12/04/2011

RESIDENT EVIL: 15 YEARS LATER, STILL FANTASTIC

A few weeks ago (March 22nd, to be precise) it was the fifteenth anniversary of Resident Evil's original Japanese release. Fifteen years! I can feel the Grim Reaper's bony hand on my shoulder as he whispers "sooooon" into my ear. Anyway - to mark the occasion, here's my rambling and poorly laid-out tribute to Capcom's survival horror masterpiece.

At this point, the Resident Evil franchise is probably Capcom's best-known series, with the possible exception of Street Fighter. Some of that fame is sadly due to the increasingly-atrocious movies, but I'd like to believe it's mostly down to the truly excellent games that make up the core RE series. It all began in the mountains near a quiet midwestern city in America...

A quiet midwestern city that happens to be the home of a ruthless and thoroughly evil pharmaceutical company that spends much of its time exploring how deadly things can be made even deadlier with the addition of various viruses. As a kid, this was the kind of plot I craved. Forget rescuing fuzzy animals or exploring the depths of space, I wanted gore, abominations of science and the occasional sentient limb, if that's not too much to ask. I was twelve when RE was released, and I was already completely desensitized by horror films and books (thanks, mum!).

Well, maybe desensitized isn't the right word; it's just that the sensation I got from horror entertainment wasn't fear, it was "Jesus, this is great! Gimme more!". So as soon as I read about this new game that was coming out for the newfangled PlayStation, featuring members of an elite police unit trapped in a mansion filled with zombies and mutants, it was all I could think about until Christmas rolled around and a copy of RE was waiting for me under the tree. Sheer bliss, and to this day Resident Evil's soundtrack reminds me of Christmas time. "O Little STARS of Bethlehem", if you will. It was everything I'd been looking forward to and more, and here are some reasons why it's still one of my favourite ever games.

The World of Survival Horror

Sure, there had been horror games before. I remember playing a game called Soft & Cuddly for the ZX Spectrum when I was barely past the fetal stage that terrified me. How scary was it? Well, the game's cover art, a painting of a leering ghoul sitting atop a pile of severed human heads, was later used as the cover to an H. P. Lovecraft anthology. Later on, games like Clock Tower and Alone in the Dark brought more horror to gamers. One game that could reasonably claim to be the first survival horror game is a Japanese-only movie tie-in called Sweet Home.

Made by Capcom and released for the Famicom in 1989, Sweet Home sees a group of people getting trapped in a mansion filled with various monsters. Capcom later commissioned Shinji Mikami to create a revamped version of Sweet Home, and this game ended up becoming Resident Evil.
The reasons that RE succeeds in it's mission to terrify are pretty well known: limited ammunition and healing items, claustrophobic camera angles, haunting music, powerful enemies and that feeling of dread you would encounter whenever you entered a new room for the first time, as the loading-screen door creaks open slowly and you wonder if it'll be just an empty room or if a Hunter is waiting to slice your head off oh god he's right behind the door aaarrrrghh!
RE also excels at "jump scares". A lot of people look down on jump scares as a cheap way to get a reaction, and sometimes that's true. When the dogs jump through the windows of the first-floor corridor, though; that doesn't feel cheap. It feels bloody terrifying.

Bad Voice Acting = Good Voice Acting

I am of the opinion that the voice acting in Resident Evil is perfect. Perfect for Resident Evil, that is. From the infamous Jibble Sandwich to Chris's "He is sleeping with the ultimate failure", every. single. line is absolutely in keeping with the game's B-movie atmosphere. You can keep your multi-million-dollar voice recording sessions filled with Hollywood superstars; I'll stick with random, emotionless plebs reading lines that appear to have been translated from the Japanese by Babelfish's schizophrenic brother.
It's difficult to choose a favourite bit of acting from Resident Evil... aww, who am I kidding? My favourite will always be Richard, bitten by a giant snake but still soldiering on to give us vital plot info like TERRIBLE DEMONS... ALSO POISONOUS.



OUCH.
Here's a fun fact: the Japanese version of RE only has English voice acting in it. It was supposed to contain Japanese voice acting, and the Japanese voices were even recorded... but they were rejected for being too rubbish. Richard and his abnormally large wound made it into the game, but the Japanese voice acting was too bad to use. Just think about that next time you chuckle at Jill's wooden delivery.

Intro Movie of the Gods



The intro movie. The introduction to the characters and the game, and boy do they get introduced. As I've said before, this is my favorite cutscene in any videogame, a perfect distillation of the B-movie atmosphere that makes Resident Evil such a joy. At a time when videogame developers were realising that have real human actors in their games almost always resulted in said games having the feel of some kind of community theatre project, Capcom made the bold decision to put RE's cast up there, in the literal flesh.

Chris has a certain Bill Paxton-ness about him, and to me Wesker will forever be that bored-looking guy who's wondering when this shoot for some crappy Nintendo GameStation videogame is going to end so he can get back to working on his screenplay inbetween shifts at Starbucks.
The best part of the intro? That fact that the zombie dogs politely stop attacking and wait for the STARS members to watch Brad fly away in the helicopter... and then they're suddenly running for their lives. It's either that of Jill's anguished cry of "JOSEAH!".
Not-so-fun fact: one of the nerdiest things about me is that I have perfect the memorised the ryhthm that the typewriter sound makes at the start of the intro. Why yes ladies, I am single. Form a queue.

