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Beginning the Survival Horror Journey - Resident Evil (1996)

By Yoamiwaii, Oct 31 2017 09:00AM

[Article By: Amiwaii]

Spanning over two decades, the Resident Evil saga has been a terrifying journey through viral-born zombie nightmare. Players have controlled beleaguered survivors, with only their sheer will and meagre ammo as their crutches of survival. Threats don’t always come in the likeliest of forms, but whatever the challenge, it has been faced with whatever determination that can be mustered. The horror may have grown to an incredulous scale as the series has progressed, pretty much touching all corners of the planet; but the true catalyst or all the terror that has ensued started simply within a lonely mansion in the woods.

So, let’s go to that mansion, right back to the beginning, to where a legacy of evil was born.

Welcome to the world of survival horror. Good luck.

Resident Evil, or Biohazard in its native Japan, was inspired by another of Capcom’s previous horror games, Sweet Home – which in turn, was based on the film of the same name. It was Shinji Mikami’s task to create a game, like Sweet Home, that was set in a ‘haunted mansion’ as its main backdrop. What had first been envisioned as more of a remake of Sweet Home eventually evolved into the game that we know today. It was this game that coined the ‘Survival Horror’ moniker that has become well rooted in the gaming genre. The game was released originally on the PlayStation 1, before being ported to other platforms.

Resident Evil is set in 1998 in Midwestern America, where the Special Forces team S.T.A.R.S (Special Tactics and Rescue Service) is the midst of an operation to hunt down suspected cannibal murderers terrorising the citizens of the fictional Raccoon City. One of the team’s two units, Bravo team, loses contact with their headquarters after being dispatched into the forest to search for the hideout of these unknown killers. And so, their comrades in Alpha team are quickly dispatched to search for the missing Bravos. A part of Alpha team is the game’s two main playable protagonists, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine.

The opening of the game begins with the Alpha teams’ chopper searching the forest until they quickly come across the smoking remains of Bravo team's own chopper. They land to further inspect the scene, finding that the chopper is completely deserted and its essential equipment has been mysteriously abandoned. They don’t have to wait for long to understand why. Unlucky team member, Joseph Frost, soon makes a grisly discovery as they search around for their comrades, picking up a handgun with a severed hand attached. Shortly thereafter, he is mauled to death by a group of zombified dogs.

With Alpha team’s pilot, Brad Vickers, high-tailing it away with their chopper, the rest of the team are left to make a break for it while holding off the pursuing hounds. While they desperately flee for their lives, they stumble across an old mansion conveniently at their disposal and rush for safety. But little do they know that the true horrors reside within these four walls. And beyond...

And thus, the game begins.

Now, let’s stop right there for a second and discuss the opening sequence. For the only time in the series, the opening sequence is a live action scene with some of the most terrible acting committed to video. You can tell it’s made on the barest of budgets, with some random guys hired in to play the parts – whether they had any acting experience or not, which I’m guessing is mostly the latter. For how the game plays out like a B movie horror, the opening does work in its own hokey kind of way. Though, I think the acting even does B movies a bit of disservice.

Some elements are rendered in very bare-bones CGI, which is okay (I guess) for 1996 standards; but for the most, it’s acted out in a dark field with lots of tall grass. We have to use our imagination to pretend it’s actually a forest, as there is not a single tree to be seen. Neither do we get to see a downed helicopter besides a CGI plume of smoke at one point. Again, we just have to imagine by the myriad of strange expressions that Alpha team pulls that it’s there, all wrecked and stuff. None of the Alpha team looks particularly horrified or shocked by what they’re supposed to be seeing; they just seem bored, confused or slightly annoyed.

The scenes throughout the opening end up being either strangely charming or unintentionally funny, filled with stilted lines of dialogue overacted at every turn. Jill’s screaming, ‘JOSEPH!’, in an almost deadpan way, and Chris’s impassioned though incredibly clunky, ‘NO! DON’T GO!’ take the cake for some of the most memorably bad albeit thoroughly entertaining bits. Oh, and Joseph’s reaction to the severed hand – it’s really quite amusing. Despites the very obvious shortcomings, the cringe-worthy cheesiness makes it far from unwatchable. Truly, I think they originally envisioned the opening as a serious piece, which sort of works in the initial part of the opening when Chris is explaining what’s happening through a monologue prior to the live action acting; but everything after that is just so campy that there is no way you can take it seriously. The uncut version of the opening, which appeared in the Japanese and some limited overseas releases, is a bit more gruesome – mostly through over-the-top blood splatter – and does have a creepier element with a rotting corpse shown infested with maggots, which had been replaced by tame newspaper clips in the censored version.

