It’s funny to think – or at least I think it is – that Resident Evil ended up defining the PS1. Mature content, heavy Japanese design sensibilities, focus on 3D and polygon engines – yep, that’s the PlayStation alright. Maybe it’s due to being the strongest game in that early U.S. batch; WarHawk had a gameplay style and cheesy FMV’s that would have been home on the Sega CD, Twisted Metal was fun but short on content, Kileak and Jumping Flash weren’t going to set the world on fire. And so, in walks Resident Evil with some powerhouse graphics and a solid balance between skill challenges and action. Ok, so maybe that’s not so hard to figure out after all.
The first Resident Evil/Biohazard has you playing as one of two members of the elite S.T.A.R.S. police unit in scenic Raccoon City, USA. A series of mutilated hikers have been found up in the nearby woods, so Alpha and Bravo teams (12 members in all) head out to investigate. After a bit of trouble detailed by some of the last FMV you’ll see in a video game, a handful of the now-scattered Alpha team holds up in the foyer of a nearby mansion. The stage is thus set for a cheesy, spooky, and rather exciting haunted house romp with a few good shocks and a “stranded military squad” vibe cribbed somewhat from Aliens.
The first thing to get out of the way is an obvious elephant in the room – this borrows liberally from Alone in the Dark. A story that changes slightly based on which of the two playable characters you choose, 3D characters against 2D backgrounds, the infamous “tank controls,” emphasis on puzzle solving, exploring a mansion, “survival horror,” – the similarities are undeniable. But it was Resident Evil that had the greater exposure – along with a better presentation and greater accessibility. If nothing else, I could enjoy what RE was doing much more than I could enjoy a purple fanged duck.
So as a fairly close clone to Alone in the Dark, gameplay is equally familiar. Exploration is the clear intent, both to find keys/items to unlock the next passage, but also to uncover what’s been going on at the mysterious Mansion and surrounding grounds. You can press the X button, unprompted, to examine most things your character passes by. There are fairly legitimate adventure game puzzles to solve; from the usual finding, carrying, and applying items, to reading formulas and mixing a lethal chemical concoction. A limited inventory (but unlimited item storage) further forces you to choose what’s important to carry around. Load screens – cleverly disguised as creaky doors opening – add suspense every time you simply enter a room. Will there be a zombie waiting for you right on the other side? There is also an actual story here to follow, and in-engine cutscenes kick in for important plot development or meeting/finding characters.
Combat plays a greater role in RE, but even then, you’re strongly encouraged to pick your fights. Scant weapons and low ammo coined the term “survival horror,” as your meager supplies assist in ratcheting up the tension. Your only unarmed attack is with a knife, and even against zombies, this is ill-advised. Ideally then, you hold your stronger weapons for bosses while running past what zombies you can – while also frantically searching everything in the environment for more precious ammo clips or ink ribbons (a way of limiting your saves). It strikes a nice balance between feeling outnumbered and vulnerable without actually feeling weak. I also found it had a way of making every exploding zombie head (once you could spare the ammo) that much sweeter.
The first Resident Evil is also much more low-key than the flamboyant characters and ludicrous plots the series would become known for. Umbrella isn’t yet the world’s most evil and irresponsible corporation. The T-Virus is presented far more as an experiment gone wrong than the instant “bake-a-monster” plot device of later games. And there’s also more references to the horror genre in general here than specifically zombie movies. You’ll fight a mutated cobra, a bloodsucking plant, and oversized spiders and sharks, to name a few. At least from what I’ve read, the designers have always been coy about whether RE’s campy, B-movie style was completely intentional or a fortuitous accident, but “a fun haunted house romp” really is a great way to put it.
