7 Mar 2019

Retro Review: Resident Evil (1996)

Even when they feel dated, there's an unmistakable charm to horror games from the 1990s. Sure, character models may look blocky, and voice acting might fall flat, but this was also where developers could get creative with the hardware limitations they faced. This is especially true of Capcom's very own Resident Evil. Featuring disturbing enemy design and claustrophobic environments, the game found much fanfare on its original debut over twenty years ago. After seven main entries, countless spin-offs and a handful of remakes, I went back to the one that kicked it all off.

It was first released for the Sony PlayStation in 1996, with PC and Sega Saturn editions coming not long after. The game takes us to the grounds of an abandoned mansion overrun with mutated creatures. The player controls either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, two members of S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics and Rescue Service) as they explore the mansion to find the rest of their team.

To begin with, Resident Evil is a survival horror – one of the first games to use this term – and is keen on taking power away from the player. This means ammunition is scarce, health items are rare, and monsters are tough to beat. It's not an action game and you won't be able to kill every enemy you find, so it's encouraged that you don't waste ammo when you can avoid it. Supplies are best saved for bosses and tougher foes, giving you a bigger fighting chance. I made this mistake of killing everything I came across on my first playthrough and ended up unprepared for a boss fight that came later. Not only this but inventory space is also limited, with there only being between six and eight slots depending on which character you choose. This will cause you to think carefully about how you want to balance weapons, ammo and healing items along with anything required to progress further through the story.
Lead director Shinji Mikami has cited Capcom's earlier Sweet Home (1989) as a prime inspiration for the game, but also draws on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and the works of George A. Romero for the design of its plot and setting. The game's visual flair, which utilised fixed camera angles, was inspired by Alone in the Dark (1992), as Mikami noted in a 2014 interview: "That's when I played Alone in the Dark, which consisted of sets. It was very interesting because there was more expressiveness. The next step was to adapt Resident Evil to this model. Without it, the game would probably have become a first-person shooter."
There are a small amount of weapons to be used, with each one fulfilling a specific purpose. The handgun will carry you throughout your initial exploration of the mansion, and it'll take cares of most zombies with ease. Eventually, you'll upgrade to the shotgun which packs a harder punch and also deals with most bosses. Depending on which character you're playing, you'll also use either a flamethrower or a grenade launcher at certain points in the story. Because of the shortage of ammo, you must determine at which points you'll want to use your guns or when you want to duck and run instead.

But despite this – as long as you're careful – the game is actually generous with what it supplies to you. Coloured herbs act as healing items, with each one providing a different effect. For example, green herbs can restore some health whereas blue ones cure poison. This also encourages experimentation as each one can be mixed together for diverse effects. First-aid sprays can bring you back from the brink of death, making them a godsend in critical situations, but they are also extremely rare.
Besides the horror sequences, you'll also be exploring and puzzle-solving for a major portion of the game. The puzzles can be a little tricky to figure out at first and you may get stuck a few times if you're not paying close attention. They're creative, that can't be denied, but I disliked the guesswork involved when approaching some of these puzzles. I think this is largely in part because of how some interactions cannot be performed without pixel-perfect accuracy on where you position your character, leading you to believe you still haven't solved a puzzle when it's really about moving slightly to the right.

But I think the main praise to be given to Resident Evil is on just how well presented it is overall. To make up for the PlayStation's limited capabilities, many of the environments are pre-rendered backdrops, with 3D models of characters and objects layered on top, as lead programmer Yasuhiro Ampo stated: "We had originally attempted to have everything appear in full polygons. However, it became very clear early on that this wouldn't be possible given the limitation of the hardware at the time. The director's priority was making sure the zombies' visuals conveyed a sense of fear, so the decision was made to use polygons for them. The backgrounds were then swapped out to pre-rendered visuals, and this was when we decided to use the static camera as well."
The fixed camera perspective also enhances the horror, hiding enemies off-screen to make the player feel unsafe and detached. Unfortunately, this becomes a problem when you combine it with the awkward tank controls – literally a control scheme where a character rotates like a tank – and leads to moments where you're stuck trying to fit through a doorway because Jill walks the wrong way. One of my favourite smaller aspects of Resident Evil's presentation has to be its loading screens, which are cleverly disguised by a short door animation, creating the illusion of a seamless transition between playable spaces.

Okay, so it's over twenty years old at this point and it isn't a perfect revisit. Some things don't work as intended; the voice acting and live-action segments are laughably bad; the controls are awkward and the pacing feels off. These are blamed on the technical restraints and tight development schedule Capcom was working with. It's obvious the Japanese developer knew more could be done with this title, evidenced by the fact that Resident Evil received a polished remake for the GameCube only six years later, which has since garnered a legacy that may have even surpassed the original. But it also generated two more sequels on the same platform, countless successors and spin-offs, and became an overall pioneer of the survival horror genre. With the latest two entries both receiving unanimous praise, it looks like this may be a renaissance for the series, and I'm glad I went back and experienced it from the beginning.

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