The opening rounds out with a cast roll call, featuring the five most prominent cast members in the game. Its inclusion is completely random and seems to have an incredible disconnect from the first part of the opening, and it kind of feels like a budget opening to an action TV series, especially with the style of music. I might have understood it at the end of the game without the narrator, to round it all out, but otherwise I’m not sure what to say about it. Aside, it has become a big part of the iconography surrounding the first game.

Now that we’ve covered the opening in detail, let’s dive right into the gameplay.

Once the characters have escaped to relative safety through the mansion doors, shortly thereafter you take control of either Chris or Jill, depending on who you picked prior to the opening sequence. It doesn’t take much exploration for either character for them to discover that the mansion is an even more deadly hive of monstrosities.

The game’s first zombie is introduced in an incredibly unnerving style. There is none of the unintentional humour of the opening here. This is all serious business. Approaching from behind, your character has no idea who the dishevelled – and probably smelly – man is, and what they’re even doing, that is until the blood pool forms on the carpet in front of them. You can tell by the strange pallid, cracked skin-tone that something is not quite right about this guy, but it’s quickly hammered home the minute it slowly turns its attention on you. This guy has just chewed off the head of one of the members of Bravo team, and he’s more than ready to do the same to Chris or Jill if given half the chance. This short snippet of CGI should take a hell of a lot of credit for setting the tone of the game (when it’s not making accidental comedy).

Chris and Jill’s games play out pretty much the same for the most part with core progression and plot. When you pick either of the characters, the other will be removed for pretty much most of the game, to be optionally rescued later if you so choose. Each character does have some of their own events and side characters exclusive to them, so it is worth playing as both characters even if the gameplay follows the same route with each. Also, both characters have their strengths and weaknesses, which also applies to their skills, equipment and inventory.

Jill offers an easier gaming experience if you choice to play as her. She has eight inventory spaces, access to the powerful Bazooka with three types of rounds, and carries around a lockpick as a personal item – she is the ‘Master of Unlocking’, y’know! The lockpick negates the need for small keys to access some areas and drawers, plus, it also replaces one of the main mansion keys altogether, meaning you have quicker access to certain areas. One the downside, Jill isn’t able to sustain a terrific amount of damage, and can quickly drop down to a low health status with a couple of zombie bites.

Jill teams up with the unplayable Barry Burton, ‘Master’ of some of the most bizarre dialogue in the game, creating some of the most memorable lines in the series, remembered even until this day. He is a fellow Alpha team member, who helps Jill at every turn, giving her access to shortcuts (not available to Chris) and extra ammo, which makes the scenario just that little bit easier.

Chris’s game is definitely the harder of the two. He only has six inventory spaces, and has to collect all four mansion keys plus the small keys for certain areas. You can imagine the amount of juggling you have to do with his inventory to be able to carry around key items and a weapon. Also, he doesn’t have access to the Bazooka; instead, he gets the briefest flitter with a flamethrower, which is useful for one particular fight, before being relegated to its true use as a sort of key to unlock a door. On the plus side, Chris is a damage sponge. He can take quite a few hits before he’s drastically affected. And he has the nifty little feature that because he’s a marksman, he has a higher chance of scoring a critical headshot on a zombie.

Chris teams up with the exuberant teenage medic from Bravo team, Rebecca Chambers, who is optionally playable for a couple of portions of the game. She can offer to heal Chris’s wounds if given the chance, which means you don’t have to use up as many first aid items. She will turn up for specific puzzles as well to assist Chris in tasks that he has no knowledge of, like mixing chemicals and playing the piano, which funnily enough, Jill can do all by herself in her own game. These ladies got skills! Poor Chris; at least he can shoot well.

Speaking of puzzles, the game’s backbone is built on the crux of interweaved conundrums, many of which are pretty simple to figure out; it’s just in many cases locating the items needed to complete them, which can be in the most unlikely of places. Of course, between these challenges, you are consistently threatened by the undead and other such creatures that want to take a chunk out of you. The game does require a bit of strategy, as your ammo supplies are limited and you don’t have enough inventory spaces to carry around every key item. As such, so you’ll be running back and forth, either fighting or dodging as you traverse between rooms, trying to backtrack with newly acquired items to previous locations to fulfil some task you couldn’t do before. Going in guns blazing all the time is likely to end up with your character as main course and dessert for the resident zombies.

