Resident Evil celebrated 20 years of unremitting horror on March 22 when it debuted on Sony’s PlayStation as a CD-ROM monster. Its legend has paved the way for a series of sequels, spin-offs, books, and feature films that, despite being loosely based on elements from Capcom’s terrifying franchise, have allowed it to create a multimedia empire of mutants and the desperate characters determined to stop them. Although some argue today that the series has lost its focus on horror, there’s no denying that for two decades it has delivered just enough creepy tension and survival action to keep fans looking to see just what it will be doing next.
But Resident Evil didn’t start off as a third-person blood bank of twisted abominations. It was originally set to be a sequel to an earlier Capcom game that was a Japan-only release. And it was an RPG.
Sweet Home was released in 1989 as a top-down RPG featuring five characters. The story goes that these are “documentary filmers” who set out to investigate a mysterious mansion where a famous artist named Ichiro Mamiya had reputedly hidden several frescos before disappearing in 1959. Since then, the mansion has lain abandoned, though stories of the hidden frescos have continued to circulate drawing in the curious.
What the five filmmakers don’t realize is that the ghost stories surrounding the mansion are true. As they enter, the passage behind them is blocked by a collapse and now the only way out is to uncover the mystery of the frescos and survive the terrors coming after them.
The game was unique in that it was a horror RPG, a sparsely populated sub-genre of RPGs joined by the likes of Elvira on PCs shortly afterwards in 1990. Each party member had a specific skill that they were good at (one could pick locks, another could take pictures to reveal clues, etc..) and it was up to the player to decide who to bring along and how to use each one to make it through the mansion’s tricky puzzles. There was also combat with random encounters in the game, but unlike other RPGs where downed party members could eventually be resuscitated, dead means dead adding an element of risk to the game. On the plus side, you could save relatively anywhere.
Resident Evil took a number of elements from Sweet Home when it came to the PlayStation roughly seven years later — the door transition, haunted mansion, and the puzzles — and raised the stakes by taking advantage of the cutting edge, multimedia power of CD-ROM technology at the time. In Japan it was called Bio Hazard, a name that would be “impossible” for Capcom to trademark in the United States. So an internal contest was run and Resident Evil was picked because it, well, took place in a mansion. Chris Kramer, then director for Communications at Capcom, admitted the name “was super-cheesy”. But ultimately, Shinji Mikami and Capcom were convinced that it could work.
The result was a horror game unlike anything that had come to the console before and backed by voice acting, sound effects, pre-rendered backdrops, and survival elements. You were also limited in saves by how many ink ribbons you could find and whether you lived long enough to make it to a typewriter to record your efforts. Inventory space was sparse and ammo was meant to be hoarded.
It was a tough, but fair, third-person horror game whose developers admit to also taking a few cues from Alone in the Dark which was released in 1992 which can be seen in the choice of protagonist and the dramatic use of fixed cameras attempting to turn every scene into a cinematographer’s study in how to squeeze as much drama out of them with or without several zombies chewing your face off.
Like in Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil allowed the player to pick which of the two main characters they will experience the game through. Both are members of Raccoon City’s special S.T.A.R.S. unit but unlike in Alone in the Dark (but similar to Sweet Home), have their own strengths and weaknesses. Chris Redfield can take more damage from attacks but has a smaller inventory and slightly weaker firepower. Jill Valentine has better firepower and a larger inventory, but not as much resilience against attacks as Chris does. But she also has a lock pick capable of getting into sealed off areas in the game which may hold additional supplies and secrets.
The story is kicked off by the FMV intro above. Sent to search for the missing Bravo S.T.A.R.S. team, Jill, Chris, and the rest of Alpha are jumped by a monster as soon as they are dropped off by chopper. They then make their way to a nearby mansion where the real mystery begins.
Over the course of the game’s jump scares and unrelenting pressure to survive at all costs with meager resources, players will run into “bosses” (powerful mutant creatures), solve puzzles, run from jump scares, and generally try their best not to get killed as they unravel the mystery for why this is happening to Raccoon City. They soon discover at the mansion that Umbrella, a massive corporation involved in a number of shady projects, is at the heart of the mystery and quickly make plans to escape the mansion before it self-destructs.
Resident Evil also had multiple endings depending on who the player saved through the game and whether or not the mansion is ultimately destroyed allowing for additional replayability. At the same time, it wasn’t perfect. The infamous “tank” controls (pushing left or right on the D-pad only turned the character/view in that direction and didn’t necessarily move them there…you needed to push forward to get them to go) was one thing that players simply put up with because the game was so good.
Then there was the unintentionally bad voice acting and dialogue…
Lines like this would become legendary memes and usually show up on worst ever lists. But at the time during the mid 90s, this was considered bleeding edge stuff and wowed most everyone that played it. Look at those graphics! These 3D characters have terrible lines…but they’re actually saying those lines! And that music! This was one of Capcom’s golden moments in adapting to the technology of the time and director Shinji Mikami with his staff pushed the envelop of what they could accomplish using it.
Speaking of remakes, Resident Evil had quite a few of those along with ports over the last 20 years from a Director’s Cut in 1997 (to make up for the delay in Resident Evil 2’s release) to its most recent incarnation as a remastered version of the GameCube’s 2002 remake for systems such as the X360, XBO, the PC, PS4, and the PS3.
Many today cite Resident Evil as the game that “defined” the horror genre for gaming which runs the danger of ignoring the efforts of other, albeit lesser known, titles that had also contributed to its creation. At the same time, it can also be argued that it was the game that brought together the elements of horror and gameplay in a way no one had accomplished before in dramatic fashion blending together cutting edge tech and design as a perfect storm for Capcom. And thanks to the accessibility of the Sony PlayStation and its huge audience, it carried that message far and wide as a notice that horror can be an awesome genre to play in.
Resident Evil has become a poster child for horror among many with even its 2002 remake being as critically acclaimed as the first game was. Regardless of whether its incarnations haven’t quite hit the sweet spot that its earlier entries have in the chilled blood department, the first game still holds that amazing mix of challenge, scares, and excitement that enthralled PlayStation audiences in 1996, something that only seems to get better with time.