It’s the 20th anniversary of the Resident Evil franchise. The original Resident Evil launched in March 1996 on Playstation in Japan and North America, arriving in Europe in August of the same year. Since then we’ve seen 25 new entries in the franchise, with 6 main series games and a whopping 19 spin-off titles (and this doesn’t include the many times Resident Evil games have been re-released or remastered). It’s a venerable franchise, with a long and storied history.
It’s a wonder to some, myself included, how Resident Evil has made this far and still been so prolific. The latest release in the franchise, Umbrella Corps, was a terrible game. Tellingly it was the only game in the franchise to ever ship without “Resident Evil” in the title.
But Umbrella Corps is emblematic of the quality of the Resident Evil series. For almost a decade, the franchise has limped along from one bad game to the next. The best you can arguably say about any game bearing the Resident Evil name released in the past ten years is that it didn’t completely suck.
In the 1990’s Capcom commissioned Shinji Mikami to remake Sweet Home – a 1989 psychological horror RPG released in Japan only for the Famicom. The game was set in a haunted mansion and saw players take control of five characters, all of whom could die permanently as the game progressed, and who were trapped inside an abandoned mansion by a vengeful ghost. Sweet Home was a top down, 2D RPG game with heavy RPG elements, with disturbing and brutal imagery that prevented its release in the West.
Mikami worked on a pitch for the game alone for six months, designing characters, concept sketches and writing a huge chunk of the game. While some of the elements that would be incorporated into the final design of the game were present from these early stages, such as the pre-rendered backgrounds, the game itself went through a lot of changes from prototype to release.
Initially, the game was a first-person shooter, though this concept was thrown out early on as “technically not good enough”, with the game adopting a gameplay style based on Alone in the Dark instead. Early character concepts for Mikami’s game included Dewey, a comic relief character, and Gelzer, a cyborg strongman (these characters would be reworked into Rebecca and Barry). The early stages of the game also included co-op, and a prototype made for the V-Jump Festival in Japan featured real-time weapon switching.
Eventually the game would be released in its final form as Biohazard on March 22, 1996 in Japan. The game would reach North America on March 30 and Europe on August 1, though it came with some changes. The opening cinematic was edited to remove shots of mangled corpses, a zombie dog being shot, Joseph’s death and scenes featuring Chris Redfield smoking a cigarette. This allowed the game to be released in North America, receiving one of the first “mature” ratings from the Entertainment Software Rating Board.
The biggest change to Biohazard in the West, however, was its name. Director of Communications at Capcom Chris Kramer pointed out that it would be impossible to trademark “Biohazard” in the United States. After holding an internal company contest to find a new name, Capcom settled on “Resident Evil”.
Regardless of what it was called, Resident Evil was a hit, becoming Playstation’s first real killer app and the best selling game on the platform, which had been released less than a year earlier in 1995. As well as becoming a commercial success, Resident Evil also garnered massive critical acclaim – it was celebrated for its cinematic presentation, gripping atmosphere, fear inducing gameplay, puzzles, combat, inventory management system, pacing, graphics and sound design.
Almost overnight Resident Evil had become a classic, giving birth to a brand new genre of game (although Alone in the Dark came first, it was the popularity of Resident Evil that launched the survival horror genre). As well as being a fantastic and celebrated game, Resident Evil would be an important one, paving the way for an entirely new type of gameplay experience.
It also entered the Guiness World Records in 2008 for “worst game dialogue ever.”
A sequel was inevitable. Capcom had already started to work on one, and had given Mikami carte blanche to create whatever he wanted without the usual pitching period. Under the guidance of new director Hideki Kamiya (who would later go on to create games such as Devil May Cry, Okami, Bayonetta and more) and Mikami, who took on a producing role, work on Resident Evil 2 began.
Resident Evil 2 would carry over everything that made Resident Evil such a success, but on a grander scale. The zombie outbreak would now affect the entire of Raccoon City, rather than just an isolated mansion in the woods, and it would star two brand new protagonists – local cop Leon Kennedy and college student Elza Walker, with Mikami deciding that two new characters unfamiliar with Umbrella and the T-Virus would be better suited to maintain the fear factor.
