In the past few years, the world of gaming has one under heavy fire from progressives and women’s rights groups claiming that female game characters are incredibly sexist. They especially point to games made in Japan where it is common for female game characters to be clad in less fabric than you might find or in a tiny bikini. Furthermore, they point out that female game characters are often little more than trophies, objects for the main character to save (i.e. Princess Peach, Zelda, etc.). But there is one video game character that everyone has forgotten about. A strong, independent, smart, and sexy woman. A female character that does not wait for anyone to save her as she takes her future, and indeed the future of all mankind, in her hands. I speak of none other than Aya Brea, the main character of the PlayStation SquareSoft classic Parasite Eve.
Parasite Eve has been largely forgotten over the near 20 years since its release (thanks mostly to the 2 lackluster sequels that followed it). It is probably one of the most unique games in developer SquareSoft’s vast library and it was SquareSoft’s first title that was rated “M” in America (the “M” rating is basically the video game equivalent of an “R” or “R-18” rated movie).
While SquareSoft had played with deeper, more mature concepts in their other games, Parasite Eve really embraced them with gumption. Much of the game’s dialogue is used in explaining heady scientific concepts. During my high school and college science classes, I was happy to discover that I already knew a lot of information about cells and mitochondria thanks to this game. (Who says games can’t be educational?) The Parasite Eve video game was a sequel to a popular Japanese science fiction horror novel of the same title that was also later adapted into a movie. Let’s dive into the history and development of one of SquareSoft’s forgotten masterpieces.
In the mid-to-late 1990s, horror was king. With the release of Capcom’s survival horror magnum opus Resident Evil, everyone was crazy for horror. This was not only in the gaming world but the mid-’90s saw horror become a popular genre again. After the massive success of Jurassic Park in 1993, science-based action and horror genres emerged. From the early ’90s until near the end of the century, most media included heavily science-based elements. One can see this in the works of Michel Crichton, Peter Benchley, and a young Japanese pharmacologist Hideaki Sena.
In 1995, Kadokawa published Hideaki Sena’s debut science fiction horror novel, Parasite Eve. In the novel, mitochondria (the cell’s power factory) was said to evolve and create a being that lives inside people’s cells named Eve. This being is able to communicate and manipulate with the mitochondria in the cells of other people. Eve tries to manipulate her way into causing a scientist, who has just lost his wife, to create for her the perfect host with which she can take control of all of humanities’ mitochondria and the world. The novel was a hit in Japan, picking up many rewards and inking a movie deal. It also inspired the minds of one of Japan’s most prestigious game makers.
With the debut of the PlayStation and the Nintendo 64, game makers were able to put a level of fidelity into their games that were hitherto impossible. Game makers were not really able to immerse game players in the atmosphere of the games they were playing with near photo-realistic environments and massive improvements in sound design and music. Few games detail this improvement more than Capcom’s Resident Evil (known as Biohazard in Japan). I remember playing this game and being so freaked out by dogs jumping through windows, creepy zombies, and giant snakes, that I was hardly able to sleep at night.
SquareSoft, basking in the success of Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII, wanted to get into the genre as well. Legendary producer Hironobu Sakaguchi got in touch with Parasite Eve publisher Kadokawa. Kadokawa was still reeling financially due to a drug scandal involving one of their owners, hence they were quick to pimp out one of their hottest properties. But Sakaguchi did not want to do a straight retelling of the original story. Early in the development of Final Fantasy VII, there had been plans to set it in New York (or at least a setting similar to the Big Apple). Those plans were scrapped but Sakaguchi still wanted to set a game there. Due to the fact that mitochondria are passed down through the female line, it necessitated a female main character. Thence Aya Brea was born. Sakaguchi put Tetsuya Nomura in charge of the character design. Sakaguchi wanted a protagonist that was strong, sexy, and bewitching.
Aya’s nemesis in the game is none other than Eve herself. Eve managed to survive via organ transplant. She manages to possess actress Melissa Pearce. On Melissa’s long awaited Christmas Eve concert debut, the sleeping mitochondria within her awaken and cause all of the people in the theater to spontaneously combust. The only person unaffected is our character, Aya. Aya Brea is a rookie detective in the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and she is attending the concert on a date. As the audience bursts into flames, she goes straight into action and confronts Melissa/Eve. Eve tells her that she (Aya) cannot be effected by Eve’s mitochondrial manipulation because of a special evolutionary strain in her (Aya’s) mitochondria. This evolution enables Aya to have special powers which she will use to battle Eve. Thus begins a struggle both physical and evolutionary between our female leads to out-evolve the other and decide the future of humanity.