With spending an abundant amount of time circumnavigating the mansion, players will become quite familiar with the many rooms and corridors you will search. Certainly for myself, the familiarity with the surroundings gives me a morbid fondness for the minimalistic settings pre-rendered throughout the game. And from the amount of times I’ve played the game, it has become a sort of video game home from home. I’d just prefer my home without the zombies, thank you very much. Oh, and more bathrooms, please. Anyway... In such a setting, you can certainly get into the mind of the character of how claustrophobic the mansion feels, even for its size. It comes more from a sense of entrapment within a place that depicts such despair and abandonment. The only one who can save you is yourself. The prospect of salvation is low. It could be noted that certainly for its era, the minimal details were down to the technology; but somehow it works, especially with the design choice of something that isn’t really lived in like a warm, welcoming home. The mansion maybe grand, but it’s certainly eerie and soulless.

It can’t be faulted that the flow of the design work is pretty consistent throughout, and maintains a certain level of misery and desolation. Even so, the cave area is probably the only real low point design wise, with the colour and textures not all that great, but it does add a different feel from being inside the mansion. Aside the mansion itself, which has some really nicely designed spaces – like the dining room and the music room, which are some of my favourites – I also really like the somewhat rundown guardhouse with its wooden aesthetic.

You will face a few different types of enemies throughout the game, which will rely on you to change tactics to handle each efficiently. I won’t talk about them all, but I’ll address a number of significant ones. Your most commonplace enemies are the zombies, who are slow and sometimes a bit dim-witted with how they lurch about, but they are incredibly deadly if they catch you in a tight corridor, and if there are multiple zombies ganging up on you, you’ll be in big trouble. The Cerberus zombie dogs appear a number of times as more challenging foes, as they are a lot faster than your regular zombie. These tend to be a little trickier to deal with, but not impossible to defeat if you position yourself so they can’t get behind you when in a group. Then we have the creepy Hunters, green skinned beasts that seem like a cross between a gorilla and a frog. And these guys, who appear later in the game, are really tough to beat because they strike hard and fast, and can even one hit kill you, even on relatively good health. They really make the second half of the game tough to get through. And then there is the Chimera, who only appear in the latter stages of the game in one particular area. Now these guys are gross insectoid monstrosities that drop maggots everywhere when you shoot them. They crawl around on the ceiling and take a swipe at you overhead, aiming to pick you up to cause significant damage. They are crafty and irritating, but perfectly disgusting.

Moving onto the controls for the game; if you’ve ever heard anything about the Resident Evil series, you may have heard about the ‘tank controls’. Well, if not, to describe it is to refer to its fan acknowledged name. Your character moves somewhat awkwardly, akin to a cumbersome tank. You press up to move forward, down to step back, and left and right which will rotate your characters in that direction when standing still and move them accordingly when in motion. From my own personal experience, it isn’t the easiest control scheme to pick up and play right off the bat. Even I found the game somewhat tedious the first time I ever played it. It tested my patience to the point that I thought I’d probably just give up in the early stages. Thankfully, determination led to perseverance and the more I played, the easier I found it. The controls won’t be to everyone’s liking, and the learning curb might be a little steeper for some than others, but once you’re well versed in how to navigate your character the way you want, it stops becoming a significant detriment to the gameplay.

Possibly a lot of people’s complaints in regards to the controls has come from how it works in tandem with the fixed camera angles, which focuses on one significant spot, not allowing you to switch the view without moving to another part of the room or such. You don’t always get to see what’s ahead of you, even if you can hear and enemy within the vicinity. And it doesn’t help that sometimes when you move, you might be right in a zombie’s path, putting you at an immense disadvantage. Fixed cameras to some are a hindrance, and a sign of hardware limitations, but I personally think it adds to the overall tension of the game. Not always getting to see what’s in your path adds to the sense of dread throughout your exploration. I feel it adds a movie-like aesthetic as well with its use of perspective.

The soundtrack that accompanies your character throughout is predominantly orchestral, solemn and eerie. The music reverberates at a slow pace, designed to sound cold and haunting. It kind of sets the mood that you should be taking extra caution as you move around; that something isn’t all that it seems to be with your surroundings. The music changes as well when your character moves between the different locations, taking on a different timbre. The music played in the mansion on your return, has a much shriller tone than when you were first exploring, representing the change of mood, even the change of how the character is perceiving the situation. They know more, but are no less unnerved by a situation that seems hopeless.

