Why did Resident Evil work? It’s not an unfair question. While many agree that it was Resident Evil 2 that turned the franchise into the powerhouse that it is today it required the success of the first game in order to happen- a game that has been released several different times and remastered. Twice!
By all accounts the first Resident Evil had terrible voice acting, a dodgy story, and one of my top five worst control schemes of all time, tank controls. And with all that going against it, the game turned out to be a hit. Why?
Today on Arcadology, we are going to dive into the creation and subsequent success of Resident Evil.
The horror genre was underutilized in the early days of the game industry. Before the crash of 1983, there were only a few games that could be reasonably considered horror like 3D Monster Maze. In the decade that followed, most of which was during a boom in the slasher genre, there were more efforts to design horror games, and some of these games were both successful and memorable to this day: including Splatterhouse, Alone in the Dark, System Shock, and more.
But there wasn’t a moment in which the industry collectively decided to push toward developing horror, not yet. In the late 70s, Space Invaders prompted many companies to ride the “defending the earth against alien invasion” wave. Pac Man created a fascination with “maze chases.” Super Mario Brothers pushed everyone in the direction of side scrolling platformers.
Horror’s gaming moment arrived in the form of Resident Evil. Called Bio Hazard in Japan and released 1996, Resident Evil sparked a golden age of horror in game development that lasted through the early 2000s. The game’s origin though dates seven years prior, with another game titled Sweet Home.
Sweet Home is something that was out of place when it was released, in a good way. The game is a top-down 8-bit RPG that graphically would look familiar to fans of old school Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. Unlike those games though, it was a horror title, based on a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film of the same name. Capcom and game designer, Tokuro Fujiwara were brought on by the studio to make a game adaptation that would have a day and date release with the film. Prior to this, Fujiwara had worked mostly on arcade classics like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando, and possibly my favorite platformer of all time, Bionic Commando.
The game, loosely based off the film, takes place in a mansion where a documentary crew has been trapped by a spirit while attempting to preserve the fresco’s of a dead artist.
Some of the choices Fujiwara made for the game were a bit experimental. Unshackled from the need to follow the plot of the film exactly, as well as not needing to consider an arcade version of the game, Fujiwara developed game mechanics that were rather ahead of their time. These included being able to split the party up, dropping and picking up items, and permadeath. Also, check out this door transition. Look familiar?
Fujiwara’s success with Sweet Home would land him with a promotion up to Producer, which from what I can gather, meant that his days with direct, hands on development of games were over. Fujiwara though would carry the experience of developing Sweet Home and horror with him.
A few years later, on the verge of a new generation of consoles, a Capcom executive sent out a memo recommending that the company begin investigating the development of a horror game using 3D technology. Fujiwara, who had been wanting to get back into horror since his experience with Sweet Home decided to assign the project to his protoge, Shinji Mikami.
Mikami up until that point had been working exclusively on Capcom’s Disney license, his best seller being the SNES version of Aladdin, which let’s be honest, is a pretty tight game. According to Fujiwara, Mikami at the time was terrified of the horror genre, which meant that he was perfect for the role.
Mikami was unsure about the game- he didn’t know if mainstream horror game would sell and all evidence up until that point made it seem like a dicey proposition. Whether the game was ever intended to be a remake of Sweet Home or not is anecdotal information at best. What we do know though was that Sweet Home and another horror game, Alone in the Dark served as inspiration points for several of the design choices made.
So what were those influences? For Sweet Home first and foremost would be the conceit of the story, a group of people are somehow trapped in a spooky mansion, only instead of a documentary crew they were police officers. Additionally, concepts like strict inventory management originated in Sweet Home and found their way, in a way into Resident Evil. Additionally, Sweet Home placed an emphasis on puzzle solving, something that was quite prevalent in the gameplay of Resident Evil. In fact it is probably this element that is most inspired by Sweet Home.
And, as I mentioned, the door transitions.
