If you live outside of Japan, you likely don’t know of many JRPGs prior to the 16 bit era. Hell, you may not even know of many DURING the 16 bit era either. Until Final Fantasy VII popularized the genre with its cinematic CG cutscenes and enormous marketing budget (not that the game had no merits in story or gameplay, but plenty of other games did to), even the most popular JRPGs in Japan were a niche attraction in the west. JRPGs retailed for up to $80 at the time without adjusting for inflation, and publishers often could not afford quality localization teams. A majority of games localized by Ted Woolsey, for instance, were handled within a month and had to cut several sentences down. The fact that games like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy IV & VI, and Super Mario RPG had such strong scripts regardless really shows a testament to his ability, which allows me to cut him some slack for how bad Breath of Fire’s was (and also because Capcom themselves did a much worse with Breath of Fire II). Oh, and if you were in Europe then you likely never got ANY of these games.
Compared to the prior generation however, JRPGs were practically thriving in the 16 bit era. I could go into detail, but I’ll just put it this way; can you even name an NES era JRPG that was released outside of Japan at the time aside from Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, Zelda II, or Phantasy Star? Sure, I can, but that’s because I have actively looked for them. There were some cult hits such as Faxanadu, Crystalis, Ys, and Willow, but the rest seem to have been largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated JRPG fans (meaning that I could name them of course).
Due to this, our pool of 8 bit era JRPGs is pretty limited, or at least it is if you don’t count fan translated games. Otherwise, there are a fuck ton of NES era JRPGs that were never originally released outside of Japan that are now available to English speaking audiences, and this series is meant to introduce you to them. I am starting with one that is fairly well known as far as fan translated games go, but future entries may be a bit more obscure (or they might not be, depends what I’m feeling).
Sweet Home was originally released in Japan in 1989 and is one of the earliest survival horror titles, with some of the only forbearers being Laplace No Ma and Yokai Yashiki (neither of which left Japan either) Many aspects of Sweet Home have served as the inspiration for Resident Evil and Parasite Eve, and the former was originally intended as a remake of Sweet Home. After all, this was a game by Capcom in their prime. It is also a rare example of a movie licensed game that overshadowed the film it was originally based on, similarly to that of Goldeneye. I should note that, at this time, I have not seen the Sweet Home movie, although I may cover it in the near future.
The story follows a documentary crew of five people who get trapped in a haunted mansion by the ghost of its former owner Lady Mamiya. That’s the basic gist of the plot. The game is very forward and to the point and there are not a lot of cutscenes or dialogue. Our characters are pretty much blank slates personality and backstory wise (although they did have an entire movie for that), and they are only distinguished by names, appearances, and the special item that each one comes equipped with. The story plays out mostly based on recovering diary entries hidden in frescos and whatever else you find laying around. There are a few cutscenes but they are used sparingly and thus feel more significant.
The way that the lore and story details are accessed through the gameplay itself and not spoon fed via copious amounts of text (*cough* Final Fantasy XIII) but are not so cryptic that you won’t get anything until you look it up online (*cough* Five Nights at Freddy’s, Her Story, and Pony Island) is something that is missing in a lot of games these days. I should clarify that I have not played any Resident Evil titles yet because I’m a snobby hipster, but it is certainly strange being in a position where most gamers (at least outside of Japan) probably recognize a lot of mechanics of Sweet Home being described due to my description of Sweet Home, but it is the reverse for me in that, when I inevitably do play the original Resident Evil, I will notice what has been carried over.
Some examples include the short cutscene that plays whenever you unlock a door, character specific items used to solve puzzles, and even the quick time events used in Resident Evil 4, 5, and 6 (which are nowhere near as annoying in Sweet Home, at least from what I have heard). Supposedly, Resident Evil 0 also took a lot of influence from Sweet Home.
However, that was just shit I learned from looking at Sweet Home’s Wikipedia page, and there is another game that I know for certain takes influence from Sweet Home without needing to look it up; Corpse Party. Most of us know Corpse Party through its remake Corpse Party: Blood Covered, yet it was originally a PC-98 doujin title made in the first edition of RPG Maker. That is where the character’s hit points in Blood Covered originate, but in the original PC-98 version, there were no RPG elements either, except for the final boss fight against Sachiko. The fact that such an engine was used in the first place, as well as 2 boys and 3 girls exploring a haunted building ruled over by the ghost of a woman whose backstories both involved dead children, can only make me assume that Sweet Home served as the inspiration for the original Corpse Party.
