Sweet Home (1989) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
25Sep/150

Sweet Home (1989)

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Earlier video game writing was under the banner Why Video Games, now Pixels In Praxis.  For a FAQ on Pixels In Praxis and explanation of spoiler policy, click here.

Ghost bustin' timeSeth, I have a sneaking suspicion that the topic of this edition of Why Video Games is a sort of "It's time to eat your vegetables." Sweet Home presents a number of challenges unique to it which haven't been present for other games. First off, it's the oldest game we've done so far, so the mechanics at play aren't going to be as refined as we're used to. Second, it's still not available commercially in the United States so the only way I could play it "pure" is by learning kanji and importing it to play on a Famicom, or one of those bargain stations which have the Famicom built in. Third, the only version we have to play is emulated and based on a translation which is now a few years old, so since this is a text-heavy RPG we're at the mercy of the translation skills to communicate the directions for us.

Keeping all this in mind, I decided to take a different approach to Sweet Home. Since the temptation to cheat thanks to emulator Game Genie's and save states is so great I tried to play it as "purely" as possible. This meant using only the in-game saving feature, not looking up any Game Genie codes, and on that note trying to play it without FAQs. After all, if 10-year old Andrew was able to find all the secrets of Final Fantasy VI without the use of the internet or other cheating utensils, surely 31-year old Andrew would be able to get through Sweet Home without relying on modern tools.

This, it turns out, was a foolish thing to think. Sweet Home implements a number of novel ideas which would go on to be used in better games and in this creates a convoluted nightmare of sorts to figure out. I had to restart the game twice because I couldn't figure out the system intuitively, and there weren't in-game queues to push me into finding out options which would have made each of my attempts much easier. For starters, I had no idea that you could send for your other party members to fight with you to share experience, or that there are limited healing items so having everyone with you is the only way to get the most of them, or that permadeath for some of the characters effectively stalls your progress in some ways as - depending on who dies - you may be without certain tools to help you decipher the game.

I wanted to preface our discussion with the limitations, both inherent to the game and self-imposed by myself, because I want to make sure our readers are clear on why I didn't like this at all. Of course, I eventually broke down and looked through some FAQs and Let's Plays, but as opposed to platformers or action games which can build in-game means of communicating just what the hell you're supposed to do - I was at a loss for much of Sweet Home. At the same time, this was the genesis for a lot of things we now take for granted in many RPGs. So tell me Seth, is this Sweet Home the carrot to Octodad's sweet fried calamari?Damn chairsGreat question. I'm not sure I can draw a direct line between Sweet Home and any game that can come out in the many years since. This game seems somewhat an anomaly to me. It's trying to do a lot of things. While the interface is exactly as problematic as you describe, it does manage to shove a lot of interaction into an 8-bit experience. On the surface, it borrows a lot of basic mechanics from the growing RPG genre of the era. Random encounters. Team of heroes pitted against the unknown. There's a power arc described by the level of each character and the associated power stats. All that is well established.

But where it gets interesting, is the experience I think they're trying approximate with this game- that of the Horror Movie. I say that as distinct from horror story or generally-scary video game theme. Everything they stack on top of the basic RPG framework seems to be putting me inside a classic horror flick where a team is sent into the haunted mansion setting and are faced when the tried-and-true tropes we all take for granted now. Stick together or split up? The mansion is in disrepair, therefore falling objects and creaky floorboards can give way at any time. I found myself submitting to the theme, allowing the house to consume my team mates gradually, feeling through my reactions to those events, and trying get a handle on how they could have designed such a game.Da wormsCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI like that last thought because it makes me wonder exactly how the game was supposed to be played "correctly". My first couple of attempts I think might have been the closest to what might fit the horror movie milieu. The team would stay relatively close together but split up around traps, I tried keeping the squishier members healed up with the healing items (before I discovered those were in limited supply), as the enemies got stronger and the power balance became more pronounced between my party I started to lose people. Then, as inevitable as death itself, they would fall.

None of this scared me exactly, but more frustrated me. It's understandable that a game this old working in a horror milieu might not have the same potency as a black and white horror film continues to, but the scenery is more interesting due to the color palette and soundtrack from the available resources on the NES than as a game. Even if the goal is to frustrate or beguile the player in some way, is that good to do without some intuitive means of figuring out what the most beneficial path forward is?

