My Month-Long ‘Resident Evil’ Binge, and Why Capcom’s Monsters Will Never Change

I learned the developers behind the franchise are just as predictable as Umbrella's biological weapons.

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Mar 2 2015, 3:36pm

The other night I saw a weird amorphous shape moving on the ground just in front of my apartment door. It was dark and I was returning home from a late-night caffeine run and couldn't see very well over the reddish glare of a street lamp that cuts the shadowy façade of my building in two.

Now expecting an encounter with whatever the hell I was looking at, two thoughts ran through my head simultaneously: it was too big to be a cat, and it must be some mutated horror infected by the T-Virus. When it turned to face me, I met the beady gaze of a possum (next thought: hope it's not rabid). Not exactly the Umbrella-engineered biohazard I'd assumed, but that's what gorging on nothing but Resident Evil for weeks on end does to your brain.

There have been other effects, both expected—soundtracks bleeding into my dreams, being able to rattle off every key Umbrella researcher and whatever virus they developed—and not, like idly concluding the fictitious pharmaceutical, run mostly by stodgy old men, probably doesn't get many Silicon Valley applicants.

A scene from 'Resident Evil', as illustrated by Stephen Maurice Graham

Not that I started out intending to revisit the entire bloody Resi saga. In replaying the recently released HD remaster of the 2002 GameCube Resident Evil remake (phew), the plan just sort of grew out of it naturally, like a new virus-born appendage. Suddenly it wasn't enough just to re-experience the Spencer Mansion's ornate decorum and arcane traps or to see Barry exclaim, "What the hell is that thing!" again and again, despite the dire extremity of the situation having already been firmly established. Charting its evolution was somehow important.

Does Resident Evil really inspire this kind of voluntary insanity? Maybe. 2012's Resident Evil 6 took the series to ridiculously lunatic heights about as far removed as you can get from the survival horror of creakily obtuse puzzles, scarce ammo, and tank controls seen in the earlier incarnations of the series (including the remaster), so it's nothing the developers haven't reveled in before.

Much like Umbrella itself, Resi's past and history fold in on themselves, calling back to a weird collection of motifs repeatedly used throughout the series. The Spencer estate is the most obvious here, with Raccoon City's ravaging by the T-Virus as first seen in RE2 coming in second. (Fun fact: 2003's online multiplayer spin-off Outbreak marked the first series entry where Capcom didn't feel it necessary to cover the events of the zombie epidemic in an intro cutscene.)

It made sense in the beginning. Resident Evil was an unexpected hit in when it was first released for the original PlayStation in 1996, and in creating it Shinji Mikami more or less kicked off a new genre. Inspired by Capcom's own 1989 Famicom title Sweet Home as well as The Shining's Overlook Hotel, Resi married elements of traditional point-and-click adventure design (puzzle-solving and exploration) to a 3D space, adding real-time combat designed to make you feel vulnerable. And it didn't play like anything else.

Tank controls that forced players to awkwardly move by rotating their character left or right using the D-pad (holding up to move whatever direction they were facing) were unwieldy enough to have you feeling never quite in command of your actions, while a lack of ammo for any weapons you might find made it impossible to kill everything lurking in the mansion. Across the board, the game was designed specifically to keep you on edge.

For better or worse, Resident Evil also established a precedent that may well have been nearly accidental: its camp qualities. The original is mined (and rightly so) for atrociously awful dialogue and stilted acting—Barry being one of the most memorable of the cast.

It also featured equally terrible live-action cutscenes, seemingly shot almost as an afterthought with a cast of whatever Westerners the director could find in Japan at the time. (Oddly, the editing in the uncensored opening—unreleased in the West on its original platform—changes the pacing enough that it almost works.) And on the subject of camp: Mikami has said the team discarded the original Japanese voice recordings because they were "really lame." Just let that sink in for a minute.

Regardless, that B-movie schlock has come to define part of Resident Evil's personality, and it's as much an integral part of this mid-90s time capsule of polygonal models and pre-rendered backgrounds (look how brightly the mansion is lit!) as anything else. As rudimentary as its design may be, the first game was in some ways still pretty sophisticated for its time—and accordingly it eventually sold over 5 million copies.

1998's sequel would follow in the original's footsteps. It replaced Resi's iconic mansion with the comparably bizarre architectural plans of the Raccoon City Police Department, not to mention the war-zone ruins of the city itself. RE2 also swapped out original S.T.A.R.S. members Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield with rookie cop Leon S. Kennedy and Chris's sister Claire.

With a bigger budget, RE2 tried to step back from the unintentional silliness of the original with CG cutscenes and a more serious tone. (Sadly, voice acting in video games was pretty amateurish in those days.) In order to get the most out of Resi you have to take a lot of it at face value; the scariest shit when you're 14 is probably just going to seem charming and quaint when you're older. Which isn't to say that some of RE2's choreographed scares aren't surprisingly effective in 2015.

In fact, RE2 remains an impressively responsive and worthy entry overall if you meet it on its own terms. It's proof that subtle animation improvements and a few tight pacing edits, among other things, can have amazing effects. The game was a bigger hit than the first, of course. Millions of fans have been clamoring endlessly for a remake, with Capcom even teasing players by including the location as 3D space to one degree or another in four other Resi games—but for whatever reason, it hasn't happened yet.

