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Posted by on Aug 5, 2010

The Umbrella Chronicles: A History of Resident Evil

The Umbrella Chronicles: A History of Resident Evil

Franchising and branding can be detrimental to a video game series. A prime example of this phenomenon is Tomb Raider. The original title in 1996 was revolutionary. Starring buxom heroine Lara Croft, not only was Tomb Raider the first truly 3D game ever made, Core Design’s magnum opus captured a wondrous sense of scope and adventure that no other game before it could ever hope to achieve.

Subsequent sequels, knocked up and churned out every year in time for Christmas in order to capitalize on an increasingly gaming-orientated public, saw the once-legendary series nose-dive at an astonishing rate. No title in the series exposed this fact more than PSone swansong Tomb Raider Chronicles, the video game equivalent of a flat-packed love seat, clumsily tacked together at the peak of a mid-life crisis. It came bundled with the programmers’ own level editor, a move that screamed the sentiment ‘You do it, we can’t be bothered anymore.’

Sure enough, Core Design only lasted one more game – the most lacklustre of the lot, The Angel of Darkness – before giving up entirely and passing the torch to US developer Crystal Dynamics. Over the years, Konami’s Silent Hill has followed suit and descended into mediocrity. Early titles redefined the survival horror genre, but the series has fallen into an unfortunate habit of style over substance in more recent editions, especially 2007’s Origins and 2008’s Homecoming. It’s no coincidence that Konami’s own Team Silent threw in the towel in 2003, meaning much of Silent Hill’s decline could easily be attributed to the series having been passed around like a bawling child between Western development teams ever since. Both of these are prime examples of truly brilliant video game series that should maybe, just maybe, have gone out on a high. One series that continues to go from strength to strength however, is Capcom’s Resident Evil.

Influenced by very early niche titles like Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil was the first game of its type to coin the phrase ‘survival horror’. Released in 1996 on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn, the original game stars two of the most iconic characters in gaming, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, as they investigate a spooky mansion in the heart of Raccoon City’s forest region. Resident Evil rewrote the rule book for horror gaming, exhibiting explicit violence and pushing the boundaries of acceptability – and not just with its horrendous voice acting. Zombies, giant snakes, mutant Dobermans and all manner of other vile creatures haunt the dark, narrow hallways. Ammo and health items, on the other hand, are about as common as hens teeth. Both characters have individual, varied story modes, climaxing within a secret laboratory under the mansion, where they uncover the truth surrounding pharmaceutical company Umbrella’s horrifying experiments.

The iconic scene from those first terrifying moments of Resident Evil.

Using 3D character models against pre-rendered backgrounds, Resident Evil looked better than any other game of its time. Naturally, the world descended into Resi-mania. It was ported to PC, re-released on PlayStation with a plethora of added extras and would go on to be beautifully re-imagined for the Nintendo Gamecube. Even later still it became the flagship horror title for the Nintendo DS complete with touch-screen elements and online multiplayer. All in all, the original Resident Evil has sold in the region of three million copies, with the Gamecube remake selling a further one and a half million. However, it wasn’t until 1998 and the release of the sequel that the series really began to fly.

Resident Evil 2 introduces new characters Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie cop travelling to Raccoon City for his first day on the force and Chris Redfield’s sister Claire, in town searching for her lost brother. By the time they arrive, the city is in the midst of a full-scale biohazard outbreak. Umbrella’s experimental T-virus has leaked, transforming civilians into bloodthirsty monsters. They make their way through the burning, zombie-infested streets to the police station where Leon encounters shady agent-type Ada Wong, while Claire finds herself babysitting series numb-nuts Sherry Birkin, the most annoying orphan since Annie. Developers managed to make the sequel far more fast-paced and action-orientated than its predecessor while retaining the sense of fear and foreboding that made the first game such a thrill to play. The game also pioneered an innovative dual-scenario system. The inter-connecting storylines can be played back-to-back in either order, seeing events play out from the other characters perspective. Resident Evil 2 was a huge success, selling five million copies and going on to become one of the most ported games in history, released on PC, Dreamcast, Gamecube and even the Nintendo 64.

Bizarrely, Resident Evil 2 was touted for release in late 1997, but was completely scrapped in a near-finished state. The original title, now affectionately referred to as Resident Evil 1.5, starred Leon and an alternative female character, Elza Walker. This early concept was significantly different to the final version. Shutters within the police station could be used to defend yourself against the living dead, while bit-part characters like fan favourite Marvin Branagh (whose most memorable line was “Ughhhhhhhhh…”) and gun-shop owner Robert Kendo played much larger roles. Although a large percentage of the fan community have been vocal in their desire to play this build, as of 2010 Capcom have remained quiet on the subject, though a great deal of information and footage is available online. Considering that originally, police chief Brian Irons wasn’t a total nut-job and Ada was named Linda, perhaps rather than lamenting the chance to play Resident Evil 1.5, we should be praying to the patron saint of lost causes that it stays hidden forever.

