Opinion: Resident Evil Retrospective

With uninspired zombie games left, right and centre and Capcom’s big-name franchise straying ever-further from its creepy, atmospheric roots, horror enthusiast Mark Butler looks fondly back at the original Resident Evil - and the monumental impact it had on gaming.

These days, zombies are absolutely everywhere in video games. You find them in shopping malls. You bump into them on tropical islands. You even encounter them – after a fashion – in the outer reaches of space.

It seems we truly can’t move for fun, gory exercises in reanimated-corpse smashing action, yet only 15 years ago zombies were a gaming rarity, hardly anyone had heard the term ‘survival-horror’ and – despite the genre’s evident popularity in film and literature – there had been very few bona fide horror games. The title that changed all of that was Capcom’s groundbreaking fright-fest Resident Evil.

It was an ambitious designer by the name of Shinji Mikami who was to develop, refine and establish horror as a force in mainstream gaming, and the groundwork began when he was asked to create a modern successor to an earlier Capcom release, entitled Sweet Home (1989).

Released as a movie tie-in the year before Mikami joined the company, Sweet Home was a pioneering experiment for the NES that never saw a release outside of Japan. Taking place in a haunted mansion, the game tasked the player with guiding five different characters around the house, solving puzzles and surviving attacks from creatures, these latter fight or flight moments taking the form of randomly generated battles – a hallmark of Japanese RPG games. The top-down, scrolling graphics may have been basic, but the title worked hard to create a frightening atmosphere, with its violent imagery, spooky storyline and emphasis on ‘survival’ in the face of permanent character deaths. For its time, it was extraordinarily unusual and daring.

Drawing inspiration from Sweet Home’s combination of survival-themed scares and devilish puzzles, Mikami carefully constructed his masterplan: a groundbreaking blend of atmospheric problem-solving and zombie-themed action by the name of Resident Evil (1996). It was Capcom who coined the term ‘survival horror’ when marketing this new title. They were keen to stress that their game offered a genuinely fearful experience, one where the player would be confronted by a whole range of terrifying creatures and mysterious puzzles; where the action would be bloody but the bullets limited, and where you could expect to be both scared witless and entertained by a compelling storyline and visceral, nerve-shredding combat.

Previews of Resident Evil were met with curiosity and excitement, with the prospect of a serious, 3D horror game whetting the collective appetite (“it looks set to be banned!” declared a gleeful Dominic Diamond, on TV’s Gamesmaster). It looked to have hefty production values behind it, its pre-rendered backgrounds appeared lavish and photo-realistic (a step-up in realism from the blocky, off-putting visuals of Doctor Hauzer and Alone in the Dark) and, despite its gory touches, it seemed clear that this was to be a serious, grown-up affair, one that would envelop you within its atmospheric clutches.

When it finally arrived, Resident Evil certainly did not disappoint. From the very beginning it seemed to hold gamers in thrall to its ambition and appetite for shocks and suspense, and though Mikami had borrowed heavily from both Capcom’s earlier horror title and the 3D thrillers of previous years, he and his team had collected, mastered and added to all these elements in a monumentally satisfying way.

At the game’s outset a moody FMV video sequence – presented in stark black-and-white – detailed the deliciously intriguing premise. On the hills overlooking the outskirts of the fictional Raccoon City, a number of people had gone missing, and human remains – partially devoured – had been discovered. In light of these disturbing events, a squad from the local police force’s elite S.T.A.R.S unit were dispatched to investigate. They did not return.

The player took on the role of either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, two members of a second team sent in to search for their vanished colleagues. Dropping in somewhat foolishly by cover of night, it wasn’t long before the shit inevitably hit the fan.

Trouble reared its head in the form of a ferocious attack by creatures of unknown origin, tearing one of your unfortunate squadmates to shreds shortly after said schmuck had discovered a mauled body in the long grass. Together with a couple of fellow survivors, you managed to escape to the apparent safety of a nearby mansion.

