In March 1996, it was unclear if the fifth generation would usher in successful 3D games or whether it would be a generation of gaming where blocky polygons were the centerpieces of games which made poor use of the new technology and focused on making excellent 2D games. Certainly, Sega saw the SEGA Saturn as a primarily 2D system with some 3D capabilities. The generation was destined to be graced with some of the most innovative and genre-defining games of all time, but this only really started to become clear with the launch of Resident Evil. While the graphics, storytelling, and controls for Resident Evil have become laughably antiquated over the last 20 years, much the same can be said of many other games from the class of 1996. Just as other genres and franchises were born, defined, or redefined during the fifth generation, Resident Evil moved beyond what earlier games had attempted to create the genre of survival horror. What makes Resident Evil and other trailblazing fifth-generation 3D games really stand out is that they not only pushed the envelope technologically, but they also created a compelling enough experience that the game remains rewarding even in 2016.
"Look Out! It's A Monster!"
In July of the distant year 1998, an outbreak of unexplained but brutal murders on the outskirts of Raccoon City spark an investigation by the S.T.A.R.S. (Special Tactics and Rescue Squad) under the overall command of Captain Albert Wesker. Two teams, Alpha and Bravo, are dispatched to look around the area and apprehend the gang of murderers. When Bravo team goes missing, Alpha Team goes in after them. As Alpha Team members Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield, and Barry Burton search a field with Captain Wesker, they are suddenly attacked by a dangerous animal and flee to the abandoned Spencer Mansion for refuge. Now, trapped in the mansion, they have to figure out what is going on and find a way to survive.
"Stop! Don't open that door!"
The Spencer Mansion and its environs are a danger zone with a variety of dangers. While humans infected with the T-Virus become zombies in the George A. Romero sense of the word, the T-Virus has comparable effects on other life forms. In Resident Evil, the ranks of the undead will include zombified crows, dogs, snakes, and even some customized creatures designed specifically to kill you and your friends.
Games have always included a daunting variety of enemies, so this is hardly new. What is new is that you have only a limited number of weapons, a limited number of rounds available, limited inventory space, and your character has no extraordinary combat skills. In other words, the game attempted to be "realistic" to some degree by saddling you with something approaching the actual physical limitations of a human being. Unlike most linear games where you play straight through, you will have to backtrack and swap out items in order to advance to other areas. Additionally, since the Spencer Mansion seems to have been designed by a person or persons suffering from acute mental distress, you will have to engage in a lot of problem-solving and investigation (while still dealing with rotting opponents) in order to make progress. The effect is naturally that you have to focus on survival, planning, and puzzle-solving rather than domination and it is that distinction which really makes survival horror stand apart from mainstream action-adventure games.
"Jill, here's a lock pick. It might come in handy if you, "the master of unlocking", take it with you."
The first choice that you make is whether to play as Jill or Chris. While it might seem like a simple question of gender preference, your choice of character will heavily impact your experience. Each character has to proceed through the game in different ways, gets different weapons, and interacts with different non-playable characters. In addition, there are some game play differences between the two S.T.A.R.S. members.
If you choose to play as Jill, you will enter the mansion with Wesker and Barry. Chris will be missing and your quest will begin by trying to locate him. If you play as Chris, you will begin with Wesker and Jill and start out trying to figure out where Barry went. While both characters handle the same way (see below), Chris can take more damage and seems to be just a touch faster when he runs. Jill's advantages more than compensate for Chris' toughness. Unlike Chris, who can only hold six items at a time, Jill can hold eight, which means that she can solve puzzles faster, better armed, and with less backtracking to your storage areas. In addition, not only does Jill receive a lock pick from Barry which opens up more ares for exploration earlier in the game, but she can potentially receive lots of help from Barry if you make the right decisions. All things considered, Jill's journey is smoother and she has to be considered the default character of choice for a first-time player.
"I'm sorry for my lack of manners, but I'm not used to escorting men."
As one might expect from such an innovative game, there are more than a few rough elements which range from amusing to infuriating. The voice acting is amusingly bad and sounds like something from a movie that MST3K would riff. The music, when it is there, works well, but it is often missing, which can sometimes be eerie and other times feels lazy. Using ink ribbons to save adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game and the limited number of ink ribbons furthers the perception of danger, but having to carry around ink ribbons takes up precious space in your inventory and it is frustrating to die suddenly and lose major progress in a game that involves so much backtracking to collect and stockpile items. The puzzles are not so much diverse in design as in quality. Some puzzles involve applying logic to the order in which you flip switches and other "puzzles" involve randomly knowing to only search objects with the lights on or off. I have to imagine that most people in 1996 beat the game for the first time only after much heartache or with the aid of a strategy guide.
