Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Editorial | Resident Evil: Humble beginnings, downfall and resurrection.

By Sam Coles:

Resident Evil was once a household name within the video game industry; even people who didn’t play games knew what Resident Evil was mostly due to its zombies and gore. Not to say that Resident Evil doesn’t have the brand recognition now, however from the mid-90s and mid 2000s Resident Evil was immensely popular until Capcom lost sight of why people like it. I’m going to go over its origins with the fixed camera games, to the over the shoulder era/downfall and the resurgence with Resident Evil 7. Just preface this retrospective, I would like to thank Capcom UK for sending me HD versions of various RE games to get some sharp images.

Enter The Survival Horror:

In the early 90s Capcom wanted to do a follow up to their Famicom horror game Sweet Home, but they wanted to make in 3D inspired by Alone in the Dark. They tasked Shinji Mikami with directing the project because apparently he scares easily, one thing led to another and it got the new title Biohazard. However due to copyright issues releasing it in the west, which most sight the heavy metal band of the same name the game became Resident Evil. They looked at the setting and gave a literal description of the game, which makes less sense with each sequel but I digress.

Released in 1996 on the Sony PlayStation first Resident Evil (at the time) was a tense horror game, now that may come across a tad laughable when I say this 23 years later after its release but put yourself as a teenager back in 1996 there was nothing like it. The strange dialogue, sinister music or lack thereof in some rooms as well the sound design from monsters created this thick atmosphere that was unheard of back then.
You may be a specially trained police officer, however that doesn’t mean this is an action game. No ammunition is finite as well healing items being very scarce, you have to manage your inventory where it is harder depending which character you pick. At the start of the game you have the choice between Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, they are not just for cosmetics sake, no they both have their weaknesses and strengths. For starters Jill has eight inventory slots compared to Chris’s six, on the over hand Chris can take more damage from zombies, but Jill starts off with a gun and lockpick where Chris only has a knife at the start. The character selection is basically a glorified difficulty setting, and most of the time I pick Jill.

The game works on a fixed camera angle when it comes to the perspective; this was originally done due to technical restraints as they used pre-rendered backgrounds with 3D models on top. It was a great way of creating tension because didn’t know what was around the corner, all you had for a warning sign were the distant moans and shuffles of monsters. It can be a bit awkward at times due to the tank controls, but eventually you do get use to it.

After the success of the first game Capcom wanted a sequel and work began, however Shinji Mikami stood down from the director’s chair but the project didn’t meet expectations so they started from scratch and started again. Resident Evil 2 released in 1998 and was bigger, better and visually more impressive. To this day this is sited as the best in the series and it is easy to see why, the scale has been ramped and the gameplay feels less clunky compared to the first. This game is so beloved that it got a remake in early 2019, but I will get to that later.

After Resident Evil 2 Capcom went into overdrive with sequels, we had another on the PlayStation with Resident Evil 3: Nemesis which has the titular creature following you through out. However Capcom were working on a spin off for Sega’s upcoming console the Dreamcast. Resident Evil: Code Veronica was released in 2000 on Sega’s failing console and it was a bit different, it was still fixed camera however the camera would follow you a bit more similar to Konami’s Silent Hill. This was because everything was rendered in 3D, no longer were the environments pre-rendered with a 3D character model on screen it was a technical marvel but it has aged poor due to this. Code Veronica predictably didn’t sell well on the Dreamcast, where eventually Capcom would release it on the PS2, GameCube and Xbox in the form of Code Veronica X.

In the early 2000’s Capcom decided to help their old ally Nintendo as their console the GameCube was struggling to find an audience, so they decided to release three Resident Evil games exclusively on the console. You have Resident Evil 0 which was meant to be an N64 game initially, the remake of the first game and Resident Evil 4, but will get to that one later.

The Resident Evil remake was Mikami wanting to make the game that he wanted to make, as he thought the original hasn’t aged that well and even by 2002 it was laughable. What isn’t laughable is the remake on the GameCube, which was and still is a terrifying and tension filled experience even for a game that came out nearly two decades ago it has aged really well. It took the foundation of the original PlayStation game and added more elements to it, with new enemies, areas to explore and new ways to despatch your undead foes. It was a great way for new comers to get into the series, but it was also good for veterans of the series as it kept them on their toes with the new features. When you kill a zombie in this game it will just stay there for hours, when I first played this game I thought cool the bodies don’t disappear however I was in for a shock later. Zombies will resurrect if you don’t blow their head clean off or burn their body, but the resource to do so are finite. It added this extra layer of strategy the Crimson Heads, which made you feel less inclined to engage with zombies.