I do feel it is important to mention that, despite having influenced all of these major horror titles, Sweet Home itself… isn’t that scary. To be fair, a lot of this could simply be due to the fact that standards for horror are a LOT higher these days than back then. Additionally, there is an eerie atmosphere present as well as some moments that do get you, just don’t go in expecting something as scary as Amnesia or anything. In short, Sweet Home is amazing at atmosphere in presentation, but a bit eh on shock or fright. However, if you go into it expecting it t be like any other NES game, then you likely WILL be caught off guard.
This is largely because back then, Nintendo of America was the 4Kids of gaming and demanded that every developer be so as well if they wanted to put a game on their systems. As a result anything involving blood or death is going to be seen as unusual on the NES. Regardless I feel it is also safe to assume that NES games were not usually that dark back then even in Japan albeit more often. Capcom apparently DID try to localize this game back then (remember, this was back when Capcom cared about their fans) but Nintendo axed it for obvious reasons.
Graphics wise, Sweet Home is fairly detailed, but also rather blah in the color department. I suppose the latter is intentional given that you don’t usually have horror games that are pretty and colorful. However, it still looks nice artistically and it helps set the dark mood appropriately. It is also noticeably more advanced than any of the NES Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest titles graphically. The monster sprites are especially effective with not only their grotesque and freakish designs, but also the fact that some of these enemies have animations on par with Phantasy Star 1 (although not all of them). The cutscenes present in the game such as the door opening or the character death animation enhance the ominous atmosphere even further.
The sound effects fit very appropriately and help make every attack in battle feel satisfying. What specifically comes to mind is the piercing sound effects made whenever an armor is walking on screen, which creates an intimidating presence given that they are stronger than the average enemy (at least the first time you meet them as later variations are nowhere near as threatening). The only gripe with the sound effects that I have is the fact that the battle theme has a five second intro that plays before the battle even starts, and it plays for EVERY random encounter. Thankfully, the random encounter rate is nowhere near as high as most NES RPGs so this is not too much of a problem.
Music wise, Sweet Home is fantastic. Right from that foreboding theme that plays during the intro sequences, the mood of this game is set. Afterwards, every track in the game is excellent at immersing the player into the game’s baleful aura. The lobby theme that plays in the first area of the game is simultaneously ominous and catchy, while also evoking a sense of strong expression that is missing in a lot of horror games. Given that this game was made before developers started deciding they wanted to be movie directors, the music in Sweet Home was made with the intent of signifying an area or occurrence, rather than simply being unmemorable fluff that is always quiet except for the occasional scare chord. There are some soft tracks that are there for atmospheric effect, but they serve a more similar role to the item room theme from Metroid and are there to provide contrast. Every track manages to set an eerie mood without needing to sacrifice melody for it, and Sweet Home would have been nowhere near as memorable without such a fantastic soundtrack.
The key strength of Sweet Home is in its atmosphere and setting. The reason for this is that the battle mechanics of Sweet Home are rather basic and lack real strategy. You have five playable characters that can be controlled in battle yet will only ever fight one enemy at a time. The strategy of just about every battle is just “attack until it goes down” unless you get stunned, in which case you have to stop what you are doing and have every character pray until the stun is cured (otherwise, the stunned character will take the damage of all the other character’s attacks). There are no bosses, no magic abilities or special attacks (aside from using pray points to do a stronger attack), no currency, and no equipment aside from weapons.
Some of these do lend well to the tone of the game given that one of the key points of a survival horror game is to make you feel powerless. This is done by removing most typical conventions of RPGs. The most notable is that there are no phoenix downs in Sweet Home; death is PERMANENT! And yes, you do only have five characters, so if you lose one, it will hurt. The key reason that this will hurt is because of the limited inventory space. Every character can only carry two items aside from their weapon and pre equipped item. There are a ton of items to pick up in Sweet Home between tonics (the game’s equivalent of a megalixir and the only healing item in the game (yes they are in limited supply (parenthesis inside parenthesis FTW))) and whatever tools you need so inventory management plays a lot into things. Given how little space you have, you do NOT want to lose those two slots.
Perma-death does add a fair bit of tension to the game… or at least it would if you couldn’t just save scum your way out of any dead party members. Sweet Home gives you the ability to save anywhere, which is a very convenient feature for the player. Unfortunately, it also removes any sense of risk since a majority of players will know to save often in case one of them dies. This means the only way a player will be affected by a character death outside of a nuzlocke style challenge run, is if they forgot to save and would lose too much progress reloading, or if they were trying to see the game’s optional endings that are dependent on how many characters are still alive by the end.