But this was an unfortunate case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, for unbeknown to Jill, Chris and the player, said mansion happened to be the very root of the problem, being the research base for a shady bio-technology company who had committed the cardinal sin of messing with nature and unleashed a rather nasty MacGuffin in the shape of the matter-mutating ‘T Virus’. As a result, its former occupants had been transformed into flesh-eating zombies. And they were hungry for your blood…

Such a plot could have been the vehicle for a fun but dumb shoot ‘em up, the kind console audiences had grown accustomed to over the years. But Capcom recognised that they could take a more atmospheric approach to proceedings – and this was their masterstroke.

Despite being populated by the kind of shambling, braindead corpses that George Romero immortalised in the movie world (Romero even directed a TV advert for the game), Resident Evil was far from being a mindless zombie outbreak shooter. Instead, Capcom worked hard to create something a great deal more sophisticated and considered than that.

Wow - what a mansion!

The emphasis was on suspense rather than action, and the game thrived on panic and trepidation rather than conflict. When the ‘flight or fight’ response kicked in, flight was almost always the appropriate reaction, and the ‘survival’ half of the embryonic genre’s newly-coined label felt utterly apt.

From the moment the cheesy title sequence faded and the cavernous, echoing entrance hall beckoned, it became clear that the game’s carefully crafted ambiance and steady pacing signified nothing less than a good old-fashioned haunted house scenario.

The mansion formed an impressive yet unsettling enigma of winding corridors, foreboding closets and grand, sinister atria. Its imposing entrance hall and neighbouring dining room could have been taken wholesale from a vintage gothic novel – the latter boasting a tall, tutting grandfather clock no less.

It’s true that the first flesh-eating beast reared its head within a few minutes, but though the game offered up plenty of undead to dispatch or nervously avoid, the emphasis in Resident Evil was on exploration and tension rather than confrontation and action. It had third-person combat, yes, but it was not merely a third-person shooter. In execution, it was part mystery, part puzzle game and part B-Movie thriller.

The cinematic influences were varied and bold, and it borrowed well. The eerie, static camera angles were classic Hitchcock, as were the flocks of devilish crows – glaring malevolently from their perches before pouncing. The monstrous, supersized spiders, snakes and plants recalled 1950s sci-fi; the memorable shark attack cut-scene was Jaws minus John Williams’ dramatic backing score.

Not that Resident Evil’s own music was any less compelling. The soundtrack was a magnificently arranged skin-crawl of strings and synths; its slow, lingering notes exuding an air of danger and mystery. This, together with some rather inspired touches, helped build rich layers of atmosphere. It says something that the ‘opening door’ mechanic – whereby each room was introduced via an animation of its door slowly creaking ajar – actually made a virtue of what would normally be frustrating and tension-killing loading screens. Taking this idea wholesale from Sweet Home, the game declined to greet the player with a boring and immersion-shattering stop-gap, and ushered you into foreboding darkness and uncertainty instead.

And boy did Resident Evil thrive on uncertainty. From the very beginning, it was clear that something was very wrong within this plush, labyrinthine mansion, and that brains as well as brawn would be needed to survive.

The developers scattered puzzles of the point-and-click variety throughout, inviting the player to search the mansion’s rooms for keys, totems and seemingly innocuous items, combining some to form new objects while using others to unlock doors and trigger secret openings.

Failure at certain puzzles could prove deadly. It’s sometimes easy to forget how frequently Resident Evil employed crafty traps to threaten the player, including deadly poison gas vents, descending ceilings and rolling boulders a la Indiana Jones. A keen mind coupled with a handy firearm was the order of the day if you didn’t want to become the proverbial “Jill sandwich”.

Resource management proved equally essential – and that’s ultimately what put the ‘survival’ into survival horror. Effective weapons, health pick-ups and ammunition were all in short supply (heck, if you played the game as Chris you didn’t even have a gun in your hand from the start). A few hits from enemies would be enough to take you down and, in a rather neat, innovative touch, you’d become slower and more vulnerable when your health dipped, reduced to a shuffling, agonizing limp when you were an inch from death.

