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Retro Renegade: Resident Evil (1996)

What is it about zombies that people like so much?
It’s a fascinating question I’ve pondered since discovering within the last decade, there has been a flooding on mass of zombie horror video games.

From beleaguered survival adventures to your full on action orientated orgies of blood, guts and bullet casings, our gaming nation has taken our undead foes into their hearts. I can’t be too sure what the allure of our zombie foes is exactly: Maybe a subliminal symbol death and fighting against it? Or is it something more simplistic, like an adrenaline rush of a do or die battle against a single-minded creature that just wants to eat you alive?

For me, zombies are terrifying in their single-minded pursuit for your flesh. A non-negotiating creature that doesn’t experience pain, and unless you tackle it right, they’re just going to keep coming for you. And I for one find the thought of being chewed apart one of the most horrible ways to die.

Getting to the heart of my subject; though there have been many successful titles in recent times – including the Dead Space series and The Last of Us to give a shout out – my focus turns to a particular series that I think deserves a hefty amount of credit for its innovation on this front; especially for cementing the zombie horror genre with a mainstream audience.

Of course, I am talking about Resident Evil; or Biohazard within in its native Japan. (Though I’m sure you could have already guessed this by the title.)

It’s a series that sits fondly in my heart – one that attracted me in around early 2000. Though actually, it wasn’t until seven years later that I picked up a controller and ventured into the zombie infested environments. I will hold my hands up and admit that it took me so long because I was just too darn afraid to play them. The surprise scares, the chilling music, the zombies groaning in the shadows…

… Kind of makes me wish I had a shotgun at hand right now. But I digress.

I have much I would like to say about the series as a whole, though for this specific review, I turn my attention to the game that had the honoured distinction of being the first I played and completed. So let me get out my verbal shovel and proceed to dig up a veritable gem, all the way back to the beginning of the series; right back to 1996 – to the birth of all ‘Evil’.

Well, so to speak.

Capcom released the first Resident Evil with the freshly coined ‘Survival Horror’ moniker, unleashing upon us some of those memorable moments gaming has ever had. Some fantastic, some dire, though all becoming a distinctive part of its enduring legacy. Hopefully throughout this review, I can offer some understanding as to why this game sustains itself as a classic horror experience.

Live action Jill Valentine from the opening

So let’s set the scene: –

July, 1998.

A series of bizarre murders draw out playable heroes, Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, into the forest region just outside of the fictional mid-western town of Raccoon City. Chillingly we are informed in the open narration that the murder victims have apparently been eaten. Nice.

Our intrepid heroes are a part of an elite team called S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics and Rescue Service), which is split into two units: Alpha and Bravo. Taking up the case, the unfortunate ‘B’ team of the Bravos are the first dispatched into the forest to locate the hideout of the so-called cannibal killers. With ominous foreshadowing, Bravo team goes missing during the mission. In response, Jill and Chris with their fellow Alpha team comrades spring into action.

Arriving on scene, they locate the downed Bravo team helicopter with all essential equipment mysteriously abandoned. Unaware of the looming danger, Alpha team set about searching for their missing comrades. Team member, Joseph Frost (veritable fodder) soon makes the grisly discovery of a severed hand clutching a handgun, before promptly being attacked and mauled to death by a group of demon-eyed dogs. (Or more accurately, dog-shaped dummy heads – no animal cruelty was committed in the making of this production.)

Before the rest of the group can even think of fleeing, their helicopter pilot Brad Vickers* in an extreme move of cowardice, takes off and leaves them to their fate. *(The guy is nicknamed ‘Chickenheart’, begging the question of why they trusted him on a dangerous mission in the first place?!)

Luckily – or unluckily – for them, as they make a desperate dash to escape, they come across a spooky, old mansion and seek refuge from the hellhounds.

But this is only the beginning…

Please insert maniacal laughter here.

Diving in straight away to discuss the opening live action sequence, the overall sense of the presentation pays distinctive homage to B movie horror; though, based on the quality of acting and production values, I’d be a little more inclined to say it was more Z movie style. There is probably a pinch of irony in there somewhere. Was it accidental or a cleverly devised impression of the style? Though, needless to say, what we get is a spectacular display of unintentional hilarity. It really is a thing of infamy – something that has to be seen to be believed.