What also unfortunately drains tension from Sweet Home is how easy the battles are. Battles are mostly “press A to win” with the exception of a few that have more health than average and thus will get a hit in faster, inflict curse which will mean that character dies if you aren’t paying attention to the text, or they can transport a character to a completely different room in the house on their own (which is bad in this game). Aside from these though, every enemy is cannon fodder and you won’t even need to grind In order to crush even the strongest enemies in the late game as long as you have at least three party members.
If anything, one of your characters is more likely to die from a beginner’s trap via a poorly explained game mechanic than from battle. Whether it be from falling through the floor because you realized it can only be crossed 5 times and the board is placed in an area that leaves you stranded, whether it be because you didn’t realize that a pickaxe somehow makes you immune to water currents and you don’t have enough time to stop a character from drowning when they are pushed to the deep end, or those god damned quick sand pits that I still don’t understand how you’re supposed to escape from.
So one may ask, “if neither the battle nor survival mechanics are all that great, then what part of the gameplay is?” The answer to that is the exploration and how it plays into the atmosphere. I’ve already talked about the brilliance of Sweet Home’s presentation, but what really works well are the puzzle and exploration elements that allow you to discover more and more of this building. There are five party members in Sweet Home, but you can only have three in a party at one time. You switch back and forth between parties similarly to Kefka’s Tower in Final Fantasy VI, only instead of having puzzles that are limited to standing on switches, on needs to figure out which items to use where in order to figure out where to proceed. Some parts are reminiscent of a Metroidvania title in that you explore more and more of this giant mansion the more items you get, while there are others that are not unlike adventure games that require some admittedly cryptic uses of items in front of certain landmarks. While one will need to break out a guide at some points, this was pretty common for games of the era so it’s hard to fault Capcom too much.
One last notable feature is the ability to call for other party members during battle in order to summon them from their current location on the map to where you currently are. However, they aren’t simply teleported over magically. Instead, you take control of them on the over world, mid battle, with the battle music still playing, and you need to walk them to where your party is on the map within a time limit. Despite the fact that you can only have three members in a party you control on the over world, you can have all five party member in battle at once. Additionally, this can be used as a technique to get your other party members across long distances without dealing with the encounter rate AND for gaining extra exp.
Additionally, there was a certain instance of attention to detail that I feel really needs to be pointed out. At one point while play, I called for my other two person party and they crossed over a bridge made from a piece of wood that broke, and the battle music was interrupted by the “oh shit, your party member is about to fall to their death, get off your ask and rescue them!” music, but you can’t rescue someone during a battle sequence (either that or they may have gotten stranded but the other party had another piece of wood or something, I don’t always remember the specifics). Of note was that the danger music still played while the single party member ran to the other team, during the remainder of that specific battle, and afterwards until the party member was rescued. The fact that the music was programmed to keep playing shows that Capcom KNEW what type of atmospheric effect that music had, and did not cheap out on making sure the right track played at the right time, and THAT is how you can tell they seriously went all out with this game.
Has Sweet Home held up perfectly since its release? Not really, but it has held up enough to be worth playing. I’m not sure I would go as far as to claim it is the best game released on the NES/Famicom but it certainly was ahead of its time in a lot of way, and it is highly recommended by those who are big fans of the Resident Evil series or the survival horror genre in general. As a straight up RPG it is still an entertaining enough game to recommend to retro RPG fans as the battle mechanics were about as involved as Phantasy Star 1, and that game did not have nearly as strong atmosphere, story, or design.
I definitely had a fair amount of fun with Sweet Home, even if “fun” is not the type of word that usually describes survival horror titles. I always have made it clear that true works of artistic visions and creativity are what grab me the most, and having not had the chance to grow up with games of this era even in my own country, it becomes easy for me to forget that there was a time when Capcom was seen as one of the best companies in the industry. Nowadays, they seem to be one of the most reviled due their business practices and the fact that Mega Man is now deader than Chris Christie’s approval rating.
Of course, I knew that Capcom were liked back in the day and have played a fair amount of their classic games such as Mega Man 1-8, Ducktales, Breath of Fire, Ghosts ‘n Goblins (ughh), and Magic Sword… what, no one else remembers that one?
I played those games but it never really set in until thinking about it. I do plan to play the Resident Evil series at some point, but I am dreading the day I decide to check out 5 and 6 because they do not look good, but I likely will play them anyway for completion sake. Anyway, this has been the first edition of RPGs of the Famicom. Next time will likely be something a little bit lesser known. Stay safe, and happy belated Halloween… yeah I really should have finished this review sooner…
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