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Resident Evil Retrospective: Survival horror at its finest

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A trip down (a zombie-infested) memory lane...

Celebrating 20 years of horror – in both the ‘survival’ and ‘action’ flavours – there’s no denying Resident Evil has made a great impact upon the gaming landscape. In a special series of articles, Stevivor will honour the iconic series by recounting its dark roots all the way through to its dramatic revitalisation at this year’s E3.

It all started with Sweet Home, released by Capcom on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989. A Japanese feature film tie-in, Sweet Home is one of the first games in the survival horror genre, and one that heavily inspired the original Resident Evil. It followed a group of survivors trapped inside a mansion and tasked with solving puzzles to escape. Loading screens were hidden behind the animation of a door opening; notes scattered around the environment proved invaluable in revealing the story of the mansion itself. These were all key components of 1996’s Resident Evil, initially released on PlayStation in 1996.

Creator Shinji Mikami coupled elements of Sweet Home with Lucio Fulci’s Zombie and George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead to form the basis of the best-known survival horror title. Known as Biohazard in Japan, it followed Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, members of S.T.A.R.S. – the Special Tactics and Rescue Service – as they investigated a series of bizarre, cannibalistic murders in the forests outside Raccoon City. Searching for lost members, the pair explored the creepy Spencer Mansion, filled to the brim with zombies – like the one below, the first you encounter in-game – alongside other horrific monsters.

As a young boy of 14, I saw the first, censored edit of that sequence. It still scared the ever-loving shit out of me. Other sequences appearing in the Japanese version, but cut from the North American release, included a shot with Chris smoking and a series of changes to the opening FMV:

 

The original Japanese intro is above on the left, and the North American edit on the right.

Censored or not, Resident Evil set the tone for most of its PlayStation sequels – fully rendered 3D-models moved around in pre-rendered backdrops, with tension heightened by camera angles completely out of the player’s control. Characters, armed with a combat knife and various other guns, moved with one d-pad – ‘cause that’s all the PlayStation’s controller had to offer at the time – and had to remain terrifyingly stationary to bring up their weapon to fire. A huge emphasis was placed on puzzle-solving; characters could not progress to new areas without unlocking access. Healing was managed by finding and using green herbs, a function that was highly strategic – players had the option to forego healing to wait for another green or red herb; combining a pair meant greater healing capabilities.

Resident Evil offered two different gameplay scenarios, as players could enter the mansion as either Chris or Jill. While story beats were different – Chris was paired with S.T.A.R.S. Bravo Team’s Rebecca Chambers and Jill with Alpha’s Barry Burton – gameplay was also slightly altered by the decision. Chris was more durable against enemy attacks, but had smaller inventory space and less weaponry. Jill had more weaponry and inventory space alongside a handy lock-pick, but took damage far more easily.

Terrifying as all hell, yet complete with schlocky, B-grade horror elements – “You were almost a Jill sandwich,” anyone? – Resident Evil became an institution almost immediately. I remember all the boys in my class heading to a friend’s house – he was the only one that convinced his parents to buy him such a mature game – so we could all watch him play it (this is how we did a let’s play in the ’90s, kids). As we kept going back, day after day, it’s safe to say we were all enchanted with that we saw.

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In 1997, the Director’s Cut and Director’s Cut: Dual Shock followed, with the latter enabling DualShock support for the PlayStation’s new analog stick-supported controller. It also provided a new – and very interesting – soundtrack, courtesy of Mamoru Samuragouchi. The re-release added two new difficulty modes: Beginner, which is obvious, and Arrange mode, meant to randomise items to increase the challenge for returning players.

Resident Evil: Director’s Cut: Dual Shock was the reason I begged my parents to buy me a PlayStation. It wasn’t until Christmas 1997 that my persistent pestering paid off; though not without embarrassing drama. Receiving three or four Sega Genesis games as gifts instead, I cracked the shits like a little monster until my parents eventually caved and returned them all. Karma bit me in the ass; Mom and Dad used the funds to buy me a PlayStation and DualShock controller, but no games. I saved like a madman to eventually buy Director’s Cut: Dual Shock and finally play it for myself. I’d already seen it played from start to finish, but being personally involved in the fight to take down the evil Umbrella Corporation? That was priceless.

Despite my troubles getting a PlayStation, Resident Evil had branched out, making the jump to Windows PC and Sega Saturn earlier in 1997, and later still to the Nintendo DS in 2006. A subsequent remake would follow on the Gamecube, available with a HD refresh on PS4 and Xbox One, but we’re saving that for later.

Most importantly, over in Japan, the PSone release of Director’s Cut: Dual Shock came with a special bonus disc, containing what was then – and perhaps still – considered the Holy Grail of Resident Evil content: footage from a game now-called Resident Evil 1.5. A sequel was on its way.

But that’s a story for another time.