“S.T.A.R.S…” The original survival horror bad-ass, Nemesis.

Bringing veteran character Jill Valentine back into the fold, albeit with a new haircut and much less clothing, Resident Evil 3: Nemesis is set in the 24 hours before and after Resident Evil 2 as Jill sets about escaping the city during the T-virus outbreak. Story and character elements slowly began to be sidelined in favour of bigger, louder guns and some of the ugliest T-virus creations yet, including one of the series most recognisable baddies, Nemesis. Unfortunately, for all intents and purposes, Nemesis simply rehashes the events of the second game, to the point where the first section almost mirrors it completely. As great as it is as a standalone title, releasing such a similar game so soon after Resident Evil 2 caused a negative backlash from within the devoted fan community, amid fears that the series was becoming over-saturated. Nevertheless, Nemesis was a moderate success, selling three and a half million copies. Strangely – yet in hindsight unsurprisingly – spin-off title Resident Evil Code: Veronica has since been referred to as “the true sequel to Resident Evil 2” while Nemesis has been rumoured to have begun life as a spin-off.

Skipping over the ill-advised Survivor series in an attempt to forget such irreverent bilge was ever pressed to a disc, Code: Veronica breathed new life into the tiring franchise. Released on the – at the time – next generation of consoles, it incorporated fully 3D backgrounds, dynamic camera angles and a brand new location, Rockfort Island. Three months after the incident in Raccoon City, brother-sister duo Claire and Chris Redfield return as Claire is captured within Umbrella’s European headquarters and flown to a prison island where she meets inmate Steve Burnside. Naturally, he’s about the only human being left on the island, the rest having been transformed into the walking dead. Claire’s travels take her to a base in the back-end of nowhere, otherwise known as the Antarctic, where she unravels the mystery surrounding the T-Veronica virus and the bizarre Ashford family’s connections with Umbrella. Unfortunately, Code: Veronica’s initial release on the doomed Sega Dreamcast proved to be its downfall. Despite rave reviews, ports to the PlayStation 2 and Gamecube and wide renown as one of Resident Evil’s finest moments, Code: Veronica totalled three million sales, a series low. However, the best was yet to come.

Capcom signed an exclusivity deal with Nintendo shortly before the release of their Gamecube console. The first of these games was the breathtaking remake of the original Resident Evil, completely updated for the new generation with gorgeous graphics, spooky new locales, a brand new boss creature, improved puzzles and, mercifully, re-recorded voice work. Shortly afterwards, Resident Evil Zero was released starring Chris Redfield’s drippy sidekick Rebecca Chambers and new character Billy Coen, chronicling the events leading up to the mansion incident and fleshing out the elusive character of Umbrella founder James Marcus. The Gamecube’s technical prowess enabled developers to introduce a host of new game-play aspects like the intuitive partner system, allowing the player to switch control to the other character at the touch of a button with no noticeable loading times, even when the two characters are in different areas. The dynamics of Zero made it a very different Resident Evil experience and while it received some of the lowest review scores of the main series, it was a solid title and well-received by consumers. Neither title sold especially well due to low demand for the Gamecube, yet they remained Nintendo exclusives.

A shot of the main hall taken from the stunning Gamecube REmake.

2005 saw the release of Resident Evil 4, the first to completely reboot the series. Casting off its rapidly-dating survival horror stylings completely, the fourth entry successfully bridged the gap between classic Resident Evil and a fully-fledged action adventure. A bold move by Capcom, it served to alienate a small amount of the series fan base but garnered a huge amount of new fans in their place. Six years on from the outbreak in Raccoon City, Leon S. Kennedy returns in a new role as a government agent. He’s sent on a mission to rescue the president’s daughter – the woefully shrill Ashley – from a religious cult holed up in a farming village in rural Spain, of all places, with a motley crew of brand new villains and the surprise return of a face from Leon’s past making for a brilliant storyline. Not only did Resident Evil 4 do away with static camera angles and simple point-and-shoot gun-play in favour of a pioneering over-the-shoulder third-person perspective with precision aiming controls, it also closed the door on the T-virus outbreak and its fallout. Zombies were replaced with ‘ganados’, humans infected with a mind-controlling parasitic organism known as Las Plagas.

