Before undead nightmares in the Wild West, flesh-eating hoards in first-person shooters and being left for dead over Xbox Live, there was Resident Evil. Once some of the best games in the industry, there’s no denying one of Capcom’s most prominent franchises has lost its essence.
Resident Evil, or Biohazard as it’s known in Japan, debuted on the Sony PlayStation on March 22, 1996. The creation of Shinji Mikami, players took control of S.T.A.R.S. members Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield in a zombie-infested mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City. Facing the threat of the Umbrella Corporation, a pharmaceutical company that’s secretly manufacturing biological weapons, S.T.A.R.S. eventually discover the truth behind the company’s sinister experiments at the mansion.
The menacing voice announcing the title at the main menu was just a sign of things to come. There was nothing like Resident Evil. The memorable intro, while incredibly cheesy at points, is filled with suspense. One of the first cut-scenes after you start playing has a zombie eating another S.T.A.R.S. member as he slowly turns his head towards you, seeing his next victim. During gameplay, zombies came out of dark corners, tight hallways and would pursue you relentlessly. Crazed dogs burst through the mansion windows, marking you for their next meal. You couldn’t take on all the enemies. Players had to conserve their limited ammo and supplies, forcing them to choose their battles wisely. Death was always near, along with the terrifying possibility of losing all your game progress. Even opening a door or walking up stairs was dreadful agony. Mikami said his goal was to create the most terrifying experience imaginable:
My first aim was to create something that could provide the scariness of an amusement park’s Haunted House, at home. For me, the things I’ve always been scared of the most are ghosts, so I was considering producing a game full of evil spirits. Thinking about it, though, in the capacity of a game, there wouldn’t be any real feeling of exhilaration if you were shooting at, or attacking, ghosts. When I realised that during the initial planning stages of development, I decided to scrap the ghost idea and find a different type of enemy threat…
Yes, I thought-zombies! At that time I recalled the film, Dawn Of The Dead; I loved that film. It was unfortunate, as far as the audience was concerned, that they couldn’t survive; but with a game, the players could use their own techniques and thinking in order to survive the experience. I thought that this difference between horror games and horror movies could be something wonderful. That was the moment when I conceived Biohazard.
Resident Evil was one of the early PlayStation games that made Sony’s first gaming console a must-buy over its competition, but the game almost wasn’t a megahit. Resident Evil could have been a complete failure for the studio. Development on Resident Evil began between November 1993 and January 1994. It was a new IP for Capcom, being created with new technology on a 32-bit system that would try to compete in a market dominated by Nintendo and Sega. Originally Mikami worked on the game alone for six months, before expanding from 20 to more than 50 people, with a team of young, inexperienced and untested developers at Capcom. Staff would quit the project because of the difficult and stressful development. Resident Evil was even almost cancelled by Capcom executives before it was finished, and many feared the game could also send the company into bankruptcy.
The company expected the game to sell 300,000 copies. By September 1996 it had greatly exceeded those expectations, selling 1.5 million copies worldwide. In April 2002, Resident Evil was re-released for the Nintendo GameCube with improved visuals and additional areas and is considered one of the best games on the system. The REmake was also ported to the Nintendo Wii with motion control capabilities in June 2008. Since 1996 the series has spawned more than 15 games and sold more than 46 million copies worldwide, as of Sept. 30. Several Hollywood blockbusters have also been created based loosely on the games with a total gross of close to $675 million. Capcom has been celebrating the 15th anniversary of the series over the past several months. It released a Japan exclusive box set collection in September, which included the first three games and other collector items.
Sadly Resident Evil is now almost unrecognizable from the classic games. Since 2005 the survival horror franchise has been slowly dying, not from an Umbrella viral outbreak but from poor decisions by Capcom. Series producer Masachika Kawata and designer Kenji Matsuura talked to Gamasutra in October about two upcoming Resident Evil titles, Operation Raccoon City and Revelations. On the franchise, Kawata said:
People want to see a lot of different experiences within the Resident Evil universe, and so we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to answer those requests with a lot of different experiences, in different forms, in games.
