Contrary to popular belief, not all remakes are born bad and, well, tie-in games might even end up being better than you think. Revolutionary even. Indeed, despite being often forgotten, one of the most celebrated series of all time, Resident Evil, originally started as a straightforward remake of a 1989 NES title, Sweet Home. But how did this happen?
Produced by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the director of the movie which Sweet Home takes its plot and characters from, the NES game follows the story of five people exploring a house trying to find its precious frescos. They end up trapped inside by a disquieting ghostly presence and will have to fight it in order to find their way out.
The game never made it out of Japan, as it was considered too graphic for the “family” image that Nintendo of America was catering to at the time. The RPG genre was not popular with console players in North America at the time either. But it is fair to say that, despite its relative obscurity, Sweet Home was among one of the most important titles to lay the groundwork for modern survival horror.
Many of the classic elements of survival horror can already be found fully developed in Sweet Home. First and foremost, telling a horror story through pieces of diary and notes scattered around the game world. Inventory management is also important because characters have limited space, which was a mechanic not common at the time. Quick time events also pop up, and the overall concept of exploring and having to track back to places previously visited to open up new rooms and spaces, presents some of the early mechanics of the Metroidvania genre.
Still, Sweet Home originates from Japanese RPGs, which can be clearly seen in the classic first-person battles against ghosts and zombies. With limited ammo and health-restoring items, getting in too many battles will result in an untimely death. Avoiding unnecessary battles is definitely one of the main mechanics that will ensure the team’ survival. Each character has unique skills that will prove invaluable, like unlocking doors, being able to light dark places, using medical kits and so on.
In Japan, the game saw great success. Thus, in 1993, when Capcom started development on Resident Evil, it was originally designed as a straight remake of Sweet Home. Kurosawa, back in the producer role, mentioned how he wanted to expand on the original, especially in making it more realistic from a graphical standpoint.
In the end, Capcom lost the rights to the movie, and Kurosawa left and was replaced by the legend that now is Shinji Mikami. He continued developing the game, this time with an original story, but still keeping many of the same mechanics of Sweet Home. While the team was now split up, thus making it easier for the player, the narrative and the survival horror mechanics definitely feel like references to the 1989 game.
But it is unfair to give all the credit for survival horror to Sweet Home. There are several other games that laid important groundwork. While you might be familiar with minor titles such as The Rats on ZX Spectrum and Mad Doctor on Commodore 64, most would more easily recognize Project Firestart.
Originally released on Commodore 64 in 1989, it is an action adventure that was considered very cinematic for the time, as well as being clearly influenced by the movie Alien. You explore a silent spaceship filled with bloody corpses, with your echoing footsteps being your only companion. Its gruesome imagery, narrative told through logs and trekking back and forth in a spaceship about to be destroyed feels modern. The use of cutscenes seems to have clearly been an influence on the original Resident Evil, with many disquieting moments being rendered vividly despite the limited Commodore 64 colours and hardware.
With Project Firestart in the West and Sweet Home in the East, the origins of the survival horror genre feel complete. Taking cues from both Japanese RPGs and Western action adventures in the vein of Another World, the genre had everything it needed to conquer a new decade: the 90s. But of course, no true guide on the survival horror forefathers would be complete without mentioning Alone in the Dark from 1993.
Originally meant to be an official Call of Cthulhu game, Infogrames ended up losing the licence, leaving instead only generic Cthulhu references. While the 3D graphics do not look particularly attractive today (or, well, even back then), the French action adventure is a huge influence on modern 3D action games. While the series would later go in inane directions with ghost cowboys and weird Santa Claus dolls, the original is still pretty creepy thirty years later. Also, if you ever wondered about where RE’s oft-maligned tank controls came from, look no further than Alone in the Dark.
While Resident Evil cemented the groundwork of the survival horror mechanics in a successful package that started a huge multimedia franchise, Capcom was standing on the shoulders of giants. From Commodore 64 to NES, the genre and its mechanics were taking cues from Japanese RPGs, Metroid and classic 8-bit adventures altogether.
This Halloween, while you are knee-deep in your annual playthrough of Resident Evil, give a thought to these often forgotten forefathers., Sweet Home has now been translated and playing Project Firestart is also easy, so why not take a trip through horror gaming history?