Luckily for the fans that weren’t entirely put off by its unfamiliar, modern guise, Resident Evil 4 advanced the series light-years while retaining all the charm and brilliance it was renowned for. It scored some of the highest review scores the franchise had ever seen, topped several ‘Game of the Year’ polls and was regarded as one of the best Gamecube games ever made. However, by this point the console was in sharp decline, prompting the shock move of porting the title to PlayStation 2 and PC with added content, breaking the exclusivity deal. While technically inferior to the Gamecube version, the PlayStation 2 port sold more copies than the original, totalling sales of around three and a half million. A Wii edition was later released with superior graphics and sound, updated controls utilizing the console’s motion-sensing hardware and all of the extras included in the PlayStation 2 version. A stripped-down version was also released for the iPhone and iPod touch, tying Resident Evil 4 with the second game for most ported title in the series.

Though a number of non-canon spin-offs appeared in this time, it would be four years before another main entry to the series appeared in the shape of Resident Evil 5. Released on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, the fifth game built heavily on the foundations put in place by its predecessor. Chris Redfield returns in his new capacity as a member of the BSAA, a bio-terrorism counter-measure squad investigating reports of a black-market bio-weapon hand-over in the heart of Africa. However, the development of Resident Evil 5 was not without its problems. At the height of a race row, namely the Political Correctness Brigade objecting to images of a white man slaughtering countless black people, Capcom unveiled secondary playable character, Sheva ‘She-Was-There-All-Along-Honest’ Alomar and introduced Hispanic and Caucasian enemies into the proceedings. Producer Jun Takeuchi has since insisted that accusations of racism had no bearing on Resident Evil 5‘s development, made abundantly clear by the slightly awkward appearance of a cannibalistic tribe later in the game.

Chris is back, and he’s pissed off.

Even dogged by this controversy, Resident Evil 5 smashed several records shifting an incredible two million copies in the first three weeks of its release, and five and a half million copies overall, making it the biggest-selling game in the series. Modernising the franchise further, Capcom introduced online co-op game-play and updated the title periodically with downloadable content including competitive multiplayer modes, new costumes and brand new single-player missions, infinitely boosting the already-significant replay value. Just when you thought Resident Evil had had its day, eh?

So where can Resident Evil possibly go from here? Capcom have remained tight-lipped regarding a sequel to Resident Evil 5, though spin-off title Revelations has been announced as part of the impressive launch line-up for Nintendo’s new handheld, the 3DS. Following recent reports, Capcom have announced plans to increase their production output, releasing titles from their biggest franchises once a year. Will this have the same withering effect on Resident Evil as it did Tomb Raider? Who knows, perhaps Capcom are clever enough to pull it off. We can only hope.

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  1. This is a great article! Well written and researched, we should feature this!

    Nice one Andy xx

  2. I loved this retropective Andy – great stuff! Well written and packed with lots of interesting facts. Hoping for more of these from you in the future!
    Got Resident Evil 2 today, I’m looking forward to playing something from the series roots as I have only played 4 and 5, but I do own Code Veronica X which I plan to get onto at some point.

  3. A great, thought-provoking retrospective. Really enjoyed it – I remember that zombie from the first game as if it were yesterday.

    Although I have to say it: anyone else think Nemesis is grunting ARSE rather than STARS in RE3? Or is it just me … ?!

  4. Michael, congratulations on your recent purchase. I would have to say Resident Evil 2 is my favourite in the series. It’ll feel clunky to say the least in this day and age but stick with it, you won’t regret it. Make sure you give Code: Veronica a good going over before too long as well! :)

    And Vikki, I think you may be on to something there! Having said that, even if he broke into an impromptu rendition of ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ I believe I would still sweat like a hooker in church.

    • Cheers Andy! I look forward to having the time to actually play Resident Evil 2! If its not dualshock/analog stick compatable (I’m sure its not!) it will take some getting used to, but I’m sure I will get there. I wish it was on PSP so I could have it on the go.

  5. It all depends which format you’ve got it on. The Gamecube and, my personal favourite, Dreamcast version have analogue capability but the DC version handles like Resi On Ice for some reason so I stick to the D-pad. Code: Veronica fares a little better, presumably as it was designed for analogue in the first place.

    • I got it for PS1, so I was expecting to have to use the d-pad (even though there is a dualshock version), but I wish it had analogue controls! Thankfully I know Code Veronica (which I have on ps2) has them which is a relief! I was considering the GC version as I have a wii, but then I would have to buy a controller and memory card which I found offputting.

      EDIT: Played a bit of it to see how it was, D-pad controls will take some getting used to, doesn’t help I automatically go for the analogue stick whenever I want to move. I will have to give it a more serious tryout when I get the time.

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