Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
“RESIDENT EVILLLLLL.” Anyone who ever booted up the original survival horror classic probably just experienced a minor flashback of the loading screen. This particular game, about a group of highly skilled agents encountering the undead in a creepy, puzzle-filled mansion has spawned numerous sequels, movies, and imitators.
Influenced by early progenitors like Alone in the Dark and Japanese game Sweet Home, Resident Evil predates even the mass hysteria over zombies that gripped the country in the mid-aughts.
Which is what makes reviewing it nearly twenty years later so difficult. The question that comes to mind is: should it be reviewed for where it stands now, or do you give it a pass for history’s sake? It might seem like if any game has earned a pass, it’s Resident Evil. No one would fault Super Mario Bros. for its antiquated look or controls.
However, if we do that, then stop reading the review right now. 10/10. Review over. Resident Evil is, without a doubt, one of the biggest, most influential games to hit shelves not just in the last ten or twenty or thirty years, but EVER. There is almost no amount of hyperbole that can be heaped on the game that is not corroborated by reality, to some degree.
So here goes.
Known in Japan as Biohazard, Resident Evil offers a fairly simple plot: S.T.A.R.S. agents descend upon Raccoon City after members of their Bravo Squad disappear under mysterious circumstances. Reports of chilling, cannibalistic murders have resulted in a growing discussion about what is actually happening there, and the truth – ZOMBIES! CORPORATE CONSPIRACY! – is much more terrifying than the members themselves could have imagined.
Players control agent Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, who would later become staples of the series. The initial goal is to track down missing Bravo Team members and vacate the premises, a mission complicated by the labyrinthine nature of the Spencer Mansion, which houses not just the undead but also elaborate traps, puzzles, and secrets. The house itself is iconic, and just mentioning the ticking clock or the hall of paintings or the sewers conjure up indelible moments from the game.
As players move outside the confines of the mansion – or, rather, into its bowels – the nature of the narrative begins to shift. It becomes clear that zombies are not the main threat but evidence of a grander, more elaborate conspiracy on the part of the game’s big bad, The Umbrella Corporation. The house is a shell for the unusual, Moreau-ian experiments going on under the foundation, and descending into the depths reveals a horrific truth: this is probably not the end.
Still, even with the mention of Umbrella, Resident Evil doesn’t suffer from the bloat of fiction like the later games, so it feels reserved by comparison.
In fact, the game is sparse in a lot of ways, from the overall look and feel to the environment and score. Often, the player’s movement will be accompanied only by the sound of footsteps, which adds to the eerie, solitary nature of the game. It’s easy to see why players of a few decades ago might stain their JNCOs over the game, but by today’s standards the scares are fairly tame.
The graphics do not help the cause. Resident Evil doesn’t look worse than any other game of its era, but it also doesn’t hold up well, either. The stark contrast between cutscenes and gameplay is sometimes hard to reconcile. Characters of all types, hero and monster, are blocky and pixelated, but even though the art style is somewhat shallow and stereotypical, it is iconic nonetheless.
The controls, similarly, can take some getting used to. Tank controls were rampant in the era of RE’s release so, more often than not, survival horror titles would have them. (Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark are but two examples.) The controls are not just awkward but imprecise; that, or else I had a lot of trouble acclimating to them.
It would be less of an issue if evasion were not a key part of the gaming experience. Ammo is sparse and sometimes nonexistent, so being able to skirt enemy attacks is a great way to conserve precious ammo. However, the transition from one screen to the next will often throw off the rhythm of movement, damning players to drift right into the arms of a waiting zombie. The penalty for allowing the undead to take a bite or two is severe, so players must make quick decisions regarding fight or flight.
Next: the dialogue. In-game conversations have ventured well beyond simple exposition, but even by the low bar set by the mid-90s, the dialogue in Resident Evil is bad. Really bad. Corny bad. One might be so inclined to label it Wiseau-esque, and it serves only a single function: to move plot forward. I won’t rehash any of the more famous lines here, but suffice it to say that it is hilariously, incompetently bad. That being said, the game’s wooden writing comes off more like a midnight B-movie than something gag-inducing. Chances are, if you know the lines, you’ll be reciting them alongside Barry and Jill.
The game’s real problem lies not in the dialogue but in its tedium. The puzzles can be overly esoteric or opaque in nature, and so the path to solving them isn’t always readily apparent. Additionally, trekking from a distant corner of the mansion to the nearest safe room isn’t always easy or convenient, and the inventory system is frustrating, at best. Not being able to swap items or drop them outright in order to alleviate space seems unforgivable by today’s standards, but it was common practice back then. It doesn’t make the game any more playable, though.
Not to mention that Resident Evil is difficult. It is survival horror by definition. The modern approach to game development would have players reach checkpoints at more frequent intervals in order to keep the narrative flow, but Resident Evil has no such concerns. Saves are limited, based on the number of ink ribbons one can find, and though the trunks are spread somewhat liberally throughout the game, oftentimes players will find themselves encountering a new puzzle piece with all 8 slots in the pack full. This is a concern mitigated by the fact that, in the Easy setting, ammo isn’t exactly plentiful, but it can be found, so clearing the house of its inhabitants isn’t quite as difficult as I remember.
However, despite the goofiness of the game, there are some weird, unsettling aspects of Resident Evil, even if they are buried under decades of cheese. The score, especially, shines in this regard. The music swells moodily, adding to overall dread within the game, and the eerie orchestral quality, when combined with silence or boot heels on the marble floor, can be quite chilling, even today.
The game builds to a weird, industrial crescendo, not unlike other games of the era, and though a minutes-long, Kojima-like info dump nearly ruins the momentum of the end sequence, the last act of the game still feels like an appropriate denouement for a video game about special agents raiding a house full of zombies.
I can’t knowingly recommend the original PS1 version to people, because there are superior revamps out there. Resident Evil, though, holds up a lot better than it should, at this point, but it is by no means a game that most people would play today, you know, for the fun of it. The game works better as a historical document of the emergence of a genre, but it is still quite kick-ass, if you give it a chance.
Maybe that’s the compromise I’ll make on this review. If you’re looking for the original experience, by all means pick up the original PS1 Resident Evil, but if you want an updated experience, seek out one of the many remakes and enjoy something that doesn’t look like it has been fed through a Play-Doh Fun Factory.