Resident Evil special: 25 years of T-Virus, tyrants, & tank-control survival horror

Twenty-five years ago, three members of Racoon City PD's S.T.A.R.S. team escaped into the mansion where they thought it was safe. Yet...

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In 1996, a game came on to the scene that changed the face of horror gaming as we know it. Picking up the torch of a long previous project and pursuing the opportunities afforded by new technology of the time, Resident Evil introduced a then-unsuspecting world to a nightmarish franchise of isolation, tension, and gore. It established what has become by far Capcom’s most popular single-player game series to date and set the stage not only for what we know of modern horror games, but the multitude of excellent titles that would come after. Resident Evil hasn’t always kept perfect stride with fan expectations, but it has found its footing in recent years to continue to deserve a place at the center of horror gaming conversation. With that in mind, we’re taking a dive into some of the games that got us here in the last 25 years.

A better, sweeter home

Resident Evil’s impact as we know it came in 1996, but the true origin of its story goes back far further to a classic Famicom title known as Sweet Home. Well known by many fans nowadays, Sweet Home was a Capcom tie-in game to a 1989 horror film of the same name. Capcom used this horror RPG title to introduce many of the elements that would become staples of future RE games, such as limited inventory of key items, puzzle-solving, environmental dangers, and, of course, a mansion full of flesh-craving monsters. While extremely ambitious, its director, Tokuro Fujiwara, had more elements he wanted to put into the game, but was constricted both by the technology of the time and the scope of the film to which the game was tied. Nonetheless, it’s a good retro game and highly regarded as one of the foundations of horror video games overall.

Fast forward to 1996. The PlayStation was now on the scene, allowing developers to create games with 3D polygonal graphics and other expanded technology. Capcom was ready to try a new horror game under the direction of Shinji Mikami with Sweet Home director Fujiwara returning as a producer. Fujiwara saw it as an opportunity to pursue many of the opportunities that were unavailable to him in his team’s original efforts. In fact, Resident Evil’s development originally began in 1993 for the Super NES as a remake of Sweet Home, but due to the license being unavailable, Mikami, Fujiwara, and crew ultimately pursued a new franchise. It would be known as Biohazard in Japan, though due to licensing issues with a similar DOS game registered in the US, not to mention a heavy metal punk band Biohazard, it could not remain under the same name in North America. In 2009, Capcom’s Chris Kramer told GamesRadar that a vote was held by company personnel to rename the franchise in North America. Resident Evil was the name that won.

Interestingly enough, though Shinji Mikami is practically inseparable from the horror gaming genre even now, he was originally reluctant to take the reins on this new franchise. Fujiwara said in a 2012 interview that Mikami hated being frightened and was hesitant to direct a game in which he would craft such an experience, but this also led Fujiwara to further believe Mikami was right for the job.

With his dream effort entrusted to Mikami, Fujiwara aided him in crafting a game that would catch the collective attention of PlayStation players around the world. Resident Evil came to the United States on March 22, 1996 and floored players with its brutal, yet engaging design. The severe limitation of items, stark atmosphere, and key item-by-key item unlocking of the mansion’s explorable space, along with the two characters, diverging stories, and unique outcomes based on which characters survived, made Resident Evil a harrowing adventure players returned to until they could beat it blindfolded. The remaster of the original in 2002 would take the game to an all-new level, but this initial point is where it all began, setting the stage for decades of incredible games and inspired works beyond the franchise by other developers seeking that same level of horror gameplay design and evolution.

The monsters that followed & the forms they took

With the first title in the bank, Capcom would continue to return to the Resident Evil franchise over and over again. Resident Evil 2 saw Hideki Kamiya take the game in a more dramatic direction, bringing together rookie cop Leon Kennedy and Resident Evil protagonist Chris Redfield’s sister, Claire Redfield, together in a desperate adventure through a dying Raccoon City and its various facilities. One of the more interesting aspects of this one was that each character did not have a self-contained story. Beating the game with one character allowed you to experience the game from an alternate perspective with the other character, making for a four-scenario adventure, complete with secrets, opportunities, and unlocks for performing well in the game.

Resident Evil 2 was a masterful highlight of the series and several sequels would follow its formula to mixed success. However, Resident Evil 4 was a game that would take on a form all of its own. There were many attempts to create a new direction for the Resident Evil series, including a far more action-based approach from Hideki Kamiya that would go on to become the foundation of Devil May Cry. However, according to a 2004 interview at IGN, many staffers knew they needed to pursue something scarier, but felt shackled down and even bored with the cookie-cutter formula Resident Evil had become.