Sometime during or after 2's development, Resident Evil took a strange and likely inadvertent turn and began resembling Umbrella's own narrative. Each new installment introduced a new virus, strain, or parasite, typically accompanied by a new researcher to expand the series' growing canon with Umbrella's clandestine influence.

Claire Redfield by Stephen Maurice Graham

Similarly, players also knew basically what to expect with every new Resident Evil. They would visit a location with some variation on the Spencer Mansion's baroque aesthetic. There would be a secret Umbrella research base. They would trek through at least one industrial facility. Former S.T.A.R.S. member and Umbrella conspirator Albert Wesker would probably be trying to kill someone. In every iteration, and its viral counterpart, history was repeating itself.

Interestingly, Resident Evil's timeline begins in 1998, not far from the release of the original game. It wasn't until 2003 that the series moved much beyond the events of that first year of the T-Virus outbreak—in Dead Aim (a light-gun spinoff set in 2002) to boot. Unlike most series that timeline stands, meaning Resi's once youthful characters get older as years pass between releases.

In 2005, Resident Evil 4 came along to reinvent the wheel of survival horror, following poor sales of Mikami's RE remaster. RE4 traded its archaic tank controls and methodically placed scares for a higher-octane approach of intense battles against a new kind of "smart," non-undead zombies that would chase a now older and more experienced Leon throughout large, open-ended arenas, using weapons and attacking in crowds. RE4 was as big a success as it was a departure, and sold about six million copies as proof.

RE4 had some narrative differences as well, if only cosmetically. Wesker was only mentioned in the original GameCube campaign, later playing a larger role in an expanded version starring RE2's slinky Umbrella double agent Ada Wong, developed for its PS2 release. There were touches of the old motifs in the plot: The Salazar castle certainly has some Spencer-like opulence, for one, and there are eventually labs with mutant monsters that must be dealt with. (Leon's one-liners are killer.)

Alongside its action tone, RE4 brought to the series a new level of slapstick drama, and while Umbrella might not have been involved, when all was eventually revealed about the secret cult of the Los Iluminados and their ultimate plans, the apple clearly hadn't fallen far from the tree.

After RE4, anticipation was high for the inevitable Resident Evil 5, which apparently would take place in Africa and starred a much beefier Chris in blistering HD. Here, again, Capcom and Umbrella aligned, creating a high-definition version of RE4 (with added co-op) while telling an origin tale of how the Progenitor virus was initially was harvested from a flower species native to West Africa.

RE5 also brought an end to Wesker's long-standing arc as the series antagonist—with Umbrella dissolved and Wesker dead, it could well have let the series go out on a high note, even with its gameplay relatively untouched from RE4.

Instead, RE6 reunited many of the favourites of Resident Evil: Chris, Leon and Ada alongside newcomer Jake (Muller, son of Wesker), in a game that's probably only pushed into second place in the chase to be the Paul W.S. Anderson of the series by the terrifically awful Operation Raccoon City. Claire, meanwhile, stars with Barry's teenage daughter Moira (and Barry makes a return himself) in the currently episodically running Revelations 2 (more on that here).

If there's one thing to be gleaned from studying a history of Resident Evil it's that Capcom seems to be unwilling or unable to sever the connective tissue that's been present in every single major series release since 1999's RE3. It's infected with the memories of its own past. I'm not saying that I blame Capcom, though, as I like the format of bringing back favorite characters while introducing new ones (but let's be clear, 2012's Revelations did itself no favors there).

Resident Evil is at its heart genre fiction—it's not really horror in the same sense that Silent Hill is horror, and it doesn't need to be. It's become a Japanese amalgam interpreting a Western triple-A action game and the genre twists that Mikami himself came up with for RE4. (And the director appears to share in Capcom's late sensibilities, as his 2014 game The Evil Within isn't that far removed from RE4.)

It may sound like I'm disappointed that it took Capcom seven years to recognize that it was no longer 1998. I'm not (though by now I might have a touch of Stockholm Syndrome). By the same token I'm not complaining about the series' batshit evolution or repeated use of certain ideas or settings (what's with all the boats?). I'm not even (necessarily) complaining about the ludicrous dialogue, at least as long as nobody's sweet ass is on the way.

At the same time, Chris and Leon are looking older in RE6. Claire seems to be pushing 40 in Revelations 2, with Barry likely approaching his mid 50s. Would I love to see a Metal Gear Solid 4-style free-for-all, with its classic cast now Expendables-recalling badass geriatrics? Hell yes. If Resident Evil ever ends, I hope Capcom sees fit to let it go out with a bang like this.

Unfortunately, in the very likely event that never happens, it's worth considering that these characters can't—or logically shouldn't—be around forever. Which brings up the more critical question: what is Resident Evil without its past? After an unholy amount of time spent replaying the series (and finishing damn near every one), I don't know that Capcom's ever really given a good answer. Umbrella certainly never did.

Capcom recently reported that the Resident Evil remaster is their "fastest selling digital title in history," so hope may be on the horizon that now is the time for the series to strip off its at-times bloated legacy and make a return to form, like Mikami did on the GameCube in 2002. I would welcome that. RE's remaster is as wonderful now as it was when it was new.

I'm sure that the next numbered Resi is already in development for current-gen hardware, and I think, after a lot of reflection, I've come to accept that even if it's as dopey and Hollywood-ized as RE6, I'll be able to enjoy it for what it is. Still, Capcom might do well to take a moment to consider Umbrella's history and act accordingly—if they ever want to get away from familiar visions of viral monsters.

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