When it comes to the survival horror genre, a few popular franchises come to mind for most gamers; in-particular, Resident Evil and Silent Hill. However, there is a game that predates these entries by several years. Released by Capcom in 1989 on the Famicom in Japan, Sweet Home is a survival horror game that makes it unlike anything else released on the platform at the time; a violent, creepy, unsettling experience from the mind of Japanese horror icon Kiyoshi Kurosawa, based on his film of the same name.
Sweet Home combines top-down dungeon crawling with a traditional turn-based combat system very similar to that of the Mother series (the second of which would later be released in NA as Earthbound on the Super Nintendo). The game focuses on party-play and exploration. You can proceed with up to 3 party members at a time and can switch in different locations. You move in groups, splitting up and then rejoining, then dividing your party up again with a new combination of characters. There are five characters in-total, and you can split the groups to use each of their strengths to solve a variety of puzzles and avoid or disarm dangerous traps. With your parties split up, you can freely swap between your groups as they navigate different areas of the mansion.
If Sweet Home does one thing correct, it’s atmosphere. The unsettling music, knowledge of the feeling of isolation and high risk of combat with the truly dangerous monsters makes this a harrowing experience. Every step into a new area brings with it a feeling of dread and the random battles open with a fade to black that lasts a random amount of time followed by a jump-scare-esque audio sting as some monsters will slide or jump into view. Battles with creepy dolls, zombies, beds of worms and enraged skeletons are frequent and sometimes, running is the best option. Alternatively, if you aren’t in a full party, you can call one of your allies to run to your aid in combat if they offer a particularly-useful skill. Other times, special, non-combat events will occur that prompt you to choose one of four actions with a chance of success, the consequence can vary from damage to your party’s HP or even death.
The one major downside to Sweet Home is the same that is often the downfall of any game with random battles: The encounter rate. The amount of times you will end up in combat with enemies is absurdly-high and can occasionally throw off the flow of the game, especially in areas where you need to focus on solving challenging puzzles. Fortunately, the enemies are graciously-easy compared to what you will often find in other turn-based RPG’s of the era, so running into a battle is not quite as punishing as it is in a game like Dragon Warrior III.
Sweet Home never saw an official release outside of Japan due primarily to Nintendo’s strict policy of blood and other disturbing themes outside of their home country, and while some NES games sort of tread this line, Sweet Home is pretty explicit in its depiction of gore and description of horrific events. However, fan-translated mod versions of Sweet Home exist both online and as an unofficial cartridge to play on your console. It is worth trying if you are a fan of horror and can tolerate the turn-based battles and brutal number of fights you will run into between points A and B. It will likely run you around $40-50 for a custom cartridge running a translated ROM. It is certainly unique enough as well, with items persisting in rooms and a sort of shortcut-unlocking metroidvania world design that makes it come off as a precursor to games like 2016’s Salt and Sanctuary.