We considered a few different franchises for our next retrospective series, but after seven months of slowly (and often mindlessly) lurching around my own house, I figured what’s more prescient than a game franchise called Resident Evil where inarticulate, lumbering creatures (not to mention the zombies) wander a large mansion trying to remember where they left their keys and medical marijuana?
Whenever someone says Resident Evil has gotten “a little over-the-top,” I always agree, because I don’t like to be argumentative in real life. Truth be told, I actually wonder just how much this person (probably young and full of hopes and dreams and other such piffery) truly knows about the Capcom series. Have they even played the original game? I suppose if we’re talking about the Resident Evil remake, HD or otherwise (in one of it’s many, multi-generational forms), I’ll concede that it’s very likely they may have. But what about the original for the PSX? Do they even know PSX is just another way to say PS1, such as how “rogue-lite” and “rogue-like” are basically interchangeable?
These kids today, they don’t know anything about game history. They just repeat things they’ve seen other people type repeatedly in comment sections, or TikToks, or whatever they use these days. Luckily I’m here, old and cranky (but wearing a beanie in my photo like some hipster, yo) and ready to dish out the harsh reality that is Resident Evil on the Playstation. It’s not for the faint of heart, so if you need ASL jazz hands because applause makes you jumpy, this isn’t the game for you. Are you ready? Too bad, you’re about to get a zombie in the face.
We Need to Talk About That Cutscene
Alright, look. I’m not going to be considered a groundbreaking writer for talking about the opening cutscene for this game. There’s multiple generations of fans—even people who have never played the game—who know a lot about it merely through pop culture osmosis.
Sure, I could pepper this article with “clever” references to all of that nonsense, but I’m going to rise above that, even if this sentence in and of itself intimates that’s exactly what I’m gonna do, shamelessly passing it off as “ironic” (oh, now the hipster beanie makes a lot of sense). C’mon though, there’s a lot of fun to be had in most PSX era games. Voice acting and cinematics had rarely been this front-and-center in gaming, and so—in their infancy—that inexperience shows.
I do think that this game was made with a lot of heart, and that clearly shows as well. There’s a difference between a low-budget game that doesn’t try, versus a low-budget game that has a vision and sees it through to the best of their ability. What I mean to say is, when I poke fun at things in this game, I do it with a ton of love and respect.
So now that I’ve covered myself, let’s recap that opening cinematic. Just for clarity, I’ll be discussing the Director’s Cut: Dual Shock version, as it’s the version I have on my PS3. I will however refer to the other, more graphic, versions at times.
It’s the not-too-distant future of July 1998. The place: Raccoon Forest. The Raccoon City STARS Alpha Team flies out on a search and rescue mission looking for the helicopter of their literal B team (Bravo), which recently vanished.
Lately bizarr [sic] murders have been happening in and around Raccoon City where the victims were apparently eaten. They hadn’t invented bath salts yet, so this was quite strange back in the late 90s.
They land in the forest after spotting smoke and find the crashed helicopter of their compatriots. Upon further investigation, things take an even grislier turn. While searching the area, Alpha team member Joseph discovers a severed hand clutching a gun. In the American version, the shot cuts away before you see that the hand isn’t attached to a body, just Joseph’s horrified reaction.
He is suddenly attacked by what look to be rabid dogs. Jill Valentine, the team’s lone female member, witnesses his death. The team fires upon the dogs while fleeing. In the uncut version, the dogs are shot in graphic detail, including one of them getting their eyeball blasted out.
Upon hearing the noise, the helicopter pilot decides the peace out on everyone and flies away. This pilot’s name is Brad Vickers. I will Tweet out his phone number and home address at the end of this article. I’m joking, he’s fine. He’s in the third game.
This chicken-hearted move does allow Chris Redfield, one of the two playable heroes, to deliver his classic line, “NO! Don’t GO!” as our four main characters (Chris, Jill, Barry, and Albert) take a quick break from being attacked by dogs to dramatically look up into the sky.
A smash-cut sees the four suddenly fleeing more attack dogs as they head for a mansion in the distance. This is when the game begins proper, but not before we get a look at our “cast.”
