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Unlocking The Beta Files: Resident Evil 1.5

By Yoamiwaii, Apr 8 2017 08:00AM

[Article by: Amiwaii]

Game development isn’t a straight forward process, not by a long shot. Going from the drawing board to releasing a completed title can be a rollercoaster ride that can be up one minute and down the next. How a game may have been conceptualised in the beginning isn’t strictly how it will turn out at the end of the process. It might start out in one form but then transform into something else due to technical problems or creative deviations. In the case of Resident Evil 1.5 – which was supposed to be the Resident Evil 2 we were due to get in 1997, the rollercoaster cars pretty much careened off the tracks when everything Capcom created – which has been said to have been about 70-80% of a completed game – was tossed out of the window; after which, they started again, delaying the game for nearly a year before its final release.

Resident Evil 1.5 wasn’t all that far flung from what we eventually got as retail Resident Evil 2. It was still set in Raccoon City with a portion of the game based at the police station before leaving by the sewers to eventually end up at Umbrella’s underground laboratory; but there were certainly things like the design and particular elements of progression that definitely set 1.5 apart from 2, amongst other changes. 1.5 was the ‘what might have been’ scenario that has become something of a cult topic in Resident Evil circles ever since it was canned. Because there was so much aesthetically and mechanically different that set it apart from the retail release, it has remained a fascinating subject that has been latched onto by curious fans all these years after.

When we take a look back at the Resident Evil 2 we got in 1998, you can easily tell why it was a critical and commercial success in its day. Compared to the first Resident Evil released in 1996, the presentation was so much better in terms of graphics, voice acting, atmosphere and storytelling. The design work involved was perfectly rendered to create such a chilling ambience. The mansion-like feel of the police station was distinctive and memorable – even years later, you could pick up the game and feel right at home in such a spooky place... well, sort of... if only there weren’t zombies and other monstrosities wandering those halls. The sounds, the music, the characters… I could gush on about how everything that worked so well, but I will leave this for its own separate piece. For now, I will round this off by saying that the game definitely deserved all the praise it was given.

But what about Resident Evil 1.5? What was it about this version of the game that made the developers suddenly give up hope on it so late into development?

Let’s delve into aspects of 1.5 and discuss the differences and whether or not some parts would have been worth giving a chance to and what was probably best left on the drawing board. Of course, let’s make it clear that things I discuss about the beta are from materials made available over the years, and that my perspective of some things might not be a hundred percent accurate – some speculation is likely going to be brought to the table. With that in mind, let us carry on.

From footage and promotional works of Resident Evil 1.5 from around the time of its development, you can see they had had a very different idea about the visual design of the game. The police station, where you spend the early portion of the game, was a much more modern design based on American police departments of the time. It was somewhat sterile and grey in presentation, much like most standard office type buildings. There were more floors including basement levels, but at the same time, seemed a little more compact a place to explore. Your character eventually left the station by a large sewer network, bigger than the retail version, before you ended up at an Umbrella office building connected to a factory area, which you used to access the Umbrella laboratory via an elevator. The Umbrella office building was something that didn’t make it into the retail version of Resident Evil 2; there was a factory area, but it was only a very small section of passages leading to the train elevator platform at the marshalling yard. The factory in 1.5 was a big building with a production line and loading area, much like you would expect with the type of area.

I admittedly like the modern version of the police station over the art gallery design of the station in the retail version, mostly because we’d already played the mansion like set up within the first game, but you can see why they decided to go with something a little more extravagant for a memorable design and reflect certain design similarities of the first game, albeit much more detailed; that, and the modern style of the police station did seem rather bland even if it did feel a lot more realistic.

The game’s story in Resident Evil 1.5 did have a few differences in the core of the story. Leading up to the events in 1.5, the surviving S.T.A.R.S. members from RE1 had gathered enough evidence from the Spencer Mansion incident to expose Umbrella for their nefarious activities and effectively closed them down. Though as it seems, this didn’t quite put a stop to Umbrella entirely, who still managed to function enough to cause the viral apocalypse throughout Raccoon City. How it progressed from there was pretty much the same in some respects, though minus the sibling search (obviously), the police chief being corrupt storyline, which also means the S.T.A.R.S. members weren’t sacked off – though, it’s not clear what happened to them after RE1, and to note, they didn’t seem to actually have an office in 1.5. Oh well, who knows! Also, the way the virus was released within the city was probably not the same either, though I can’t really confirm much on that front. While the core story probably started and ended pretty much the same, it’s unclear what other character based story elements were ongoing alongside the main plot. One of the things that was definitely reworked when the project was restarted was the story to improve the quality of the script and give added depth.

