Retro Journal #4: Sweet Home [スウィートホーム]

Operation Rainfall has proven unsuccessful in bringing high-profile games like Xenoblade to the United States, but sadly, this is not the first time North American gamers have been deprived of great game experiences. This Retro Journal entry will feature a game that is not only an intriguing conversation piece, but it’s easily one of the best games in the entire NES/Famicom library AND one of the best licensed games ever released.

Yes, one of the BEST. Be prepared, because I’m about to unload a lot of hyperbole.

Sweet Home is a game that some North American gamers may have heard of, but only because of the Resident Evil franchise. When discussing the series, franchise creator Shinji Mikami mentioned that Sweet Home served as his inspiration, not rival horror franchise Alone in the Dark. Some gamers balked at this statement, but you know what? He is completely, 100% correct. Playing Sweet Home is like discovering a hidden time capsule, which happens to contain a template for the horror genre before it was revolutionized by Resident Evil in the mid 90s.

In Sweet Home, the player controls five individual characters, who must visit the manor of Ichiro Mamiya. The house turns out to be haunted by the late wife of Ichiro, which makes preserving Ichiro Mamiya’s coveted frescoes more difficult. Upon entering the mansion, all five characters are trapped inside, and must cooperate in order to survive and escape. The focus on survival and cooperation is central to the gameplay and is extremely well-integrated in the game’s overall design.

Each character has a distinct role to play in the party, thanks to the distribution of unique items. The key holder is needed to unlock doors, the medic can heal characters, the camera man is necessary to photograph frescoes and uncover clues, the vacuum holder can clean up broken glass, and the guy with the lighter can burn away obstacles. However, you may only have a maximum of three characters per party, so character management is constant. The developers allow you to swap characters between parties, but having a character travel alone is dangerous. Do you pair the camera man with the key holder and put the other three in one team? It’s all up to you…but if a character dies, there’s no turning back.

That’s right, characters stay dead for good. This makes character management much more intense, because the mansion is not only loaded with enemies, but also filled with deadly traps. Pitfalls, falling chandeliers, and more can threaten to take out a character and make your adventure tougher. Thankfully, the developers planned around this, so if a character dies, another character can hold onto his or her special item. This is where item management comes in. Characters can each hold one weapon, one special item, and two other items—that’s it. Several items, like the wax candles and wooden boards, are necessary to advance through the game’s dark areas and pass through traps. This kind of micromanagement can easily be traced to Resident Evil.

Sweet Home doesn’t have the same action focus that Capcom’s later series does though. Rather, it takes the form of a role-playing game, but surprisingly, it does that well too. Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy are the most commonly-referred to RPGS for the NES, but Sweet Home manages to stand out from them in a very positive way. One of the major differences is based around how the game progresses. In SH, there are no “towns” to visit or rest areas…you are constantly in danger. This means there are no inns or churches either. Also, characters do not have magic or skills, but instead, basic weapons and tools. While the medic can heal status effects, there are no cure spells. Tonics are littered around the mansion and when used, can heal the party fully, but they are limited in number. Once these are all used up, you are out of luck. These are specific design elements that emphasis the “survival horror” aspect of the game.

One other design choice worth talking about is the battle system. Battles are presented in first-person, similar to the Dragon Warrior/Quest series. Unlike Square-Enix’s venerated series, battles in SH are only against one enemy per encounter. This means you will never be overrun with a horde of enemies at one time. Because of this, fights end more quickly. Also, the character or party in battle can “call” the other team over, so it is possible to have all five characters in a single battle. This is necessary to tackle some difficult enemies, but be careful! If the other team is too far away, they may not be able to bridge the gap in time. Failing to meet up quickly will result in a wasted turn. Of course, this just means you can never be careless with character management. Leaving a character alone, far away from the rest of the party can mean certain death.

Not only is the gameplay fun, but the graphics and music are excellent too, for 8-bit standards of course. The manor is detailed and creepy, and the designers clearly understood how to make the game look appealing. The developers also made great use of visual cues to make playing the game easier. Each character sprite is actually detailed enough to point out what special item he or she has. For example, the key holder has a large key on her chest, while the medic has a nurse hat, etc. Being able to design a game well despite hardware limitation is a sign of clever thinking. The soundtrack is fantastic too; any appreciator of chiptunes should give it a listen. The battle music drives forward with an unsettling feeling that is just appropriate for a horror game. The music perfectly suits the atmosphere.

 

You know what else? The STORY is actually good, too. Sweet Home is based on a Japanese horror movie of the same name, so the plot has basically been recycled for the game, but it manages to tell the story surprisingly well despite the system’s limitations. The plot is legitimately dark and creepy, with shocking plot twists and gruesome scenes. Given Nintendo’s strict censorship policies in the late 80s and early 90s, it’s absolutely no surprise that Sweet Home never saw an international release. It’s highly doubtful it will ever see a re-release either.

“So wait, you’re telling me an 8-bit Japanese Famicom game based on a horror movie is one of the best games in the NES library?”

Yes, absolutely. Sweet Home is a brilliantly designed game that managed to wow me without the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, and that’s an impressive feat. If you’re down with 8-bit gaming, then you should definitely try this game out. But how CAN you play this game? Well, if you happen to own a Japanese Famicom system and have an intermediate-level understanding of the Japanese language, you can easily import the game. However, because the game is story-driven, English-speaking gamers may prefer a translated version. There are English-translated ROM hacks floating around the Internet, but I played the game via a NES reproduction cart—essentially, a translated ROM hack placed on a blank NES cartridge, which is playable on any North American NES system. Reproduction cartridge costs vary based on the source, but I would estimate you will most likely spend around $25.

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