Clearly a game that Shinji Mikami cites was a huge influence on his Resident Evil games must be utterly terrifying, right?
Based on a movie released alongside the game in 1989 (although which actually came first is open for debate, the fact the box art contains pictures from the film would insinuate that this is a tie-in), Sweet Home tells the story of a group of people who venture into the mansion of the deceased artist Mamiya Ichirou to take pictures of her work, specifically a series of magnificent frescoes. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned and they soon find themselves trapped inside, looking for an escape. Just to make things worse, the ghost of the artist haunts the place, along with an assortment of horrific beasties. So, as a precursor to survival horror, how scary is Sweet Home, or perhaps more importantly, how scary can horror be on an 8-bit system with 48 colors and five sound channels?
The House of 1000 Corpses?
The influence this game had on Resident Evil is clear from the very start. From the mansion setting, the puzzles encountered within and, perhaps most tellingly, the short sequence that plays whenever you open a door. The infamous ‘door slowly opening’ scene is here and is just as initially charming but shortly agonizingly unskippable as it was in the PlayStation games it helped to spawn.
Despite this link to the survival horror genre, this is very much a traditional RPG in the style of Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy; Resident Evil rooted its gameplay in Alone in the Dark. You’ll find yourself negotiating just as many menus as you will do traps and monsters, which pop up in random battles as you explore the mansion.
You take control of five characters, Kazuo, Emi, Asuka, Akiko, and Taro, each one with different attributes and unique skills, who must work together in order to survive the horrors within Ichirou Manor. For example, Kazuo carries a lighter around with him, which is useful for, well, setting things on fire, as well as being able to brighten up dark passages. Akiko is a nurse and your only source of curing should one of your party get poisoned or injured by an enemy. Taro carries a camera, which is needed to take pictures of the frescos painted around the mansion, while Asuka, for reasons probably best left to herself, wields a vacuum cleaner--for vacuuming stuff, of course.
Emi, the little girl, is probably the most useful of them all, as she is the ‘master of unlocking’ and has a key that opens most of the locked doors. Each person has their uses, which is why it is handy to keep them around. A tough challenge, as, unlike most RPGs, where all you need is a phoenix down and the longest sleep is no worse than a mild cough, in Sweet Home, death is permanent.
In the interest of fairness and balance, hidden around the mansion are items which allow other members to use the skills of the others, but you have to find them first. This is easier said than done, so keeping everyone on their feet is a must. There are even sections where spirits float around and collision with one will take that person and dump them in a random location, sometimes far from the others. You suddenly find one of your party alone and you have to make the decision either to backtrack or try and rejoin them on your own. The tension builds, you feel vulnerable and suddenly, these previously archaic pixels start to draw you in. You feel nervous. You feel scared.
The story also casts a sinister veil over the proceedings. It is drip fed to you via notes scattered throughout the game, bloody scrawls on the walls and the occasional talking skeleton, detailing the final hours of a team sent in prior to you with the same goal, and hinting at something far bigger than just some traps and monsters. The motivation for Mamiya Ichirou to become this vengeful spirit is brutal and sickening - a real rarity in NES games - and something that is left open to your interpretation long after the end credits have rolled. It’s without a doubt one of the more adult storylines on the system, holding it’s own alongside modern horror classics like Silent Hill and making a mockery of a lot of its peers. I’d love to tell you, but it really is one of those ‘you have to play it’ moments.