Many video game companies see that their highlights match a certain generation of hardware; consider how Atari dominated in the early ’80s, for example. It takes a certain kind of power to adapt to the times and stay relevant for decades.
The Japanese Capcom plant somehow succeeded. During the 8-bit era, Mega Man games were some of the best the NES could offer, along with stellar Disney licensed platforms and arcade ports. The following era experienced the arcade success of Street Fighter II which extended to 16-bit consoles. But how would the company adapt to the new 3D era?
Going back to your roots while pushing games forward. Capcom’s bomb-franchise for the late ’90s was originally supposed to be a remake of the NES just for Japan, but mutated into something completely different 25 years ago this month. Let’s go back a quarter of a century to see how Resident Evil came to be.
I’m coming home
In 1989, Capcom released Sweet Home for Famicom. Based on a horror film, the RPG followed five documentary filmmakers who ventured into an abandoned villa in search of images of a missing artist, where they were captured and killed by ghosts and monsters. Horrible images prevented him from coming to America, but half a decade later, the media matured enough that the company decided to make another attempt.
The company began developing a remake for Sweet Home in 1993, with a targeted Super Nintendo platform. Square’s Final Fantasy series proved that role-playing can drive units in the West, and Capcom eavesdropped on Shinji Mikami leading the remake, which will be transferred to the new PlayStation console after approximately a year of operation.
The main theme of Sweet Home survived the translation, but after an initial prototype drawn from Japanese horror traditions, Mikami decided instead to look for context in American zombie movies – mostly the works of George Romero. The haunted fairy of the artist became a development plant for the vile Umbrella Corporation, producing weapons that turned infected animals into voracious predators. Hence the Japanese name of the game: Biohazard.
It took Mikami and his team a long time to hit the winning formula for the final match. At first, the whole thing was played in 3D from a first-person view, but PS1’s polygon pushing capabilities just weren’t enough to provide a convincingly intimidating environment, so they switched to pre-displayed backgrounds with fixed camera angles. The game was also supposed to have cooperative multiplayer, but it was also discontinued. After three years of intensive development, he was ready to go out.
Under my umbrella
Sweet Home, despite its horror elements, played similarly to the traditional RPG of the time, with multiple characters, turn-based battles, and special abilities. What Resident Evil ultimately was was something that felt completely new. The game was more militaristic, with protagonists Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine serving members of an elite police unit who ventured into a spacious villa teeming with zombies. Although the action took place in real time, it did not reward quick reflexes as much as patience and efficient bullet management.
The technical compromises that Capcom made went in favor of the game. Lacking camera control, Mikami’s team set fears for jumping and manipulated the players ’spatial consciousness. The game flowed like a horror movie; Instead of constantly bombarding the player with escalating challenges, the tension dropped and intensified, making every encounter seem life-threatening. Even the requirement to have a load screen between areas because the PS1 has to retrieve data from disk has helped add to the atmosphere. All you would see during that load was a door that had no idea what was waiting for you on the other side.
The American version noted some changes from the Japanese original. Most of them were cosmetics – Chris was no longer allowed to smoke cigarettes, for example – but the difficulties were also increased so that the game could not be completed within the three-day rental period. Typewriter ribbons – the currency that was spent every time you saved – have been reduced and automatic aiming is turned off.
Producer Tokuro Fujiwara never thought Resident Evil would be a hit. He hoped for a niche success that he achieved just enough to justify his development. But it hit both sides of the Pacific, moving millions of units and becoming the best-selling PlayStation game so far shortly after it came out. Capcom had another goal, but will it last?
Survive if we let you
If you know anything about video games, originality is short-lived. Not long after, “survival horror” became the umbrella term for the games that based the RE handbook. Numerous Japanese developers have debuted their own genre, with the Human’s Clock Tower series and Konami’s Silent Hill, the two most notable. It marked a fascinating evolutionary turn in video games, far from fantasizing about power with superhuman protagonists, and became somewhat more tense and consequential. The mature content of the game also helped to divert the perception of video games in public from “children’s stuff”.
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Capcom quickly pushed the sequel into production just a month after the first game. Resident Evil 2 would take action on the streets of Raccoon City, with new protagonists and more diverse locations. After the first game sold so well, expectations passed the roof, and director Shinji Mikami eventually threw out almost all the progress below, which was over 60%.
Starting from scratch, the Resident Evil team managed to build a game that launched the emerging genre in almost every way. Supervisor Yoshiki Okamoto designed the franchise into a vast, nonlinear narrative universe that could feature different protagonists in each part, and for too long RE has become Capcom’s flagship product, with new installments coming out almost every year, along with ports and remakes.
As other genres learned from the forces of survival horror, Capcom’s teams continued to repeat and revise the Resident Evil series. Starting with the fourth game, the clumsy controls of the tank were simplified, the steering was cleared and the vibration slowly shifted to emphasize the action over the uncertainty. This went well with the film adaptations, which director Paul WS Anderson crammed into the stories of paramilitary groups faced with Umbrella experiments in six films.
The film series will be restarted this year thanks to British director Johannes Roberts, and the new film will be rewound on time by 1998 in Raccoon City. There’s also Netflix’s original series scheduled to fall this year from the same manufacturing company.
A quarter of a century has passed, and the Resident Evil franchise continues to grow strong. The last game recorded another seismic shift by adopting a first-person view going back to the roots and placing the story in a dilapidated villa. It looks like the upcoming Resident Evil village will combine that with a sense of exploration and struggle from RE4. The games continue to sell well and have kept Capcom afloat through an incredible five generations of consoles as other franchises have come and gone. But that only shows you how hard it is to keep zombies.