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A History of Resident Evil

Richard charts the roots of evil

The year is 1996 and something truly wicked has just made its way onto Sony's chunky grey box. Known as Biohazard in Japan, Resident Evil is the brainchild of Capcom designer Shinji Mikami and it's a game that will prove instrumental in introducing survival horror to the world (although from the shonky B-movie intro, you wouldn't have thought so). Resident Evil's opening FMV wasn't the most audacious fanfare you'd expect for the game that pretty much shaped the genre we know and love today. Living on in infamy as one of the worst seen in a videogame, the live-action sequence has acting and production values that would make Roger Corman blush. As far as revolutionary videogame franchises go, no one could have guessed that Resident Evil would be so influential, especially given its ropey prologue. If Alone in the Dark is credited with inventing the modern survival horror genre, then it was Resident Evil that refined it and turned into something that truly appealed to almost every gamer.

Begin playing the game proper and you begin to understand why Resident Evil became so hugely popular even though its hokey dialogue and stilted animations may seem incredibly dated by today's standards. What mattered most was that it provided some genuine scares even with its uneven tone of semi-seriousness. Was the script intentionally bad in typical B-movie tradition? We'd certainly like to think so. Unlike the relentless psychological horror of Silent Hill, Resident Evil has always been about more obvious shocks and enough creepy, crawly body horror to make David Cronenberg proud. Anyone who played the original RE will gleefully recount jumping out of their seat when the mangy, mutated dogs came crashing through the windows of a narrow corridor, the fast-paced music invoking panic as they rushed for the nearest door. Or leaving the mansion to explore the sewers, only to return to a house full of deadly Hunters, vicious clawed reptilian creatures who could cut your head off with one swift swipe, bringing about a total sea change in how you had to approach the game. Fans will also recall the anticipation when facing the Tyrant at the end of the game: a seven-foot tall, clawed biological creation, grown in a giant test tube. Waiting for Brad to drop the Rocket Launcher from the helicopter during the final rooftop tussle stands up as one of gaming's most frustrating moments and one that the GameCube remake recognised and duly fixed.

In the finest of Resident Evil traditions, there is always one of Umbrella's twisted biological monstrosities you'll have to face, whether it's the fearsome Tyrant from the first game or the ruthless Nemesis from Resident Evil 3 that mercilessly pursues you for the duration of the game. Take a look at Resident Evil 2, which saw crazed scientist William Birkin inject himself with his own experimental G-Virus, transforming his body into a gooey, biological weapon complete with a huge eye set into his shoulder and an enormous claw. The numerous metamorphoses he goes through during the course of the game makes Jeff Goldblum's Brundle Fly seem like a nasty cold by comparison. Now that's body horror. Birkin is a cautionary tale on the dangers of messing with Mother Nature. He goes through several painful transformations, bursting into pustules of blood and viscera, changing from a humanoid monster into a dog-like creature able to impale you upon his circular mass of teeth and finally a gigantic worm-like mass of pulsating slime, eyes and teeth, hell bent on chasing you to the ends of the earth.

Resident Evil 2, which is considered by many to be one of the best in the series, not only featured the series' greatest boss in Birkin, but also encouraged repeated play in its unlockable B scenario; a great reward for completion and a completely fresh take on the story. It was during these B missions that the seeds of RE 3's Nemesis are sown, with the ultimate iteration of the Tyrant (aka Mr. X) following you through the game's tight corridors to the final showdown as you attempt to make good your escape. What makes these encounters truly terrifying is the scarcity of the ammunition for your weapons. Managing the items in the limited slots of your inventory meant you could only have so many weapons with you at any one time, making for some moments of genuine panic as your ammo reserves steadily dwindle. It was perhaps the original Resident Evil that really put the greatest emphasis on this particular factor, rationing ammunition at exactly the right moments but making sure that you were never comfortable with the number of shots at your disposal. Of course there was always the sanctuary of a save room with its soothing music, typewriter (for saving your game) and huge steel chest to store away any unwanted items. Yet there was always the lingering sense of dread that you might not have enough ammo to make it through meaning that running and evading became required skills. Each time you moved to a new area, having to endure the loading screen of a slowly opening door would cause tension to mount even more, as you wondered what lay in wait on the other side and whether you have the resources to overcome it.

As the Resident Evil series has continued, the emphasis upon conserving your bullets has been pushed further and further out of the picture and the focus has gradually shifted into more action-oriented pastures. Resident Evil 2 introduced a huge array of weaponry to exploit including arguably the series' finest weapon; the Ulysses-blessed customised Magnum that could decapitate five zombies lined up in one shot. This was really the moment when it was clear that explosive gunplay would win out over slow burn puzzling in any subsequent Resident Evil games. Being able to unlock a minigun able to plough through slavering zombie hordes and a shotgun so powerful it sent player character Leon skidding backwards with each shot was indicative of Resident Evil's gradual shift in tone. At one point you could use the modified shotgun to blow holes out into the TV screen it had such a kick (a really cool example of Resi 2 momentarily breaking the fourth wall). For our money Resident Evil 2 represented not only the pinnacle of action and horror gaming, but also what gaming could offer in terms of value for money with its hugely generous replayability. In featuring four different scenarios for two different characters - Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield - Resi 2 set a precedent for subsequent RE games, in bonus modes such as Mercenaries or the 'Separate Ways' missions playing as Ada in Resi 4 on PlayStation 2.

