Resident Evil. A name that has spawned over a dozen original games, a half dozen films (two of which are CGI, one of which is forthcoming), a handful of novelizations, action figures, t-shirts, comic books–the list goes on. It’s hard to believe that it has already been fifteen years since the seminal series popped up on the gaming radar. And oh, how things have changed.
When Capcom first released Resident Evil (or Biohazard, as it was known in Japan), the gaming community ate it up. What we now think of as a clunky, crude game, was a modern marvel that harnessed the power of the fresh new face of gaming: the Sony PlayStation. Low poly counts and static backgrounds be damned; Resident Evil was a chilling experience that stranded an elite squad in a dilapidated mansion overrun with zombies, mutants, and the occasional booby trap. With limited supplies and danger around every corner, the thrills were non-stop. The stationary camera — often placed in such a way as to obscure any possible danger — ratcheted up the tension that was already palpable. It wasn’t without its faults (the voice acting is pretty notorious), but it was a trailblazer in the genre that is Survival Horror.
And, true to big business form, success can’t go unrewarded: Resident Evil 2 showed up only two years later. Luckily for fans, this wasn’t just a quick cash-in. Accomplishing what a good sequel should, RE2 brought gamers more of what made the original great. More blood, more monsters, more story — it improved on what was needed without going overboard. It was bigger, badder, and scarier, and it proved that Capcom had more than a one-hit wonder.
By 1999, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis had hit shelves as well. It wasn’t much — if any — of an improvement, but it wasn’t bad. Not long after that, hardware started to evolve. Resident Evil Code: Veronica was released on the Dreamcast in 2000. It was the same old formula with improved graphics. Again, not a bad game, but not a fan-favorite. Perhaps the franchise was starting to show its age.
With the Gamecube’s release of Resident Evil: Zero, Capcom tried a new approach: a prequel to the original game that also offered some new mechanics — most notably, the ability to switch between characters at certain points in the game. The fans were still interested, but that interest, it appeared, was starting to wane.
Finally, it seemed like it was time for a change. All or nothing, let the chips fall where they may. Capcom went back to the drawing board, recalled the original game’s director, Shinji Mikami (the man who had also had a heavy hand as producer for the series), and reworked the formula. And while the new formula was met with resounding success, it seemed to be missing one of the key ingredients from prior games: the Survival Horror. No longer were there Umbrella-born monstrosities to contend with. No longer were there fixed camera angles, a paltry scattering of ammunition, or tight spaces. The franchise went from horror with hints of action, to action with hints of horror. The Ganados were scary and the setting was unique, sure, but something felt just a little bit off.
I’ve made the analogy before, but I feel it needs to be reiterated: Everything up until Resident Evil 4 felt like Ridley Scott’s Alien: it was claustrophobic, dark, and truly frightening. On the flip side, Resident Evil 4 and 5 (which we’ll be getting to) felt like James Cameron’s Aliens: the stakes were higher, the action was more prevalent, but it was more about thrills than chills.
And Resident Evil 5 was even more so. Where 4 went bigger, 5 went Hollywood — literally; 5 was directed by film director Jim Sonzero (Pulse). The action was front and center, and the horror took a bit of a backseat. Yes, monsters and mutants were involved, but those things that typically make something scary were all but gone. That’s not to say Resident Evil 4 or 5 are bad games — far from it. They’re just different. I enjoy them for what they are, but I enjoy them less as Resident Evil games.
Now, in the year 2011, Slant-Six games is bringing back Umbrella and Raccoon City and zombies and 1998. While Resident Evil Operation: Raccoon City is a return to the setting of the old-school, their approach is still that of an action game. Will it be good? Who knows. Maybe they can find a way to merge old and new to make something that fits comfortably in between — maybe not a complete return to form, but something a little closer to the originals.
Now you have a brief rundown on the series. I only focused on the core games, leaving out the Outbreak games, the Gun Survivors, etc., but you get the gist. The franchise is still amazing, but it’s lost some of what originally made it great.