Again, we're working on specific limitations here because of the nature of the translation and the era which it comes from. But the most "efficient" way to get through the game is one of the most tedious things I've ever done. You have to keep your party relatively close together, which means not straying too far and switching from one group to the other almost constantly. Then one command in every single freaking battle will be used to call the rest of the crew to the location of the fight so that you can either heal them or polish up the fight to share the spoils. So thinking about how exactly this is "supposed" to be played is interesting, because one way makes it almost impossible and the other replaces tension with tedium.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenWell, you mention language and translation as issues, but it's a technical problem as well in terms of content density, a subject we discussed last time in our dissection of Phosphor's Corpse of Discovery. The graphics for the English alphabet takes a small amount of memory to store, but requires a rather lot more characters to convey a message. Kanji, however, takes up more memory, but I am under the impression that they can put down more words with fewer characters. We're disadvantaged on the learning curve there, not only due to potential shifts in meaning from translation, but due to the layout of the ROM code and interface space for text on the screen. Without coding the game again from scratch, English text often has to be abbreviated to fit in the same space as Japanese text. We don't get to explain as much. So that's one axis of frustration. Without learning Japanese, we will never know how it compares to the original. That being said, I suspect that trial and error (like many other NES games) was leaned on heavily as the means for learning nuance. But there's one other fact that easy to forget about in today's world. NES games came will manuals. There were usually brightly illustrated and included all sorts of other information. We didn't have any of that, either.

But to lay our limitations aside, there's plenty of content in this title I want to give due attention. I had a very interesting ride, and I'm curious about your reaction to the specific plot and event elements and how those interacted with the rest of the game. There are several sneaky little design problems I saw interesting solutions to. But to start with, how did you react the first time a team member fell through the floor? How did you feel about the first death of a team mate (as well as the death cinematics and the permanent body on the floor)? How did you feel about turning the generator on?Manage it wellCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayThere are a couple of positive pivot points that you laid out there, many deserved and the first is an interesting contrast to Corpse of Discovery. We shared in the frustration that Corpse of Discovery, especially in the early planets, was punctuated by length and not density. It felt like an artificial extension of a simple challenge and created a hurdle for the game to clear which, to its credit, it did in the later planets.

Not so with Sweet Home, as every single room is packed with content. I mentioned the traps earlier, but divvying up the loot as you come across it and figuring out who would be best (or even able) to equip each item was a fun sort of puzzle and showed how Sweet Home was capable of some intuitive mechanics. This isn't even taking into consideration the paintings which required different party members to figure out in the long run, to say nothing of the odd hint system of corpses leaping back to life (as opposed to the frequent leaping up to attack you) so murmur some cryptic hints before collapsing back onto the ground. Those moments were more funny than scary, but I was legit engaged and surprised at the spontaneous verbosity of the pile of decaying flesh.

I also got caught up in more than a few, "OH SHIT," moments when I started playing. The best, as you mentioned, is when a team member falls through the floor. At first, I couldn't figure out how to get them up, and I liked that the game took my attempts to TALK or LOOK at them with a macabre sense of humor because, as Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" taught us, looking or talking to the person about to fall to their death isn't much good. I was more taken aback by having one of my party members whisked away by old mother ghost which, again, had a sort of humorous edge to it as everyone just stands around while the unfortunate party member is s-l-o-w-l-y spirited away. So there are definite pluses, I was too frustrated after figuring out the efficient means of progress to be affected much by the visibility of the newly lit rooms via the generator and, if I didn't know permadeath was a thing, the sudden cinematic might have caught me off guard. But the novelty of the cinematic at least is a nice touch, and seals the deal that you're playing for keeps here instead of searching for a Phoenix Down to bring your people back to the game.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenDefinitely playing for keeps. In both of my play throughs, I lost two members prior to getting the generator gassed up and turned on (for those who haven't played- the generator is something like the end of Chapter 1). In addition to that, I had been in the habit of running and praying a lot. Did we mention the "magic" system in this game is Prayer? There are no spells, but you can pray anytime you're screwed (limited by prayer points) and possibly do a bunch of damage to get you out of a tough encounter. And if you're a power gamer or otherwise looking for peak efficiency as a player, there are a whole bunch of interesting experience you might miss by not letting the game kick your ass really hard. Namely... the designers make the game possible to complete so long as you have somebody left alive to keep trudging onward. And indeed... on my first play-through in particular, I felt my resolve strengthen as I lost people along the way. I would shout "Noooooooo" at the game in a very cliché manner (but sincerely- I promise you) when I'd see one of my dudes get paranormally sliced in half (by a zombie who can't even stand) and fall to the ground.

But there's another mechanical situation at play, which is that inventory slots are limited to two per character. For each character that dies, your ability significantly diminishes to account for the combinations of tools needed to open up the next set of traps and barriers. On the other hand, I sometimes found it refreshing not to have to keep track of so many people and settled into a sweet spot for my style of play with three characters left alive. They could be grouped all together or split up as needed (because three is the group-size limit). I liked that.

