Sweet Home Retrospective

Released in 1989, a full seven years before Resident Evil, Sweet Home was the first true survival horror experience. It wasn’t the first game to use exploration, limited inventory, punishing combat, or a scary setting and atmosphere, but it was the first to combine them all into a complete package. In fact, if it weren’t for Sweet Home, we likely wouldn’t have gotten Resident Evil.

Directed by Tokuro Fujiwara, the man behind such classics as Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Bionic Commando, Sweet Home tells the tale of a small film crew exploring the abandoned mansion of famed artist Ichiro Mamiya in search of his lost frescos. Shortly after entering the building, they are confronted by an angry apparition who seals the exit. Trapped, the party is forced to uncover the mystery of the Mamiya mansion if they want to escape with their lives.

Produced as an adaption of the Sweet Home movie, the game and film largely follow the same plot. During development, Fujiwara was able to tour the set and watch the film in order to incorporate elements from the movie into the game. Despite this, he was told by the film’s director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, not to worry about sticking strictly to the plot. With this flexibility, Fujiwara was able to create something that far surpassed its inspiration. Not only did the Japan-only film receive no DVD release, but Kurosawa’s version is probably lost forever. After its theatrical release, the producer, Juzo Itami, would shoot new scenes and re-cut the film for a more mainstream audience. This cut is the only one available today.

As a game, Sweet Home holds up exceptionally well. You control the five crew members trapped within the Mamiya mansion, and much of the survival horror mechanics stem from the party system. Each character has a useful item for navigating the mansion and can carry a limited number of items. Unfortunately, the game immediately forces you to split your group into teams of up to three members. Smaller teams carry less and are weaker in combat, making them more vulnerable.

As you explore the mansion, you can swap between teams at any time. This is essential for making progress, because, as previously mentioned, each character has a special item. Emi, for example, has a key that unlocks doors. Kazuo has a lighter that burns down ropes. For much of the game, you’re switching teams and shuffling party members to clear obstacles. As you delve further into the labyrinthian building, you’ll find clues in the form of notes, diary entries, and hidden messages, which reveal the horrific tragedy of the Mamiya family. Of course, what is a haunted mansion without monsters?

Unlike most horror games, Sweet Home uses a turn-based combat system, much like classic Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest games. The encounters are random, but only one enemy appears at a time, so battles are fast. This doesn’t make them less dangerous. There are a limited number of healing items in the game, so you have to portion them out. If someone dies, however, they’re dead permanently. There’s no reviving party members. If someone falls in combat, you have one less character to carry items or fight monsters. Worse, their item for navigating the mansion is lost, and you have to find a replacement. When you do find the item, someone has to carry it, giving up one of their precious inventory slots.

Aside from the restless dead and monster worms, Mamiya mansion is teaming with hazards. From flimsy floorboards to falling chandeliers, the building does its best to whittle down your crew. In fact, Sweet Home is one of the earliest games to utilize quick time events. If you survive the ordeal, you’re treated to one of five endings depending on how many characters remain alive.

Sweet Home was far ahead of its time. Today, it’s still a fun and unique experience, unlike anything that came afterward. It’s a shame Capcom never released it outside Japan. Fortunately, what they did release was a worthy successor.

Sweet Home’s Influence

You should recognize a lot of similarities between Sweet Home and Resident Evil. The limited inventory, the puzzle-riddled mansion, journal entries as storytellers, and multiple endings. Even the door openings used to hide loading screens in Resident Evil was taken from Sweet Home. This makes sense, as Fujiwara originally planned Resident Evil as a successor to Sweet Home. In an interview translated from the website NESGBGG, Fujiwara states,

“Once the Playstation was released, conversation turned towards the idea of launching an original franchise. The basic premise was that I’d be able to do the things that I wasn’t able to include in Sweet Home. It was mainly on the graphics front that my frustration had been building up. I was also confident that horror games could become a genre in themselves.”

To create this new genre, Fujiwara approached Shinji Mikami. Mikami had worked on Disney adaptions, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Goof Troop, The Lion King, and the recently successful Aladdin. With no background or experience in developing horror games, he was initially unenthusiastic. In the same interview translated from the website NESGBGG, Fujiwara recalled,

“Mikami hated it. This is how our conversation went.

“You hate being scared?”

So I figured we should do it. If he’d answered that he never got scared, I couldn’t have trusted him with the project. People who aren’t afraid of anything don’t understand what’s frightening. In my view, you can’t make a horror game if you don’t have any fear.”

Fujiwara’s instincts were dead on. After warming to the project, Mikami studied Sweet Home in detail. He wanted to create a new game that kept the essence of Sweet Home, but pushed the limits of horror. Mikami’s first idea, a haunted house with evil spirits, was discarded early. Believing that the enemies of Resident Evil needed to be as close to human as possible, he took inspiration from one of his favorite films. In an interview for with Retro Gamer Team for GamesRadar, Mikami said,

“Yes, I thought – zombies! At that time I recalled the film, Dawn Of The Dead; I loved that film. It was unfortunate, as far as the audience was concerned, that they couldn’t survive; but with a game, the players could use their own techniques and thinking in order to survive the experience. I thought that this difference between horror games and horror movies could be something wonderful. That was the moment when I conceived Biohazard.”

Of course, Sweet Home was not the only influence on Resident Evil. There was another game, released in 1992 by the French studio Infogrames, that set players exploring a deadly mansion. It featured puzzle-solving, limited resources, deadly monsters, and, perhaps most importantly, 3D characters and pre-rendered 2D backgrounds. In my Alone in the Dark retrospective, I’ll discuss the game that many consider to be the true originator of survival horror.

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