19 years later, the original survival horror game still holds up.
My relationship with Resident Evil largely comes from its later, post RE4 games. Resident Evil 4 is what got me into the series after all what with it being one of the greatest games ever made. However with the HD update to that 2002 remake of the original Resident Evil coming out I realize I never touched any of the franchise’s games of that style. Many people still claim the first few Resident Evil’s are the scariest and best games in the series. Well I finally caved in and bought a copy of Resident Evil Director’s Cut for the PS3 and decided to see if the game still holds up.
Let me tell everything I know about the first Resident Evil. It’s considered to be the first ever survival horror game, or at least the game to coin the phrase. It’s scary, or was for its day. It’s really hard and unfair due to its controls and camera angles. And finally the dialogue is infamously bad. Having played it now I can say that all these things are true but not to the degree I thought I pictured in my head.
That is except for the dialogue. Within moments of the game’s opening FMV cutscene I get what everyone is talking about. It’s bad. Really bad. Like The Room level bad. No one seems to understand what tone to use in a situation, or how to emphasis words properly. And yet I think this was all intentional. I get the sense that the creators were trying to replicate low budget horror movies and if that’s true it worked wonderfully. I finally get why people to this day quote lines like “Jill Sandwich” or “master of unlocking”.
The story of the game is a simple one. The S.T.A.R.S. Alpha team goes out in search of Bravo team, who in turn were investigating some horrific murders up in the mountains. In the games fantastically dated FMV cutscene, Alpha finds one of the Bravo members’ dead and are then attacked by zombie dogs and forced to flee into a nearby mansion. The group is then quickly separated and has to explore the house for a means of escape in class monster movie fashion. It’s a simple story. There aren’t many cutscenes and dialogue and most of the plot comes from journals you find throughout. I’m sure these felt pretty novel back then, as appose to today where story though journals and audio logs are not only incredibly common but also a bit of a crutch used in storytelling. They completely work here though. Near the end of the game it does get more into the evil Umbrella Corporation and their genetic experiments, but compared to the nonsense of some of the later games in the series, this is basic and straight forward.
You get the choice of playing Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine in the game. The story and goals are the same no matter who you pick, although you do get a different side character to interact with; Jill gets Barry Burton and Chris gets Rebecca Chambers. I picked Jill cause I’m a sucker for a girl in a beret. Also because I heard her story was easier. Jill gets a lockpick that allows her to get though certain doors and dressers, plus has 8 inventory slots. Chris apparently only has 6 inventory slots, but he has more health and does more damage. I can’t say for myself if Jill’s playthough actually is easily as I never played Chris’ story, but I think it’s really cool that there are major differences between the characters and I might someday go back and try playing Chris.
I love the game’s setting. It’s a fully realized mansion with all sorts of rooms to explore and secrets to find. Every room is full of detail and feels lived in. It’s impressive for a game back in 96. There is more to it than just the mansion. You get to go outside to the courtyard and other locations but I don’t want to give it all away. I wouldn’t call the gameplay open ended, because there is very much a path you have to follow, but the game doesn’t tell you where to go. Resident Evil lets you explore its setting and figure things out for yourself. This is a refreshing concept even today. You get to really learn the layout of the mansion and it becomes this memorable location that sticks with you.
So what do you do in this mansion? Well you solve puzzles, usually by collecting something in one room and bringing it to another and you kill monsters along the way, although running away is a viable option as well. I found there to be a good difficulty curve of enemy types. You start off with the slow moving zombies, then you move up to dogs, and eventually you get to the dangerous and quick hunters, that made me fear turning around every corner. There are also giant spiders. Fuck giant spiders. Of course you have weapons to fight these creatures. Pistol, shotgun, Bazooka (I think that was a Jill only weapon), all are effective but you have to search every nock and cranny for ammo. This is where the game really shines. Everything is a precious resource. Even the saves are limited by requiring you to find ink ribbons. This may sound awful on paper, but really it’s not. Resident Evil gives you all the tools and then some to win; it just requires you to be thoughtful and smart as you play. It’s a game that encourages those that are cautious and yet risky. I only died a handful of time and ended the game with an extra 4 ink ribbons. I was never truly in danger of screwing myself over, even if it felt that way at times.
So is it scary? I don’t like that’s the right word. I never found myself truly disturbed or scared by any of the imagery. This is because it’s aged poorly visually. The pre-rendered backgrounds are not good looking anymore and the character models are about what you except. Although I’ll admit I find there to be a bit of charm to those old PS1 graphics if you’re into that kind of thing. What the game does have is a lot of tension. It’s stressful, when you’re exploring a new area, unsure of what’s around the next corner, limited on bullets and praying for a typewriter. The game thrives on this. Horror maybe not, but survival absolutely.
A couple notes on the games more archaic features. Yes, the controls are those awkward tank controls, where up moves the character forward in the direction they are facing and left and right pivot them. You want to stick with the D-pad for this by the way, the thumbstick is impossible to work with. It does feel bad at first especially compared to modern day controls, but I got used to it really quickly and the game is designed for it so it never felt like a problem to me. I’m sure some people won’t be able to get past it but I forgot about it very quickly. Same goes for the fixed camera angles. I thought they were going to be a nightmare, causing unfair deaths and it did happen a couple of times, but I actually like the fixed cameras. You get some really cool angles that add a lot and make an area look even more intimidating then it already is. Again, some people are going to hate it and I understand.
Last thing I want to mention is that I played the Director’s Cut version of the game; it was the only one on PSN. It has duelshock support which is nice, and adds an arranged mode that changes all the camera angles and moves the items around to add extra replay value. Seeing as this was my first time playing the game I stuck with the original mode and any other small tweaks went unnoticed to me. So why mention this? Well because they did apparently change the music and there’s this moment in the game where I found myself in the mansion’s basement. The music that followed I can only describe as someone farting into a trumpet and then converting that into MIDI. It’s the most hilarious thing in the whole game and the idea that they replaced the original track with it is baffling. What I’m saying is you need to go listen to it; Right now.
Ultimately I’m surprised how much I enjoyed Resident Evil. I thought it was going to be a classic example of a game that was good for its time but doesn’t hold up anymore. I was wrong. The game still builds great tension. Its enemies are still intimidating. The survival system works without feeling cheap. They don’t make games like this anymore, and the few that try rarely nail it the way the original Resident Evil does. I finally understand why to this day, people still love this game.