Zombies are everywhere!!! No, really, I mean it. You can’t throw a dead voodoo cat without hitting some kind of zombie media – The Walking Dead, Fear the Walking Dead, The Last of Us, Warm Bodies, and many more. One of South Korea’s biggest hits this 2016 was a zombie movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger even made a low budget zombie drama. Zombies have become so popular it would seem that most, if not everyone, should be sick of them by now. Yet, each year, more and more zombie movies, books, and games keep being made.
Zombies are incredibly flexible monsters. A clever creator can use them to great effect for cultural satire (i.e. Dawn of the Dead or Shaun of the Dead) or just as blood bags for schlocky films or games (i.e. Dead Snow or the Dead Rising series). I think it is easy to trace a lot of the zombie’s popularity to the PlayStation classic Resident Evil or Biohazard (バイオハザード) as it is known in Japan. With the newest game coming in January 2017, I thought of no better time than now to go over this great series.
It is probably necessary to explain first what exactly makes a survival horror game different from other games. Survival horror is a sub-genre of horror games, but in a survival horror game, you are often not able to fully arm or prepare your character. You are often dropped into a very dangerous situation with no weapons at all. In a survival horror game, combat is generally not emphasized as a play mechanic, thus your movements as a character tend to be slow or clunky.
Furthermore, in these sorts of games, the player is largely incentivized not to fight. In survival horror, the main aspect of the game is not combat, but rather avoiding combat because the enemies are often stronger than you, or you have limited items to defend yourself with. In many situations, fighting will only lead to your character’s death, so the game will often give you multiple paths to getting past an enemy. Also, in survival horror games, there is a big emphasis on puzzle solving. There are often items you need to collect to unlock certain areas or different puzzles you need to solve to obtain said items.
Resident Evil developer, Capcom (カプコン), was born when I.R.M Corporation and Japan Capsule Computers merged. The name Capcom itself is a portmanteau of Capsule Computers. Like most of Japan’s big game companies, Capcom got its start in arcades. It got into the home console space with a port of the arcade classic 1942 on the NES (ファミコン).
In 1989, Capcom would release a horror RPG named Sweet Home (スウィート ホーム). This was one of the many licensed games that would appear on the original NES, but because it was based on a Japanese horror movie and included some violent imagery, it would never be released in America. Sweet Home‘s creator, Tokuro Fujiwara (藤原 得郎), used the movie as a starting point, but largely did his own interpretation. In the game, your character traverses a large mansion solving puzzles while unseen dangers lurk around every corner. Today, Sweet Home is generally considered the first of the survival horror genre. While this is debatable, in terms of what we generally consider survival horror to be, it is generally true.
Sweet Home would be the primary influence on Resident Evil, but there would be one more game that would contribute to creating the conditions for Resident Evil‘s birth. In 1992, Alone in the Dark would be released on PC and become an instant classic. It was one of the first games to use full polygonal 3D and is considered the first 3D survival horror game. Alone in the Dark followed in the tradition of Sweet Home, you play as a private investigator trying to solve puzzles and fighting to stay alive in the face of an ominous darkness.
After the release of the Sony PlayStation, Capcom looked at the wonders this new console was capable of, looked back on Sweet Home, and decided to bring it back.
With the release of the PlayStation and Nintendo 64, many game makers were frothing at the mouth at the opportunity to create fully 3D environments with graphical fidelity hitherto unimaginable.
In 1993, Capcom’s Fujiwara wanted to begin work on a modern remake of Sweet Home. He commissioned a young up-and-coming associate of his by the name of Shinji Mikami (三上 真司). Fujiwara had to convince Mikami to take the job as the latter was reticent because the very concept of the game scared him. Fujiwara convinced him that this was the very reason he was the best man for the job. Mikami would know how best to share the players.
The original idea was to set the game in a haunted mansion, keeping all of the survival horror tropes of the original. Furthermore, and most surprisingly for long-time Resident Evil fans, it was going to be a first-person shooter. But as early builds and vertical slices of the game were made, the development team realized that even with the PlayStation’s advanced graphics, a fully immersive first-person 3D experience was not yet possible. Thus, they went back to the drawing board.
Mikami and Fujiwara looked at Alone in the Dark and realized that a third-person fixed camera might be better for horror than first-person. What the first-person perspective does is make you put yourself in the character’s shoes. The third-person perspective in Resident Evil gives you a voyeuristic perspective. You feel less like you are playing the game, and more like you are merely a spectator. This ramps up the horror in a different way. When you see your character being attacked and killed, there is a feeling of powerlessness. You feel guilty. If there is one feeling that people hate more than anything else, it is the feeling of powerlessness.
For example, have you ever had a dream where something scary is happening but you find yourself unable to move or scream? Those types of nightmares, by far for me, are the most frightening. That feeling of impending doom and the inability to move or even scream in fear are absolutely terrible!!! This is the feeling that the best horror games give you.