Continuing on the sound front, we have to discuss the most infamous aspect of the game: The voice acting. I’m sure when you ask anyone whose ever played this game what the most memorable aspect about it was, I believe most would reference the voice work and how it’s up there as the worst ever portrayed in a video game; so much so, it’s a thing of legends. It’s the clunkiest, strangely emoted vocal delivery you’ll hear from a pretty poorly translated script. The voice direction seems to have wanted the actors to enunciate every word in a punctuated manner, coming off as if the characters are speaking as if the other person doesn’t have a very solid grip of the same language. It can be pretty jarring between bouts of serious gameplay focus, running or gunning viral creatures, and can break the immersion for some; though for me, it’s somewhat enjoyable by how ridiculous it all is. And honestly, who isn’t going to be fondly remembering ‘Master of Unlocking’ or ‘Jill Sandwich’? At least something good came out of it!

The story that drives the game isn’t the most thought-provoking, but provides enough intrigue to keep the players hooked and wanting to find out the mystery behind the mansion. The game itself never uses the zombie theme in a completely fantastical way. Not once do you believe that this is something truly supernatural or magical. It tries hard to cement itself in a level of gritty realism.

It’s a very self-contained story, which in some ways could easily wrap itself up without needing a sequel, but it never once closes the door to the possibility of a continuation; and as we know with how the series progressed after this game, they certainly ploughed on with every possible scenario to create a series with tremendous amount of depth.

The characters involved, who are the vehicles that drive the story from our unknowing perspective, are not particularly fleshed out in any great detail. Besides what you get in the manual, little is really elaborated on that doesn’t relate to the situation at hand. Both Chris and Jill are almost cardboard cut out heroes, but really, they are still likable figures who you want to see survive. If anybody has a pretty distinctive personality, it’s Rebecca, with her plucky attitude and sweet nature, which in a game full of very straight-laced type figures, can either be a breath of fresh air or a sheer annoyance depending on how you perceived her character. It has been the case with most games in the series that there has been one character that has been a point of contention because of how they are portrayed; however, Rebecca has certainly become more redeemable as time has gone on thanks to the Remake of the first game and Zero.

It would have been nice to have had more interaction with the Bravo team members who the characters are supposed to be rescuing, maybe with them creating more scenes with some of them to add more sympathy to their inevitable demise. The only Bravo that really got any significant development was Rebecca as a playable sidekick for Chris. But I suppose it added to the atmosphere with the barest interactions, with team members already dead adding to the feeling of despair, knowing that it was too late to help them. I was also surprised that they didn’t do anything with Edward Dewey, as he was mentioned in the manual but not seen. It was indicated aside – and not in game – that he was the severed hand Joseph found in the opening, but it just seemed like a waste of a character that could have been there to interact with or watch die to make more of a horror impact. Of course, this would be addressed later down the line with the series.

The atmosphere of Resident Evil hinges on your ability to make clever choices about how you move around the environments. This is not a full-fledged action game by any means. It gives you the ability to fight with an array of guns, but only a limited amount of ammo. It’s a game of balance. You fight your enemy if you need to, only to get to the next critical room to solve the next piece of the puzzle for your character to progress. As such, I think a settled pace is created as you go about your tasks to try to escape the mansion alive. That is, unless the tension of what lurks in the shadows keeps you holed up in a save room. There is nothing worse than being low on health and having very little ammo, knowing there are enemies just outside the door. And that’s horror at its finest.

To wrap things up, Resident Evil is certainly a bastion of the horror genre. It might not have aged well in some aspects by today’s standards, but I still think it does a good job at creating a tense atmosphere within an enjoyable setting – and the mansion is a deserving icon in the Resident Evil legacy. Plus, there is plenty of content to keep you coming back to survive the horror – unlockable weapons and costumes, alternate cutscenes with how you traverse the mansion, and multiple endings. You will need to get through many playthroughs before you truly experience every aspect of the horror within. I highly recommend going back to revisit this game to appreciate the origins of the series, which created a sturdy foundation for what came after it.

The game was eventually remade for the Gamecube in 2002, building upon the original framework to fully realise Shinji Mikami’s horror vision. But it’s hard to forget the original for what it did, for the cheesiness that many still think of fondly, and those jump scares that got even the most hardened gamer back in the day.

Images © Capcom.

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