What parts were inspired by Alone in the Dark? The camera angles, which, are honestly a bigger part of the design of the game than anything taken from Sweet Home. When Resident Evil was in early stages, the idea was to develop it from the first person point of view and build the game entirely out of polygons.
Technical limitations though prevented that idea from coming to fruition. After playing Alone in the Dark, Mikami and team understood the effectiveness of using a fixed camera angle with pre-rendered backgrounds. While he was certain immersion and therefore horror would be lessened by the switch, they did it anyway for the sake of creating higher resolution and more detailed environments.
This is a complete side note however, but Resident Evil 7 was widely considered a return to form for the franchise while ditching the third person camera angle in favor of the first person camera angle that the series was intended to have at the very beginning. Another fun nod to the early days of Resident Evil is the documentary crew, which could be seen as a reference to sweet home. But I digress.
Character and story shifted through development as well. Zombies were decided on as the ubiquitous enemy by either Fujiwara, or Mikami. Literally, both have claimed to be the progenitor of that idea in different sources. Eventually, after a prolonged development process, well, prolonged for the time period, Resident Evil would be released in 1996.
Reviews for Resident Evil were great, many reviewers echoing that the game was one that could be a game changer for the industry. But even the reviewers with the most effusive praise still could not overlook the voice acting. In 1996, voice work was uncommon in video games, bit even then it was just downright awful. The dialog itself was poorly written, but it was the combination poorly written, and poorly spoken that made Resident Evil’s voice acting the height of hilarity. Historically, it was the voice talent that has been blamed for this. Is that fair?
Well, according to DC Douglas, the current voice of Albert Wesker, no, its not. On a voice acting panel in 2014, Douglas, unprompted defended the work of Sergio Jones, the original Albert Wesker stating that in the early days of game voice over work, actors were often brought into a booth with all their lines printed on a spreadsheet with no context given as to when these lines were actually being spoken. The director would then have the actors read each line with a different emphasis on each word and then files would be sent to the audio engineer in Japan who would pick and choose dialog based on what sounded best to his ear, not to what sounded best to the ear of a non English speaker. Special thanks to Josh Wirtanen from Retrovolve.com for this scoop.
Another common criticism of the game were the controls. Similar to those used in Alone in the Dark, tank controls were a necessary evil because of the fixed camera angle. In traditional free floating third person camera angle games, the directional controls are relative to the camera. When the camera angle is fixed the way it was in these two games, the orientation of the camera relative to the character had the possibility of switching between rooms, therefore left from one camera angle, would not be left in another. Make sense?
Tank controls solved this problem. On the d-pad, up was forward, down was backward, and right and left rotated the character clockwise or counter-clockwise respectively. The downside of these controls were that it made moving your character in any sort of evasive manner extremely difficult, because you couldn’t change direction, and move at the same time. Perhaps this added to the tension, but for me it was often an immersion busting frustration.
Strangely something that I saw repeated several times across reviews in different major publications of the time was praise for the story of the game. Maybe I’m pretty far off base, but the plot is intriguing in that it exists – but if you placed it directly into a movie you’d be accused of writing derivative pulpfiction, but without the self awareness that modern pulp stories bring to the table. That being said, did the plot factor into the game’s success? Well, let’s explore some possible reasons.
First, the rental gambit. Did you know there was a difference in the difficulty between the Japanese and US versions of the game? Most of the time that means the game was harder in Japan and easier in the United States, but in this case it was the reverse. In the mid 90s, rental store chains were a big deal in the states and many of them carried all the latest video games. Capcom of America wanted the game to be more difficult so that it was less likely for the game to be completed on a rental. Now it would be tough to determine whether this had any impact without some raw data that I have a feeling blockbuster is no longer able to provide.
Still that’s one possibility. Let’s talk about the marketing. From what I can find, the game had a commercial that aired, but only in the Japanese market. The earliest commercial I was able to find for Resident Evil 1 in the United States market was this Christmas commercial for the director’s cut and Resident Evil 2. Obviously TV time is only one part of the equation. Many gamer’s in the mid 90s were subscribed to one of several gaming magazines, the most popular being EGM, GamePro, Game Informer, and the like. My thinking was that surely there had to have been a blitz in the magazines, right? Well, yes and no – prior to the game’s release, there were not many paid ads to be found in these magazines, it was only after March when these spots started appearing. There were two varieties, one featuring this iconic art from the game, and the other that basically gets the plot of the game wrong.