Capcom began branching out the series on the original PlayStation. The diversification of Resident Evil has brought us these eight spin-offs in North America:
- Resident Evil: Survivor (PlayStation, 2000)
- Resident Evil: Dead Aim (PlayStation 2, 2003)
- Resident Evil: Outbreak (PS2, 2004)
- Resident Evil: Outbreak File #2 (PS2, 2005)
- Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (Nintendo Wii, 2007)
- Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles (Wii, 2009)
- Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D (Nintendo 3DS, 2011)
- Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360; 2012)
Experimentation has led to mixed results. Light gun games, rail shooters using a Wiimote controller and multiplayer ventures are some of the releases within the Resident Evil universe. If you’re not familiar with Survivor, consider yourself lucky. It released towards the end of the PS1’s life and was a first-person light-gun game where it didn’t even have regional support for that accessory. Instead players were forced to use the controller’s stiff directional pad to aim. Everything about Survivor screamed budget game. Survivor was riddled with hilarious typos like, “The phone hang up” (after a pay phone mysteriously began to ring when you walked near it). There was no save game option. Players had to beat it during one sitting, which can be finished in less than an hour. Awful voice acting, ugly environments and horrible gameplay plagued Capcom’s first attempt to expand the Resident Evil universe.
Dead Aim, set on a cruise ship, wasn’t much better than Survivor, although it at least included light gun support. The Outbreak games were the first to have multiplayer capabilities and might have been the best attempted spin-off, but would have been properly suited on a modern console rather than the PS2’s basic online infrastructure. The Wii on-rail shooters featured sections and moments from the previous Resident Evils. With 1.1 million lifetime sales of Umbrella Chronicles, the sequel Darkside only sold around 156,000 in Japan after a year. One French representative vented disappointment after only 16,000 sales during the first three weeks of availability in the country. Capcom was expecting Darkside to sell 800,000 copies. The company officially labeled the game a failed release in September 2010.
Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D for the 3DS, released in June for $39.99, is a full game of the “Mercenaries” side missions featured prominently in Resident Evil 5. While the concept behind Mercenaries 3D isn’t entirely new (similar style missions called “Battle Game” first appeared way back in the 1997 Sega Saturn port of Resident Evil), it’s the first full-fledged release of another game’s side mode. Mercenaries 3D is more of an arcade game type, with no real emphasis on storyline or character development. Capcom also experimented with controversial DRM that many believed was intended to stop used game sales. Players couldn’t delete their save files on the game. Mercenaries 3D was poorly received from fans and critics.
Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, to be released March 20, 2012 , appears to be Capcom imitating other popular squad-based, third-person shooters like Valve’s Left 4 Dead and Epic Games’ Gears of War. The game’s main features are a four-player online cooperative mode and competitive multiplayer. It’s a far cry from the main Resident Evil games. Kawata said, “With Operation Raccoon City, we started from a place where we said, “Okay, we want to make a shooter, not a survival horror game.”‘ Raccoon City is in development by western studio Slant Six Games, the team responsible for the negatively reviewed 2008 PS3-exclusive SOCOM: Confrontation, which many consider the worst in the SOCOM franchise. While Operation is based around the time frame of Resident Evil 2 and a return to Raccoon City, it shares little similarities with the 1998 release. In Operation Raccoon City, you can play as Umbrella forces and kill Leon Kennedy (Resident Evil 2, 4) in an alternative timeline. One of the main characters, codenamed “Bertha,” has powers taken out of a Hideo Kojima game, like the ability to cloak. Even worse, zombies aren’t even the reason you’re playing. Matsuura said:
Basically you’re the Umbrella Security Service team, and you’re trying to take out the U.S. Special Ops, and that’s the main goal of the game. And the zombies are more part of the environment, in a lot of ways.
