Sweet Home (NES) Review

Click here to visit the Sweet Home (NES) description page for walkthroughs, saves, and more information.

Review by tankMage (December 2018)

Score: B+

A Bit of Gaming History that’s Still Fun to Play

   Sweet Home represents a couple of firsts for me, being not only the first pre-1990’s survival horror game I’ve played, but also the first licensed title that is actually better than the movie it is based on that I’ve encountered. That’s right, there’s a movie that was made in tandem with this title; Sweet Home the game is far more entertaining and coherent than the film. Of course you’re reading this, because you’re presumably more interested in the game than the movie, so I’ll get to the point. Sweet Home is widely considered the first “good survival horror” game and while I’m not sure if this claim is true, I can vouch for the quality of this title.

The devs took elements from multiple genres and smooshed them together to make something unique, though this game is an RPG at heart. There’s also a surprising amount of gore (for an NES game) so this is the right game for you if you’re looking for something new. Despite its RPG style battle mechanics, many of the staples of survival horror are present in Sweet Home. Players get a limited supply of healing items and inventory space. They’ll also have to explore and solve puzzles while trying to keep their party alive. Oh and death is permanent for a character. There are even multiple endings, well two of them to be precise. At any rate the game is entertaining, but has a very experimental feel to it and suffers from a clunky interface. It also may seem a bit too difficult or unfair to some players and takes a few cheap shots at the player from time to time. But you’ll probably enjoy this game if you like a challenge or are willing to play with a walkthrough close at hand.

Story

   The basis for Sweet Home isn’t explained in great detail in the game itself presumably, because it was outlined in the instruction manual which I don’t have and can’t read since it is in Japanese. At any rate, the heroes Kazuo, Emi, Taro, and Asuka are documentarians who have set out to preserve the work of the artist Ichirou Mamiya. Their mission is to visit the famous artist’s long abandoned mansion and photograph his frescoes before they decay into nothingness. Lady Mamiya, who happens to be an undead horror, is not happy with the quintet’s intrusion upon her territory and traps them in the mansion. Right off the bat, this is a better premise than the vast majority of NES games and it only gets better as the plot unfolds.

There’s no coming back from that.

   Kazuo and company must find a way out of the mansion and solve the mystery of why it is haunted as they pick their way through its labyrinthine corridors. The sad tale of the Mamiya family is revealed as the team finds clues in Ichirou’s frescoes and scattered notes. As a result, each bit of plot development is food for thought and the player becomes invested in the story as it progresses. The dialogue between the heroes is often very mundane and limited, though this is likely a result of the player being able to form two teams out of the playable characters, which makes writing more unique dialogue difficult to implement on a system with the limitations of the NES. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say the the story is surprisingly dark and is entertaining if only out of novelty.

   I have to compare the game to the movie again, only because the story is the main reason why the game is so much better than the movie in terms of coherence and narrative. As I said before, everything is revealed to the player in bits and pieces in the game, which is the right way to tell a story in my opinion. The movie, on the other hand, has a character that spends a long scene explaining everything that happened at the Mamiya residence, which was boring and unnecessary. The film basically devolves into a lot of running and screaming in the second half, while the game merrily chugs along subtly introducing the player to new story elements. That’s not to say the game made perfect sense or was free from logical fallacies (like why didn’t the heroes climb out of one of the mansion’s many windows to escape?) but it never went off the rails like the movie. Something tells me one of the main developers realized the movie sucked and went out of his way to fix the plot, because there’s several points where the game almost happily contradicts the movie.

Translation

    Sweet Home was translated into English by fans and it’s pretty clear that the project suffered from character limit issues, which is more of a technical problem. ROM hackers who make fan translations usually try to make the patch playable on actual hardware, which means having file size limits among other things. A number of names were changed in the English version so they would fit into the game, but it’s not that big of a deal. The story matches the movie (which was also fan translated) well enough and it’s not hard to understand the important clues, so the translation was a success as far as I’m concerned.

Graphics

   NES graphics are loved by some and hated by others. I fall into the former category and really enjoyed seeing creepy monsters, gory death scenes, and everything else that goes with horror in all their 8-bit grandeur. For the most part this game is pretty colorful and this kind of downplays the horror theme unfortunately. I guess the devs could have made everything grey, brown, and black, but threw in some other colors so the mansion would be eye catching. Maybe this was for the better, because NES games that tried to be too dark and edgy often looked like ass.

   The character sprites are almost like icons, because each character visibly carries his or her special tool on screen. This not only makes it easy to tell characters apart, but they leave a lasting impression on the player. Death scenes and portraits were also created for the cast, though there are really only two death scenes and the portraits only appear in certain battles. The death scenes were violent for NES (which is probably why Sweet Home never hit our shores) and really shoot home the fact that you just permanently lost a party member, so the devs did a good job on character design.

   Being a horror game, Sweet Home has its fair share of monsters ranging from bats to mutated homicidal maniacs. Many of the monsters were cliche and the devs seemed to be reaching for anything they could use, but the movie didn’t exactly leave them with much source material to rely on. Once again novelty comes to the rescue, because a lot of the creatures, like mutilated zombies, that appear in this game certainly would not have made it past Nintendo of America’s censors in the late 80’s. While most of the creatures are less than inspired, they were at least drawn well and the last boss looked better than its movie counterpart, which isn’t saying much.

