Game Retrospective: Resident Evil
On the 22nd of March 1996, Biohazard (later renamed, Resident Evil, in the West) was first released for the Sony PlayStation in Japan. While a North Amerian release would follow just a few days later, European audiences would have to wait another five months for the game to launch in their region.
Resident Evil was developed by Osaka-based studio, Capcom, over approximately three years. Shinji Mikami, a Capcom designer whose previous projects included the SNES titles Goof Troop and Disney’s Aladdin, would lead development as the game’s director. Both Masayuki Akahori and Capcom’s console games division general manager, Tokoru Fujiwara, would serve as producers on the game.
Resident Evil follows an elite Special Forces team of the local Raccoon City Police Department known as S.T.A.R.S (Special Tactics and Rescue Service) as they investigate a number of grisly murders that have occurred on the outskirts of the city. After the STARS Bravo team go missing, the Alpha squad, including main playable characters Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, are sent to locate them. Shortly after encountering the lost team’s downed helicopter, the remnants of the Alpha team are attacked by a pack of mutated dogs and promptly seek refuge in a nearby, seemingly isolated, mansion. After selecting to play as either Jill or Chris, the player soon discovers that the mansion is infested with zombies and other monsters. Unable to return outside, the player must explore the mansion to unearth its secrets and find a way to escape.
The idea for the game that would become Resident Evil was initially conceived by Fujiwara who approached Mikami in 1993 suggesting he remake Capcom’s earlier 1989 NES horror title, Sweet Home; a game that Fujiwara had directed. Speaking with the Japanese gaming magazine, Continue, in 2003, Fujiwara explained his motivation for such a project: “The basic premise was that I’d be able to do the things that I wasn’t able to include in Sweet Home, mainly on the graphics front.” He also went on to share that Mikami was originally hesitant to work on such a project, telling Fujiwara that he didn’t like being scared. This response simply reaffirmed his decision to commission Mikami with the project, stating “People who aren’t afraid of anything don’t understand what’s frightening. In my view, you can’t make a horror game if you don’t have any fear.”
Mikami immediately set to work gathering ideas and conceptualising the game. Speaking in 1996, he shared “When I sat down to plan the game, I was all by myself. I spent about six months planning and structuring the game.” Although the game would go on to borrow several elements from Sweet Home, such as its secluded mansion setting, limited inventory space, puzzle-solving and even the iconic door loading sequence, Mikami wanted an enemy that was neither ghostly or paranormal. In an interview featured in the 1997 book, The True Story of Resident Evil, Mikami explained that he wanted an enemy more grounded in reality, as opposed to spectres and possessed dolls. “I wanted an atmosphere found in the film Jaws, where the player was in danger, but still capable of dealing with it. I wanted the player to make clear decisions while they experienced much fear, pursued not by something supernatural, but something concrete.” Mikami settled upon including Zombies, reportedly taking inspiration from both George A. Romero’s Dead series of films, as well as the 1979 Italian movies, Zombie.
Although the game is famous for making its debut on the PlayStation, recent interviews with eventual Resident Evil systems planner, Koji Oda, have claimed the game was even being initially developed for the 16-bit SNES. In a 2017 interview with Game Informer, Oda shared: “Before Resident Evil went to the PlayStation, I was working on it for the Super NES. The codename for this was just ‘horror game.’ It was originally set in a place that had nothing to do with reality — more of a hellish place.” Shifting development to the PlayStation, at Capcom’s request, the first few months of the game’s development were used by the team to experiment and familiarise themselves with the new hardware.
Mikami had originally planned for the game to not only have a high polygon count, with fully realised 3D environments but also a first-person perspective. The technical limitations of the PlayStation hardware, however, eventually forced Fujiwara to make the call to abandon this approach. The game would go on to use 2D pre-rendered backgrounds, whose fixed camera angles were reportedly inspired by the 1992 game, Alone in the Dark, with Mikami even claiming in a 2013 interview with PlayStation Universe, that without Alone in the Dark, “Resident Evil would probably have become a subjective shooter.”
Several characters were cut during the game’s development. One original STARS squad member was an enormous, hulking giant called Gelzer. During the infamous ‘Jill sandwich’ scene, Gelzer was originally set to hold up the ceiling for Jill to escape. Eventually, the character was scrapped altogether with elements being later used for the character of Barry Burton. Another character to get the cut was Dewey. Initially planned to be an unlockable playable character, Mikami had initially planned for Dewey to be a source comic relief throughout the game.
When it came to releasing the game in the West, Capcom Director of Communications, Chris Kramer, discovered that the name could not be used in the US, as not only had a prior game released with this title (1993’s Bio Menace, which went by the name Biohazard during production), but there was also a Brooklyn-based punk-metal band going by the same name. Although ‘Biohazard’ would be kept for the game’s release in Japan, international releases of the game would go by the title: “Resident Evil”; the winning name following an internal company-wide competition. In a 2009 interview with Kramer, he shared his thoughts on the new name. “I thought it was super-cheesy; can’t remember what I felt was a better alternative, probably something stupid about zombies — but the rest of the marketing crew loved it and were ultimately able to convince Capcom Japan and Mikami-san that the name fit.”
Upon release, Resident Evil was well-received by both gamers and critics alike, and amassed countless positive review scores, with the game’s tense atmosphere, challenging puzzles and effective sound design all receiving particular praise. The game’s plot and cutscenes were and still are, the subject of much discussion, viewed by some as cheesy and stiff. The game would go on to be a best seller in both North America and the UK and would go on to sell 2.75 million copies. A Director’s Cut of the game would follow in 1997, in addition to ports for Windows, Sega Saturn and Nintendo DS. Often credited as popularising the ‘survival horror’ genre, the game’s success would go on to spawn an entire franchise which has seen numerous sequels, remasters and remakes, as well as a movie series.
🕹Are you a fan of Resident Evil? Did you enjoy the 2002 Nintendo GameCube remake? Which instalment in the franchise do you remember most fondly? 🕹