Chris Redfield is our sneering, ’90s era protagonist. In the original uncut intro he’s puffing on a cigarette, but since that’s a big no-no in the states, they cut that part out and left in the shots of him doing his best 21 Jump Street impression. Chris Redfield is operating at maximum-Greico.
Jill Valentine is our other protagonist. She is tall, attractive, confident, and stoic. She’s also sporting quite the beret.
Barry Burton is the big, bearded, burly, redhead. He is identified as a weapons expert, and has a paternal bond with Jill.
Rebecca Chambers is young, innocent looking, and sporting a Rambo-like red bandana. She looks like a Sears model that is so totally over this gig.
Albert Wesker is our sunglasses-at-night, bleached-yellow haired enigma. He stands there, arms folded defensively, so totally over these lame credits. He’s the dude that flips off the camera when someone takes his picture because he’s cooler than smiling in photographs. Also, his blood type is O, which as we all know is the most mysterious of all the blood types.
It’s Resident Evil folks! Time for some more bad acting, and then we’ll be set loose in this crazy game.
The Acting, the Dialogue, the Horror…the Horror
There are so many lines of dialogue in this game that get referenced in other games. The incongruous nature of what they say, and when, is staggering, and can only be explained by bad localization.
The actors hired to voice the dialogue and act in the FMV scenes were Americans living in Japan. They were hired based on that more than their acting ability, though it’s hard to fault them for not selling lines like, “Whoa, this hallway is dan-ger-ous!”
Most people know Jill Valentine is apparently “the master of unlocking” according to that brawny ginger, Barry Burton. We all knows the jokes, and in case you don’t, here’s the greatest hits:
“What IS IT?”
Barry says this line constantly at the beginning of the game, even when the thing he’s looking at is obvious, like a pool of blood. Oddly enough, near the end of the game, he does not utter this line at the one moment in his entire life he probably should’ve.
“That was too close! You were almost a Jill sandwich!”
When Jill wanders into a trap and almost gets crushed by a collapsing ceiling, Barry comes to her rescue and gets her out of her predicament just in the nick of time.
Immediately following this near-death experience, he jokes that she was almost flattened into a “Jill sandwich.” She laughs it off instead of questioning “Why a sandwich? Why not a pancake, or a panini?” She knows Barry, father of two daughters, is prone to dad jokes.
“Whoa. This hallway is dan-ger-ous.”
Early in your playthrough as Jill you will run into Barry in the second floor hallway. In the middle of a conversation he blurts out this non sequitur. What’s odd about it is not only the fact that it seems out of place, it’s that the hallway you are in never—at any point in the game—poses any danger. There are never any zombies in it. If anything it’s a safe space.
Jill finds a Bravo team member, Richard, laying in a hallway dying. He is covered in blood and has been attacked by what he calls a giant snake. In the middle of him slowly explaining what happened, he stops to give a half-hearted “ouch.” Considering what he’s been though, and the pain he’s already exhibited in the conversation, this mild reaction that is supposed to convey an increase in pain makes even less sense.
“Is that you, Rebecca?”
Chris might needs glasses. At one point he encounters Rebecca, the young go-getter from the Bravo team, whom he has already run into inside the mansion. She enters the room and announces herself. Despite being three feet away from each other Chris feels the need to confirm it is indeed her.
This is perhaps done to remind the game player who she is, but this is one of the more clumsy attempts at dialogue in a game full of it.
You can play Resident Evil as either Chris or Jill. Chris is the stronger of the two, but has two less slots for inventory, and he is no “master of unlocking,” meaning his path through the mansion will rely on locating more keys than Jill, who can jimmy many locks open with the lock pick Barry gives her at the beginning of the game.
Since the environment in the game is pre-rendered (the backgrounds are one static image) your character moves around this environment and interacts with things by hitting the action button.
The movement of Chris and Jill is done using “tank controls.” Since the camera angles change when you move to an area off screen the controls behave differently than your normal action game. Basically, whatever direction your facing, pushing Up moves you forward, pushing Down moves you backwards. Moving the directional pad, or stick, left and right turns your character. This may seem awkward and clumsy—and at times it is—but there is a reason for this.