While zombies were kind enough to nibble you politely, a piece at a time, some of the nastier foes were far less accommodating. The hideous, screeching Hunters possessed the shocking ability to whip off your head in one vicious swipe, and could even survive a point-blank bazooka blast to the face. The horrifying screeches they emitted were teeth-gnashingly startling, and the sheer shock you experienced when the game introduced them for the first time was extraordinary. Having just completed a major passage of play, and defeated a gargantuan boss into the bargain, you returned to the familiar interior of the mansion feeling suitably smug – only to find the house overrun with these loathsome beasts.

Loathsome Beasts: The Hunters proved deadly and terrifying

Lack of bullets necessitated careful prioritisation and a frequent desire to avoid confrontation. Adrenaline-pumping, panic-inducing moments would have you sprinting down hallways trying to avoid being chomped, as you fought to conserve your last few precious rounds for when they really mattered.

Such vulnerability through inadequate firepower was one of the title’s most effective scare tactics. But it had other tricks up its sleeve too. There were blunt but memorable shocks (spitting, growling dogs crashing through windows), edge-of-the-seat set pieces involving giant creepy-crawlies, and – once you had got used to giving the run-around to slow-moving cadavers – the hair-raising experience of being stalked by the fast-moving and agile Hunters.

As a result of its blood-curdling horror atmosphere, not to mention its freshness as an experience, Resident Evil made an extraordinary impact and was almost universally praised on its release. Yet, with the best will in the world, the game was far from perfect. The controls were clunky and unwieldy, some of the puzzles were frustratingly illogical, and the dialogue and voice-acting were  – quite notoriously – laugh-out-loud atrocious. It’s fair to say that it has not aged well in this regard.

It probably says something about the originality of the game that it was so critically acclaimed in its day, with journalists prepared to overlook its obvious flaws in the face of something new and dramatic. For its time, Resident Evil was exciting, bold and near revelatory, and it became astonishingly influential. In fact, it may well stand as one of the most influential games of all time.

There are a number of key reasons why its legacy has been so profound. For one thing, it demonstrated that a bona fide horror game – unrestrained, dripping with gore and pant-wettingly terrifying – could have mass-market appeal. The game sold millions of copies across Europe, North America and Japan and the industry duly sat up and took notice. Gamers enjoyed being scared it seemed. In fact, they really enjoyed it. This being the case, it made good business sense to explore the possibilities of horror as a genre – and as a result developers began to envisage their own nightmarish scenarios.

On a gameplay related note, through its success at combining atmospheric, complex and thoughtfully-paced exploration and puzzle-solving with intense combat and gunplay, Resident Evil proved that point-and-click style games and action titles need not be separate entities – rather, such influences could be married together in a novel, exciting way.

Finally, in providing players with less ammunition than necessary to take on all of the game’s enemies, Capcom moved away from the combat-centric attitude of previous action-adventure games to place a strong emphasis on vulnerability as a central mechanic. Console games had become synonymous with escapism through empowerment, allowing gamers to take on the role of all-action heroes, but Resident Evil pulled the carpet out from underneath this tradition with unapologetic relish. In this game, the heroes may have been tough and resourceful, but they were also under-equipped, unprepared for the horrors awaiting them and intensely, disturbingly mortal.

Audiences loved it, and as a result the floodgates opened. Within a short space of time ‘survival horror’ entered the gaming lexicon as the label for a new and ambitious genre, and it began to carve out its own blood-soaked niche.

Fifteen years on, the Resident Evil series has largely lost its fear-factor, while most modern day zombie thrillers lack the atmospheric chills that this Godfather of survival-horror worked so hard to conjure. But for a time Resident Evil put genuine scares and all-out horror at the top of the gaming agenda, and all-but cemented an entire new genre within the medium. For those reasons – cheesy dialogue or not – it remains a remarkable, generation-defining classic.

 

This article is an edited extract from Mark Butler’s book, Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, which is out now to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.

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