It’s difficult to image how Raccoon City is going to be scary or retain any sense of Resident Evil. With Slant Six, there’s also a concern if the final product will be of high quality. Right now, it doesn’t look good. A few weeks ago GameSpot played close to 20 minutes of Raccoon City. The game’s environments look bland, the shooting seems generic and the enemy AI isn’t too smart. The game definitely needs some polishing, otherwise it could be a disaster. Below is earlier gameplay footage of Operation Raccoon City, showing a much different play style than what Resident Evil fans are used to:
As for the reason for these varied Resident Evil titles, Kawata said:
At the core, basically, we want to make the best use of our brand. Resident Evil is an IP, and a franchise, that people have loved for a long time.
Capcom hasn’t made the best use of one of its most popular brands. The exact opposite is true. Capcom released offshoots of Resident Evil, which devalued the brand’s name. These aren’t the experiences that fans want from Resident Evil. None of these are must-play titles like some of the core releases. Besides the experimental releases, the main games have also suffered and contributed to the series’ decline. The direction Capcom has taken the series has driven it off the deep end. Like other franchises with a rich history, when you release a game with the name Resident Evil, there are certain basic expectations of what that game should look, feel and play like. Capcom has failed to meet these expectations for half a decade.
It’s crucial that a franchise evolves. Resident Evil 4, originally released exclusively for the GameCube in January 2005 before being ported to the PS2 later than year, is one of the best games ever created. However it also drastically changed the gameplay style and enemies from the previous Resident Evil titles. Mikami was the director for Resident Evil 4 and rebooted the franchise, adding several new gameplay elements while still scaring the life out of the player. There’s some contention among fans whether Resident Evil 4 ruined or gave new life to the series. There weren’t zombies anymore. Mikami’s vision was to move away from the slow-paced zombies and Umbrella viruses to more rabid, life-like enemies called the Ganados in Resident Evil 4 with the Las Plagas parasite. He felt that Resident Evil had been suffering from staleness and needed innovation.
Leon Kennedy, the rookie cop from Resident Evil 2 (1998) now working as a special agent for the U.S. government, was controllable with an over-the-shoulder camera, and there was way more emphasis on action and shooting than any previous Resident Evil game. Instead of taking down Umbrella, Leon had to save the president’s daughter. While zombies weren’t the main enemy, it worked because the game was still terrifying while modernizing the gameplay elements. The demonic chanting members of the congregation in the game’s Spanish village and medieval church is still extremely creepy. There were action elements, but the game still featured that Resident Evil atmosphere. Even though it built upon the groundwork laid by Resident Evil 4, this design didn’t work the second time in Resident Evil 5.
The next major shift of the main releases happened with the debut of the franchise on the PS3 and Xbox 360. Resident Evil 5, released in March 2009, was a poor attempt at mainstreaming the franchise for a broader western audience. There was a different development team and marked a change in producers from the previous core games to Jun Takeuchi. Takeuchi was part of Resident Evil as a weapon designer and worked on Resident Evil 2 as a graphical animator. He was also the director for Onimusha: Warlords (2001) as well as the producer for Onimusha 3: Demon Siege (2004) and the Lost Planet series (2006, 2010).
There is so much wrong with Resident Evil 5 that it could fill another article. It’s a quality game, just not a good Resident Evil one. Essentially it’s like the Resident Evil version of Gears of War. The game feels like the Resident Evil name was slapped on the box to sell more copies.
Resident Evil was never known for its great story, but Resident Evil 5 took the B-level plot to the extreme. Chris Redfield and his new friend Sheva Alomar need to prevent a potential bioterrorism disaster in Africa from the Tricell Pharmaceutical Company, which is essentially the new version of Umbrella. Chris’ look was very different, having gained about 100 pounds of muscle mass since we last saw him in Code Veronica (2000), the GameCube remake of Resident Evil, and Umbrella Chronicles. Albert Wesker, who was slashed to death in one blow by the Tyrant in the first Resident Evil, was the primary antagonist, becoming an over-the-top, cliché, supervillian. Jill survived two zombie outbreaks, two tyrants and a nuclear missile strike, but was reduced to a minor character that’s Wesker’s controlled pawn out to kill Chris. Capcom even managed to involve a boss fight set in a volcano, where Chris has the power to move a gigantic boulder just by punching it.