The most common complaint is, of course, the static cameras. The cinematic camera angles seem alternately beloved and reviled, mostly depending on how well they’re working in your favor. The CG renders were simply dynamite for the time (and still hold up today, in my often-forgiving opinion). Using fixed camera angles was entirely what made this possible. The downside is that these angles often obscure enemies off the screen, and there were complaints that you were attacked by (or had to shoot blindly at) enemies you couldn’t see. To me, it’s one way of doing horror. A pretty generous auto-aim system also doesn’t make it the unfair limitation it sounds like. Keep shooting until you hear them fall.
The “tank controls” are similarly made out to be a frustrating barrier and a cumbersome relic of past design. You rotate your character on a fixed axis by using the left and right D-pad arrows. Up always moves you forward, so you’ll rotate to line up your intended direction and hold Up to walk there. The reason for it existing again comes back to the cinematic camera, and it’s entirely for continuity of movement. If movement was mapped in relation to the screen (press left to move left), your character would wig out when the next angle loaded. With the “tank controls,” you could seamlessly transition from walking down a hall, round the corner, and now be walking toward the camera without breaking stride. It also served to highlight the excellent polygon models, and fix your perspective to allow for more than a few jump scares.
The shaky translation and questionable voice acting are also famously, and rightfully, mocked. I’d love to know if the Japanese original had a much more serious tone, but in the English version, absolutely no one talks like a normal person. The way the dialogue is edited together further throws off any natural timing. Characters’ reactions are way off beat, and I imagine Wesker is supposed to be far more cool than he comes off. It also doesn’t help that, while these are impressive character models for the time (reminiscent of something like Virtua Fighter 2 in the arcades) it’s still exaggerated puppet theatre when they speak. I think the game – and even what you can understand of the plot (from found documents and artifacts) – is good enough to enjoy without irony, but absolutely no one should come to Resident Evil for the performances.
Music is pretty excellent, and just as slow and foreboding as your character’s pace. It’s a synthesized track with a slightly gothic take befitting of the old mansion. Of course there’s lots of horror film cliches like sustained, eerie tones or sharp attacks to go along with a beastie jumping out, but they work here. The tone also changes appropriately depending on your location, such as hollow tones for caves, and a very “technological” mix with chimes that comes later in the game.
Not every room has an ambient soundtrack either – in fact, most don’t, and simply allow the sound effects to work for themselves. Your character’s footsteps are the most common (changing depending on the surface being crossed – which I thought was a super neat trick at the time). Others, like a sharply ticking clock, call attention to something worth investigating. Zombies can be heard shuffling nearby, even if you can’t see them, and their groans and blood splatters sound like you would expect.
It’s a pretty long adventure with lots of variety in sights, a little backtracking, but overall quite satisfying. The only caveat is that there are no extras here. The series would become famous for unlockable modes, showing a side story from a character not playable in the main game, an arcade-style Mercenaries mode, etc. None of that is here. The only thing close is having two different characters, Jill and Chris, but the vast majority of game content is reused across the two. Only supporting characters really change, and the two stories contradict each other in that regard, so there’s only minor incentive to play the story twice. In fact, Jill’s early access to heavy weapons and the many “just in time” saves she gets from Barry make her game more of the “easy mode” than a second campaign proper.
Resident Evil is fondly remembered for a reason, and the more I think about it, the fewer faults I can find. Most of the serious issues at least have a good reason for being done the way they were, and I like that this is an excellent example of a cinematic style you just don’t see anymore. Also, as I alluded to in the beginning, this is one of my favorites in the series because it’s just not so damn goofy yet. Anime angst (Wesker) and barely competent teenage girls (Rebecca in RE0) don’t factor in here. It’s a great start to the series, a great introduction and showcase to the PlayStation hardware, and arguably, one of the last great adventure games.
A solid, spooky adventure. Limited ammo and saves work well to build tension without frustrating. Phenomenal pre-rendered graphics for the time.
Some people really, really hate those tank controls. Features a very rough English translation, common to a series that hadn’t proved itself overseas yet. The performances are similarly shameful. You sometimes can’t see what you’re shooting, but this never impedes your progress.
“Itchy. Tasty.” — zombifying Keeper’s final diary entry.