An early prototype of Resident Evil 2 was demoed at the V Jump Festival in 1996. The game featured more zombies on-screen at once and dynamic music that changed depending on what the player was doing. This version of the story would see Leon and Elza battle through a small, modern Raccoon City police station. Each would have two support characters. Leon would be assisted by fellow cop Marvin Branagh and scientist Ada, while Elza would have Sherry Birkin and a man named John.
With three months to the projected May 1997 release date, Mikami became concerned with how Resident Evil 2 was shaping up. While he believed that the games individual assets were good, they were not coalescing into a good game, and found the gameplay and locations to be “dull and boring”. Shortly thereafter, with the game 60-80% complete, Resident Evil 2 was scrapped. The game would be completely reworked.
Screenwriter Noboru Sugimura was brough on board to make changes to the story. Elza Walker became Claire Redfield, sister of Resident Evil protagonist Chris, to tie the game more closely to its predecessor. The rest of the characters and much of the story were completely reworked, as was the central police station location.
The biggest, most notable change to the game was the dual scenario system. Like its predecessor, Resident Evil 2 featured two protagonists in Leon and Claire. Players could choose to play as either, with subtle gameplay and story differences depending on the choice made. Upon completion of the game, players could then play through the other characters’ B scenario – a story that takes place concurrently with the others’ A scenario, allowing players to see a version of the story that included both characters.
For example, in the A scenario, players would come across a crashed helicopter that blocked passage into the police chief’s office and need to destroy it with C4 to gain passage. In the B scenario, players get to witness what caused the helicopter to crash into the building, and must wait for the A scenario character to clear the wreckage. It was a fascinating system that hasn’t really been repeated in a video game, which is a shame.
After being delayed, Resident Evil 2 was eventually released on January 21, 1998 in North America, January 29, 1998 in Japan (as Biohazard 2) and May 8, 1998 in Europe. Ironically, the changes made to the Western version of the game made Resident Evil 2’s death screen more violent, as well as upping the games difficulty. The game launched to the same critical and commercial success that the first did. It was official – Resident Evil was here to stay.
Work quickly began on multiple Resident Evil titles, including Resident Evil 3 under a new director. Kamiya began working on Resident Evil 4 (though this version would eventually become Devil May Cry) and another Resident Evil was put into production that would eventually become Resident Evil: Code Veronica.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was largely built upon the same gameplay mechanics as the previous two games, with three notable exceptions. The first was a move outside, with the majority of the game taking place in the streets of Raccoon City. The second was the titular antagonist; Nemesis. Inspired by the T-1000 from Terminator 2, Nemesis would appear randomly to attack the player, giving the feeling of being hunted and never truly feeling safe, as players would never know when or where it would attack next.
Resident Evil 3 also focused on a single protagonist instead of the usual two, with Jill Valentine from the original game returning. The game also featured choice mechanics that would alter several set pieces as the game progressed. Resident Evil 3 released on September 22, 1999 in Japan, November 10, 1999 in North America and March 17, 2000 in Europe to more critical acclaim and commercial success.
After launching three games in three years, it would be another six before Resident Evil 4 would see the light of day.
Between 2000 and 2005 however, there were still a slew of Resident Evil releases, with varying degrees of quality and reception. Resident Evil: Code Veronica was launched on the Sega Dreamcast in 2000, which was a continuation of both the story and gameplay style of the main series. From 2000 to 2003 the first-person shooter Gun Survivor trilogy was released to a poor reception.
2001 saw the release of Resident Evil Gaiden for the Gameboy Colour, a terrible top-down entry in the franchise. In 2003 & 2004 Capcom released two Resident Evil: Outbreak games, which were similar to the main series in terms of gameplay, but took the action online as a co-operative experience, expanding on the story of the original trilogy with new characters.
The biggest releases during this period came in 2002. After signing an exclusivity deal with Nintendo, Capcom released a new version of the original Resident Evil on Gamecube. While retaining the same basic gameplay and story elements, Resident Evil was recreated from the ground up with better graphics, a bigger mansion, an expanded storyline and new characters. The same year also saw the release of Resident Evil Zero, a prequel story that expanded on the lore of the series and promoted Rebecca Chambers to main character.
It was 2005 when everything changed. Production on Resident Evil 4 was heavily delayed by the game being scrapped four times. The first version of the game ended up forming the basis of Devil May Cry, with Kamiya departing to direct and Mikami returning to the franchise he created. Resident Evil 4 went through three more iterations, even being shown at E3 in 2003 as a radically different game to the one that was eventually released. Eventually it was decided that Resident Evil was in need of complete reinvention.
