New Age Retro Gaming: Sweet Home
Welcome to my first installment of New Age Retro Gaming! It’s Halloween time so I’d like to talk about some spooky titles this month. Released together in 1989 with the movie of the same name, Sweet Home is a survival horror RPG for the NES/Famicom. Luckily for my 4-year old self, the game was never officially released outside of Japan: while the movie is uninspired and campy, the video game is nothing short of terrifying.
Five people go into an old decrepit mansion looking for a collection of priceless frescoes created by the mansion’s late owner Ichirō Mamiya. They are greeted in the entry way by a malicious spirit, who proceeds to trap them inside. To escape, they must solve the mystery of the mansion and put the spirit to rest.
The entirety of the game is spent trying to navigate your five heroes safely through the mansion, which is littered with pitfalls and monsters. All 5 characters can be operated independently, or you can travel with up to 3 people at one time, leaving the other 2 alone or in a separate group. Each character has 2 inventory slots, and one personal item which is useful for solving puzzles or defeating enemies. The game requires a lot of back tracking in order to switch out items that you need or returning to areas once you’ve opened up a new pathway.
Walking around the mansion will initiate random encounters with your current party. Combat is similar to Dragon Quest and other RPGs of the era: you’re shown an image of the monster you are fighting with your character’s stats lining the bottom of the screen. The player will always attack first, followed by the monster, which makes combat pretty simple. Even better is that during combat, you can use a “Call” function which allows you to switch to your other Party(s) and navigate them to the ones in combat, so that all of your characters can participate.
Graphics and Sound
This game is 8-bit nightmare fuel. The game overworld, while standard for a game of its time, is dark and menacing. The sprites are all amazingly detailed and horrific. When your characters die you’re presented with a gruesome cut-scene of them dying (men are cut in half at the waist, women fall dead into a pool of their own 8-bit blood). The music has incredible range, from the frantic pieces that play during combat or when characters are in danger of dying to traps, to the slow and menacing piece that plays in the first area of the mansion, to the insane incoherent shrieking that plays whilst in the caves under the house.
One of the most disturbing parts of the game involves an NPC ally sacrificing himself to help you continue on through an obstacle, followed by a cut-scene of his flesh melting off of his skeleton. This combined with the sad tune that plays through the scene makes for some horrific imagery.
The Gritty Details
I have a vivid imagination, and this game is extremely unsettling and tense. Whenever you encounter an enemy, you’re presented with a black screen and creepy build up music before the actual foe is revealed. Every time you encounter a new door, a short cut-scene of the door opening plays, with nothing but the creak of the door, which is deliberately reused as a staple of the Resident Evil/Biohazard Series. The sprite artwork is disturbing and the story is told in chilling fashion. You’ll encounter what looks like a dead body on the map and when examined, a sprite of a bisected corpse reaches for you, asking for help or giving a hint. The notes left by the previous adventurers start off hopeful of escape and slowly degrade into fear and insanity or are outright cut off mid-sentence, signifying their sudden demise.
Let me be frank: this game is BRUTAL. It is one of the most tedious games I have ever played. Most of the difficulty comes from its steep learning curve and small margin for error. A new player will certainly come across a myriad of frustrating backtracks, deaths, and restarts. Oh man. Deaths. When a character dies, they stay dead. No resurrection items, no inns; just death. Any items they were carrying are lost, and you lose their personal item forever. Speaking of which, items are super scarce. Traversing the mansion sometimes require wooden boards you need to use to make makeshift bridges. These get weaker for every PERSON that crosses them, which results in not only the bridge breaking, but the person on it when it breaks hanging on to a ledge for their lives. If you don’t get to them in time, INSTANT DEATH. Healing is only done via Tonics. While they do heal all of your characters to full when used, there is only two dozen or so of them in the entire game.
There are a number of puzzles and obstacles which require different character’s personal item to solve. Should any of these characters die, you’ll need to find a replacement inventory item to make up for it, which unfortunately take up one of the 2 item slots of your remaining characters which could be used for other items. Often, these items are hard to get to, and if you lose certain characters too soon, or lose too many, you’ll find yourself having to start the whole game over.
Many of the puzzles require more attention to the notes and hints scattered about and a little common sense regarding item usage. The whole game changed for me when I found out I could actually pick up wooden boards that I placed and reuse them later. In some instances I thought I was clever sending only one person across a make-shift bridge until they were insta-killed by a trap which another person could have easily saved them from had they been close by.
A careful and knowledgeable player can go through the game with relative ease, however. The fear of death through combat is mitigated by keeping all 5 of your characters in close proximity and grind out enemies, taking little to no damage. Once your characters are strong enough, the few instances where they are separated are a breeze as you can kill the average enemy in 2 hits, and you never fight more than one enemy at a time. The task of keeping all of your characters around for this purpose does get rather tedious. You can also save at any point in time, so any time you feel you are coming across a dangerous obstacle, you can save and reload if you fail. In conjunction, this removes almost all of the tension out of the game, as you can slowly and surely inch your way to victory. To be fair, I personally think the fun of most games is ruined by power gaming in this fashion, so I would not really call that an issue unique to this game.
Overall, I think that any survival horror and/or rpg fan should give the game a shot. The positives far outweigh the negatives and it’s worth at least one play-through. Fans of the Resident Evil/Biohazard series will get a good chuckle out of the game’s features that clearly inspired the original RE, such as the door opening cut-scenes, the item management, and the “master of unlocking” character. Fan translated ROMs are a dime a dozen or you can check it out on one of my personal favorite websites, Retro Uprising.