The two main problems with the game, however, are bad camera angles and "tank" controls. The camera angles are fixed so that the game could use pre-rendered backgrounds which were more artistically pleasing than anything that the PlayStation could have generated in the normal way. The thought was that the camera angles would add to the suspense and variety in the game, which they certainly do. However, there are many camera angles which often leave you unaware of what is immediately in front of or behind your character. You will frequently suffer damage from surprise attacks that your character can't defend against because it is impossible to detect your undead foes. As for the control scheme in the game, it is absolutely painful and is only worth figuring out for the sake of this game's many virtues. Steering your character around with either the D-pad or the analog stick is not easy. It is often difficult to aim in the right direction to put your lead into the undead. The inventory screen isn't hard to use, but it is a bit clunky and slows down the flow of the game. Even in the early phases of the game, the controls can be an impediment to your progress, survival, and ability to preserve healing herbs. In the late game, when Hunters can potentially kill you with a single blow, the camera angles and controls will almost certainly hand you a few sudden deaths, so save as often as you can.
"You were almost a Jill sandwich!"
Due to the combination of the cumbersome controls, camera angles, limited weapons and ammo, inventory limitations, limited healing options, backtracking, obscure "puzzles", and seemingly random placement of Hunters, this game is difficult. When I say difficult, I mean that it is something that is headache-inducing and infuriating at times. Once in a while, you will take unnecessary damage because your Jill or Chris tank won't be able to pivot quickly enough to face off against their foe. Other times, your escape attempt will be terminated because Jill tank's angle of advancement planted her shoulder into a wall and she will just stand there running in place while a slow-moving opponent gets in for a free bite at your expense. At other points, you will use valuable, hard to replace healing herbs only for a cut-scene to fully restore your health a moment later.
Due to the level of concentration that you have to put into the controls and the tedium of backtracking and constantly shuffling your inventory, the game is tiring and it is easy to forget where you are or why you are going there. If anything, I do not recommend playing this game for more than two hours consecutively if you are alone or three hours in the company of friends. After that period of time, your level of play will drop off appreciably and your ability to make permanent progress will suffer accordingly.
Oh, did I mention that you have a finite number of ink ribbons and that not all type writers are located conveniently near your storage bins? Yeah, that. You sometimes have to waste one of your precious inventory slots on ink ribbons rather than healing herbs, keys, or bullets. Talk about a slap in the face!
"Barry, you're so optimistic!"
Leaving aside the flaws in the game play that I just laid out above, Resident Evil has a certain genius for leaving you craving more. Just as the zombies in the game are on a quest for living flesh, so you will be on a quest to uncover all of this game's many secrets. If you play through to one of Jill's endings, Barry will tell you about his two daughters, Moira and Poly. "Poly" is a Greek prefix for many and "Moira" is a Greek word meaning fate. Resident Evil indeed has many fates in store for you if you persist. Both Jill and Chris have four different endings. The actions that you take which set in motion the train of events leading to each ending are far from obvious and some of them are decisions that you will make relatively early on in the game without realizing it. Some of the endings are better than others and the goodness or badness of the ending is determined by how many of your fellow S.T.A.R.S. team members escape along with you.
Remember, many of the characters in this game have reappeared in the sequels, so if you value those games, then you owe it to the characters to rescue them from danger. Barry goes on to star in Resident Evil: Gaiden on Game Boy Color, a game that is really 8-bit Metal Gear with a veneer of Resident Evil sprinkled in for good measure. If you want to play that game or any of the other RE sequels and feel like you've earned it, then you owe it to yourself to at least unlock one ending with both Jill and Chris. There are also extra outfits that you can unlock in Director's Cut on PlayStation and in the Sega Saturn version of the game, if you care for such things.
"What are you laughing at?"
Despite the frightful voice-acting and less than mediocre controls, Resident Evil is a must-play. Many people advise skipping straight to Resident Evil 2, but I feel like that would be missing out on an important video game experience. While the graphics have not aged well (just like the rest of that generation), the game's look was simply amazing back in 1996 and anyone who doesn't understand that needs to spend more time fiddling around with old games. The original game's corniness is endearing and you will grow to appreciate the oddness of the Spencer Mansion. There is a reason that this game has been remade, remastered, and re-released so many times- it is great game despite its many profound and frustrating flaws. I recommend this game not because it is good, but because it is great.
Sound and Music: 7/10
Extras and Immersion: 10/10
Game Play: 20/25
Overall Rating: 77/100
Resident Evil is one of those games I was introduced to when I was younger, and as such it has become part of my gaming "heritage", so to speak. Sure, the controls were awful, some of the horror elements were just cheap jump scares, and the dialog and voice acting were atrocious...but it all added to the charm.
I still visit the mansion from time to time, usually around Halloween time, and always on the smaller screen of my PSP.