As development continued, the team found themselves getting further and further away from the original Sweet Home concept, and realizing that making a remake of a title that was never released in the US (which was already indomitably a key market for home console games) was a bad idea. So they decided to just make it an original game. They decided to change the setting to a mansion in the US. They took a lot of visual cues from the Stanley Kubrick horror classic, The Shining, and the zombies from George Romero’s classic zombie trilogy, renaming the project Biohazard.
With the setting, story, and characters finally flushed out (at one point Barry was going to be a cyborg), development of the rest of the game went rather smoothly. Mikami made an interesting decision to do the opening and closing cinematics with an American cast and all in English. Even the Japanese version of the game is in English with Japanese subtitles. There was a Japanese dubbed version as well, but Mikami felt that the quality of the Japanese voice performances were not up to snuff. Which is rather amusing to any native speaker who has played the original.
The original game’s dialogue and terrible voice acting are some of the things that have made it a classic. Just look up how many “Jill sandwich” memes you can find with a Google Search. Lead programmer Yasuhiro Anpo later explained that that was because all of the development staff were Japanese and they did not notice a lot of the bad translation.
As the American version was being localized, they quickly realized that the name Biohazard would have to be changed. In America, there were already properties with the name Biohazard, making the process of obtaining a copyright nigh unto impossible. Some staff members floated the idea of naming it Resident Evil because it takes place in a mansion. Chris Kramer, who was in charge of localizing the game, said the following about choosing the name Resident Evil, “[The name] was super-cheesy; [I] can’t remember what I felt was a better alternative, probably something stupid about zombies – but the rest of the marketing crew loved it and were ultimately able to convince Capcom Japan and Mikami-san that the name fit.”
There were other interesting changes made to the American version of the game. The opening cinematic was heavily edited to tone down the violence and a scene of Chris smoking a cigarette was removed. (Shooting zombies in the head… Okay. Smoking? No way! We can’t let children see that!!!)
Some gameplay features were tweaked as well. They actually made the game harder for the American version. This marks an interesting change of pace for Japanese games. Many Japanese programmers felt that American gamers were not as skilled as Japanese ones, and intentionally dumbed down games for the Western market. But Capcom bucked the trend and removed the auto-aim features, and lessened the amount of ink ribbons available (in Resident Evil, you use ink ribbons to save your progress), which drastically increased the difficulty.
Upon Resident Evil‘s original release, it was an immediate success. The original release of the North American version of the game would sell over 5 million units! It garnered high praise for its graphics and gameplay and won many “Game of the Year” awards. It is one of only ten games that have earned a score of 38/40 from internationally famed Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu. It was so successful, in fact, that Capcom released a “Director’s Cut” of the game, which added the parts of the cutscenes that were defeated in the original and shuffled enemy placement. With the development of the dual shock controller, Capcom would re-release the game again, this time supporting the control sticks and rumble of the dual shock controller. These re-releases would net another 4 million units sold.
Capcom would authorize a remake of the original game for the GameCube system. This is probably the best version of the game despite being over 10 years old now as it still looks great. There is a level of graphical fidelity that pre-rendered backgrounds can achieve that cannot be matched. Last 2015, an HD version of the remake was released for modern game consoles and was again a massive hit.
Resident Evil is one of the few games I can think of that can be re-released every 10 years or so and still maintain a critical premise. The only others I can think of would be the Super Mario games and The Legend of Zelda games.
Resident Evil belongs to that sad club of games whose success led to its downfall. It is like those documentaries of a famous singer or athlete, who lets their success go to their head and end up destroying everything.
After the original release’s meteoric success, Capcom developed a more action-heavy sequel, which was even more successful. This led to a glut of spin-offs which tarnished the brand. The franchise was rescued by the third entry which brought it back to the series’ roots somewhat, but then spun off again to making a lot of sub-par and underperforming games.
The series was rescued again by a fourth main entry. Resident Evil 4 was one of the biggest and best games of its generation. It reinvigorated the franchise. Then the 5th game happened, while it was successful, it was an action game through and through. Many hoped that the 6th entry would readjust the series and get it back on track, but the 6th entry is one of the worst reviewed and worst-selling in the series.
When Sony began trailing its new VR (virtual reality) headset, one of the demos people tried was an intensely terrifying experience known as the Kitchen in 2016’s E3 conference. Sony announced that the Kitchen demo was actually a test demo for a new Resident Evil game that would be playable on the PlayStation VR. Capcom also released a free demo of the game which has received near total acclaim.
Will the 7th entry of this storied franchise bring true horror back to the genre? Will it work as a VR game? Will it put the series back on track? Only time will tell, and I, for one, am very confident in the creative power behind Capcom and the franchise as a whole. And I wish it the best of luck!