Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sweet Home Alabama

Considering Halloween is a little over a month away, we thought now would be as good a time as any to begin a ‘retrospective’ on all things disturbing. Sweet Home, published by Capcom, is considered by many as the first horror game to be released on a home console. While the depictions of gore and bloodletting may be primitive by today’s standards (Hotline Miami, anyone), when the title was released in the late 1980s, it was a revelation of violence.

Whether it be time constraints or the general malaise of those involved with a property they have no real say in, adaptations of existing intellectual property are generally regarded with contempt usually reserved for criminals. Nintendo was no stranger to these games as awful releases based on movies and television shows were readily available for the system; Total Recall, Knight Rider, Lethal Weapon, Cliffhanger, Air Wolf. While there is certainly no shortage of these derided titles, it was not until the latter part of the eighties that Capcom decided to approach licensed titles in a completely different way.  Beginning with Ducktales, Capcom started to take these releases seriously and instead of looking at these titles as a quick means of capital decided that these games could be so much more.
Sweet Home - 1989
Sweet Home was based on a Japanese horror movie of the same name. Released in 1989, Sweet Home was a disturbing film that explored the insanity one woman suffered after the accidental death of her only child. Lady Mamiya watched her son fall into her home’s furnace, burning him alive. Stricken with grief she began to kidnap children within her village. So consumed with rage, she threw the kidnapped children into the same furnace her son fell. Eventually she would throw herself into that same incinerator. Her ghost would later haunt the grounds of the estate, claiming that anyone entering the grounds would suffer the same fate as those of the murdered children.
Suffice it to say, Sweet Home dealt with some heavy subject matter. Nevertheless, famed director Tokuro Fujiwara was able to view the film and use only what he felt was necessary for the film’s game adaptation,

“I carefully considered how to go about bringing elements from the movie to the game screen” and used “whatever essence I thought would work in the game”
The game took on a life of its own, eventually becoming more frightening than its source,

“Everyone said the game was even scarier than the film”.

Don’t be fooled by Sweet Home’s survival horror leanings, this game is a role-playing game through and through. The game begins with a party of adventures that must traverse a mysterious environment, battles are random, and you must level up your party just like any other RPG of the era. You’ll have to grind, use potions, and backtrack. However while the RPG elements laid the foundation of what Sweet Home was; it was the horror that defined what the game became. The gruesome imagery, atmosphere, and moody score are what make Sweet Home so special.

One must consider that at the time of the game’s release that nothing like this had ever been done before. Survival Horror was not a thing. There wasn’t any Silent Hill, Resident Evil , or Fatal Frame. Gamers did not have a frame of reference for this type of adventure, thus the game is considered as the first of its genre, influencing many games even to this day. Take for example Resident Evil; the action largely takes place in a mansion, the protagonist fights the undead, you must solve puzzles to advance the plot, and the loading screens. Each time you open a locked door in Sweet Home, the screen cuts to a single door slowly opening. The door’s movement becomes tension and it is that tension that directly influenced the loading screens of Capcom’s Resident Evil.

Capcom’s unique approach to adapting licensed property can certainly be seen in Sweet Home. The game is unique, different, and something completely new: The game honors its source, it isn’t beholden to it. This simple approach eventually lead to many other successful adaptations of licensed material produced by Capcom but only Sweet Home can be called the progenitor of an entire genre. And while the elements that make Sweet Home so unique prevented the game from being released in the West, it is those same elements that would go on to influence a generation of gamers.

- John