It’s rather charming, albeit cringe worthy, in all its low budget glory. Maybe we could pick fault that their version of a forest was just a lot of tall grass – with the trees kept only in the fleeting computer generated scenes; or even that they couldn’t even make a crashed helicopter prop to fill up a bit of scenery. Frankly, none of these things take away from the opening – we have imagination enough to fill in for those. The acting however… Well, that’s a different story. To give you a gist, when they’re not standing around like lumps of wood, they just about manage to throw in a few over the top facial expressions to put the icing on the cake. I think my favourite has to be Joseph’s expression when he finds the severed hand. It’s priceless.

Despite its clear and present faults, it doesn’t fail to entertain. Nothing about itself is taken particularly seriously – it’s almost revelling in its own mediocrity. It very proudly falls into the ‘so bad its good’ category. If you’ve never seen the opening, I implore you to watch it on YouTube – preferably the uncut version, for extra over-the-top blood splatter and some actually creepy little scenes of the face of a rotting corpse infested with maggots. Gruesome but perfect for setting the scene.

Barry saving Jill from one of the mansion's traps

Stepping beyond the tumultuous opening, let us delve into the gameplay and its contributions to a classic horror experience. Once through the mansion doors, the player takes control of either Chris or Jill on a mission of exploration. Though, they don’t have to go too far to realise that the mansion is not nearly as safe as they had hoped. The introduction to our first zombie does not play in the same essence as the opening – it is direct in its sinister intent to unnerve. Having just chewed through one of the members of Bravo team, it turns its dead eyes on fresh meat; namely you.

From then on, it’s a battle of survival.

The core progression and overarching story remain near enough the same for both characters, though there are certain events and side characters that remain specifically tied to either Chris or Jill’s scenarios respectively. There is also the added difference of playability between the two, with both having their own skills and inventory set up.

Jill has the misfortune of not being able to sustain too much damage from enemy attacks, though on the plus side, she has the bigger pockets with 8 inventory spots to haul around supplies and gets the bonus of procuring the mighty Bazooka. Also not to forget, she is the so-called ‘Master of Unlocking’, and gets the use of a lockpick as a personal item. This gives her access to specific areas (as well as removes the need for one of the main mansion keys).

Her partner character is the dialogue duke himself, Barry Burton (who we can thank for the aforementioned ‘Master of Unlocking’). He is her fellow Alpha team support, who swoops in to save Jill in her times of need, like a big, beardy knight in shining armour. His usefulness also extends to providing ammo and giving access to shortcuts, making for an easier scenario.

Chris is a powerhouse, and can take damage like a true boss, and has a higher probability as a marksman to score a critical headshot on an enemy. On the downside, his inventory space is only 6 slots, meaning much more running back and forth to juggle supplies. He also has the added burden of collecting a plethora of small keys as an opposite to Jill’s trusty lockpick. His own personal item is a lighter, which is barely useful at all. Probably the meanest deduction from his scenario is the Bazooka, and as a cheap alternative, he has a brief encounter with a flamethrower, which is used as more of a key. A huge tease of a weapon!

His partner character is the plucky medic, Rebecca Chambers, a survivor from Bravo team. She can helpfully offer healing aid to Chris and is optionally playable to fulfil certain specialised tasks during his game. Apparently, chemistry and piano playing are women-only specialities. Poor Chris.

Rebecca helping Chris solve a puzzle

Whichever character you choose – both offhand dealing with everything in their heroic stupor – you navigate the confines of the mansion and its surrounding areas with a control scheme that has been described by fans as like driving a tank. Think first person game from a third person perspective: Up for forward, down for back, and left and right to rotate your character in said direction.

From experience, I can describe it as cumbersome for the uninaugurated, and my first time picking up the game tested my fragile patience to the limit. Though, it didn’t take too long to fully get the hang of. After which, all I had to worry about was having enough bullets in my inventory.

There is much complaint about the control scheme in conjunction with the fixed camera angles that makes it hard to navigate and dodge efficiently. You can’t always see what’s right ahead of you until it’s too late. I understand the irritation this causes, but on the other side of the coin, I find the controls work well with the pre-rendered backgrounds and aforesaid camera angles. I would also be inclined to say that this sort of gameplay attributes to the tension that builds up over the course of things. Sometimes not always seeing what you’re facing gives a chilling sense of foreboding. You know something could be right ahead of you – maybe you can even hear it – but you have to take the risk of walking into attack or just wait and let the enemy come to you. The fixed cameras also add onto the movie-like perspective, which nicely carries on from the opening sequence.