The other inherent thing about the characters is their special tool. Each character has one, and it doesn't take up an inventory slot- which is awesome! That's a free ability to cure poison, take pictures, clean up messy areas (like broken glass), dispel darkness, and unlock doors. Every time you lose a character, one of those freebie tools goes away. The designers accounted for this, and made sure replacement items could be found to account for lost team mates, but this time- they take up an inventory slot. I thought that was clever and interesting because inventory (which is infinite and problematic in scale in other RPGs) is now an interesting choice every time. Also unlike other RPGs, if you drop an item, it still exists in the world. And you have to remember where you put it, if you set it down. This also means the designers had to make sure that for every possible combination of team members and items that could exist in any place at any time, there was a way to reverse-navigate the entire mansion. That's a huge feat of level design and item placement for a game with permadeath.

So - back to the generator scenario.... three characters alive, limited inventory, and whole sections of the house that are in darkness. Who has room for candles (cryptically called Waxi in the English translation, because ain't nobody got room for 6 letters)? I'd intentionally wander around in the dark sometimes, trying to feel my way around the house (which is possible, if difficult). And that did some crazy things to my sense of immersion in the whole ordeal. Extrapolate from that- when I finally get the generator running and head back into the house... and find the dark areas are lit!Strollin' through the hallsCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayYou know, this is where our experiences are going to differ immensely. I was so frustrated with death removing two inventory slots that I think on attempt four or so I just restarted after losing someone. Not coincidentally, that's also where I just looked online for the best means of progressing and ended up with the slow one foot in front of the other play style which got me through the rest of the game. So by the time I got the generator turned on it was less, "Sweet light and salvation!" and more "So where the hell do I go now to finish this?"

Which I also suppose will be as good a place as any to talk about the legacy this has. Sweet Home still isn't exactly a widely played game, but the common consensus places it as a predecessor to survival horror. This is where I'd like someone who wants to make a strong case for it to sit down and draw those lines, because they seem tenuous at best. Haunted houses weren't exactly scarce when it came to video games, and the limited inventory system was something we'd already seen in the Dragon Quest and in Japan three DQ games had been released prior to Sweet Home hitting the shelves. Considering that leveling up characters is antithetical to the core of many survival horror games, at least in the way it's presented in Sweet Home, the through line becomes even more tenuous.

Now Sweet Home has clearer through-lines to later RPGs if we keep that as a focus. The split-up party system in particular was something revisited to great success in FFVI. It's also notable that the PRAY mechanic featured in Sweet Home wasn't the only RPG released in Japan that year to use it. Mother (itself is a cult favorite though a rocky play through) also used the mechanic and took the RPG to the suburbs where Sweet Home kept it confined to the haunted house. Both are unique in their presentation, and I loved that even though you're surrounded by all this death and decay in Sweet Home the color contrast keeps things popping and moved along in the map screen. The battles don't fare quite as well, but the soundtrack especially kept me in a sort of Castlevania frame of mind as I slowly worked my way through the house. Honestly, the soundtrack may be the true hero of Sweet Home, because without that I'm not sure I would have found something to keep me focused enough to put one crew in front of the other as I crawled toward the end.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThat is interesting regarding the soundtrack. There isn't the kind of singable themes you get from a Nuobo Uematsu score, but what it has going for it... is that there are a bunch of game events, and the composer took the opportunity to include several transition patterns and keep the music changing with whatever you're seeing on screen. Even the "battle is coming" music has this kind of Jaws-esque terror-about-to-strike feel. It's repetitive, but well integrated. The graphics also wait until the just the right note of the little tune to bring the enemy into view. That synchronization and thoughtfulness makes every encounter feel like a surprise until you've memorized all of enemy types that can pop up in your current zone.

As for lines between Sweet Home and anything we might call survival horror, there is no technical similarity, in my opinion. Sweet Home clearly used the established mechanics of RPGs as its medium. It didn't NEED to the RPG to get a tense game, necessarily. But in that era, one must remember, RPGs were the alterative to twitch games. If you weren't a strong action-gamer, RPGs (no matter how punishing) were games you could finish. The ability to save the game at all is big deal. The NES was home to a great many games, but most were platformers or RPGs.

My thought is that Capcom and their developers already understood the RPG medium, or had dealt with those systems earlier in their career. When you're looking to do something experimental, it helps a great deal to bring in something you're already good at as a base for the game, and then do your experiments in that context. This feel very much like what's happening with Sweet Home. Familiar base mechanics on the bottom , wild and crazy stuff to evoke those fight-or-flight emotions on top. It happened to work for me as a player, and perhaps it did for Japanese players during its original retail release.

If there is a through-line of any kind between Sweet Home on modern Survival Horror, is that's Sweet Home put a strong theme and startling environmental triggers in front of mechanics. Even thought it's an RPGs, I had a completely different sort of experience than I tend have with, say, Final Fantasy games. And that's not just because of the horror story happening. I think the developers at Capcom were trying to get you to worry about the house, and again- whether it was a complete success or not- to evoke the Horror Movie tropes to the extent that you try out all the ideas that you want to shout at the people in Horror Movies at the cinema. "Don't split up, you fool! You're gonna die!" Now it's your turn- do you split up? Maybe you have to. Putting the shoe on the other foot, I think, is the goal of this game. Live it out and see how you deal with these situations. If it happened to influence the emergence of survival horror, I could believe it. But it's a loose tie, since modern horror has gone in so many different directions than Sweet Home did.

