Retro-Gaming Review #6 - Sweet Home
by Scrooge McSuck
Release Date: December 15th, 1989 (Japan), Never Released in North America
Console: (Japanese) Family Computer (Famicom)
Quickly, as a video game fan, one genre I almost never really give much of a chance is the RPG genre. It's not because I don't find them to be good or anything, but the time it takes to level up is a big turn-off for someone who generally doesn't have hours upon hours to devote to one activity anymore. Also, I've never been a big fan of "scary games", and thus have never played Resident Evil, any of it's sequels, or any other "Horror Survival Games." It should come as a big surprise then that a video game, released on the Japanese Famicom, is capturing my attention and my time like it has for the past week. That game is Sweet Home, the english translation for Suîto Hômu. Since this game was never released in North America, and I don't have the time (roughly 1-2 months) to wait for a reproduction cart in the mail, I'm breaking one of my usually followed rules of not using an emulator to satisfy my video game review needs. I'm also going with a single game, rather than a set with a similar theme, because I feel my time should be devoted to this based on the level of detail I plan on going into, and to put emphasis on how much I enjoyed it, without having to come up with a gimmick. Note: If I was going to do a lame gimmick tie-in, it would've been based on Licensed movies, and of course, we all know how bad 98% of those games are. Robocop, Friday the 13th, Dick Tracy... yeah, I'm glad I'm doing just one game this time.
Anyway, the "legend" of Sweet Home is that the movie and game were released at the same time, although internet research (cough:Wikipedia:cough) disclaims this theory, listing the movie for a January '89 release, and the video game for December '89. Either way, it doesn't matter. Production of the video game version was handled by Capcom, who, for the NES era, were well known for two things: The Mega Man series and a handful of ass-kickingly wonderful Disney licenses (DuckTales and Rescue Rangers, specifically).
Seeing this is a game based on a movie, I'll give you the skinny on the movie's plot, since it almost entirely translates into the game, though with lesser detail in certain areas. A team of investigated reporting, lead by Kazuo Hashino, along with his daughter Emi, his love-interest Akiko Kayakwa, camera operator Ryo Taguchi, and anchorwoman/host Asuka, are entering the infamous Mamiya Mansion, in hopes of finding and preserving one of the lost, little known Frescoes of famed artist Ichirou Mamiya. (Note: Contrary to popular opinion, Asuka is NOT a maid... her vacuum is for cleaning the frescos for preservation). Only moments after entering the mansion, there exit is blocked off by the evil forces of Lady Mamiya, a spector that haunts the Mansion and kills anyone that invades the property. It's your job to figure out an escape, but along the way, you will find some chilling, disturbing storyline development that would never make you question Nintendo's decision of never releasing this in North America. Spoiler... play the game or watch the movie. I recommend the game over the movie, but the movie is an enjoyable experience, as well.
You have the following action commands: Party: Allows you to switch between team members whenever you want. Item: Allows you to use particular objects, like tonic's to heal or mallet's to break boulders. Talk: Most of the time used to talk to people on the brink of death, or the occasional animated corpse/skeleton. Team: Detaches you from or joins a group. Whenever you're stunned or scared, you automatically get disconnected as a team, so this will be done quite often. Look: Look at letters, items, skeletons... anything you can think of that you come across. Save and Quit are self explanitory.
This being an RPG, you're going to have to level up, but unlike a large chunk of RPG's, grinding (long, tedious amounts of time just leveling up) is minimal, as an average amount of enemy encounters is suitable for leveling up here. You can't get higher than Level 20, and I beat the game with all 5 members still alive, at Level 17, so obviously the game, if managing tonic's and battles properly, isn't too tough. Most enemies are encountered at random, with only bats and suits of armor being visible and avoidable. You only fight one enemy at a time (most of them after a certain area are VERY strong), but you can fight with all five members through the action of "Call" during battle. This not only allows teaming up everyone for a fight, but also allows your call-up's to rush through rooms without having to battle on the way. This trick is also handy in everyone gets a share of EXP from fallen enemies, so even if you don't really need to, calling allies for this effect is highly recommended. By the final levels, you should be strong enough to go it alone (by alone, obviously in groups of 2 and 3). Remember to not battle alone... if you die, you stay dead. Your character's sprite will lay dead for the remainder of the game, but you can loot the corpse for non-special items. If one or more of them die, you will find replacements for their special items scattered around... a box of pills substitutes for the medical kit, the broom for the vacuum, a piece of wire for the generic key, and matches for the lighter. I never lost a character, so I never had this problem, but it's still smart to stay in groups as much as possible.
One key action I haven't talked about yet is prayer... yes... PRAYING. In a video game. In 1989. I don't mean that nonsense in Castlevania II: Simon's Quest where you kneel down with a red jewel and wait for a tornado to take you away. No, here, you're praying to statues and spirits and ghosts for supernatural effects and to save your bacon. There's a handful of puzzles that no only require proper special items, but also using the power of the prayer when you think you have it all situated. Before you think "how the hell would I know this", I should warn you that the whole mansion is papered with hints from the following sources: clues hidden in the Fresco's, Ichirou Mamiya's journal, and notes left from a previous expedition that wasn't lucky enough to survive. I whole heartedly recommend keeping a log of your own for a lot of these hints, because a few of them honestly can be quite vague, but not impossible.
When you enter a battle, each enemy looks disgustingly wonderful. You have the usual low-level sprites of bats and worms (okay, a SHIT LOAD of worms), but then you have dismembered corpses crawling around, creatures spewing puss out of their body soars, and an overal strong, haunting design for practically every enemy you encounter. The final battle with Lady Mamiya actually captures the character's physical appearance quite perfectly, and in fact comes across less cartoony in a Famicom video game than it did from a major special effect in a horror movie. The only negative I can think of with the sprites is how hard it is to determine what weapons are what. You have a basic design for swords, knives, and spears, and only looking at them tells you what they are. Good luck on figuring out which ones are stronger... have an Instruction manual in Japanese, perhaps?
Out of the entire experience of playing, only one enemy was frustrating enough to make me run as much as possible: Wraith's. It's basically a poltergeist, but it's big attack is whisking you away into a different part of the mansion. Most of the time, it's only a short trek back, but there's the instances where it's a long walk if you don't have the entire mansion memorized. There are no "boss battles", until the very end, and that isn't so much a battle to the death, but a battle of survival as you try and figure out how to put Lady Mamiya's soul to rest. It's a nice touch to do away with "fight until their HP is at 0" to "figure out what you need to do next to complete the excorcism." Again, everything is told to you through notes, journal entries, and ghostly voices that talk to you en route to your final encounter. Pay attention to the clues, keep what is absolutely necessary in your inventory, and preserve your Tonic's until you absolutely have to use them, and you can beat this game in about 4-6 hours of play time, depending on your thought process.
Final Thoughts: Other than the occasional nit-picking, there's really not much I can say from a negative perspective. There's solid graphics, sound, and controls, the pace never gets too tedious, which for an RPG, is a very strong positive note, and in an era when video games didn't have detailed plot and storylines, this one will actually make you keep wanting to find out more, through all the hidden messages (Note: reading the clues in the frescoes is not required for completition, but for first time players, obviously you want any hints for your advantage that can get). Reproduction carts are available around ye olde Internet, costing in the range of $25-35, depending on who, the source material, and any other little curveballs get thrown in the way of having to wait so long for a copy. Of course, emulators are available online, if you're like me and don't have the patience to wait that long. Pick up or download a copy, and give it 30-minutes. You'll be hooked and you won't want to turn it off until your credits fade to black. This is coming from a non-fan of RPG and horror themed games.