While Resident Evil 3: Nemesis closed the book on the first PlayStation's trilogy of proper Resi games (the less said about lightgun instalment Survivor, the better) in 1999, it still stuck steadfastly to the tried and tested template with the same static bitmap backdrops and polygonal player models. It took six years, a semi-sequel for the Dreamcast in Code Veronica and two failed attempts to bring Resident Evil online with the much-maligned Outbreak games, before Resident Evil 4 made its triumphant debut on Nintendo's GameCube. Answering every fan's prayers, Resident Evil 4 saw Shinji Mikami return as director after the initial build of the game eventually became Devil May Cry. Doing away with the fixed camera and static backgrounds of old, Resident Evil 4 reinvigorated the series and represented a bold step towards an even purer shooting experience. With a new third-person, over-the-shoulder viewpoint that allowed players to easily scan their surroundings and aim far easier than ever before, Resident Evil became less about disembodied sounds and unseen terrors, more about head-on confrontation. Less about scraping around for ammunition and health pick-ups, more about amassing gold to buy it from the merchant ("not enough cash, stranger"). Best of all though, there was no more searching for tiny keys for doors you could easily kick down; now you could just jump in through the window or boot them into splinters.

Resident Evil 4 is for some the highest point in the series yet, as it took a once revolutionary franchise fast growing stale and breathed new life into the essential formula, rendering it fresh and relevant once again. It married all of the best elements from the previous games, making for the purest, most playable Resident Evil experience yet. The Las Plagas infected villagers (Los Ganados) move in numbers, throwing their scythes and pitchforks at you, the underlying threat of being cornered and overwhelmed intensified by the rusty rasp of Dr. Salvador's chainsaw. Get too close to his hessian-sacked visage and you'd be subjected to a grisly animation of Leon's head being sawn off in a showering plume of blood. The themes of body horror still persist with the parasitic Las Plagas virus manifesting itself through the neck stumps of your enemies, emerging to swallow Leon's head in one fatal bite or as a scuttling insectoid creature able to pounce at you with its spindly legs (exactly like John Carpenter's The Thing). As horrible as that may seem, Resident Evil always maintains an air of pantomime theatrics in the telling of its story with cackling, dastardly villains like Salazar, Hammer Horror-like Osmund Sadler and stalwart sneering antagonist Albert Wesker, who always seems to crop up in the nefarious machinations of the shady Umbrella Corporation. In fact you may have seen Wesker in the most recent trailers for Resident Evil 5 boasting almost supernatural powers, able to move at lightning speeds while looking incredibly smug. You'll have to find out for yourself how he fits into the labyrinthine narrative of the latest Resident Evil game though.

And so we come to the reason for this timely feature, the release of Resident Evil 5. After numerous delays and slippages, it's finally here. Resident Evil 5 sees Chris Redfield now working for the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA) and journeying out to the fictional African country Kijuju as part of an investigation into an incident surrounding the Las Plagas parasite from Resident Evil 4. To say any more would be treading on the toes of our review, but suffice to say the latest Resident Evil may divide opinion, especially amongst long term fans of the games. Bringing co-op play to the series for the first time, Resident Evil 5 further cements the franchise's status as an action game, maintaining the third-person perspective and scrapping the slot-based attache case inventory system, which has always been a series staple. The subject of a furore over alleged images of racism, Resident Evil 5's development has been an interesting one, evolving from a single-player experience to a purely co-op one and changing certain content in an effort to douse the flames of controversy. Still, allegations of racism persist with some clumsily handled imagery involving a virginal white girl savagely terrorised by the infected Majini, none of whom are white. Perhaps this is simple naivety and a lack of sensitivity on Capcom's part, but we digress.

Accusations aside, the Resident Evil series continues to provoke fervent hype amongst the gaming community and no amount of negative press or weak movie adaptations can dampen that in any way. Still, we can't help but reflect upon what the future holds for the franchise, especially amidst misgivings that Resi 5 brings little new to the table in gameplay terms. Not that this will matter to fans who will no doubt buy the game regardless of the reviews. At the time of writing most are favourable, so the future seems bright for Capcom's flagship series. Innovative, compelling and always somewhat ridiculous, Capcom will be making Resident Evil games for years to come. Now that Resi 5 is available, we wait with baited breath to see what shape evil will take next.

Title Year Year Takes Place Original Platforms Ported/Remake Platforms
Resident Evil Zero 2002 1998 Gamecube Wii
Resident Evil 1996 PlayStation PC, Sega Saturn, GameCube, Nintendo DS, Wii
Resident Evil 2 1998 PlayStation PC, Game.com, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast, GameCube
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis 1999 PlayStation PC, Dreamcast, GameCube
Resident Evil Code: Veronica 2000 Dreamcast PlayStation 2, GameCube
Resident Evil 4 2005 2004 GameCube PC, Wii, PlayStation 2, Mobile Phone (Japan only)
Resident Evil 5 2009 2008 PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 None
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