Experiencing the Horror- Sweet Home

     No sooner had I removed the Ghosts ‘n Goblins cartridge from my NES than I heard a voice behind me…

     I spun, only to find a cloaked, hooded figure staring intently at me, and as it raised a clawed hand and hooked its finger at me it growled. “Ghosts ‘n Goblins too difficult? Maybe this will be more to your liking…” I stumbled, frantically backing into a corner, but I needn’t have worried; what its other hand held out to me was no weapon, but only a gray NES cartridge. “Who are you?” I yelled, and reached out to drag it’s hood off, but when I tore it free I was shocked to find only nothingness within. The spectre shook and the room filled with it’s horrid laughter as it cried “I am naught but the messenger and soul of the Great Old Ones, he whom men name Nyarlathotep!” The creature’s form began to fade as it dropped the cartridge in front of me, and it was only then that I noticed the wording on the label- Sweet Home.

Unbelievable? Maybe. But it’s the story I’m going with since there is, of course, no legitimate way to play Sweet Home outside Japan, as it was never released for the NES. To be sure, there are various places online where a person could easily download a ROM file of the game and an emulator to play it on, but I can’t recommend that, since ROM files technically might constitute an infringement of copyright for the content they contain, even if you’re downloading the game from a country in which the game was never offered for sale (and therefore, some folks might argue that there is no way anyone could reasonably claim such use of a ROM file would therefore constitute a loss of potential revenue for the copyright holder). Nope, I cannot advocate downloading ROMs. Nyarlathotep appeared in my home and dropped off a copy of Sweet Home, conveniently translated into English. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Oh no, a floor-zombie! Walk briskly for your lives!

Oh no, a floor-zombie! Walk briskly for your lives!

Now that we have that out of the way we can dig into the game. I remember first hearing about Sweet Home years ago. It was, at the time, considered something of a ‘lost game‘; described as a horror game that had come out for the Famicom in Japan, but whose planned release on the NES was scrapped for unknown reasons. Sources had it that the game was a very effective horror game, even outright spooky- to the point that some were calling it the first ‘survival horror game’. I wished I could have had an opportunity to play it, as I imagine most every fan of horror games outside Japan did, but the game was, unfortunately, unavailable.

Which is a shame since, having played the game, I can tell you there’s a lot about it to be recommended. The atmosphere is fantastic and reaches a level of ‘creepy’ rarely seen on the NES- probably the only American NES game that could be called it’s equal in modern gothic-style ambiance is the classic ‘Uninvited’. A lot of the game’s atmosphere is due to the incredible pixel artwork it contains, art that is both vivid and creepy all at once, but the whole visual palate of the game is just striking. The game’s soundtrack is also incredible, bringing to mind both airy strings in some exploration sections and dramatic drum rhythms during the battle sequences. Taken together, both the visual and auditory elements of the game represent quite an achievement when one considers that they were done on the Famicom’s hardware.

Which is why I was so disappointed when I discovered that the game uses a turn-based, menu oriented combat system.

It's another heart-pounding fight scene! Select the menu option that appeals to you!

It’s another heart-pounding fight scene! Select the menu option that appeals to you!

Turn-based games turn me off. The first one I played, as a kid, was Dragon Warrior (I got it from the famous ‘subscribe to Nintendo Power and get a free game!’ promotion), and while I absolutely loved the exploration in the game, I was disappointed when I first encountered an enemy and discovered that, rather than fighting it in an action-game sense, you had to defeat it by scrolling through a menu screen and selecting the appropriate action. I’ve played a number of other turn-based games with menu-oriented combat since then, and almost invariably the menu battle system made me feel disconnected from the action happening onscreen. Essentially they work like this: when the enemy appears before you, the game brings up a menu allowing you to select between actions like ‘attack’ ‘heal’ and ‘run away’. The odds of successfully running away or the amount of damage your attack does is then seemingly determined by a random number generator built into the game. This makes an encounter with your enemies seem less like engaging in combat and more like pulling the lever on a slot machine. The comparison is, of course, an oversimplification- but it’s accurate enough in it’s way.

Only 95% of the screen is covered with menus!

Only 95% of the screen is covered with menus!

In my prior review I described my journey from my initial rage at the grinding difficulty of Ghosts ‘n Goblins to finding a way to beat the game through sheer tenacity. In an earlier review I described the unfortunate win conditions that created the absurd impossibility of The Evil Dead for the ZX Spectrum. Even thinking back to the very first game review I penned for this site, I described the brutality of Demon’s Souls. The commonality those games shared was that, no matter how difficult they became, while playing them I at least felt as though the actions I took during the gameplay had an effect on the outcome of the game; that if I could simply play better I might have a better chance at winning. Games with menu-based combat, though, invariably make me feel as though my own level of skill is irrelevant to the outcome of the fight, and all that matters is how forgiving the game’s probability generator feels like being at any given time, and this often causes me to quickly lose interest.

Damn shoddy light fixture workmanship!

Damn shoddy light fixture workmanship!

I also had difficulty with the perplexing nature of the game’s internal logic system, which seems to be a hold-over from the days of text-based adventure games. At one point in Sweet Home, you need to pass through a hallway, but your way through is blocked by a rope stretched taut from one side wall to the other. You’ll discover that you can’t crawl under the rope, or climb over it, and using the knife on the rope does nothing. So what’s the solution to the puzzle? You’ll need to use the cigarette lighter on the rope and wait for it to burn to ashes before you can proceed. Why can’t you cut the rope with the knife? Because the knife is tagged in the game’s logic as a ‘weapon’, not a ‘tool’. This bit of silliness is typical of the sort of thing adventure gamers are used to, but when someone unaccustomed to playing adventure games bumps into logic like this, it seems glaringly absurd.

In the end, after spending so much time wishing I could play Sweet Home, once I actually had it in my possession I discovered myself playing it piecemeal. I would play it for a bit, enjoying the awesome graphics and sound, then find my thoughts wandering, so I would take a ‘break’ and do something else for a while before coming back to it and starting the cycle over again.

Every once in a while you come across a piece of art that, as the colloquialism goes, ‘isn’t for you’. It isn’t as though the work is bad- it might even be incredible- but you just can’t connect with it on any sort of meaningful level. I think this is, for me, the case with Sweet Home. I like the game conceptually, and everything about it is good from a technical and gameplay standpoint, the whole thing just didn’t work for me.

     The demon reached forth his clawed hand and popped the Sweet Home cartridge out of my old NES, startling me when he slammed the console’s lid. He grinned as the game suddenly burst into flame in his palm. “Guess this one wasn’t for you, but don’t worry- there’s plenty more horror games on the old NES. Enough to keep you busy…for eternity!” Nyarlathotep’s words chilled me to the bone, and I shivered as the demon faded from the room again, until all that remained to speak to his presence was his reverberating laughter and the ashes of the Sweet Home cartridge, leaving me with no way to prove it had ever existed.



Sweet Home and all associated IP are the property of their respective owners. Nyarlathotep created by H.P. Lovecraft. Special thanks go out to Ryan Postlethwait for his assistance, which was instrumental in the creation of this game review.

~ by Redgoateerob on July 9, 2013.

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