Resident Evil is one of the most recognizable horror franchises in video gaming. Though there’s plenty of competition, few franchises have had such a prolific presence over the last few decades then Shinji Mikami’s zombie soap opera.
It’s inspired dozens of games, books, and movies, and shows no signs of slowing down.
So what is it about this relatively simple zombie/survival premise that has allowed for such longevity? There’s a million horror games, why has Resident Evil captured public interest for so long?
For some insight into what it is about Resident Evil that’s so compelling, let’s view it through the lens of Resident Evil: Revelations. I recently had the opportunity to play through this episodic horror romp when it was ported to the PS4, and found it perfectly encapsulated the good and not so good of what Resident Evil has become over the decades.
First though, let’s take a look at the history and legacy of the franchise for some context.
A brief history of Evil
The first Resident Evil was released in 1996 and was an immediate commercial and critical hit. Shinji Mikami’s (who was 31 at the time) survival horror hybrid ignited a new wave of frightening games, and though there were certainly plenty of horror games before, it struck a chord with both Eastern and Western audiences.
The original Resident Evil is a relatively simple premise; a group of elite commandos called S.T.A.R.S (Special Tactics And Rescue Service) explore a gigantic gothic mansion, and become involved in an elaborate conspiracy spearheaded by the nefarious Umbrella Corporation. The T- virus, a biological weapon created by Umbrella, has turned the populace into zombies and mutated monsters of all different sizes intent on eating brains. The player has to navigate the trap and puzzle filled mansion with limited resources, before confronting a final boss and a countdown timer deep below the mansion.
The game had a very unique look for the time, and one that stood out and added to heightened sense of fear. The pre-rendered backgrounds were rendered with exceptional detail, and the 3D polygonal character models interacted with the backgrounds using a forced perspective. This style was novel for the time, and was also used in other franchises, notably the three Playstation generation Final Fantasy entries.
To say the original Resident Evil has not aged well is an understatement. The character models are comically primitive, the pre-rendered backgrounds, while detailed, are muddled and hard to see.
The game is framed with live action segments that are…entertaining to say the least. This was mercifully the only game in the franchise that went this route, though it is interesting to compare these segments to the later produced live action Resident Evil movie series.
It’s impossible to talk about Resident Evil without mentioning one of the best known characteristics of this twenty year old game: the voice acting and dialogue. The combination of badly localized text and truly abysmal voice acting make for a highly entertaining retrospective. Lines like “If you, the master of unlocking, take it with you,” and “Don’t open THAT door!” have been forever ingrained the meme and video game culture.
Here’s a nice collection of highlights-
It’s easy to make fun of the original Resident Evil, but that’s doing a disservice to its substantial accomplishments. Most importantly, it transcended the clunky narrative, muddled graphics and terrible presentation to be genuinely scary. Everyone who played Resident Evil remembered the tense moments, the dogs jumping through the windows, the first zombie’s appearance. The tense balance of conserving ammo and choosing when to fight is as effective now as it ever was, and the strange and compelling layout of the mansion is haunting.
It was remade for the GameCube in 2002. This project was also headed by Mikami, and is a phenomenal remake that has aged MUCH more gracefully. This updated version addressed much of the ludicrousness of the original title, while keeping everything that worked about the game intact.
If you feel the need to play the original Resident Evil, go with the remake. It’s been ported to just about every console imaginable, including PC, and it’s a much more even experience.
Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 2 was released in 1998, and is a perfect example of a “more is better” sequel. Instead of a mansion, you’re exploring a large section of fictional Racoon City after a T-virus outbreak, where the denizens and animals have all been monstrously transformed. You move across the city as either Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield, both of which would become series mainstays, exploring a police station, a sewer system, and finally, an underground Umbrella Corporation lab.
There’s more of everything. More areas to explore, more story (the voice acting, while improved, is still not great) more nonsensical but compelling puzzles.
Resident Evil 2 is where we see the chaotic and often incoherent overarching plot of the series begin to take form. Mercifully, the live action cutscenes were replaced with impressive (for the time) FMV sequences, and the characters were substantially more compelling.
The overarching narrative of Resident Evil is one of corrupt corporations, biological weapons, evil, eccentric people who are constantly betraying one another and mutating into grotesque monstrosities, and the pure hearted survivors trying to survive. Usually they are law enforcement officials of some kind, a usually decent balance of men and women. Resident Evil 2 is a great example of the genesis of the Resident Evil narrative. It only gets crazier from this point on.
