Any discussion about survival horror as a genre of course pays homage to some of the first horror games ever made. Titles such as Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and the granddaddy of them all, Alone in the Dark, are often credited for “modernizing” the genre in the mid 90s, leading to a rise of survival horror games hitting their peak by early 2002. The subsequent release of Resident Evil 4 saw the genre decline, and despite a minor resurgence today on the independent market, survival horror games are still a relatively niche genre in the gaming industry.
While Alone in the Dark does (rightfully) get some credit for popularizing a more cinematic quality to the survival horror genre, it is not alone in being a forerunner for the genre either. Obviously, titles such as the Atari 2600 game Haunted House, or text-only, Apple II games such as The Lurking Horror, are the real impetus for early horror video games as well. Yet one game bridges that gap even further, a Japanese only role-playing game, ironically, called Sweet Home for the Famicom.
Now you might be asking “what?” at this point. Well, it is important to note a few things right off the bat about Sweet Home. While an RPG in terms of mechanics, the game is predominantly horror-themed; in fact, the game is based on a movie with the same name, which was released in Japan in early 1989. Second, the game was developed and produced by Capcom, and released in conjunction with the movie as a tie-in. Finally, and perhaps the most important part of all, it is because of Sweet Home that the Resident Evil series exists.
Before we get to that major event, we need to go back to the origins of Sweet Home. As stated above, the game is based off of a Japanese horror movie of the same name, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Kurosawa is a famous Japanese director well known for horror and thriller movies, including perhaps his most famous work, Kairo, also known as Pulse, in 2001. Pulse would later be remade in the U.S in 2006.
As a movie, Sweet Home involves a small film crew travelling to an abandoned mansion of a long dead artist, in hopes to restore the mansion and the artist’s work. The crew is stalked by a vengeful ghost, however, who summarily begins killing off members of the crew one by one. The ghost stalking them turns out to be the distraught wife of the deceased artist, who now haunts the mansion due to tragic events befalling her entire family after her son perishes in an accident.
Without delving into further spoilers of Sweet Home, this basic plot, setting and framework was the impetus for the video game. The director of the game was Tokuro Fujiwara, the developer of the popular arcade title Ghosts ’N Goblins. Fujiwara incorporated new elements to Sweet Home to add atmosphere to the game, creating some new ghosts and creatures to combat, expanding on the tragic backstory through the use of journal entries found in the house, and even adding a special cut-scene, a “door-opening” scene every time the players went into a new room or location.
Sweet Home even had permadeath as a primary mechanic, so once a player character dies, they cannot be revived. This also changed the games ending heavily, giving Sweet Home a total of 5 different endings that the player can see, depending on their choices. To emphasize this further, Sweet Home was one of the first games to incorporate on-screen character death animations, a first, and at the time, controversial addition to the game.
It was because of these changes, along with a growing interest in role-playing games, that Fujiwara felt the game would work best as an RPG, following in the same vein of Dragon Quest. This allowed both RPG combat, but also investigation and puzzle solving (usually by investigating paintings left behind from the dead artist) becoming prominent in the game itself. It even served a second purpose in limiting the player’s inventory, making resource management a major task in-game.
In an attempt to differentiate the player characters further, each of them was given special abilities, loosely based on their movie counterparts. These personal abilities were not only usable in combat, but necessary to beat large amounts of puzzles in Sweet Home. The only way to proceed through the game is to use the abilities of the party, meaning their survival was an important part of the gameplay. Thankfully, if a character does die, items found in-game can replace their abilities so the player doesn’t get stuck.
It should be noted that Sweet Home also incorporated many gameplay elements that would be found across the spectrum. Alistair Pinsof, discussing Sweet Home on Destructoid in 2011, noted "I am not alone in blindly accepting its placement in gaming history without looking into its actual value as a game ... If more had played it, I imagine Sweet Home would be mentioned in the same breath as EarthBound and Persona for showing what can be done within an RPG once tradition and standards are forsaken." Pinsof argues that Sweet Home can be credited as being a forerunner of in-game world building a la the connected world found in Metroid.:
Sweet Home deserves to be recognized to be the first game to fully realize the potential of a cohesive game world that connects beginning to end (even if Metroid attempted it first). The structure of the game is absolutely amazing. Every area is full of secrets, shortcuts, and memorable "a-ha!"-moments. Even within the first area, you'll come across doors that are locked and items that you can't reach. You keep looking at them, wondering if you are doing something wrong. Meanwhile, you struggle against every enemy encounter.
Eventually, you'll unlock passages back to the first room, retrieve that awesome sword in the distance, and get through every battle with one attack. I can't think of another game that so seamlessly connects such a large area together.
The game was a major success on the Famicom, but partly because of the subject matter, the fact it was based on a Japanese horror movie, and the horrific imagery found in-game, Nintendo opted to not port the game overseas in keeping with their ethical standards and censorship at the time. A full translation of the game was made, however, and has since been released on the Internet as an emulator.
These facts alone already give Sweet Home cult-wide status as a horror video game, and a unique place in gaming history as both an early RPG and early survival horror title. Yet, the interest and popularity of Sweet Home continued in Japan well into the early 90s. Capcom decided in mid-1993 to create a sequel to Sweet Home, featuring a whole new cast, storyline, and even gameplay mechanics. The project was given to Capcom’s Shinji Mikami, who was originally tasked at making a sequel that would be a first person shooter. Mikami would take many elements from Sweet Home, from the puzzles, the setting, even the “door-opening” scenes and limited inventory, while combining the cinematography and control mechanics of Alone in the Dark.
The rest, of course, is history. Released as Biohazard in Japan, and Resident Evil worldwide in 1995, the game would go on to be a huge success, and one of the most popular video game franchises in the world.
The importance of Sweet Home for the survival horror genre cannot be understated. Modern critiques of the game have also pointed to this fact, as well as the quality of the game itself. Kotaku's Peter Tieryas stated “Sweet Home's significance goes beyond its historical footnote status as precursor to the Biohazard's that have become synonymous with survival horror. Much of what made the original Resident Evil a classic comes from this 8-bit romp and its almost constant sense of tension and pressure.”
Likewise, Alistar Pinsof stated at the end of his retrospective, “Even though Capcom's 1989 Nintendo classic is the prototype for survival horror, it is in many ways every bit as good as Silent Hill 2 or Resident Evil 2.” In recent years, Sweet Home has become more visible due its importance in being a forerunner for the survival horror genre. The lasting legacy of Sweet Home is a lofty one to be sure, and one that until just recently, it has been receiving credit for.
That said, Sweet Home as a game stands above it's contributions to the survival horror genre. It is arguably one of the most important horror video games ever created in general, offering genuine frights and complex gameplay for its era, but it did so by not being a horror game in the traditional sense. First and foremost a RPG, Sweet Home excels at taking elements from the role-playing genre and making them new again, adding a horror twist to a genre people don't generally associate horror with. This shows the lasting power of the game; its use of mechanics and ideas that are incorporated elements in several games and genres coalesced into something wholly unique. But if only one thing should be taken away from Sweet Home, it simply a good game that deserves a playthrough.
Thank you guys so much for checking out this special editorial series. I want to thank everyone at Techraptor who took time out to pen these articles, and I hope you, the readers, had fun with this series. Happy Halloween, and see you next time.