The efforts on Resident Evil 4 began in 1999 and spanned supposedly four different discarded versions before the team found their way to something truly out of the ordinary. Gone were the pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed cameras. The game now sat behind the player’s shoulder. Gone were the through-the-door loading screens. Environments now spanned intricate areas in which any threat that was aware of you could follow you through whatever door you used. We were back in the saddle with our old friend, Leon Kennedy, but the game had changed so much. And while the escort mission with the President’s daughter Ashley Graham could be a bit tedious, Resident Evil 4 marked the transcendent opening chapter in an era that would continue through even to modern Resident Evil games. For better or worse, it also marked a stint where the franchise moved further away from horror game and more into action game.

As Resident Evil continued to evolve, it didn’t always do well. There were some arguable missteps of tone in both RE5 and RE6. These games kept the behind-the-shoulder camera and gunplay Resident Evil 4 employed and they weren’t without success or merit, but many would agree that this was an era in which the franchise shied further and further away from any semblance of horror and became more of an explosive spectacle that may have jumped the shark when we saw regular series protagonist Chris punch a boulder to death (though it’s not like Resident Evil: Revelations didn’t try admirably to recenter things). Fortunately for those looking to be afraid again in a mainline Resident Evil, it was after the ball dropped with RE6 in particular that Capcom was about to take a good, long look at the franchise and refocus itself for another big thing.

A new home most sweet & a Raccoon City revisited

In 2013, Capcom sat down to do preliminary talks about what Resident Evil 7 would be. Although at first the developers considered continuing along an action tone, further conversation apparently saw a shift back towards a more narrowly focused and frightening style. According to a 2016 conversation with Polygon, Capcom lead Jun Takeuchi wanted the team to “strip [Resident Evil] down to its core” and rediscover what worked. The team redeveloped the puzzle-centric nature of the franchise foundation and pursued a delightfully atmospheric design created at its foundation as a VR experience. Capcom went back to starting the player inside a massive house full of secrets, and set them loose with only limited means to fight back against the terrifying encounters that were the Baker family. Drawing off of what made things work so well early on, Resident Evil 7 reminded us of what it meant to be afraid of this franchise while also advancing its quality down a unique and creative path inspired by the likes of Evil Dead and Konami’s Silent Hills P.T. Demo.

Of course, it wasn’t the complete end of the slightly more action-oriented Resident Evil experience. However, Capcom was learning full well what direction it needed to go with these things, and it was about to culminate in the masterpiece that was Resident Evil 2’s remake. Taking fan feedback from Resident Evil 6, Producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi sought to bring the behind-the-shoulder camera back and recraft Resident Evil 2 from the ground up while instilling it with the things that worked well from the more frightening and successful elements of RE4 through RE6.

What the development team built was a reinvigorated take on Resident Evil 2 that kept action involved while instilling the monsters and the environment with a truly threatening depth. The movement, gunplay, and weapons were great, but Capcom successfully made us feel vulnerable with distinctly designed scarcity of resources and monster functionality that was balanced around our new range of actions. Resident Evil 2 also thoughtfully reimagined the puzzles and key item use of the original game with lessons learned from Resident Evil 7 to make RE2 into a solid and engaging survival horror experience throughout. Of course, the sound was incredible too. Once Mr. X came into play, we could feel every footstep radiate through the RPD as we carefully tried to determine which way we might have to defend ourself from the roving tyrant. All of it together served to make the Resident Evil 2 remake one of the most definitive modern Resident Evil experiences to date.

Resident Evil 3 remake carried on what RE2make did in the best way it could. Many will argue that certain cut content and shortness of the campaign keep the RE3 remake from reaching its predecessor’s height, but one would be hard-pressed to say it didn't improve thoughtfully upon the original Resident Evil 3 and gave us another game well-worth our time. One of the strengths was in Nemesis, who served up spectacular moment after moment whether it was chasing you through the streets or subway tunnels or forcing you into another boss battle with its constantly evolving form. Resident Evil 3 remake did what it came to do and it did it well, even slightly improving upon gameplay a bit in the Resident Evil remake formula with the use of its rewarding dodge mechanic and a thoughtful redesign of the ammo crafting from the original.

The Residents ahead & Evils therein

As I write this lengthy look back at the franchise, the next chapter in Resident Evil is already just around the corner. Resident Evil Village wowed us with its atmospheric next-gen design and caught the world’s attention in slightly less expected ways with the notably tall Lady Dimetrescu. However, the brief demo also showed that we’re in for another pulse-pounding experience punctuated by tense exploration and encounters. Meanwhile, Capcom has already confirmed that it is hard at work on Resident Evil 4’s remake. The series has had some missteps, but these days it might be in its best stride yet (and that's not even mentioning some of the more admirable spinoffs). Twenty-five years ago today, they escaped into the mansion where they thought it was safe. Yet… the nightmare continues on, and we can’t wait to see what kind of ghastly dreams are yet to come.

News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. When he's not handing out beatdowns in the latest fighting games, exploring video game history, or playing through RPGs with his partner, he's searching for new food and drinks in the constant pursuit of good times with good people inside and outside the South Texas area. You can also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

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