I loved Resident Evil 2. I had the Nintendo 64 port which was quite the technological achievement given the limitations of the cartridge format, and played it exhaustively. Critics loved it too, and it’s pretty much universally regarded as the strongest entry in the series until Resident Evil 4.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
Resident Evil 3 was more of a spin-off of RE 2, less ambitious and inventive, but still a solid survival horror title. RE 3 stars Jill Valentine (from the first game) as she makes her way across the decimated Racoon City. Often she would cover the same ground as Claire and Leon from the last game which was fun, and also allowed developers to reuse assets in order to shorten development time.
You play as Jill in this title, though there is a secondary character, Carlos Oliveira, that started the unfortunate trend of weak secondary characters with bad accents.
RE 3 also brought in another series mainstay; Mercenary Mode. It consists of clearing sections of the game on a strict timer, and adds some significant replay value to a game that was otherwise criticized for a very short story mode.
The namesake of the game, the Nemesis monster, was unique. This hulking behemoth would appear at random times and attack, giving you the option to run or fight. Even if you defeated Nemesis, he always comes back. It’s an interesting concept, an unkillable enemy who can show up at any point in time.
This aside though, Resident Evil 3 is one the least memorable entries in the main franchise, though it sold well and was critically praised.
Resident Evil: Code Veronica
Resident Evil: Code Veronica was released on Sega’s Dreamcast in 2000. It was directed by Hiroki Kato, and was the first of the primary entries to be released on a console other than the Playstation.
It was also the first game that used full 3D instead of pre-rendered backgrounds, and made copious use of excellent CGI sequences that blew people away at the time. Though it has aged, sequences like this one still impress, due in no small part to the excellent direction-
Code Veronica also has the dubious distinction of having one of the single worst characters in the franchise. Steve Burnside is a whiny, weak willed young man who stands in stark contrast to Claire’s tougher, more grounded sensibility.
Here he is being a little jerk as usual-
Code Veronica has one of the more outlandish narratives in the series, and copiously piles in more twists and turns into a convoluted story arc that was beginning to sag under its own weight.
Despite that though, it’s the final traditional RE game, and it’s a good one.
Resident Evil 4
RE 4 was a huge risk when it was released in 2005. It marked the return of series creator Shinji Mikami, who realized that a Resident Evil needed a REvolution. Gone were the standard tank controls, replaced with a 3rd person over the shoulder camera that completely refocused the gameplay.
RE 4 is much more action heavy than its slow, plodding predecessors. RE 2’s Leon Kennedy pile drives and roundhouse kicks zombies with stylish flair in RE 4. There are still puzzles, but they are simpler, and the emphasis is much more on gunning down bosses and new foes. They’re still zombies, but instead of being straight traditional Night of the Living Dead inspired undead, the Los Ganados are smart, fast foes that can use weapons. This was a substantial departure from the mindless zombies and monsters of the previous games.
The narrative, while still over the top and bizarre, focuses on Leon attempting to save the President’s daughter. A simple, video game-y premise, but it works, partly due to the phenomenal voice acting performance by Paul Mercer. Leon Kennedy is dry, thoughtful, and at times funny, which was a new direction for the franchise. It works.
Here you can see the more sophisticated presentation compared to what had come before-
RE 4 was vastly different than the games before it, and that risk paid off. It is widely considered one of the greatest games of all time, and the pinnacle of the Resident Evil franchise despite how different it was.
Full disclosure, it’s in my top five games of all time, and I still regularly play the Wii version.
Resident Evil 5
Resident Evil 5 took the action elements of RE4, and ran with it. Once again starring Chris Redfield, RE5 takes place in Africa, and has Chris and a new character named Sheva Alomar blasting their way through the villages and countryside.
RE 5 had a substantial focus on co-op, which is a strange departure for a series so intrinsically tied to isolation and insurmountable odds. Together with a friend or computer controlled ally you solve simple puzzles in addition to plenty of combat. Unlike prequel/spin-off Resident Evil Zero for the GameCube, which involved switching between two characters, RE 5 allowed for full, online or split screen Co-op.
At this point RE went from a slow paced, tense, tactical based survival horror experience to an almost arcadey shooter. It was by most accounts a well made game, but some of those that had stuck with the franchise from the beginning found this new style of gameplay to be alienating.
Resident Evil 6 went even further in that direction, and was by most accounts a jumbled mess of half baked ideas and QTEs. The less said about RE 6 the better.
Resident Evil: Revelations
Which brings us to RE: Revelations. So far, we have not discussed any of the numerous spin off RE games, mostly because there are simply too many to go over here. RE: Revelations is the exception, because it’s what inspired this article, and because it’s such a great example of the RE formula in action, flaws and all.
RE: Revelations was directed by Koushi Nakanishi, and released on the 3DS of all places, in 2012.
The game is chopped up into chapters, that are presented as a television show, complete with Previously On… segments before the beginning of each chapter.
The story follows a variety of characters as they attempt to unravel an evil government plot to infect the world’s oceans with a virus. Much of the game takes place on an abandoned (or is it?!) cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, through there are some sections on terra firma.
