Josh Bycer is a Game Industry Analyst with over seven years of experience writing about Game Design and the industry. You can find his articles, podcasts and daily videos on his site Game-Wisdom and contribute to his ongoing Patreon campaign to help him continue to create great content.
by Josh Bycer
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Resident Evil series and has been one of the most successful brands from Capcom while leaving an important mark on the Game Industry. Resident Evil has always wore its inspiration on its sleeves as a horror franchise, but what I found the most amazing was how the first four games each made major revisions to both game design and the horror genre for years to come.
Resident Evil (1996):
Resident Evil was the first of what we could call a “modern horror game.” Previous attempts at horror were either a part of the adventure genre, isometric or in 2D with games like Sweet Home and Clock Tower. Resident Evil made extensive use of the rise of CD technology, featuring FMV sequences of bad/hilarious live action and creating a 3D environment to explore.
The two biggest sources of inspiration we can talk about for Resident Evil’s development were Alone in the Dark and Sweet Home (which was also developed by Capcom.) Alone in the Dark is often cited as one of the first true horror games; combining Lovecraftian themes, combat, puzzle solving and adventure style exploration into one title. Sweet Home was a more RPG take on the genre, but had horror with surprise attacks and characters dying.
While it seems so simple now after all the games in the series, the original story was all about a mystery. The town of Raccoon City had a case of people disappearing and corpses being found in the wilderness. In response, the S.T.A.R.S. elite squad was sent out to find the source of what’s going on. After a run in with some evil dogs, the team gets separated and after one hilarious character introduction montage later, the player finds themselves controlling either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield.
Of all the Resident Evil games released, the first one was the closest in feel and progression to Alone in the Dark. The mansion itself was set up for non linear exploration, allowing the player to explore at their discretion. Rooms could have any combination of enemies, important items and puzzles for the player to solve. Famously, Resident Evil introduced the often debated mechanic of limiting the player’s ability to save via ink ribbons and finding typewriters, along with the use of fixed camera positions to create tension and unique viewing angles.
Resident Evil’s gameplay and control setup would become the template for the horror genre and third person games on the consoles for almost a decade; inspiring series like Dino Crisis, Fatal Frame, Parasite Eve and a lot more.
While Resident Evil is still remembered fondly (along with the excellent GameCube remake,) Resident Evil 2 went with the “bigger is better” mantra
Resident Evil 2 (1998):
The original design of Resident Evil 2 was a lot more action oriented than Resident Evil ; featuring a greater emphasis on combat and character effects destruction. However, due to arguments among the design team, it was scrapped and redesigned to be more in line with the first game. Introducing two new characters of Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield, Resident Evil 2 took place after the outbreak of the first game. Raccoon City was ground zero for a zombie outbreak and the two characters had to escape the city.
Everything about Resident Evil 2 was scaled up compared to the original game; more enemies and bosses, bigger areas and less focus on one environment. While the game took place in the Raccoon City Police Station, there was a sense of environmental progression as the player moved through different parts and earlier areas were closed off.
What made Resident Evil 2 unique and even to this day, was the amount of replayability the developers implemented with Leon and Claire. In the previous game you could play the title twice, one time with each character getting a different path but largely the same story.
But #2 expanded on this featuring an unlocked additional story where you played as whoever you didn’t choose first in a harder variant of the game.
This second quest was not only harder but featured new paths, puzzles and the introduction of Mr. X: The prequel to the Nemesis concept that we’re going to talk about next. There were also several additional characters you could play as to further extend the game, including a sentient piece of tofu. Resident Evil 2 is one of the best examples of what a sequel to a game should be: Providing more of what worked in the first game, while greatly expanding on the mechanics and concepts.
While our next title dialed things back, it did give gamers a new nightmare to fear.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis (1999)
Resident Evil 3 Is seen as the start of the series’ transition into being more action based than horror. Taking place 24 hours before Resident Evil 2, players once again controlled Jill Valentine who had to escape from Raccoon City before it was overrun by the undead.
