When people think of the survival horror genre of video games, the first title that comes to mind is more than likely Resident Evil (or Silent Hill, if you’re a cool kid). While these series may have popularized the genre and coined the name, this kind of game existed way before those mid-90s breakouts. What many consider to be the first survival horror is Capcom’s Japanese-only Sweet Home from 1989 for the Nintendo Famicom.
Of course, horror-themed games existed before 1989. Laplace no Ma (1987), Yokai Yashiki (1986), and more famously Castlevania (1986) and Splatterhouse (1988) are some great examples. However, Sweet Home was the first to feature many of the staples that would put the “survival” in the survival horror genre: inventory management, traps, environmental puzzles, and a dark, disturbing storyline. The story may not be much by today’s standards, but back in 1989, it surely must have had quite a few Japanese children hiding under blankets while playing. And even though it’s pretty simplistic, it’s well-told and generally frightening considering the medium.
Let’s Visit the Creepy Old Mansion
Sweet Home‘s story is tied to a movie of the same name (which we’ve mentioned before in our list of bizarre and obscure Japanese horror films). For some reason, the production company decided the perfect tie-in for a low-budget horror film would be a video game. While the main plot points and characters are carried over, the experience is much different thanks to your freedom of choice as a player.
You control a group of characters who travel to the supposedly haunted Mamiya mansion to film a documentary. The owner of the house was a famous fresco painter. His wife went mad and is said to still haunt the place. Once you enter, you find that, in fact, the mansion really is haunted by her vengeful spirit, and the front door has been blocked. Now, you must find your way out of the mansion alive.
There are many other twists and turns along the way, but to talk about them would spoil some of the more delightfully disturbing and downright creepy moments. You may be thinking, “How scary can an 8-bit, 20-year-old game be?” Let’s just say, you’ve never seen anything like this on the NES, so strap yourself in for a scary good time.
An RPG/Horror Hybrid
Each of the five characters holds a special item that must be used to solve puzzles and get around obstacles throughout the mansion. For instance, you have a character with a key; another has a med kit; another has a camera to take pictures of the frescos scattered around the mansion; one carries a lighter to burn ropes blocking passages and to light candles; and the last character has a vacuum… That’s right, a vacuum. This is used to clear away debris and dust off the frescos, so your cameraman can get a good shot, but it’s still funny that a vacuum is one of the most useful items in the game.
All of your characters are vital as you explore the large and twisted Mamiya mansion. The catch is, you can only have 3 members in a party, so two characters must travel alone. You can swap back and forth at will, but there is some strategy to be found in deciding which characters should travel together, and your plans will constantly be changing as you venture deeper into the mansion.
As mentioned, traps and environmental hazards are everywhere. One particularly annoying one is an enemy type called lost souls who can whisk one of your party members away to another room of the mansion. You must then hunt down the missing character. If this happens to the party of two characters, you’re best bet is to swap to your party of three and rendezvous as soon as possible. Traveling the mansion alone is not a good idea.
This is because of Sweet Home‘s RPG-style random battles that take place as you’re exploring. Monsters attack one at a time, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed if you’re traveling in a party of one. If any of the characters dies, that’s it; they are dead for good. If this happens, the game offers a replacement item for their special item, but one of the other characters must carry it and it takes up valuable inventory space.
Getting out of the mansion with all your characters alive is the ultimate goal of the game and will result in the best ending. Luckily, you can save anywhere you like, so if you have a bit of bad luck during a run, don’t worry
Creepy tunes and killer vibes
As for the overall atmosphere, the dreary air stays with you throughout the adventure. Like the best the genre has to offer, there’s not really a lot of down time. You’re always on the edge of your seat, and there’s not really a lot of safe places within the mansion. The good thing about that is, the game is always moving forward, so it hardly drags, as old RPGs tend to do. The tension is heightened by the dark 8-bit tunes that play. They’re not the most memorable or catchy, but they get the job done for this old-school horror game.
This game was only released in Japan. Most likely because of the graphic nature of the story and some of the images in the game, it was never localized for the west. We have fan-translators to thank for the English version of the game. Nowadays, the translated ROM is easy to find and reproduction carts are easy to find. If you’re looking to snag an official Famicom cart, be ready to spend anywhere from $80 ~ $150 USD for a boxed copy.
Whatever way you choose to play, Sweet Home is an interesting relic from the 8-bit era. Horror fans who are also retro game fans will definitely find a lot to enjoy, so hook up your old NES and get a blanket ready to hide under.