The Resident Evil franchise is a juggernaut in the video games industry, one that has continuously reinvented itself and expanded into numerous genres. Many modern tropes and conventions in video games exist today because of the many innovations from the series, the most recognized influential title of course being Resident Evil 4; but it seems people have forgotten – or have willfully forgotten – a time when Resident Evil was a simple game, about a small crew of characters that stumble into unforeseen, strange and nightmarish circumstances within a seemingly isolated mansion, where the goal was to simply escape and survive.
It was the first to fondly introduce many gamers to the term ‘survival-horror’ into video games, but was far from being the original to utilize such a style of game-play and story. In fact there is a game that predates Resident Evil which heavily inspired it, a game released on the 8-bit ‘Famicom’, (also known as the Nintendo Entertainment System) a game called Sweet Home.
Sweet Home was a game released by Capcom in December 1989. It coincided with the release of a movie of the same name, about a small team of treasure seekers that sought to explore the dilapidated mansion of famous painter Ichirō Mamiya, to find his valuable frescos he had painted before having mysteriously disappeared. They discover the mansion is cursed, becoming haplessly trapped inside by the specter of a mysterious woman who threatens to kill all who have trespassed into her home. Left with little alternatives, they split off into groups and search for clues behind these bizarre circumstances, and more importantly, search for a way to escape alive.
It is revealed that the woman is lady Mamiya, Ichirō’s wife who thirty years prior suffered severe psychological trauma when her first and only son fell into the house’s incinerator and was burnt alive. Consequently she became psychotic, having lured and murdered other children into her home to provide ‘playmates’ for her son. However her grief soon drove her to suicide, and still unable to forgive herself, her spirit forever haunts the house, vengefully punishing those that unwittingly venture inside.
Does this Cutscene look familiar?
Sweet Home was never release outside of Japan and for obvious reasons. In a time when in North America, when even the words ‘Kill’ or ‘death’ were censored in Nintendo games, its utterly inconceivable that such a game would find an appropriate audience, let alone simply exist with such gruesome subject matter. At the same time however it is a shame because Sweet Home is a remarkable game to behold, with solid game-play that ties into an elaborate story and atmosphere that is nearly incomparable to other 8-bit titles of its time.
The game is an interesting hybrid of an adventure game with investigative and puzzle solving elements, and also a role-playing game were you level up and equip items and weapons. You control a party of five characters, each with their own unique attributes and exclusive items. You have Kazuo who carries the lighter to burn obstacles; Akiko who vitally carries a medikit to cure nasty status effects; Emi who carries a key to open locked doors; Auska who carries a vacuum to clear hazards and clean frescos, and Taro who wields a camera to decrypt hidden messages.
You can control a max of up to three characters at time, but are free to switch between any individual character, or re-arrange, or split up your parties whenever and however you wish. With that said its usually ideal to keep everyone together as close as possible, as there are many dangers that lurk within the Mamiya Mansion.
You will face off against a variety of grotesque looking creatures in random encounters were you can choose to either fight or run away. There is also a nifty mechanic were you can call on other characters that are outside of battle to join in, potentially increasing the odds of survival, which is very useful, especially when faced against tougher opponents.
Outside of battles you navigate your characters through-out the mansion and use a simple interface of commands to interact with objects or other party members. There are parts were you can investigate areas and objects in a first-person like view to solve environmental type puzzles, such as discovering and decrypting messages hidden within the mansion’s frescos. Sometimes it will require thorough searching too, as ways to progress won’t be so explicitly obvious without obtaining the necessary clues to proceed.
You are restricted to a limited inventory, which forces you to ration out what items to carry on you at a time; although you are given the option to switch items out from your inventory with items you find laying around in rooms. However, such decisions should be judged tactfully as one never really knows what will be required to progress further into the mansion.
Aside from monsters to fight, there are also many deadly traps scattered through-out the game’s environments which usually trigger a quick-time like event. Sometimes a statue or sword will fly toward a character, giving you a limited time frame to choose which direction to dodge out of the way, or a part of the floor will collapse underneath a party member who you will have to quickly reach in time before they fall to their doom.
One of the most pivotal features of the game is that once a character’s health reaches zero, they are dead, for good. No phoenix downs or revives here, once a character suffers a fatal hit or falls into a deadly trap they are permanently gone, and to further punish the player will subject them to a cut-scene depicting their character’s graphic death.
It is an effectively unsettling experience to witness a party member parish, especially after investing so much time powering them up, gearing them and also losing their exclusive item that is vital to progress; although you can at least find a replacement item that emulates the same function, it still means less inventory space and manpower at your disposal.
Like most successful horror games, Sweet Home perpetuates a sense of unease and tension, even with its simple graphics and sound. In fact its arguable to even say that the now primitive graphics and effects enhance the game’s aesthetic and charm, with its limited colour palette and low resolution graphics depicting imagery that appears obscured and disturbingly unatural, like abstract depictions seen in our most perverse dreams. For a setting all about psychological horror, what is stronger than the power of one’s imagination?
There are multiple endings, depending on how many characters survive at the end, and it can be entirely up to you which will make it through; in this way the game offers additional replay value if you wish to obtain all the different endings. The game also utilizes a save feature like the original Legend of Zelda to keep your progress through the game’s lengthy game-play.
Is it by design or technical limitations that lady Mamiya has no eyes? Regardless, be rest assured that she is staring into you…
Sweet Home is not just an intriguing piece of history, it’s a game deserved to be experienced, especially if you are into survival horror and even role-playing games. Unfortunately with the circumstances of its release it can be difficult to find a real physical copy, and impossible to find one in English. Fortunately, however thanks to the wonders of the internet you can obtain a reproduction cart in faithfully translated English, or through emulation. So take a nostalgic trip into Capcom’s forerunner of ‘survival-horror’; into the haunted corridors of Mamiya Mansion…