At the forefront of the zombie nightmare are two protagonists: Leon S. Kennedy, the same rookie cop who appears in the released Resident Evil 2, though unlike the retail version, 1.5 Leon was already in Raccoon City at the time of the outbreak and holed up in the police station with his fellow surviving officers. Then we have Raccoon City University student, Elza Walker, a blonde biker girl who ends up caught up in the nightmare and flees to the police station to safety, crashing her bike through the main doors during the process. Elza is pretty much the early version of Claire Redfield – the character who made it into 2 – without the family connections.

Each character had two partner characters – one playable, one unplayable – who teamed up with Elza and Leon throughout their separate journeys; and indeed, their scenarios were supposed to be completely separate while happening at the same time, with the main characters never meeting though they could encounter the other character’s partners at some point in-game, just to show that they were occurring consecutively. Leon teamed up with colleague Marvin Branagh, the fatally injured cop in retail 2, and Ada, who’s an Umbrella scientist in this version (previously named ‘Linda’ at one point in the project). Marvin was Leon’s secondary playable partner character for a short portion of the game. Elza teamed up with fellow Raccoon City citizen John, who became the short-lived character Robert Kendo, who is chomped to death by zombies in his gun shop at the beginning of retail 2 and Sherry Birkin, daughter of Umbrella scientist William Birkin. Sherry was Elza’s secondary playable partner character. In the same way RE1 had multiple endings, there seemed to be indications they were going this route for 1.5 where partner characters had the possibility of dying and changing the ending you got.

There were other characters involved in the story, including Police Chief Irons, who is nothing more than a bit role, injured in his office – far removed from his despicable persona in the retail game, and a bespectacled officer named ‘Roy’, the forerunner of retail Marvin’s role of the wounded officer who eventually turned into a zombie. Roy doesn’t appear in any form in retail Resident Evil 2. He and John seemed to know each other, though how is unknown. Annette and William Birkin both appear in similar roles to the retail, with William mutating into a virus monstrosity, though Annette’s role may have been more sympathetic (much like how she appeared in the Darkside Chronicles retelling) and may have possibly survived as there were screenshots of her on the escape train in the latter part of the game – I can’t be certain on this detail though, but it’s definitely something very different to her fate in the retail version. I did like the idea of a larger cast involved and seeing more survivors running about, but really a smaller cast prevented oversaturation and kept the atmosphere tense with characters having to run around alone more often in a foreboding environment.

On the inventory item front, it was interesting to see that things like green herbs weren’t going to appear in 1.5. Rather, there were ampules with green, red and blue serum that acted in their place. There even seemed to be two types of first aid spray available. Then, there was the ability to use hand grenades (for Leon only?) – a consideration long before Resident Evil 4, though the implementation of such a weapon at the time was probably not very feasible due to technical limitations and was understandably left out. The knife had its own separate slot, so it didn’t take up inventory space and you could equip it quickly to put to use. There were no ink ribbons as typewriters had been replaced by discs to be used at computer terminals, likely to go with the setting compared to the old mansion. Though with the retail version, they decided to add consistencies with the first game and retain the ink ribbons and herbs, which you can’t imagine the series without as they were such iconic mainstays, not that they probably realised that at the time.

Leon and Elza could also equip body armour for different uses during the game, which is something I wished could have been an option in retail 2. You could also tell a character’s stage of health by clothing damage/wounds to the character model – though I can see why this was probably dropped, as healing would have magically fixed the character’s clothes as well as their wounds!

There were some enemies in 1.5 that didn’t make it over into 2, like the huge infected gorillas and the freaky humanoid spider creature, the latter of which sort of reminded me of the Chimera from RE1 in some respects. Supposedly there were baby alligators in the sewers along with the giant boss alligator to deal with. At one point in development they even had German Shepherd dogs instead of Rottweilers, which would have made more sense for a police dog. The zombies had more variations than the retail release, including fat zombies, with the intention of having more on screen to create swarms (with the sacrifice of polygons in the models to allow this). In the demos, they also seemed significantly harder to kill.

