There’s a chill in the air as the leaves turn red. The sun’s light wanes as darkness takes hold of these autumn days. October is here and with it, all the little ghouls n’ ghosts n’ goblins prepare themselves for Halloween. For Invisible Gamers like us, we’re doing the same in our own special way. Every weekend of October, we’ll be highlighting some extra spooky retro games for what I have dubbed Retro Halloweekend! To begin with, I thought it would be fun to showcase one of the first survival-horror games that also served as direct inspiration for Resident Evil. That game is Sweet Home, developed by (what a surprise) Capcom.
Released for the Famicom in December 1989, Sweet Home was based on the identically titled film which was released earlier the same year. The two titles share a similar plot, with similar imagery, along with the same cast of characters. Judging from what I’ve seen from the movie and the game, the Famicom game is a pretty impressive recreation of the movie. You play and control 5 characters who are stuck inside a haunted mansion trying to find some very rare paintings, or “frescos.” Each character has their own special ability that helps you progress through the mansion. Emi can open locked doors. Kazuo has a lighter that can burn ropes. The thing is, these characters can die anytime throughout the game and unless you can find certain items to make up for the dead character, you’re out of luck. Characters can die through traditional turn-based RPG battles, through surprising quick-time events (something I’m not used to on NES), or through certain environmental hazards. There’s a lot to take in, and a lot to worry about, and that’s one of the reasons Sweet Home works as a survival-horror experience.
While Sweet Home wasn’t the first video game to step into horror, it was one of the first ones that did it well. On the Atari 2600, games like Halloween and Texas Chainsaw Massacre didn’t do much to replicate the movies that inspired them. You can blame the technology, but the “horror” games here left a lot up to your imagination. Even Friday the 13th on the NES, released the same year as Sweet Home, didn’t capture the mood of a true horror experience. You ran around in the daytime for crying out loud! Sure, you might jump once or twice when Jason shows up in your cabin, but the overall experience was still lacking something. Sweet Home, on the other hand, does everything in its power to craft a truly scary experience.
The most important and most obvious component that made Sweet Home work was its artwork and graphics. Scenes of gruesome mutilations, disturbing events, and unsettling enemies were a stark contrast to the typical fun-loving cartoony vibe people normally saw in video games. Here, characters could be sliced in half, gaze upon decomposing flesh, battle corpses, ghosts, and more. It was so brutal, Nintendo made no plans to localize it to other regions. To today’s eyes, Sweet Home looks pretty tame, but you could imagine how chilling the imagery could be to those who were used to Pac-Man, Mario, and Zelda. It’s a bit much.
Sweet Home’s story also takes a much darker approach than most video games of the time. Locked in the mansion, the team has to deal with the ghost of Lady Mamiya, the wife of painter Ichiro Mamiya. The reason she’s so crabby isn’t because her husband chose to paint frescos instead of buying her a Fresca, it’s because her only son fell into the house’s incinerator and was burned alive. Dark… To give her son playmates in the afterlife, she then killed a number of other children before committing suicide. Darker… Now her ghost wreaks havoc to all who step inside the mansion. Too bad for the fresco hunters. The plot here is one of the darkest, most unsettling ones I’ve ever heard of for the Famicom and just adds to the creepiness the title offers.
The setting and surroundings also add to the creepy atmosphere of the game. The soundtrack is full of droning sounds, awkward sounds, and driving beats, a perfect melody for uneasy fresco hunting. You’ll also come across many different visual effects in Sweet Home. Being a turn-based RPG, each battle puts you in a new screen where your enemy will be displayed on screen. Sometimes a strange doll, sometimes a ghost, but all designed with care. I’m sincerely creeped out by the damn doll. Outside of the battles, you’ll explore the mansion in a top-down fashion but certain areas will play with your expectations. One room is full of windows where each lightning strike lights up the room before being enveloped in darkness again. Another puts you in pitch black, and you’ll need a candle to see anything inside. There’s even a foreboding scene of a door opening ever so slowly before you enter. Sound familiar? Resident Evil used this same idea in order to hide the load times of each new room. Partner the fantastic art and score with great sound design that will make your teeth clench with each new visual and you’re getting a true horror experience on an 8-bit console.
Sweet Home is an impressive game in so many aspects. It stands on it’s own as a horror game without the technological prowess if a more powerful machine. It is a good recreation of the movie it’s based on without straying far from the film itself. It’s multiple systems and gameplay mechanics while sometimes frustrating, are intricate and deep. It’s just a really impressive title that I think would have found success over here in the US in the wake of so many slasher films. If you’re a fan of horror, play Sweet Home. I’d even recommend watching the movie as well to see how close the two are and how they differ. It’s also a lot of fun seeing so many of the roots of Resident Evil when I previously had no idea what inspired it. Now, if you don’t mind, I have to find the last fresco and get out of this wretched house!
For more Retro Halloweekend, check Invisible Gamer every Friday this October.