Opinion: Shinji Mikami – The Master Of Horror Returns
It’s fair to say that the once mighty survival-horror genre has rather declined in recent years. There have been some occasional terrifying highlights, sure, but for the most part a genre once renowned for its gripping, atmospheric experiences and boundary-pushing ideas has now become defined by fun-but-dumb action titles that barely deserve the label.
How fortunate then, that at the very moment Capcom have seemingly turned their back on genuine survival-horror altogether – claiming the market is “too small” for their Resident Evil franchise – their former protege, the man who masterminded that famous series in the first place, has revealed that he is bringing back the scares.
At the helm of his new company Tango Gameworks, acclaimed director Shinji Mikami is hard at work on a new horror title, currently codenamed ‘Zwei’. For all the neglected survival-horror fans out there, desperate for games with real subtlety and atmosphere, this news has understandably kick-started a frenzy of excitement and anticipation: not least because the legendary designer has described his fresh project as “an experience that pushes the limits of fear and exhilaration”.
“A true ‘survival horror’ game is one in which the player confronts and overcomes fear,” he said. “I’ve found my focus, and once again I’m striving for pure survival horror.”
This should come as music to all our ears, for Mikami almost single-handedly pioneered and popularized survival-horror at the back-end of the ’90s. Drawing inspiration from Capcom’s earlier haunted house gem Sweet Home, he masterminded the seminal Resident Evil in 1996 – directly responsible for not only the survival-horror boom but also the wider zombie revival in TV, film and poplar culture – and then went on to direct or produce Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil: Nemesis, and the first two Dino Crisis titles. Each of these games shifted millions of copies at a time when gaming’s market was a fraction of what it is now, and put horror firmly on the industry’s agenda.
It is impossible to overstate Mikami’s influence on the wider medium. If it hadn’t been for Resident Evil’s stellar success, for instance, then Konami would not have sought to create their own competing horror smash – and there would have been no Silent Hill.
But Mikami’s achievements cannot simply be measured in terms of their inspirational quality. We must also consider just why his vision was so successful and influential in the first place, and why the survival-horror genre has been so much worse off without him.
Resident Evil was a game that was all about mood, suspense and the unexpected. It was a compelling blend of gory and classy: a corny B-Movie thriller slotted seamlessly into the carefully-paced, skin-crawling ambiance of a haunted-house chiller. It had shambling zombies, gigantic monsters and booby-trapped rooms, yes, but it married its effective jump-scares with intelligent, thoughtfully-mustered atmosphere.
The ominous camera-angles were almost Hitchcock-esque; the eerie strings of the soundtrack set a creepy, foreboding tone. Sudden outbursts of panic-inducing urgency (the jolting appearance of the first zombie dogs, for example) were dealt extra impact by the masterful stretches of slow-burning tension that preceded them.
Added to this tangible and genuinely unnerving horror aesthetic was also the integral ‘survival’ component of the experience – a crucial aspect of the embryonic genre that has since been largely abandoned. Scarce ammunition and healing resources made for an experience where every bullet counted, and where fleeing from the hideous enemies – snapping at your heels in hot pursuit – was often the smarter but more terrifying option.
The experience really did feel like a battle for survival against all the odds, and the game took great delight in making things as desperate as possible. When you took damage, for example, your character would gradually get slower and more sluggish in their movement; clutching their side at first and then reducing to an agonized limp. When health was low and ammo hard to find, this helped create some palpably intense moments.
Ultimately, Mikami masterminded a horror game that was frightening, challenging and exhilirating in equal measure, and his creation deservedly caused a stir in the gaming industry. It showed just how effectively horror could be harnessed by the fast-rising artform, and arrived at a time when an increasingly mature gaming audience – tired of being viewed as overgrown, Mario-playing kids – were demanding more adult-oriented experiences.
That he built upon his initial success with great aplomb - improving upon his vision with the great Resident Evil 2, and then introducing fresh horror in the shape of the relentless, terrifying Nemesis creature in installment number three – was a testament to his ability to expand a groundbreaking franchise, without compromising it.
Topping off his earlier Resident Evil achievements with Zero, the REmake and 4, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that virtually every excellent title in the famous series has borne Mikami’s input and imagination, while almost every misfire has lacked his guiding hand. It’s no accident that the franchise has visibly taken a turn for the worse – especially in the actual fear stakes – since his departure.
It’s been ten years since Mikami’s last forays into ‘pure’ survival-horror, with the interesting Resident Evil Zero and tremendous Resident Evil ‘REmake’, and his return is certainly a welcome and timely one. Indeed, his subsequent successes with the iconic Devil May Cry, impressive Vanquish and last year’s crazy, underrated Shadows Of The Damned, have demonstrated that his skillset has not dimmed.
It is somewhat ironic that the game-changing Resident Evil 4, which saw Mikami reinvent the genre he had established as a more action-oriented, shooter-based experience, was ultimately responsible for the dilution of survival-horror with combat and empowerment; neutering fear and atmosphere in favour of ass-kicking adrenaline.
Perhaps Mikami’s comeback, at a time when survival-horror is in dire need of a fresh lesson in both ‘survival’ and ‘horror’, will act to redress that balance.
‘Zwei’ will be published by Bethesda, and is rumoured to be scheduled for a next-gen console release in 2013.