Characterful Characters

Resident Evil gave us Albert Wesker: a villain who, despite being comprised of roughly 4,000 cliches, is never anything less than utterly entertaining. Ask him how he feels about mortals, and he'll tell you that "mortals are so worth nothing to me!". He's just that kind of guy. No tortured past, no sense of grudging respect for the heroes; he's just a smooth, egomanaical bastard who truly believes his is the only one fit to rule the world. The only disappointing thing about the RE1 version of Wesker is that he isn't voiced by D. C. Douglas, who has really made the role his own.

Then there's Jill, who is the real star (no pun intended) of Resident Evil. In Miss Valentine, Capcom hit on what is (apparently) the ultimate goal of all female character design in videogames - a woman who is tough, resourceful, intelligent and frankly a bad-ass while still being attractive. Maybe excepting Samus Aran, it's difficult to think of any female videogame character that gets this balance as spot-on as Jill does. It helps that in RE1, at least, she is completely unsexualised, a rarity in female games characters. Sure, in RE3 she dresses like she's just taken on Christina Aguilera's personal stylist, and it'd be difficult to argue that her catsuit-with-lowered-zipper look in RE5 is anything other than a shameful ploy to sex her up, but before then she was the perfect combination of femininity and kick-ass-osity. How much of a bad-ass is Jill? Well, before joining STARS she trained with Delta Force. That's Delta Force as in the American army's most elite troops. Yowzah.

In fact, I reckon you could make a decent case that Resident Evil is a pretty feminist game. The two female members of STARS survive the events of the game while most of their male comrades are killed, and while the men are generally portrayed as a bit clumsy and dense Jill and Rebecca as depicted as the intelligent ones. Why, Chris can't even play the piano! He must have been ill during the "Beethoven, Rachimaninoff and Bach: Their Application in a Combat Situation" module of the STARS training program.

"I'm a member of STARS!"

Our heroes are members of the Raccoon City Police Departments Special Tactics and Rescue Service. Now you might be wondering why a quiet midwestern town like Raccoon City would need a highly-trained paramilitary force with members chosen from the best of the best, but apparently it was to combat increased terrorist activity in Raccoon City. Oh well, that's okay then. Now, I'm wondering about the real reason they were formed. We're told that they were founded with money partly donated by Umbrella, and in RE Wesker reveals that the STARS members were lured to the mansion so that battle data from their fights with the B.O.Ws could be collected. It might be coincidence and Umbrella took advantage of the situation to try and get some data out of it... or maybe STARS was set up for this very purpose. If so, that's quite some forward planning. I'd like to believe it's true, and given Umbrella's fondness for vast, labyrinthine schemes, it's definitely a possibility.

A nice touch and a bit of continuity between RE1 and 2: when selecting your character at the start of the game, you can see that their ID cards have been signed by Chief of Police Brian Irons, who wasn't officially introduced until Resident Evil 2.

There's a Goddamn Zombie Shark

Did I mention this game includes a mutated Great White Shark? Because it bloody well does.

I think it is impossible for me to dislike anything that features a giant zombie shark. The best thing about the Neptune bio-weapon is the note you can find regarding its progress. It was discontinued because they couldn't make it any more terrifying than an actual Great White Shark. Oh, and as it can only operate in the water, it's pretty much useless as a weapon. What did you think was going to happen, egghead? Did you think it was going to sprout wings and fly out of its tank? Well, okay, I admit that's a possibility. I guess we should just be thankful that didn't happen.
And Finally..

A few little things. Firstly, Rebecca.

When you first meet her in the medical room during Chris's story, she tell you her story about ending up in the mansion and how she's a new recruit blah blah blah. Then she mentions the team's helicopter crashing and says "I serviced the helicopter recently, but something went wrong with the engine..." Wait, what? YOU'RE A MEDIC! What are you doing messing with the helicopter engine? Tell you what, we'll get the team's mechanic to perform surgery on you, see how you like that.

Secondly, I also used to have the PC version of RE. When you install it, all the sound effects and voice acting are simply stored as wav files, meaning it's very simple to replace them with whatever sounds you desire. Immature it may be, but replacing the zombie dog's growls with my own dog's whining and changing all the gunfire sounds to my little brother going "pew pew pew" was utterly hilarious and increased the game's replayability by around 70,000%.

And finally, the Keeper's Diary. An excerpt:

May 16th 1998

I heard a researcher who tried
to escape from this mansion was
shot last night.
My entire body feels burning and
itchy at night.
When I was scratching the
swelling on my arms, a lump of
rotten flesh dropped off.
What the hell is happening to me?


May 19, 1998

Fever gone but itchy.
Hungry and eat doggy food.
Itchy Itchy Scott came.
Ugly face so killed him.
Tasty.

4.

Itchy.
Tasty.

Beautiful.

And that's Resident Evil, father of the Survival Horror genre and an absolute masterpiece of videogaming. Here's to another fifteen gore-soaked years!

2 comments:

  1. Me, I used fart sounds for gunfire and replaced the zombie moans with my brother yelling in pain in an over-the-top manner. I also replaced the "terror" theme when an enemy surprises you with the refrain from Danny Elfman's "The Breakfast Machine."

    Damn, I know I still have the PC version hanging around somewhere. I need to dig it up and reinstall it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fart noises are a solid choice, nicely done. I never thought to replace the music, if I ever find my copy again I might try that out.

      Delete

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