Instead of having multiple characters and paths, the game was all about Jill which meant that the story and content was shorter compared to previous titles. There were more enemies to kill this time around and for the first time in the series you were able to dodge incoming attacks.
But what fans and critics remember most about Resident Evil 3 is the introduction of “Nemesis:” A giant creature with a rocket launcher who tracked the player throughout the game.
Nemesis showed up either randomly to chase the player through a few areas or in set piece battles as a boss fight. As an enemy, Nemesis was very hard to take out and shrugged off most damage as he tried to grab Jill and finish her off.
In an interview with series’ creator Shinji Mikami, he talked about the inspiration for Nemesis was the T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day —
“I wanted to introduce a new kind of fear into the game, a persistent feeling of paranoia. The Nemesis brings that on in spades. When it disappears after the first confrontation, you live in constant dread of the next attack. The idea is to make you feel like you’re being stalked.”
This kind of constant presence from an undefeatable enemy became a major source of tension that other horror games would implement over the following years; from Alien Isolation, Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2 and a host of other action and horror titles.
Resident Evil 3 with its transition to more action based gameplay also introduced the mini game called “The Mercenaries:” a time based challenge that tasked the player to quickly move across the game while killing enemies for a high score and more time. This mode would become a reward seen in subsequent Resident Evil titles.
Following Resident Evil 3, Capcom released a number of side stories and different takes on the Resident Evil brand, including a light gun game, team based co-op title and the enhanced edition of Resident Evil 1. While these games varied in terms of quality, it was the next official game in the series that shocked the Industry.
Resident Evil 4 (2005):
The jump from Resident Evil 3 to 4 remains as one of the biggest leaps a series has had in terms of mechanics and design. The game went through numerous iterations and designs with four versions scrapped before settling on this one. Everything about Resident Evil 4 was built from the ground up: over the shoulder camera in place of isometric scenes, free aim combat, QTEs, weapon modification, stores to buy items from, open area environments and completely redesigned enemies.
The story followed Leon Kennedy on a mission to save the president’s daughter from a terrorist group. Upon arriving, he finds the local populace infected with a virus similar to the T-Virus, but a lot more dangerous. His quest took him through the countryside fighting monsters, townspeople and an evil cult.
The first time I played Resident Evil 4, I remember being shocked at how far things have gone from the original game. What’s fascinating about it is that so much of the action and shooter genres today drew inspiration from Resident Evil 4. The over the shoulder camera system became the new standard of combat and control, incidentally dethroning Resident Evil 1’s isometric fixed system. There are just too many games to list that owe their designs and mechanics to Resident Evil 4.
The other side of Resident Evil 4’s success is that it ushered in the new genre called “Action-Horror,” where the slower adventure game pace of previous Resident Evil titles and survival horror were replaced with more combat; some major examples would be Dead Space and Alan Wake. The shift in terms of pacing and content is a major point on the evolution of the horror genre and one that is far too big to talk about in this piece.
Nevertheless Resident Evil 4 was a huge success for Capcom, the horror genre and is considered by many people to be one of the best games ever made.
The Horrific Shift:
Following Resident Evil 4, later titles in the series continued with the same over the shoulder and action focused design. Resident Evil 5 added in co-op functionality and Resident Evil 6 brought the action even more to the forefront with on the fly weapon switches just as in other third person shooters.
Older fans have argued that since the design change in Resident Evil 4 the horror genre has become more about action than tension. You are still fighting monsters and zombies, but it’s less about being scared and more about taking charge. This led to the producer of Resident Evil Revelations in 2012 talking about how the change was warranted for the series to remain relevant in today’s market.
As it stands, there are currently no new Resident Evil games announced; there have been rumors of re release HD versions of Resident Evil 2 and 3 for awhile now, but nothing concrete. The closest we’ve gotten to another Resident Evil styled game recently was last year’s The Evil Within which was also created by Shinji Mikami.
The Resident Evil franchise has had a major impact on the state of the Game Industry and helped to create two standards of design over the last twenty years, not to mention countless zombie related nightmares. And while the future of the series is unknown at the moment, we’ll always have Raccoon City.