There are a lot of shock moments in the game. When you meet the first enemy of the game, you are treated to a full-motion video of a rat undergoing a mitochondrial mutation that turns it into a monster. The rat’s face slits open and nearly turns inside out. It is totally awesome! Later in the game, (minor spoiler ahead) a literal stadium full of people are melted and form a gelatinous liquid that travels across the city. The environments in the game are all spooky and very atmospheric. The game is set over 6 days in winter, and New York in winter is always great fodder for horror.
No horror is complete without its soundtrack, and Parasite Eve has one of the best soundtracks of the PlayStation library. Yoko Shimomura (yet another Kansai native) is probably one of the best, yet sadly underrated, Japanese video game composers. Readers might know her work best in the Kingdom Hearts franchise and she is currently doing the scores for Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III. In my mind, her score for Parasite Eve is right up there with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Final Fantasy VII and VIII, and Metal Gear Solid.
In Parasite Eve, Shimomura beautifully weaves together several different styles of music including opera, techno, and classical piano. For example, Eve’s theme is operatic and Aya’s theme is piano, each time these two characters face off, the music does as well. Shimomura combines these two themes together to create wonderful battle music. Her soundtrack always hits just the right notes at just the right times. Through the score, Shimomura is really able to capture the tension and creepiness of the visuals to really create an effective package that hits you like a mitochondrial blast to the head. In reviews of Parasite Eve, Shimomura’s score is nearly always called out and cited as being one of the best parts of the game.
Parasite Eve was not only revolutionary in terms of thematic structure and maturity, but also in terms of gameplay. By the mid-’90s, some in the game design community saw that the traditional RPG battle system was becoming a bit stale, and began to tweak with the formula. Parasite Eve‘s ballet system was very unique. It was turn-based, but in between turns you had full control of your character’s movement. Meaning that you were able to evade attacks and get into more advantageous positions for your attacks. Each of your weapons had varying firing speeds, ammo, and ranges. Your range with any given weapon is shown with a spherical grid. Aya’s mitochondrial power acts as something of a magic system allowing you to heal yourself and attack with powerful attacks. All of your guns and armor are also fully customizable. You are able to take attributes of different weapons and combine them to create even more powerful guns. For example, you can make a simple club the most powerful weapon in the game. The gameplay and battle system are so sound that they still hold up to this day.
Parasite Eve was not a perfect game. The controls were really good, but the problem was the character movement speed. Aya at a full tilt is really slow. There are times where it is actually a bit funny: Aya is running as fast as she can, but moving across the screen at the pace of a snail on downers. There are also some problems picking up items in the game: you have to be right in the correct spot to pick up something, and depending on the camera position, it can be difficult. Many critics also criticized the game for being too linear, and at times the quality of the graphics do take a little bit of a dive. But the game was still very highly reviewed gaining high 8’s across most reviewers. So many of these little problems should have been dealt with in the sequel.
So what happened? Resident Evil 2 did. The second entry in the Resident Evil franchise was an absolute juggernaut. So when making the highly anticipated sequel, SquareSoft shamelessly ripped off Capcom’s blockbuster. They ditched Parasite Eve‘s entire battle system and gave fans a Resident Evil 2 clone with some RPG elements. They even copied the tank controls, making many of the battles in the game nearly impossible. One giant dog enemy in the game literally took me like 3 hours to beat because of the terrible camera angle and terrible aiming system. Parasite Eve II was a critical and commercial flop.
In 2010, Square Enix (in the early 2000s, SquareSoft and Enix combined) made a half-hearted attempt to resurrect the franchise with The 3rd Birthday, but due to some legal problems, they could not use the Parasite Eve title or much from the original game or novel. So excited fans got a “kinda” sequel. It also ditched the original battle systemic favor of a limited 3rd person action style of gameplay and fans were less than enthused. Action fans complained that the gunplay felt too lite and airy, and RPG fans complained that there were not enough RPG elements.
In the sequels, they also over sexualized Aya. In the original, Aya was sexy, but she didn’t run around in skimpy clothes. Of course, the art for the game had some very revealing and sexy scenes (including a picture of Aya and Melissa cuddling and Melissa nibbling on her ear). But for the most part, Aya’s sexiness in the game itself was in her attitude, confidence, and style. In the sequels, she is given an entirely unnecessary shower scene, clearly intended to titillate pre-pubescent fans. In The 3rd Birthday, she is given a revealing maid outfit at the outset of the game. The strong, sexy, independent Aya Brea of Parasite Eve was morphed into the exact oversexualized female gaming stereotype that feminists rail against.
Parasite Eve is a classic that was murdered by its successors. It is a game that deserves to be played. If you have never played it, you can find it on the PlayStation Network under the PlayStation Classics. If you have not played it since it originally came out, I highly recommend giving it a playthrough, you will find that it still holds up all this time. True art is timeless, and Parasite Eve stands as a classic which shows that games can be mature, have strong independent female protagonists and antagonists, and can teach you a few things about biology all at the same time.