Taking it to the boilCSTVIcon_AndrewHathawayI'm going to bring your last few comments back around and answer the question I posed at the beginning. Sweet Home is very much a vegetable-eating experience, just not vegetables prepared in a way I have as much of a taste for. The things I'm going to take with me in the long-run don't actually have as much to do with the game itself, but my experience and the legacy surrounding it.

For starters, is it even possible for us to have a "pure" experience with Sweet Home? Is its relationship to survival horror indicative of the larger gaming trend of making superficial comparisons without getting into the nitty gritty of the product? Can you make players absolutely miserable and still reasonably expect them to continue playing your product?

I ask these questions in part as rhetorical positioning because I have some sparse answers, but the question of "purity" as a gaming experience is something I'll likely be returning to at the right time. As it stands, Sweet Home was educational if not always fun, and that's a success I can live with.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenI had several kinds of fun. Some of my surrender to Sweet Home's devices may have been influenced by my wonder and curiosity as a game developer, but one axis of my delight was the celebration of horrible things happening. I don't tend to be a big watcher of horror movies, but I have at least one friend that just loves 'em. And he's a fellow that can chuckle along with each turn in the plot, even if all it does to me is turn my stomach. It's possible that a game which goes so far out on a limb to create this experience will have the same split in reactions to its content. Perhaps it's my imagining of the developers coming up with these ideas that gives me the appropriate amount of giggles to keep me excited, even when things are going all wrong.

As a last note, I'd like to give a favorable note to the designers' handling of changes in difficulty. It's nearly invisible- among the best I've seen among RGP-type games. Going from five members down, potentially, to just one is a huge change when it comes to game balance. And I was impressed by how the challenge level was managed here. This is a game I probably won't replay often in the future, but along with that, I can't imagine a richer experience on the NES. I feel like I got it all, which is a pretty good feeling for a non-completionist player to have. And it will certainly have its influence on me as a designer, if only for the great number of surprises it had in store.

What we're gaming this week

CSTVIcon_AndrewHathawaySweet Home triggered an intense desire to play more traditional RPGs, and I've gone in two different directions.  The first is a hack of Final Fantasy VI called Brave New WorldFFVI is probably the easiest of the FF games, and this is a top down overhaul which keeps the spirit intact.  The espers you can equip are restricted to specific characters, previously overpowered abilities are given niche roles, which gives fresh life to the game as you get new party members and try to figure out how to work with their different dynamics.  It's difficult, but fair, and I'm having a lot of fun revisiting the game with fresh eyes.

CSTVIcon_SethGordenThis week I tried out one of the celebrated tactical shooters of yesteryear: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas. Being an avid QuakeLive player, it's taking quite a bit of effort to get used to this careful, walking-pace game. There is a button to adjust movement speed, but it makes you walk even slower -_-;; Even on a lower difficulty setting, I have my work cut out for me. That being said, there are some skills that transfer. I get scolded for breaking through doors without using the snake cam to view the room and plan an infiltration strategy with my team. Instead, I do a fair amount of dying in order to get a real understanding of how enemy soldiers will react to my entry into their space. Perhaps it's a change in my play style. Once upon a time (in Ion Storm's Deux Ex, released in 2000), I used to enjoy taking my time and trying not to get hit at all. But these days I seem to prefer the ol' run and gun. My accuracy is a little better than it used to be, which helps. And I get rewarded once in a while when I clear a room of bad dudes and save all the hostages while my team are still dawdling in the foyer. As a fun bonus, the team will sometimes give positive commentary on efficient success. I don't know if those are scripted for specific rooms or if they are earned based on performance, but it's a nice little touch. As for the team-based tactics, I've figured out the commands, but I have no idea whether it's having any effect on the game to tell my team to follow or hold. Occasionally, ordering my mates to take a certain position can be useful for flanking, which is cool. But that's extent of my understanding thus far. Sometimes they will shout out when bad dudes are attempting to flank me, which is also nice. Good eye, team guy. Otherwise, the game is pretty dry so far (I'm only a couple missions in. No sign of Vegas yet. I just went down a mine shaft). Despite the slow pace of walking, the game moves along briskly from mission to mission. Not much in the way of fuss over cinematics. One the one hand, I feel little empty without a nice narrative pat-on-the-back to say good job after each chunk of effort. On the other hand, this game manages not to glorify the proceedings of war (or anti-terrorism, or whatever). It's a job. Terrorists need to die and somebody had funded the effort. Therefore: get to work.

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Posted by Andrew

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