In the world of gaming, few franchises have experienced as much blockbuster success as the Resident Evil series. What began as a moody atmospheric romp through an abandoned mansion in the first Resident Evil game has since expanded into a globe-trotting epic of zombie killing and monster mashing, with each successive release aiming to up the ante in terms of scope and scares.
The series is the warped brainchild of Japanese game developer Shinji Mikami, who created the franchise to take advantage of the new possibilities created by the groundbreaking PlayStation console, which put 3D gaming at the blistered fingertips of millions of gamers. It was 1996 when the first Resident Evil made its debut to critical and commercial success. “Resident Evil is Alone in the Dark directed by George A Romero with the design sensibilities of Myst,” wrote one reviewer for the magazine Edge. “You wouldn’t ask for more if you rubbed your PlayStation and produced the game genie himself.”
The game follows a police officer as he tries to escape a zombie-infested mansion and make sense of the chaos emanating from a mysterious shadow corporation called Umbrella. This game was truly the first game I can remember that felt to be more than a video game. First off, this was my first experience playing a survival horror game, which is something that gamers began to see more of after the success of Resident Evil. In this genre, the gameplay is more about ammo conservation and the evasion of enemies, rather than an all out slaughter fest. While this style of gameplay reinforces the survival aspect of the genre, the game’s design and feel successfully contribute to the ‘horror’ aspect of the game. Between the backdrops, lighting and creepy music, the game truly creates a feel of eeriness and suspense. The game also has a very cinematic feel, with a plot line and cut scenes that make the entire game that much more enjoyable. Pre-determined, fixed camera angles also contribute to this vibe, which can make the player feel as though they are playing a movie rather than a video game.
The smash hit was followed up by Resident Evil 2, released in 1998, which brought the game out of the mansion and into the streets. RE2 was met with similar success, and was applauded for its drastically improved graphics. Resident Evil 2 is my personal favorite in terms of the setting and story line. RE2 seems to be visually lighter, allowing the player to see the environment better but without minimizing the characteristic, eerie feel of the Resident Evil series. While the gameplay is relatively unchanged from the first Resident Evil, the main addition is the differing story lines between characters. If the game is played-through a second time, actions taken during the first play-through can affect the game’s second play-through.
Resident Evil Nemesis, released a year after Resident Evil 3, continues with the series much the same way it had with RE2, but with continued improvement of the game’s smoothness. With Nemesis, we begin to see less ‘game loading’ while moving around the map. Specifically, players can now walk freely up a staircase, as opposed to pressing “X” and waiting for the stairs cut-scene to play through. A critical part of this game’s plotline is Nemesis, a mutant character who is tasked with destroying the remained STARS members. In addition to a reoccurring boss-character, Nemesis marks the beginning of continuity between different parts of the map. Before Nemesis, players being chased by zombies would be able to evade the zombies by loading a different portion of the map. This time around, Nemesis can follow players wherever they go while being pursued by the creature. Another major addition to the gameplay is the live selection mode, which allows players to make real time choices about how to proceed in the game. This feature is utilized primarily during the Nemesis encounters, where players are given the option to fight Nemesis or to run.
In the years that followed, and as gaming consoles shifted up a generation, there would be a flood of additional entries into the Resident Evil franchise. None of these newcomers received the universal praise enjoyed by the first three titles. This losing streak was to change with the landmark release of Resident Evil 4.
When Resident Evil 4 was unleashed on the world in 2005, six years after Nemesis, the game was widely considered the defibrillation jolt to the heart of the stalling franchise. In IGN’s review, the author stated, “With Resident Evil 4, Capcom has successfully — triumphantly — taken the franchise to the next level,” and calls it “simply the best survival horror game ever created.” The game was primarily hailed for its improved graphics engine, intense gameplay and fresh take on the survival horror genre. Taking place in a nondescript rural European village, RE4 ditched the tired zombie tropes in favor of a more psychological bend, pitting its hero Leon Scott Kennedy against hordes of villagers infected by a transmogrifying parasite that turns them into bloodthirsty maniacs.
Resident Evil 4 was a remarkable game for several reasons. First off, it was the best, freshest plot line to emerge since Resident Evil 2. RE4 also gave gamers a newer type of gameplay, both visually and mechanically. RE4 was the first third-person shooter of the series, having the camera fixed over Leon’s shoulder when shooting. Leon’s handgun now has a laser sight, allowing players to shoot an enemy’s leg or hand. The infected villagers also respond differently, depending on where they are shot, so players can choose to take out a villager’s legs or force them to drop their weapon. Unlike the previous titles, RE4 seems to take a slight step backwards from the ‘survival’ genre, promoting less frugal use of ammo and more shoot-out situations. More ammo and more zombie-killing? Great! Players are also able to move around the map in a much freer way (no loading).
The formula proved so successful that the concept was expanded upon in Resident Evil 5, released in 2009, and which brought Leon from Europe to Africa. Now, three years later, gamers prepare for the next major entry into the Resident Evil franchise, with number 6 slated for release October 5th. The whole world waits in anticipation to know whether it will continue the series’ gold streak or bite serious zombie butt.
Ben Goldman is a Superhero and zombie-game enthusiast for SuperheroDen.com.