The first Resident Evil game turns 25 today, and the series remains one of my favourites to this day, even if it’s holding onto that with a single, decaying finger at this point. I remember playing the first game back in 1997 when I was the ripe old age of 11 (yes, I’m old, hush) as a rebellious response to my stepdad saying that it was too scary for me (also yes, I’ve always been an ass).
From the laughable, live-action FMV cutscene to the first zombie rearing it’s ugly, rotten head up from happily munching on your associate, I was in love with the game within the first few minutes. This isn’t to say that my stepdad wasn’t right, Resident Evil did scare the shit out of me, but it is an experience I wouldn’t have changed and I have stayed with the series ever since.
But what was it about this game that got its teeth into me (pun intended)?
Well, first of all, there was absolutely nothing like it in my gaming rotation at the time. I was an innocent child once, as hard as that is to believe, and most of my gaming at the time revolved around mascot platformers like Spyro the Dragon and Croc: Legend of the Gobbos. As I spent so much time on cutesy games like those, even this passing attempt at something like realism blew me away entirely.
Then there was the structure the game followed, allowing exploration through the mansion unhindered by rigid level structures, on a surface level at least. I was used to the ability to tackle things in any order I fancied, sure, but there was something about the fact the entire game was an elaborate puzzle to solve that drew me in. Resident Evil tested my problem-solving, not necessarily in the same way as it’s contemporaries, but in the way that there was actually a logical route through the madness.
Not only was the mansion itself a puzzle of sorts, but even playing the original title was a puzzle in itself. With Resident Evil, Capcom coined the term “survival horror” and the survival part is found in the gameplay. You only have so many resources to use and even less that you can carry at any one time. Every time you stepped out of a safe room, you needed to have a strategy and a route or you would likely die or (even more likely) be forced to backtrack for items you might need.
Neatly following from this then is the latter part of “survival horror”, which was far removed from anything I had played before then. People remark about the moment where dogs make their entrance or that first zombie encounter as the moments that sold the idea of Resident Evil for them and, although they did admittedly work, they weren’t the aspect of the horror experience that captivated me at the time.
What did get me though was the slow tension that followed you throughout the Spencer Estate. Every new corridor had potential unseen threats behind the slow door opening screens, every new document revealed more of the sinister history of the mansion and the activities within, and hidden objects could make the difference to survival. So, as you explored, you gained more knowledge about the threats you would or could face, with anxious checking for health and ammo “just in case”.
I would like to admit as this point that stepping into a huge room in the Guardhouse filled by the monstrous Plant 42, even in spite of all of the documents in the area hinting at it, scared the shit out of me. Also, I foolishly didn’t have quite the amount ammo or health I needed to beat the glorified succulent. Lucky for me, Barry Burton walked in, like the fucking rockstar he is.
What added to this moment, and the tension throughout, was the music. Harsh chords hammering through at pivotal moments, a safe room theme that manages to be both soothing and unsettling, and THAT track that plays in the basement … I could go on. But, in short, the whole soundtrack is a masterpiece. Except the basement track in the Director’s Cut, which is terrifying but for entirely different reasons, and I’m truly sorry if that’s the only one you have heard.
This isn’t to say that the game was tense throughout, because there’s one other aspect to the game that raises it to legendary status – that script. Resident Evil has a frankly (and unintentionally) hilarious script with some of the greatest line delivery of all time. There was something both laughable and likeable about this part of the game that sits so well with me, it played (and still plays) so well into a B-Movie style horror narrative.
In particular are the interactions with Richard about the giant snake. I laugh at this every time, and it’s made more hilarious because comedy was not the intention of any of this.
Finally, and by far not the least, the legacy of this game is important to note as well. The series has ran for 25 years now, with sequels, spin-offs, and even jumps into other media of which I’ve played, read and watched most of (for better or worse). Not only this, but the first game itself has been revisited and revised since 1996. The remake, for instance, is held up as one of the best horror games of all time and with good reason. But, we have also had such triumphs as Resident Evil: Deadly Silence, a fantastic port of the original for Nintendo DS with some excellent new features, and the fact that phenomenal games like Dino Crisis AND Devil May Cry are spin-offs from this damn game too.
Resident Evil, through a modern lens, has aged pretty badly I’ll admit. What with the tank controls, character models that could easily be constructed in Minecraft, and the “awful” voice acting, its attempt at realism barely lasted into the 2000s. You know what though? Regardless of how badly it might have aged, it’s still a damn fun game to jump into, and the game still manages to feel tense and suspenseful in spite of all its shortcomings. Happy Birthday, Resident Evil!