   The environments were fairly repetitive, but there’s only so much you can do with a mansion and it seems like the devs may have been under pressure to get the game finished alongside the film. Still, there was an effort to squeeze what they could out of the source material and players to get explore dark hallways, spooky gardens, and even a dungeon. Mamiya’s frescoes were a big part of the game and the player got to see them close up, but I found it disappointing that the same graphic was used for all 23 frescoes. Of course 23 relatively large images probably would have taken up too much cart space, so I can’t really blame the devs for cutting corners in favor of other content.

   Finally, there’s the battle engine, which is often my biggest complaint with NES titles. Sweet Home uses a first person perspective for its battle engine, which usually annoys me (it seems like a lazy way to design a game) but in this case it works. Monsters are basically the stars of any horror game and a first person perspective puts them front and center were they belong. On top of that, the heroes in this game are basically regular people and not wizards with flashy spells or cool looking knights, so there wouldn’t have been much to see with a third person perspective. So yeah, I gotta admit this is one case where a first person perspective in a turn based RPG actually worked.

User Interface

   Oh man, where do I start? The UI is basically what kept this game from getting a higher score. NES had some nightmarish UIs, but the one used for Sweet Home is particularly cumbersome. This is in part due to the fact that players could form teams from the five heroes however they wished and the devs wanted to limit the amount of items each character could carry. This resulted in a menu based UI that forced the player to fiddle with commands and jostle items around. Each hero is only able to carry a weapon, his or her signature tool (which can’t be dropped) and two items, which often necessitated backtracking to retrieve things that couldn’t be carried due to a lack of space. At least the battle commands were easy to use. The ability to form two teams of 1-3 characters was also novel, though I did end up using the same teams for most of the game.

Music and Sound

The music is good, but not great. All of the songs fit the horror theme perfectly, though they are not tremendously memorable. Sweet Home could have used an opening theme and maybe another track or two, because the handful of songs that play in the mansion get old after a while. The same goes for the sound effects, which were very basic. I did like the random battle sound, because it reminded of something from an old slasher movie.

Gameplay

   The experimental nature of Sweet Home was a double edged sword that made the game entertaining at some points and annoying at others. The developers threw in all kinds of ideas and while many of them resulted in clever puzzles or obstacles to overcome, others felt kind of cheap. There were areas where the floor would unexpectedly collapse, killing an unsuspecting character and rooms that the player can become permanently trapped in, so you better have that reset button ready. As far as I’m concerned, the cheap shots the devs took at players are to the game’s credit. The constant spectre of failure or the loss of a party member made every decision count and the adventure was all the more exciting as a result. Still, this is something to keep in mind if you are on the fence about playing Sweet Home, because you’ll either love or hate the hard core death mechanics and nefarious traps. On a side note, the devs were kind enough to allow the player to save anywhere, any time (aside from in battle), so bad luck and fuck ups aren’t the end of the world if you save frequently.

   The battle system is very straightforward: players can attack with a weapon, pray (which boosts damage), run, use an item, or call the rest of the party into the fray. Anyone familiar with turn based RPGs should be comfortable with combat, but the pray mechanic adds an interesting twist to battles. Each character gets pray points that function like magic points in most other RPGs, selecting the pray option brings up a rapidly moving bar that will determine how many pray points the character will use in their attack. Hitting the A Button when the bar is nearly full will result in a strong attack that uses a lot of pray points, while hitting A while the bar is nearly empty will deliver a weak attack that consumes less points. Items, like Taro’s camera, can sometimes be used in battle to damage monsters, which can be very helpful and was also a rather original idea for the time.

    Monsters can do all sorts of nasty things to players (aside from direct damage) that range from poisoning to teleporting some of the heroes out of battle. This makes combat a risky endeavour, but running is usually an effective way of dealing with tough opponents. The ability to call for backup is another feature that I can’t recall seeing in another RPG and it was implemented effectively. While in battle, a character can call for help from another character that is not in battle on his or her turn. Next, the player has to guide the reinforcement over to the scene of the battle, but they will have to hurry or the monster will attack the waiting character. This mechanic adds an interesting layer of strategy to the game, because players can choose to keep teams close together for support or spread out and explore. Like with many RPGs, battles are random and the player can never be sure when a monster will strike. Random battles can be annoying at times, but in this case they added suspense to Sweet Home, since they play off of its horror theme.

   Exploration and puzzle solving are the main features of this title, though the devs made sure the puzzles would be challenging. This is mainly due to the limited inventory space and the fact that you’ll need all sorts of items to solve Mamiya’s riddles. I had to make a lot of tough decisions over what to take and what to leave, which was to the game’s credit, though it would have been nice if there was some way of knowing when it is safe to drop certain items. The heroes also have signature items, like lighters and cameras, that are useful in a number of ways and often needed to progress, so losing a party member is bad news. Death is permanent and you’ll lose access to a hero’s signature item if they bite the dust, but it is possible to find replacements. Unfortunately, carrying around replacement items if two or three characters are dead makes the game incredibly cumbersome and you may as well hit reset if someone gets killed.

Final Thoughts

   Sweet Home has its quirks, which is excusable since the game was treading relatively new territory. While I enjoyed the adventure, I found some of its eccentricities (mainly the inventory issues) rather frustrating, though not bad enough to ruin the experience. It was also interesting to see how this game influenced later survival horror titles with its scarcity and problem solving mechanics. In fact, I played Silent Hill alongside this game and was surprised to see a deliberate reference to Mamiya’s frescoes in the form of the puzzle that requires the player to use a camera to uncover hidden symbols in paintings. At any rate, Sweet Home trips on itself here and there, but is still rewarding to play, even if only for the history lesson.

Recommendations

While not a must-play NES title, Sweet Home is more of a niche game that someone looking for variety may appreciate.

Leave a Comment