Time Machine: Sweet Home

Sweet Home AlabamARGH...

Before evil was resident and our hill silent, there was Sweet Home, Capcom's 1989 Famicom adaptation of the Japanese horror flick of the same name. Why should you care? Because this isn't any old licensed tat, but the roots of Resident Evil.

When Tokuro 'Mega Man' Fujiwara invited a young Shinji Mikami to begin work on Resi, it was a Sweet Home remake he had in mind. So what is this game, a title Mikami labels a "masterpiece"? And how did it shape survival horror?

Five members of a television crew enter the abandoned Ichirou Mansion, but will five leave? Dun dun duuhn, etc. There to restore frescos painted by elusive artist Mamiya, it's all a bit Time Team, only Tony Robinson never got severed in half by ghost steam (this fate befalls one sap in the movie; how he fares in the game is down to you).

The film may be a rather pump take on Poltergeist but Capcom took the opportunity to spook up something special.

Exploration echoes Maniac Mansion. As in Mansion, you control multiple characters, each with a special skill, each expendable in the grand scheme of things.

Cameraman Taguchi reveals hidden images, art restorer Asuka can vacuum up broken glass, kindly Akiko is the healer, Kazuo burns barriers with his lighter, and his daughter Emi can unlock doors.

Squint and you see the beginnings of Resi's dual character paths - Chris with his extra health and Jill with her lock pick. Survival is a question of party management.

Teaming characters in clumps of three lends you extra hands in combat - a ghostly take on Dragon Quest's turn-based stat-fests - but leaves the other two on their lonesome.

Thus begins a genuinely fraught creep through the top-down corridors of the house. Keeping five frail humans alive is no small task, not least when they're divided across a huge play space. Strict item management adds to every tough decision: a key Resident Evil staple.

Even Resident Evil's infamous door animations first creaked open in Sweet Home. When building the initial Spencer Mansion on PlayStation, Mikami struggled to get rooms loading fast enough to have a free-roaming location.

To build the tension of horrors to come he looked to the proto-survival horror. As he would later say, "If I didn't know about Sweet Home, I would never have came up with that idea. I'm glad Sweet Home was already there." Those not in favour of laborious door openings disagree.

More than 8-bit door sprites and miserly inventory space, Sweet Home taught Mikami about atmosphere. In 30 seconds the gang of five arrive in the mansion, get blocked in and meet a ghost.

From there onwards, the story is eked out bit by bit, in diary entries left by previous explorers and the frescos themselves. This latter idea is borrowed directly from the film's best scene, a series of dirty walls slowly revealing images of screaming madwomen and tiny baby coffins.

If Sweet Home's softly-softly approach influenced Resi's stomach-knotting stretches of quiet, it too knew the importance of a liberal splash of claret.

There's a reason Sweet Home never made it past Nintendo's Western censors - character deaths are rendered in eye-opening 8-bit horror vision. Women splat and smear down brick walls. One chap makes like his cinematic counterpart and splits at the waist.

The most brutal sees an old man melting, with lumps of flesh dripping from his bones.3 Such a shame we never saw these frightful sights for ourselves on the humble NES.

What should have been niche as hell - an adaptation of a straight-to-video flick - ended up being one of the Famicom's finest technical hours and vital to the shaping of the modern horror scene. Sweet Home: the true evil residence.

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