An interesting aside was that there were plenty of ads to be found for another horror game called “D” which at the time was soon to be released for the Playstation. It had already been released a year prior for the doomed 3DO.
While there weren’t a ton of ads to be found, there were plenty of preview articles, which sometimes felt like advertisements back in the day. These articles were filled with the gory, pun intended, details of the upcoming game, and for an adolescent horror fan such as myself, I ate it up. Like a zombie. Eating a –never mind.
So how about the plot? Well, despite the plot being, by my subjective measure kinda bad, the fact that it existed and had a tremendous amount of detail was no small feat for the type of game that Resident Evil was. Abundant plot was still something that was more likely to be found in an RPG in the mid 90s. Most games used it simply as an excuse to prop up gameplay. Resident Evil had an attempt at mystery and suspense in the story that unfolds throughout the game, with one decent twist packed in there, it definitely gets an A for effort. How did this factor into the success? This is probably the most anecdotal piece of this video, so take it for a grain of salt, but I recall in the early days of Resident Evil’s release, that there was enough plot to spark a conversation amongst other kids my age. Rumors about Wesker living were born immediately at the lunch table, as well as other elements. The plot, mixed with Easter eggs and hidden items possibly contributed to a strong word of mouth, which was gold to game executives in the 90s. But that, keep in mind is my conjecture.
Finally, lets circle back around to what started me on this discussion. Genre. Perhaps, the executive at Capcom simply read the tea leaves correctly, and identified that finally the market was actually ready for a horror game, and Mikami’s team managed to capitalize by offering gamers something inspired by some of the best horror games of the previous few years, and remixing it into something brand new.
As I mentioned at the top, the original Resident Evil would be re-released several times over the following years. The Director’s Cut promised to restore the gore to the cut scenes, except it didn’t. Capcom blamed it on some sort of localization issue. The Director’s Cut also returned the game to its original difficulty by adding in an auto-aim that was in the original Japanese version that had been stripped away for the American release.
The director’s cut would be released again with dual shock support and possibly the most controversial change, a completely brand new score by composer Mamoru Samuragochi. Samuragochi, known as the Japanese Beethoven because of his deafness created a new score for the game that was widely panned. Just listen to this one track. Yes that made it into the game. The story gets weirder though when it comes out years later, that Samuragochi didn’t even write the music he was credited for, he had been paying a ghost writer. So not only was it bad, it wasn’t even his bad. Such a weird moment.
The horror genre in gaming did go on to see a boom period after Resident Evil’s release. Capcom benefitted with continuing the Resident Evil franchise, as well as starting the Dino Crisis series, which was basically Resident Evil with dinosaurs. Konami threw their hat into the ring with Silent Hill, and Square Enix had Parasite Eve. Clock Tower, a SNES game which predated Resident Evil, was given new blood, pun intended, as a 3D survival horror. In another video though, we will talk about the decline and rebirth of the genre.
For all the fun and quirks of the first Resident Evil, as a relatively early PlayStation game, it ultimately aged rather poorly. It’s interesting to look back on 3D games from the mid-90s and compare them to the pixel art games of the same time. Frequently, pixel based games have aged rather well over the years, and the 3D games, much like the earliest use of CGI in movies, have looked a bit worse for wear. Combined with the shoday voice acting, Resident Evil was ripe for the remaking when it came time to honor a contract Capcom had signed with Nintendo. But the remake, and what it meant for the franchise is another story altogether.
That will do it for this episode! If you like this stuff take a look at this video on the history of Dark Souls! You can find the channel on twitter at Arcadology, or you can follow me for my own personal thoughts @spoilerkevin. Until next time, thanks for watching Arcadology!