These days, Resident Evil is a multimillion dollar franchise with games and merchandise that stretch across every item known to man. Very few games are able to claim that, and it didn’t get that status without being one of the greatest Survival Horror franchises in the medium’s lifespan. In the run up to Halloween, I will be taking a back seat from GAMING GREATS and AGAINST THE GRAIN to provide you with THE SECRET HISTORY OF RESIDENT EVIL. This series will explore the alpha and beta versions of the games, starting with how it all began. Today, we will be focusing on the first Resident Evil game to hit the shelves, which debuted on March 22nd 1996.
The story of Resident Evil, or should I say, Biohazard, starts in 1989 when an RPG-style horror game – translated into English as “Sweet Home” – swept the stores. The tale was about a team of paranormal investigators who get trapped inside a mansion by evil spirits. The game disturbed players to their core and was excessively difficult to complete. There were permanent character deaths, unlike other RPGs where you could simply revive them during battle, as well as gruesome booby traps and five different endings. Naturally, it proved to be highly influential.
As early as 1994, Resident Evil started development as a concept for Nintendo’s forgotten CD-based system. Shinji Mikami was inspired by the Sweet Home game and a certain undead film series by George A. Romero. During initial concept creation stages, Sony broke away from Nintendo and brought out the PlayStation in 1995. Nintendo were left without a new system. Capcom decided to side with Sony and began to develop the game to suit the 32-bit PlayStation that was dominating the market.
Many styles were considered during the early development. Originally, the game was meant to be a First Person Shooter, but was considered “not scary enough” and the team took a leaf from Alone in the Dark’s book (the first survival horror game) and developed it into a 3rd person title using pre-rendered backgrounds. The static camera angles certainly gave the game an old school horror flourish.
Resident Evil’s debt to Sweet Home is obvious when you consider the plot. A series of bizarre murders have occurred on the outskirts of the hilariously named Raccoon City. The baffled police department send out the Special Tactics And Rescue Service (S.T.A.R.S.) to handle the situation. After contact with Bravo team is lost, Alpha team are despatched to investigate their disappearance and find out what happened. This leads them to an elaborate mansion in the countryside filled with zombies, oversized tarantulas and rabid dogs. Not to mention a host of brain-teasing puzzles.
The set-up and characters are established in an opening cut-scene that is hilarious and beautifully schlocky. There’s no better example of the developer’s passion for trashy cinema than this, incorporating a Trailer Guy voice-over and a roll-call of the team members that provides some glorious cheese. Try and hold back the waves of nostalgia as you watch this:
The player has a choice of two characters; Alpha team members Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine. Their differences are clearly defined – Jill has more ammo and a trusty lock-pick, allowing her to access areas and items easily, while Chris has limited ammo but more of a fighting chance with enemies. This affords the player two perspectives on the game, which was a relatively new idea in 1996. It also gave the title massive replay value.
Like the gameplay, the characters were tinkered with throughout production. For example, fan favourite Barry Burton was non-existent; in his place was a cyborg called Gelzer, who at one stage was to hold up the entire roof of the mansion enabling the lead characters to escape. Another third wheel, Dewey, would be a comic relief character, but he never made the final cut. His sprite is rumoured to still exist in the form of Kenneth J. Williams – the poor soul who gets his head bitten off at the throat. The moniker “Dewey” would later be used as the last name for Bravo Team’s co-pilot.
But it wasn’t just the camera perspectives and characters that transformed, there were major gameplay overhauls too. The ability to play the game twice, with Chris or Jill, wasn’t the original intention. It was meant to consist of a co-op mode, with the 2nd player controlled by AI (if no 2nd controller was found). However, this was dropped because the Playstation’s RAM couldn’t handle the strain, and having a 2nd player without the use of split-screen proved to be problematic. Capcom would follow-through on this promise years later, building a fairly extensive co-op dynamic into Resident Evil 5.
However, they tested the waters well before that. The partner system would be implemented and modified into the Nintendo 64’s Resident Evil 0, with the “zapping system,” in which the expansion pack enabled two characters to be played at the same time. This gave birth to the idea of having two slightly different stories, with two slightly different characters, with different advantages and disadvantages, that has become a popular crux among game developers. It also allowed room for extra supporting characters, such as Rebecca Chambers in Chris’ scenario, that have made the Resident Evil universe seem so expansive. There’s plenty to explore in this mythology.
There were a few other alterations, such as the removal of items including a Taser (which would appear in the astonishing Gamecube remake); the infamous “spider corridor” became the “dog corridor”; the giant snake Yawn was placed in areas that were devoid of enemies in the finished game; and Trevor’s famed diary, which was re-implemented and expanded upon in the remake, were removed. It also seemed that creatures such as Hunters were in the game at a far earlier stage, and you could blow individual parts off zombies, such as arms and legs. Now that’s cool.
In 1996, Biohazard was finally released in Japan, and when legal problems arose in America with the band “Biohazard,” the game was given the title Resident Evil in other territories. It received positive reviews from critics and gamers alike, eventually spreading to the Sega Saturn and PC. While fans waited anxiously for Resident Evil 2, a “Director’s Cut” edition was hastily put-together. It’s not necessarily better than the original, but it famously altered the location of important items and moved enemies around, giving fans a reason to play through it again.
Almost two decades later, there’s something rather quaint about Resident Evil. You forget that it traumatised you as a child. You forget how bloody hard it was. You even forget that it told a pretty great story. Put aside the dodgy voice-acting and hammy archetypes, and just enjoy the sheer attitude of the gameplay. It still has moments of genuine dread, mixed with a dated charm that only warms a gamer’s heart. Bottom line: It’s still immensely playable.
Resident Evil put survival horror on the map. Not bad for a remake.