The same year Capcom would release Resident Evil 0, and if it wasn’t obvious enough is a prequel to the entirety of the series. It sees you take control of two characters, Rebecca Chambers who is 18 years old and is a fresh recruit in the Racoon City Police Department and Billy Cohen a convict who murdered several people. They put aside their differences due to fact there are zombies made of leeches, so they find themselves stuck on a train at first. Resident Evil 0 was met with mix reviews from gamers and critics due to the character switching mechanic, and at this point people were getting a bit tired of traditional Resident Evil games due to over saturation. Resident Evil 0 wasn’t a bad game, as it added in new elements like being able to drop items on the floor. This was a huge help and streamlined inventory management, where you didn’t have to jog back to item boxes every five minutes.

The loss of focus and rebirth:

After 0 Capcom went into overdrive and were releasing Resident Evil games every five minutes, from light gun shooters, online games (Outbreak) and horrible movies by Wes Anderson. When Resident Evil 4 came out, it went back to the drawing board and would shape how third person games are made for the next decade.

Resident Evil 4 shifted the series for better or worse depending on who you ask, as it turned the action dial up to 11. Now it isn’t action all the time because despite the absurdity of it, it is still an unnerving horror games. There are moments in this game where it uses quiet time effectively, where all you can hear are the footsteps of your heals as you traverse a cave, mine or castle corridor! The game got rid of fixed camera angles and embraced the shooting more; item management was still an aspect of the game where it was its own mini game with the attaché briefcase where you can unload your inner OCD. I found myself spending up to 4 minutes making my inventory tidy and symmetric, it is completely unnecessary but I have to give credit for making inventory management fun.

However in the late 2000s and the start of the 2010s Capcom started to chase an audience that wasn’t interested in Resident Evil, what was popular at the time? Call of Duty, the games scraped any sentiment of horror with Resident Evil 5 and 6 having set pieces that would make Michael Bay blush. Shoehorning co-op which isn’t a bad thing, but you had more ammo and explosives than the US military which sucked all tension out of all the scenarios.

Resident Evil 5 was a good game, but it lost its moniker of being a survival horror, for one you had way too much ammo which would make the NRA look like pacifists and the co-op sucked all tension out of the scenario. Then Resident Evil 6 missed the memo and was about as subtle as a sledgehammer with the word mellow drama written down the side of it, it wasn’t a bad game per say but it wasn’t a very good Resident Evil game. After the negative reception the series took with 5 and 6 they went back to the drawing board. After 2012 Capcom regrouped, and it wouldn’t be until 2017 we would get another mainline Resident Evil game.

Back to the drawing board (again):

Resident Evil 7 changed the series again, but this time it went back to its survival horror routes and changed the perspective from third person to first person. At first I was very sceptical as I thought they were capitalising off the heels of P.T, but that was not the case as it still felt like a Resident Evil game despite the shift in perspective. When the demo released around a few months before release it went for a more supernatural vibe similar to Silent Hill, now I know what you are thinking “Sam Resident Evil is supernatural”. No the reason why Resident Evil is scary is because it’s science gone wrong, or should I say science in its own world going wrong as it comes across as believable. However when the full game came out it stuck to that. After the release of Resident Evil 7 Capcom realised that gamers wanted survival horror again, where the next project would be a remake and not a new instalment.

Resident Evil 2 (remake) has a bit of a mysterious development history due to it being announced in 2015 and then nothing, well until E3 2018. Rumours were flooding in about the game before its re-announcement saying it was going to be first person, fortunately that was not the case as it instead went for a third person over the shoulder perspective similar to Resident Evil 4. However unlike Resident Evil 4 it wasn’t about the shooting, no it was a survival horror like its original 1998 release.

It took the foundation of Resident Evil 7’s engine the RE Engine and propelled it, it has a huge amount of detail with limbs and skin rotting and heads exploding as you pump buckshot into it. It did streamline the process too not that it was easy god no it was rather challenging, but it would have checkpoints in certain places just so you didn’t lose two hours of progress. However there was a hardcore mode included for those sadists out there who wanted limited saves and want enemies to do more damage, I tried this mode once and I think a kick to the gonads is more appealing.

Resident Evil is a series that has had its ups and downs, but for nearly 24 years it still strives to change up the formula for better or worse. Yes the action route wasn’t inherently bad, but it lost the identity of the franchise which is tense horror and you lose that when you have ammunition to arm a small militia. Fortunately the series is firmly back on its feet and I can still say that it is one of if not my favourite video game franchise on the market. Here is hoping for another 20 years.

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