge, even if its general replay value isn’t all that high.

I should point out that I first played this game on an emulator, then purchased a reproduced (i.e. essentially handmade), translated cartridge. This repro cartridge looked, sounded, and played great – I’m a big fan of actually PLAYING older video games instead of trying to figure out the keyboard configurations while using an emulator. Though I’ve seen reproduced copies of this game going for upwards of $100, the game can be purchased for $30 (post paid) from . Bear in mind if ordering that these games do require some time to get shipped and delivered since they have to be constructed from scratch – rest assured that your patience will be rewarded (as is the case in Sweet Home as a game).

Though it’s sat in nearly hopeless obscurity for over two decades, Sweet Home seems to be getting some love in recent years, having been recognized for its role as one of the first horror-oriented video games. Clearly, this game provided the blueprint by which Resident Evil operates – right down to the opening door animation. I’d also have to say that, while it’s sometimes frustrating, this is probably one of the more satisfying NES games to play. It definitely forces the player to use his brain instead of just mashing buttons, and from a technical standpoint and considering the limitations of 1989 technology, it’s very well done. Certainly, this is one of the NES games I’d most be willing to flat-out recommend to someone without many reservations: it seems much more substantial and thought-out than the typical cartridge of its time. Overall, I’d say it’s definitely worth the effort to track this down if it at all sounds interesting to you.

Game Opening:

Japanese-Language Film/Game Trailer:

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