20 years ago, a video game known as Resident Evil effectively birthed a genre. A black screen with white text spells it out rather nicely as the game greets you when starting a new game. “Enter the survival horror.” A world of mystery, horrifying monsters, and unrelenting tension that really had never been seen before. A world that spans 20 years, 20+ games, a film series, and various other media, and still manages to be a work that is cited as a required experience when making a horror game. Such a varied and interesting franchise continues to try new things, and even with the occasional missteps I’m always intrigued by what the series tries to offer compared to other horror games. So without further ado, consider this an intro to our retrospective on the series of Resident Evil. For the first game, I will be playing and referring to the remake released on the Gamecube and later on various other platforms in HD form.
On the surface, the first Resident Evil seems to wear it’s inspirations proudly. Taking place in the decrepit Spencer Mansion in the middle of nowhere, it’s a pretty standard location for a horror story. Zombies shuffle around in the mansion, introduced by the now iconic cutscene of a decaying human devouring the flesh of an unlucky S.T.A.R.S. agent. It’s all incredibly reminiscent of so many classic horror, but instead of merely copying these classic tropes and calling it a day, Resident Evil uses them as a springboard to tie various ideas together. Despite the seeming simplicity of the backdrop, the game manages to incorporate a surprising amount of variety for the setting. The already large mansion opens up to the courtyard and grounds, a series of caverns underneath the grounds, and eventually the large laboratory owned by the mysterious Umbrella Corporation where the crisis started. All of these locations are teeming with enemies and littered with puzzles and clues, hints to puzzles and bits of world-building filling you in on the horror and how it began. It’s an engrossing world packaged in a fairly unique way, especially for 1996.
On the subject of enemies, one of my personal favorite things about Resident Evil as a series is that despite being marketed as a zombie game, zombies are quite frankly the least of your problems when it comes to the monster variety. Using the lab mentioned earlier as an in-universe way to make more interesting enemies, the developers implemented various other monstrosities known as bio-organic weapons, or B.O.W.s. Giant spiders, mutated sharks, and a monstrously large snake are just a few of the more tame examples of the terrors Umbrella were toying with. And with the introduction of B.O.W.s, the game manages to keep the player from being too comfortable on what they should expect next. In the remake, even the zombies can become far more terrifying if they aren’t dealt with properly. A zombie corpse left alone will reanimate into a creature known as a crimson head, meaning faster, harder hitting enemies in an area you would normally think you cleared previously. There are a couple of ways to deal with the zombie corpses to keep them from returning (destroying the head or setting the body on fire with the limited kerosene around the mansion), but even still it’s another way to use the gameplay as an excuse to keep the player on their toes.
In my opinion, this is really where Resident Evil shines to me personally. Survival horror as a genre is a very interesting type of game. It relies equally on the world-building aspect and the intentionally slow gameplay to make the player feel weak, or at the very least feel outmatched in general. Having access to extremely limited ammunition and health restoring items, remembering locations of enemies because there is real value to not engaging with them on a whim, becoming very familiar with ‘safe’ areas to fall back and regroup at. Adding to these tense gameplay elements is the infamous Resident Evil camera angle, a stationary camera that provides a cinematic look at your surroundings. Initially a way to cheat the PS1’s relatively weak capabilities as a 3D game console by using static pre-rendered backgrounds instead of modeled backgrounds, the technique ended up both increasing the claustrophobic, foreboding atmosphere and became a staple of the genre and the series itself. These are all intriguing concepts not explored fully by many games, and ideas that Resident Evil tackled and shaped with it’s very first entry. While later games made combat easier and shifted focus to mainly being an action-oriented horror game, you can argue that no other pure survival horror game ever really matched what the earlier Resident Evil games accomplished, and arguably few even managed to get close to the bar that the first game set.
Another key aspect of Resident Evil is the sense of progression that it weaves into the gameplay loop. In the midst of surviving the shambling hordes and other assorted monstrosities, the player is tasked with various puzzles and obstacles to move through the mansion and the grounds surrounding the mansion. From simple ‘find the correct key’ objectives to full logic puzzles, the game manages to keep a fairly even balance between puzzles and enemy/boss encounters. The tension never really lets up when you’re away from a safe room, even if you know that nothing is in the room with you. Puzzles feel like they must be taken on as quickly as possible. Item management becomes a sort of meta puzzle throughout the game, a juggling act between being properly armed and prepared for whatever obstacle the game decides to throw at you. It’s odd to describe the basic gameplay loop as inherently thrilling, but it never really gets old. What’s more, the gameplay loop had quite a bit of staying power, considering that the basic gameplay was never really changed for a very long time, only added to.
These days, the series that Resident Evil has become is virtually indistinguishable from the series’ roots. While mostly solid games on their own merits, it’s really a disappointment that the series that Resident Evil has become is such a far cry from where it started. Enemies slowly became less threatening purely due to how easy they were able to be engaged compared to the earlier entries, supplies were no longer limited to accomodate the more action-oriented gameplay, and puzzles and backtracking virtually disappeared as the games opted instead to focus on pushing players through to bigger setpieces and arenas. But, this month-long retrospective isn’t meant to mourn the franchise or anything like that. Throughout the month, we’re going to be visiting every major Resident Evil release and talking about the individual entries in-depth. The godfather of survival horror has managed to last this long, and this series of articles is meant to celebrate that accomplishment. We sincerely hope you enjoy these looks at these games.