Resident Evil 4 was released in 2005 on Gamecube. It was fundamentally different from previous Resident Evil games in just about every way, and had as big an impact on the games industry as the original Resident Evil in 1996. It ditched the static camera angles and pre-rendered background of its predecessors for an over-the-shoulder camera, which was revolutionary at the time and pioneered what is now a standard game genre.
Gameplay became more action-centric to accommodate this switch in perspective – weapons could be upgraded, and there were many more to find throughout the games campaign. Zombies were ditched completely for a new type of monster – basic enemies could now flood the screen, as well as dodge, throw and use weapons, run and attack as a team. Most of the standard Resident Evil enemies were replaced with brand new ones. The game was given a brand new level of dynamism thanks to the inclusion of quick-time events.
Resident Evil 4 went on to become the most critically acclaimed game in the series, earning perfect reviews from Edge, 1Up, Gamespy and Nintendo Power as well as near-perfect reviews from IGN, Gamespot, Famitsu and ONM. Critics praised everything about the game from its gameplay to its story, presentation and voice acting (a first for the series).
While Resident Evil 4 was an excellent game, it also proved to be a turning point for the series. While this entry still retained some elements of horror, a lot of the tension and fear of previous Resident Evil’s had been lost to the more action-heavy gameplay. Resident Evil 4 was the pinnacle of the franchise, but it also marked the beginning of the end of the golden age for the series.
Resident Evil 5 came in 2009, further distancing itself from the roots of the series. The fifth main entry into the franchise doubled down on the action, forgoing the horror aspects that the series had been built on almost entirely. While Resident Evil 5 was still a great action game, it lacked much of a “Resident Evil” feel to it – focusing almost exclusively on being an action game.
It appeared that Capcom had begun trying to rebrand Resident Evil as a purely action experience. While it’s impossible to be sure what prompted this move, it’s likely a reaction to the reception of Resident Evil 4 (a more action-driven game than any of its predecessors) and the games market in general, where action games were the biggest selling titles by a large margin. It seemed as though Capcom was attempting to leverage its biggest franchise into a brand new market, without much thought for the core series fans.
Attempts were made to appease the fans who were vocally disappointed with the changes to the Resident Evil series (and who grew in number) with the 2012 release of Resident Evil: Revelations, an episodic game that took the over-the-shoulder gameplay and focused it more on horror than action. The writing seemed on the wall, however.
In 2010 Resident Evil: Mercenaries was released on Nintendo 3DS – a purely action-driven game that saw a full launch of the Mercenaries side content that had appeared in Resident Evil 3. In 2012 Capcom launched Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City – a poorly conceived, shallow, tepid third-person shooter that betrayed everything that made the Resident Evil franchise popular in the first place.
It was followed shortly by Resident Evil 6 later that year. The game featured four separate campaigns, each with differing gameplay styles in an attempt by Capcom to appease fans of both series’ earlier survival horror gameplay, as well as fans of the new action heavy entries. What they succeeded in doing was creating a game that excelled at nothing, and felt like poor versions of other, better games.
Resident Evil 6 lacked any true identity, which would have been bad enough for any game, but was compounded by the fact that this was a series that had essentially popularised and created entire genres in its history. Now it was a shadow of its former self, attempting to trade on the strength of its name alone in the hope of selling copies, all while giving players a series of mediocre experiences.
Which brings us to last month – the release of Umbrella Corps. As I mentioned at the beginning of this editorial, it’s telling that Capcom dropped the “Resident Evil” from its title outside of Japan. I won’t rehash what I thought of the game again, I have a review for that. Though it’s easily the worst game of the entire franchise, it’s also depressingly the natural endpoint of a series that has been on the decline for almost a decade.
There is hope, however – Resident Evil 7. Capcom have decided to completely reinvent the series once again. New perspective, new characters and a new focus on what made the series so popular, so vital in the first place: horror. Based on the same engine and experience that was used to power the Kitchen demo, I have hope for the first time in a long time that Resident Evil can not only be good again, but it can become relevant.
It’s just a shame that a series with as much of a legacy as Resident Evil is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the worst release in its entire back catalogue. I have hope that this is rock bottom for Resident Evil – surely after Umbrella Corps the only way is up. After all, things are always darkest before the dawn.