8-Bit Week

Sweet Home: The forgotten 1989 game that inspired the survival horror subgenre

Resident Evil makes frequent nods to this spooky classic.

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If you were a '90s gamer with a taste for blood, chances are you remember the 1996 release of Resident Evil on the Sony PlayStation.

Sure, Doom had put gore-gaming on the map by pitting a well-armed space marine against the legions of hell three years earlier. But it was the sense of helplessness, isolation and intimidation in Resident Evil that incited genuine fear on home consoles. With a suspenseful atmosphere and a brooding sense of terror, the game was dubbed "survival horror," and the games' tropes would duly be copied everywhere from Silent Hill to Alien: Isolation in the years that followed.

Resident Evil's success can hardly be understated. To this day, it remains Capcom's best-selling franchise, with more than 103 million units sold. But as it turns out, that revolutionary progenitor of gaming dread wasn't quite as original as it first seemed to gamers in the West. In fact, the original Resident Evil was a straight-up remake of an 8-bit Famicom game never released outside of Japan.

Sweet Home was the 1989 haunted house RPG that set the foundations for the entire survival horror genre as we know it today. And while its influence is knowingly referenced across the Resident Evil franchise — both were made by Capcom, after all — its entire existence remains largely obscure in the West. Banned from release in the US due to its perceived excess of gore, this little-known gem of 8-bit gaming was, perhaps even more unexpectedly, actually a video game tie-in for a Japanese B-movie of the same name.

The Famicom box art for Sweet Home.


VHS blues

The film's plot is pretty ripe to base a game upon, and will certainly feel familiar to anyone who has played a Resident Evil game. It follows a television crew, armed with an old key, as they journey into the woods in search of a mansion rumored to harbor the last frescos of a great artist. Once they enter the booby-trapped abode, stock full of marbled statues and suits of armor, they soon find that their all-terrain vehicle has broken down, leaving them stranded inside. Bloody hell ensues as the group soon become terrorized by a malevolent force. While a hermetic old man with a fancy talisman does come to their aid, it does little to prevent a series of grisly demises until a climactic "boss battle" puts the haunted soul to rest.

Like a latter-day video nasty, Sweet Home was largely confined to the medium of worn-out VHS tapes in its native Japan, where it found only a small cult following due to its cliched plot and gory effects. But the video-game tie-in proved far more successful. Designed by Tokuro Fujiwara, creator of 1985 arcade run-and-gun hit Ghosts’n Goblins, the Sweet Home Famicom title copy-pasted the film's generic story onto a Final Fantasy-like RPG. It was released to such critical acclaim that it's still praised as one of the platform's best releases.

Fujiwara, though, was left unsatisfied after the game's release. Frustrated by the hardware limitations of the 8-bit Famicom console, he opted to remake the game for the Sony PlayStation when the opportunity came round in 1996, reinstating a score of gameplay elements left on the cutting room floor seven years prior. Some way into production, the game's premise and characters were overhauled, too, as publishers Capcom decided that horror gaming might become a viable genre in itself. And voila;Biohazard, or Resident Evil, as it's known to us, was born.

The origin of a legend

Comparing them side-by-side, it is obvious how similar the two games are despite the generation gap. Inside Sweet Home's vast, labyrinthine setting (described as a "house of residing evil" in Gaijin Productions’ unofficial English-language translation), the game is stock full of looming corridors and locked rooms and even features cutscenes of creaky doorways opening as the player moves between rooms. The story, meanwhile, is told through in-game lore, traced by reading diary entries and messages on the walls, written in blood. The game's conclusion, meanwhile, is entirely dependent on the form of the player, with a series of alternate endings contingent on how many allies you were able to save from permadeath on your playthrough.

Further parallels can be seen in the gameplay of Sweet Home. After forming a party of three from the game's five characters, players must set upon the mansion's puzzles with only a limited number item slots at their disposal, encouraging stressful inventory management as a major gameplay mechanic. Unique character abilities, meanwhile, ensure that a great deal of thinking goes into your party selection, as you navigate the full cast of five around the mansion in two separate groups.

Early versions of Jill Valentine's lockpick and Chris Redfield's lighter both feature as such specialist abilities in Sweet Home, while the medical kit of Resident Evil support character Rebecca Chambers is present through party member Akiki. The camera-wielding Taguchi, meanwhile, provides a parallel to the 2001 survival horror Fatal Frame. And Asuka wields a vacuum cleaner to clean dirty paintings—Luigi's Mansion, anyone?

During the game's frequent RPG-style battles monsters like axe-wielding ghouls, dogs and zombies freely spew vomit, blood and pus. Even if you avoid such perils, there's still a danger of being grabbed and used as a human shield, or abducted and abandoned elsewhere in the mansion. It is not possible to defend oneself in combat, either. That most basic of abilities is instead replaced by the merciless choice to "pray" in the face of terror. And there are quick-time events dotted about the maze-like setting: if one of your party were to fall through the floor, say, it's up to you to save them before time runs out and they lose their grip.

Good bones

Far from simply a precursor to the games that followed it, though, Sweet Home still looks, sounds and plays great today. The colourful gore that prevented the game from receiving a Stateside release is vivid, and remarkably animated. Junko Tamiya's glitch-tastic title melody sounds like Jaws having a mental breakdown. Above all, the game's central psychological trauma, of having to assume responsibility for five helpless characters in a massive, intimidating setting, insights the kind of anxiety that transcends hardware limitations.

It's a testimony to Sweet Home's enduring influence that Resident Evil continually harks back to its spiritual godfather throughout the franchise. The character-zapping party-switch system would be mimicked in Resident Evil 0, and the top-down format copied for the Game Boy's Resident Evil: Gaiden. But the most obvious reference to Sweet Home would come in 2016, nearly three decades after it was released when Capcom unveiled Beginning Hour, a demo for Resident Evil 7. The premise of a camera crew investigating mysterious goings-on at an eerie homestead in the woods would see the franchise come full circle, going back to its roots to set up a game praised as a return to form. It would sell nearly 8 million units upon release.

With the eighth installment of the main Resident Evil series due for release in 2021, one can only wonder if there's anything still left to be mined from the grand-daddy of survival horror. But while we're waiting to find out, you could make worse use of your time than to revisit Sweet Home - the long lost 8-bit survival horror that gestated a real monster of the video game universe.

8-Bit week is an Inverse celebration of the classic — and forgotten — games that pushed the boundaries of interactive entertainment in the 1980s and beyond.

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