The main focus is on our old friend Jill Valentine, and newcomer and bad accent haver Parker Luciani as they search for Chris Redfield. In typical RE fashion, there are twists and turns aplenty, and they stumble onto something bigger than they ever could have imagined.
It’s an overtly ludicrous story, told in surprisingly well directed cut scenes. I tried to pay close attention, but the plot is a mess of loose threads, acronyms and soap opera ridiculousness, with adequate voice acting at best, and very poor dialogue at worst.
RE: Revelations is very much a sum of its parts, and those parts are pure RE through and through.
First, let’s discuss the visuals.
Resident Evil has always been at the forefront of cutting edge graphics. Every time a new main entry was released it was praised for its graphics, regardless of the console. The same is still true, and Revelations was no exception.
For a 3DS game, RE: Revelations is nothing short of a technical marvel. The detail in the environments and character models is unprecedented on a mobile console at the time, and blew people away. As is the case with most RE releases, the game has been ported numerous times, including to the PS4 which is the version I played. It can’t hold up to native Playstation 4 games, but the fact it was designed for a portable console is truly remarkable.
That attention to detail is used to great effect to craft maps. A huge part of Resident Evil is the environments. Since the first RE, the environments you explore become a character in their own right. You come to know the spooky mansion, the abandoned police station, or in this case, the derelict cruise ship, as you survive their trials and tribulations. The best Resident Evil games share this trait, and perhaps that’s why RE 3 feels a bit stale…it’s not really a new environment.
The narrative too, is classic RE, in that it’s indecipherable, absurd, and still somehow entertaining. Resident Evil has always been a hyper violent, highly atmospheric horror soap opera, and Revelations is a great example of this.
It’s also an interesting marriage of the old RE and the new, and that’s one reason it was critically hailed. It takes the action heavy post-RE4 entries, and brings back the atmospheric environments and isolation that exemplify the earlier entries in the franchise.
It’s also a prime example of the strange way Resident Evil approaches gender.
Women in Resident Evil
Resident Evil has always had a confusing portrayal of women.
On the one hand, female characters like Jill, Claire Redfield, and a smattering of others are presented as remarkably capable, rarely distressed, and just as physically and psychologically capable as their male counterparts. They have no trouble keeping up with heavily muscled supermen like Chris Redfield, and are rarely in need of rescuing. In fact, it’s Jill that’s coming to rescue Chris in Revelations, and Claire single handedly infiltrates a heavily armored compound in Code Veronica. In this way, the women are Resident Evil are remarkable in that they are not that remarkable; they share the same super human skill set as their male counterparts, and are meant to be perceived as equals in every regard.
On the other hand, there are flagrant attempts to sexualize the women in the games via the clothes they wear, and never more egregiously than with the unlockable “bonus” costumes you can use in subsequent playthroughs. These alternative costumes don’t diminish the character’s capability or change the narrative, but they’re pretty clearly there for only one reason.
In can change dramatically from game to game as well. Here’s three profoundly different interpretations of series mainstay, and one of the stars of Revelations, Jill Valentine-RE 1, 3, and 5 respectively. All different directors, and vastly different interpretations of the character.
There are some outfits that are far worse than these, particularly Sheva Alomar’s “Tribal” costume from RE5. If you’re intent on Googling it, be warned it’s pretty much NSFW.
It’s not my intention to tackle the industry’s struggles to portray women here, that’s well beyond the scope of this article. What I want to point out is the strange disconnect between presenting many of the women as both strong, capable protagonist whose gender is barely mentioned, much less infantilized. Then, often in the same game, putting them in asinine costumes that are clearly only there to sexualize them and rob them of any integrity their characters might have accrued from the narrative.
Like so much of Resident Evil, it’s a bit of a mystery.
For a franchise that launched dozens of games, a series of movies, and even books, Resident Evil is a strange combination of ideas. The original game tapped into something profound, and spawned a sea of imitations as is the case with most successful games. Some were good, like the SIlent Hill franchise, and some not so great, like Shinji Mikami’s own Dino Crisis.
At the end of the day, you know what you’re getting with Resident Evil. Highly polished, cutting edge graphics, zombie violence, horribly mutated creatures, absurd and bombastic narrative and dialogue, and a tense experience.
Whether you’re exploring a dilapidated tanker, an abandoned police station, or a spooky train, you know what to expect, and that’s ironically comforting.
I’m fascinated to see if the franchise still has life in it. After Resident Evil 7, another dramatic reinterpretation of the RE formula, it seems as though its heart is still beating. Just when it begins to become stale, dramatic reinvention makes the series feel fresh again.
Can’t wait to see what the next chapter in the strange, enigmatic, and charming franchise has to offer.