One is that it’s easier to maintain the flow of movement when the camera angle changes on you when Up is always forward. If you don’t believe me, play the Resident Evil HD remake on PS4 where you can play the game with these controls turned off. You would think it would make things easier, but it doesn’t (or maybe I’m just used to these control for the earlier games at this point).
The other reason (and at times I’ve thought this reason was bullshit from the developers) is that when you encounter enemies and have to react to them, the split second reaction you sometimes need will falter, as you pause—just for a second—to recall which way you need to move. Like I just said, I thought it was merely a limitation of the game designers at the time, and they were simply trying to give a “we did that on purpose” excuse to the clunkiness of it all, but over time I’ve accepted that this actually is the case. Even now, having played these games for years, I still do the shimmy-slide when trying to escape a slow moving zombie or a faster, deadlier Hunter.
I remember the puzzles in this game to be difficult, but upon replaying the game, they aren’t all that bad. I think perhaps I was remembering the slightly remixed puzzles the GameCube version came up with. That version of the game took the puzzles and gave them a few extra tweaks.
In this game there are a lot of puzzles that boil down to pushing and moving objects around the room. Some even get reused such as floor drains that emit poisonous gas, and many box and statue-moving puzzles.
There is the gallery puzzle “Cradle to the Grave” where you must flip switches under portraits of a man through various stages of his life. Get the sequence wrong and those ominous crows prominently featured will attack you. Sure, once you learn the pattern you’ll never get attacked, but the forboding vibe when you first attempt it is palpable. You see the crows. You know they are a threat. With every push of a button you worry you’re about to get pecked at by those vicious trash birds.
The one puzzle that proves to be tricky is the one where you can create a concoction called V Jolt that severely weakens the second major boss of the game, Plant 42. It involves following a formula explained in the game, where you mix various elements into jars. The process requires you to use logic and basic arithmetic.
I knew skipping Donkey Kong Jr Math was going to come back to haunt me. They give you four jars to complete this task, but I think I only used three. Basically you do a little math, make a little mix, and get down to the basement to sprinkle the roots of Plant 42 with the powerful V Jolt.
Resident Evil makes you question what you really need in your inventory. Late in the game I was about the venture into the brief cave section, but having not played the game to completion in a while, I forgot what I needed to have on me at any given time.
When I got to the area where you fight a giant spider, I was ill prepared to get through the door covered in cobwebs. I thought I was being clever taking the lighter with me because I remembered burning away the cobwebs with it. Actually, no. Instead you use a combat knife that you find in that very same room. However, I was over-encumbered with things such as the Helmet key (why I would need a house key outside the house? I dunno…), a mixed herb (blue and green, the Good-Good), both cranks, my bazooka, and some ammo. As Dr. Gonzo says to Hunter S Thompson’s alter ego in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “You took too much, man. You took too much of too much!”
Luckily, there is a safe room nearby, and I was able to swap things out soon enough, but that’s the beauty of this game. You don’t know. Every door holds a surprise behind it. You may be greeted by the sweet sounds of the Save Room lullaby music, or enter a room to hear the thumping patter of a vicious Hunter’s feet ready to attack from juuuuust off camera. Those damn Hunters exploit the fixed camera angles in this game like no other enemy.
Replaying Resident Evil is enjoyable because you can eventually learn the story beats, and plan accordingly. As a beginner, you have to do a lot of backtracking to save rooms to swap out inventory. Sometimes you can guess what you’ll need to bring with you, and sometimes you’re even correct, but most times you’ve got ten thousand spoons when all you need is a combat knife.
The Map, the Menu, the Storage Chest, and the Typewriters
Speaking of item inventory, let’s talk about the cumbersome menu where you manage it. I admit, we have gotten spoiled by modern games where menus are designed to be much more user friendly, but when you need to do as much adjusting and condensing as RE makes you go through, the way they set the menu up is disappointing.
This is further exacerbated when you try to sort your inventory while sifting through your storage chests. What should be a great place to condense items, reposition things, and mix herbs in one screen turns into a convoluted process of doing any of these things one at a time. You need to back in and out of the menu to do multiple things.
