Halloween is here, and so I thought it would be a good idea to have a reunion with a classic horror game of the past.
When it comes to survival horror and Resident Evil, the two will never be separated, despite its evolution. Although Capcom’s previous title, Sweet Home, was the true pioneer of the genre, and Alone in the Dark had created the recognizable framework that later titles would copy, it is Resident Evil that represents the “everyman” of the genre.
The game’s creator Shinji Mikami was originally tasked with making a survival horror game set in a haunted mansion. However, he thought that things needed to be more visceral in order to have a more significant scare impact. Mikami, inspired by George Romero’s films, therefore decided that zombies would be a more appropriate enemy than ghosts.
The resulting blend of extreme violence and lateral thinking was named Bio-hazard. Unfortunately, Capcom realized that they would find it extremely difficult to secure a trademark under that title. Resident Evil was thus born, and it arrived on the PS1 in 1996. Hit the jump for more fond memories.
The plot of Resident Evil was threadbare. After a series of bizarre murders in Raccoon City, Bravo team, part of a special forces unit named STARS, is sent in to investigate. When they don’t return, Alpha squad is dispatched to find out what happened to their compatriots.
The game opens with a live action cutscene: Alpha team is conducting a helicopter search over a remote forest region. They arrive at Bravo team’s broken down helicopter, where they come across the severed hand of one of their colleagues. Suddenly, they are attacked by a pack of vicious dogs. One of the group is killed, and Alpha team’s pilot panics and takes off without them. The survivors run for their lives, stumbling through the doors of a large, seemingly abandoned, mansion in the nick of time.
The presence of the dogs makes it impossible to venture outside, so the remaining squad mates: Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, Albert Wesker, and Barry Burton split up, trying to discover the fate of the other members of Bravo team. It soon becomes clear that the creatures that first attacked you were just the tip of a nightmarish iceberg.
The first zombie encounter is now regarded as an iconic moment in gaming. Soon after entering the mansion, you hear a gunshot. Upon investigating, the noise leads you to a zombie devouring one of Bravo squad’s members: Kenneth J. Sullivan. Although the CG cutscene now looks dated, at the time, watching the zombie tear off the head of one of your dead teammates while it feasted on his flesh was pretty terrifying. This was the first evidence that this game was going to be darker than anything you had ever played before.
As you explored deeper into the mansion, fending off more zombies and avoiding traps, you would stumble across disturbing evidence of clandestine experiments, as well as the remains of the unfortunate members of Bravo team. Small things, like finding the maddening entries in a guard’s diary, or coming across some notes about the condition of a test subject, strengthened the atmosphere.
Your investigation reveals that the mansion was home to a research facility owned by the Umbrella Corporation. As the player travels through the lab, s/he begins to uncover the secrets behind Umbrella’s scheme, and the player sets out to destroy the facility, and the terrible weapons it contains. Of course, to make matters more difficult, by this stage the most powerful enemy in the game had awakened and was out for your blood.
The game used 3D models on top of pre-rendered 2D backgrounds; this meant that the superior processing power of the PS1 was able to shine. The Spencer Mansion was an eerie character all on its own. Large portraits leer down from walls, and the ornate furniture seems ghoulish and macabre. It was all classic haunted house material, but never felt corny. The lab was also ghoulish, in a clinical sterile way, and provided a nice contrast to the mansion. Of course, today, the graphics are not impressive, but in 1996 they were considered cutting-edge.
Having pre-rendered screens meant that each scene could only be viewed from a static camera position. Mikami used this to ensure that the player was never quite aware of what was lurking around each corner. You might have entered a room and heard a zombie groaning before you saw it, forcing you to raise your shotgun and wait for the abomination to lurch into sight. These moments of waiting were undeniably tense.
Combine this with the nature of the controls and combat, not being able to move and shoot, and rarely having a large stockpile of ammo, the player was reluctant to fight in the most pivotal situations. Combat in Resident Evil really did feel like a struggle for survival, especially against the faster, stronger foes. Although today people complain that the controls feel clunky, the static camera angles and the nature of the opponents you faced meant that the limited maneuverability suited the game perfectly.
The monsters of Resident Evil came in many variations. For example, basic zombies were slow, but durable; you could only be sure they were dead if you had blown their head off. Zombie dogs, known as Cerberus, moved with deadly speed. Similarly, later on you would face off against giant spiders, reptilian-like hunters, and the strange insectoid, Chimeras. These latter foes could withstand several close range shotgun blasts, and cause far more damage with each attack.
Although, towards the latter half of the game, players would be used to search every nook and cranny for ammo and health to fight off those monstrosities. Similarly, to aid your fight, more powerful weapons, such as the Magnum and the Grenade Launcher, gave you more stopping power, which was a necessity for defeating some of the more brutal enemies.
The boss battles also provided memorable encounters. The final fight with Tyrant on the roof of the mansion was an awesome climax to the game, but a battle with a giant snake comes close to toppling that moment in terms of enjoyment. These fights forced you to stock-up on healing items, like green herbs and first aid sprays, and they also required the expenditure of vast amounts of ammo in order to overcome the beasts. These moments served to break up the sections of the storyline, and created focal points to drive the game onward.
Resident Evil gave you the option to play as one of two characters: Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine. Playing as Chris was slightly harder, because Jill could lock-pick, carry more items, and have the innate ability to solve certain puzzles; whereas Chris required help from Rebecca to solve some of those puzzles. To balance this out, Chris had more health, and could run faster, allowing a slightly different approach to combat.
Although the majority of each character’s game was similar, there was enough variation to make it worthwile to play through with both Chris and Jill. For instance, Chris never encountered Barry during his exploration of the mansion, whereas, as Jill, you never met up with Rebecca. There were also multiple endings to the game, and it was possible for the characters to die depending on your actions.
I’ll be the first to admit, the script was bad. Lines like, “You were almost a Jill Sandwich”, will forever live in infamy. In a way, the hilariously bad voice acting helped cement the game’s reputation as an all-time classic. That is because it felt exactly as if it had been pulled out of a horror B-movie, and so, it made thematic sense. At the end of the day, the majority of the game was spent wandering the mansion alone, and in those few moments, where the dialogue was so atrocious, it didn’t damage the mood of the game too much.
The combination of violent action, dark atmosphere, and puzzle solving was a big hit. Not to mention the fact that the game has been remade several times, with arguably the definitive version, Resident Evil 4, released on the Gamecube. Today, Resident Evil is a massive series, arguably one of Capcom’s most important titles, and it is always important to remember the great game that started it all.