On the subject of pre-rendered backgrounds, the minimalism in most of the mansion works with the sense of lonely abandonment therein. There are some splashes of grandeur here and there, but the majority is mostly evocative with an air of emptiness; not taking into account the unwanted inhabitants roaming around. The same level of desolation carries over into other areas, including the courtyard and guardhouse out back.

At the heart of it, Resident Evil isn’t strictly a game about being the gun-touting hero. You come to learn very quickly that trying to mow down all the enemies will leave you without ammo and open to be turned into zombie chow. With supplies scarce, it’s all about making practical decisions about when to use healing herbs, which enemies to disperse with and which to run away from. You don’t want to be left with just the knife during a rather nasty encounter. You’ll be embarrassingly murdered. Unless you’re a pro with the knife – in that case, I demand tips!

One of the many boss encounters in the game.

Though, if the zombies don’t get you, the mansion itself will certainly have a go. There are grim booby traps in the most unexpected areas from poison gas vents to a rigged ceiling trap. It’s almost as if the mansion takes sinister joy in challenging you to defeat its puzzles, trying its utmost to hinder your escape. As Jill puts in no truer albeit stilted words: ‘… Something’s wrong with this house.’

Accompanying you on your nightmarish journey is an unnerving orchestral soundtrack, crooning with sombre tones. I particularly like the mansion music for its slow paced, despairing touch – like a cold breeze following you around. It’s all so perfectly placed and befitting. I have particular fondness for the music played in the mansion upon your return from the guardhouse. It has sharp, shriller tones indicating the evolution of events in the game – almost encapsulating the character’s harsh realisation of things beginning to unravel.

Speaking of sounds, I’ve not even touched upon the most well remembered aspect of the game. The voice acting! Its terribleness is legendary. Lines are delivered with the barest emotion to detect, and even more jarring is that words are thrown out with deliberate accentuation in the same way you’d imagine someone derisively speaking to someone who doesn’t understand their language. The first time you hear the dialogue, it might break the atmosphere somewhat, but after a while, it settles into something so ridiculous it’s amusing. And after all, if we didn’t have the terrible dialogue, we wouldn’t have the absolute gem of ‘Jill Sandwich’. Need I say more?

What I find particularly enjoyable about Resident Evil are the confined settings of the mansion out in the middle of nowhere, with monsters at every turn, effectively trapping you inside a constant nightmare. You’re faced with little hope, but you venture on despite the mounting odds, trying to understand why such horrible things can exist. What’s more, there is so much persistence in the deadliness of the situation, especially emphasized with finding the bodies of the other fallen S.T.A.R.S – a symbol that you might not just get out alive.

I have never been a huge fan of full on action games, but this makes is plainly clear that though you have a gun, but you have to be clever about using it. It makes you balance out your actions and think about the next solution. Many a time I have found myself low on ammo and hiding inside a safe room – zombies just on the other side of the door – and having to pluck up the courage to make a dash to the next area, where there might be some ammo laying around.

On a completely random note, I have much affection for the mansion design, and wouldn’t mind living in a place so grand in size. (Minus the zombie squatters!) Though, if it were my mansion, I would want more than one bathroom in such a huge place. I am not traipsing halfway across the building just to find a toilet. Completely impractical!

Different scenes can be viewed depending on how you proceed through the game

To wrap up my review, I would like to impress upon you how much a beautifully paced and incredibly creepy game Resident Evil is. Its paramount goal is to make you jump out of your skin and create a resoundingly bleak atmosphere. The game does have its shortcomings, but they are relatively ignorable if you go in knowing it’s not going to a completely serious experience. There is so much that can keep you coming back to revisit the game – with multiple endings, alternative scenes (depending how you proceed through the game) and unlockable weapons and costumes. The voice acting and live action elements might be a resounding thing of legend here, but there is plenty left over to give you a full horror immersion.

The series has come on in leaps and bounds in quality and innovation, but I always have so much fondness and recognition for that spooky old mansion, and what the first game cemented for itself and the series that followed. In my heart, it’s a game that should never be forgotten; and to be a little bit cheesy, Resident Evil will never be dead and buried.

All images © Capcom

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