While through demos and magazine articles we got a taste of what they had originally envisioned for the second game, clearly they were not happy with the overall product by the time it grew closer to the release date to decide they needed to start again. But this has left many who followed the 1.5 development and even long after with a curiosity of all the things we didn’t get to see or know. Certainly for me, I would have liked to know of the more intricate aspects of the story beyond the survivors escape from the city. Seeing as we know that professional screenwriter Noboru Sugimura took over the script and modified the story, which also included the change of Elza to Claire, I’m sure there were things taken out that we never got to see due to the overall alterations. It was also noted that 1.5’s story was much more conclusive for the series as they intended to make the second game at that time more or less an end of the series. It must have been on their minds as the game started to come to fruition that it needed to be more open-ended for the possibility of further games if they so desired. I wonder if it was just because they had brought down Umbrella so quickly in the 1.5 story that they felt they had taken away the opportunity to move forward with the series? I do think in many cases a good writer can latch onto any tiny thread available within a story to start weaving a whole new scenario to carry on a saga, but that depends about the finality in 1.5’s story. Maybe it really was a series without a future if they had decided to press forward with it to become Resident Evil 2.

1.5.’s longevity has been about its mystery, one that people have for years trying to solve with any tiny piece of information they could get hold of, like trying to glue together a shattered vase with every tiny glass slither they can find. It could be said that 1.5 fell into infamy the moment it was scrapped. Every difference brought delight and sadness of something that never got to see fruition. Some things interesting, some things probably doomed to fail, but just what could have been in there is what people seem to latch onto. People have chased rare copies of the 1.5 demo for years, in many a case where their efforts have come to naught. It seemed like any copy was going to remain deep within an avid collector’s library, never to see the light of day.

Well, that was until around 2012, when material surfaced about 1.5, showing that fans of the series have managed to get a copy of it. Since then, there has been an undertaking for a restoration project by Team IGAS/Lototo 3, who are trying to put together a fully playable and finished version of the game using the available assets from the build they have, other procured assets and the information available for 1.5 to create as faithful a version to what Capcom had intended. This has indeed brought both positive and negative reactions. On one side, there are fans who just want to play an unaltered albeit stable copy of 1.5, with what is available in the build, and don’t want to see any tampering with it. On the other side, there are those excited to see a full playable game using as much of Capcom’s original assets and faithful reproductions from images and information – giving leeway to areas that were never seen in promotional material. It has been slow progress, as to be expected with a small team, in their efforts to fix bugs, build areas and implement the AI; but even so, from what has been shown in regards to their efforts, they have created some really good stuff, and I for one am certainly hoping this project is finally completed so people can play some old school Resident Evil again. At this stage, there is no release date, so you’ll have to keep your ears to the ground for information on the progress of this project.

While we’re discussing the restoration project, this leads me to discuss 1.5 itself as an entity. Are we slowly unwrapping something that could have possibly been an amazing game, or revealing something that has been overhyped in the minds of the fans through rumour and speculation? As curious as I am about what 1.5 might have been if it had become Resident Evil 2, maybe there is a certain level of sadness about what is being uncovered about it that makes you realise it might not be as great as you might have imagined. I do think 1.5, if it had been the retail release, would have been a success, but not in the way the retail version was. I don’t think it would have had the same impact or memorable imagery. With the team behind the game clearly not impressed with what they were mish-mashing together, then it was probably a sign that they needed a restart, though not by completely throwing all their efforts out the window, but certainly by going in with fresh ideas and a more tight-knit story.

With Capcom currently in the process of remaking Resident Evil 2, I do have a certain level of nostalgia for 1.5, the groundwork and early building blocks of the original successful Resident Evil 2. Are they going to make many changes to the remade Resident Evil 2? May we even see elements from 1.5 being brought back? It will definitely be interesting to see. Whatever the case, I will be keeping my eye on the 1.5 restoration project, hoping to delve back into the old school survival horror!

Images © Capcom

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