Plus, your storage chest does not auto-sort items, so if you put typewriter ribbons into the chest and there are already typewriter ribbons in the chest, the game doesn’t combine them. You have to take them out of the chest, and combine them together in your free item slots, and then toss them back into the storage chest. The same goes for herbs and ammo.
Ammo is another problem, as you can’t reload your weapon midway through a round. That means if you’re fighting an enemy you need to check the menu constantly to make sure you’re not about to run out of ammo at the wrong time. You can add ammo from the pause menu, sparing you the time it would normally take your character to reload in game once the clip is empty, so it’s not all bad.
Typewriter ribbons are found throughout the game, and they’re what you use to save your game on the many typewriters found around the mansion and surrounding area. When you play the game the first time, save all the time. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to redo a large portion of the game because you didn’t want to waste a ribbon. The game gives you plenty ribbons. Besides, unlike later games, you don’t get punished for saving the game too often.
Let’s Get Weird
If it seems like I’m not taking this game all that seriously it’s because I’m not. I love this game. It’s a classic. It holds up. You absolutely must play it if you’re a fan of the survival horror genre. But I’m not going to pretend this game is high art. It’s cheesy, it’s goofy, and it operates frequently on “video game logic.”
How else can you explain why in Chris’ scenario, he allows Rebecca to practice Moonlight Sonata on the piano in the middle of an investigation. I get the urge to learn the piano and channel your inner Ben Folds, and I get that she’s a new, young, and wide-eyed member of STARS, but girl…there’s an outbreak going on.
Barry always seems to show up exactly when he needs to. He’s a walking plot device for sure, but from a story structure, he serves his purpose. He’s helpful, skillful, and more than a little suspicious. The fact that the voice actors can’t emote subtly (or were not given any direction regarding their characters) makes Barry and Wesker seem like the obvious villains almost immediately.
The story actually subverts this to a degree, even if that comes off as a little trite. However, I’m not here to give a snooty critique of a video game script from 1996. It is what it is, it’s big, it’s sloppy, and it’s a lot of fun.
Once the story reaches the halfway point, things get a bit linear, and frankly I’ve grown accustomed to this in several Resident Evil games. I appreciate that once you leave the house and enter the guardhouse, everything within that section is (almost exclusively) self-contained. The back and forth tediousness of survival horror games isn’t quite so bad here.
I recently played through the game in preparation for this article (and to get these screen shots) and I found the experience to still be enjoyable. I played on the easy level so I could focus on the experience more than the challenge, but I will go back to this game in the near future to see all the completionist stuff I never got around to, which mostly consists of new outfits for the two leads, an unlimited-ammo rocket launcher, and an unlimited-ammo Magnum. Later games in the series will incentivize multiple playthroughs by offering much more unlockable content.
Home Sweet Home
What would eventually become Resident Evil on the Playstation originated as a remake of the 1989 Famicom game Sweet Home, which itself was based on a movie for 1989 of the same name. While Sweet Home was an 8-bit top-down RPG style game, it had elements such as exploring a mansion, searching for clues, fighting enemies, changing characters, as well as requiring skilled management of your inventory which RE would incorporate.
The game was created by Shinji Mikami, whose previous game had been Goof Troop for the SNES. He was apprehensive about making the game due to the fact that he didn’t like being frightened. Sweet Home director, Tokuro Fujiwara, thought this was a good thing, seeing as that meant he would know what is and isn’t scary. Anyone who remembers the first time the Cerberus dogs crash through the windows on the first floor of the mansion will agree, he succeeded.
Released as Biohazard in Japan, the game needed to be renamed in America due to licensing issues regarding the rights to that name, so Capcom held an internal contest to see if anyone could come up with a better name. Although the higher ups found the title a little cheesy, Resident Evil was the clear winner (and a solid name, if you ask me).
Besides, that’s what Resident Evil is. It’s cheesy and it hits you over the head with everything. It’s also legitimately scary, occasionally disturbing, delightfully weird, full of laughs (be they intentional or not), and challenging enough to feel like you accomplished something once you beat it.
A lot of games, even the greats, are hard to return to after you’ve beaten them. Others you return to, year after year. Resident Evil is a game series I always go back to, especially when I’ve forgotten where the less iconic jump-scares are, because then I can experience the world of survival horror all over again, just like it’s the first time.