November 8th, 2022
Release Date: March 22nd, 1996
Format: PlayStation, Sega Saturn, PC, Nintendo DS. PS3, PS4 & PS5 via PSone Classics.
Resident Evil (1996)
Resident Evil was originally released on the PlayStation in 1996- while not the first horror video game, it created and popularized the survival horror subgenre. It utilized the system’s CD-ROM drive to deliver a full soundtrack, voice acting, live action sequences and even cutscenes. It was a critical and sales hit; it delivered an experience that no other game had done before- being that it is genuinely frightening. Before that, Halloween themed video games existed and there were a handful of games with macabre elements. Even Shinji Mikami, the creator of the Resident Evil series, was inspired by a Japanese Famicom game titled Sweet Home that takes place in a mansion with several characters. It had gore, frightening images, creepy music and several characters with different abilities; a precursor to what we would see in Resident Evil. Of course it was a radically different game- mainly, that it was a role playing game on an 8-bit system, but the inspiration definitely exists in Resident Evil. Other than Sweet Home, most horror themed games were obscure titles such as the notorious Halloween on the Atari 2600 and Uninvited on Macintosh. Since video games were marketed toward children at that time, horror didn’t sell well and censorship was also a concern.
By the time Resident Evil was released, gamers were maturing and wanted edgier content. Other early PlayStation titles such as Twisted Metal and Warhawk were proof that the Sony PlayStation wasn’t a console just appealing to children. Sega tried doing this with the Sega CD- publishing softcore pornography and controversial titles like Night Trap and Corpse Killer to lure in teenagers and adults. The massive failure of the Sega CD left a void that Sony quickly filled- taking the focus away from typical point and click “full motion video” games that glutted the Sega CD, and only sparingly utilizing the console’s ability to play video. It’s a perfect example of, “just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.” Nintendo was only focusing on its first party titles like the Mario and Legend of Zelda series’, and held firm on utilizing cartridges instead of optical media (much to the detriment of the Nintendo 64.) The company was also strict with what titles could be published on their consoles, and held strict censorship and content policies that would have prevented games like Resident Evil from being released on the N64 (that is, until the famous Resident Evil 2 port in 1999.) The timing of Resident Evil’s release and Sony’s relaxed publishing policies gave the world a unique horror masterpiece that would spawn many sequels and canonical releases.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room, which is the numerous and confusing releases. I am going to split this retrospective into two portions; one focusing on the original, “vanilla” Resident Evil from 1996 that was released on PlayStation, Sega Saturn and PC. I am also lumping the 1997 “Director’s Cut” version into this portion as only minor changes were made, most being positive (and included a demo for the highly anticipated Resident Evil 2. The second portion will be regarding the much maligned “Director’s Cut: Dualshock Version'' which is considered by many to be greatly inferior to the original release. I am going to focus on the PlayStation releases and not count the Sega Saturn or PC releases, and not the 2006 “Deadly Silence” Nintendo DS release. So the question is: does Resident Evil hold up well, or is it a relic that only hardcore fans of the series should enjoy?
Resident Evil (“Vanilla”) & Director’s Cut
If you have not played any of the classic “tank control” Resident Evil games from the 90’s, this game will have a steep learning curve. Some people love it, some people tolerate it and some outright hate the tank controls. What do I mean? The camera angles in the game are fixed- they are static images and the character is a 3D model that interacts with each screen. Items, enemies and interactive objects are also in 3D. When you press left or right, your character will move to face that direction and you must push “up” to move forward and down to go backwards. You cannot dodge or crouch, but you can run. There is no quick “turnaround” move, which is introduced in Resident Evil: Nemesis. Your character will also not show signs of distress when injured like in Resident Evil 2- you will need to check your ECG to see how close you are to death. There is no auto-aim function in the vanilla release, which makes the game significantly harder than the Director’s Cut version. When facing more difficult enemies like the Hunters, this can lead to extreme frustration as you may not be able to see the enemy itself and are firing blindly due to the fixed camera angles. The sequels would remedy this by adding auto-aim as an option you can toggle on or off. To put it simply- if you’re used to playing the newer Resident Evil games (even the original RE2 and 3,) this game is a huge step back in terms of control functionality and fluidity. Navigation and combat feel stiff, and even experienced players will die from cheap shots from hidden enemies they can’t aim quickly enough to shoot.
The main distinction of Resident Evil from other horror games is the focus on survival- there are limited weapon options, ammunition, number of saves and healing items. You must conserve what you find so you can survive later parts of the game, as the enemies gradually grow stronger and more agile. Starting with zombies, which are slow and lumbering but very numerous, to vicious reptile monsters called “Hunters” and several boss fights. You get to choose between two characters; Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, members of the Raccoon Police Department’s S.T.A.R.S. team that are trapped in the Spencer Mansion in the Arklay Mountains. There are several profound differences in each campaign- Jill can hold more items, gets a lockpick (since she’s the master of unlocking,) and is assisted by teammate Barry Burton. Chris can take more hits and is assisted by Rebecca Chambers, and arguably has a harder campaign since he never gets the bazooka. “Save rooms” are placed throughout the mansion- containing a typewriter to save your game via a limited number of ink ribbons along with a bottomless item box where you can store items you find.
The most challenging aspect of the game is item management- ensuring that you are properly saving enough ammunition and healing items so that you can fight through several bosses and eventually beat the game. If you haven’t played the game before, likely you will either go super conservative and never use anything or you will go guns blazing and use up all your ammo. The former is the best tactic- you will learn what enemies you can avoid, and which ones you absolutely need to fight. Once you learn the layout of the mansion, you will also know which hallways have been cleared of enemies and where different puzzle items need to go. It is most rewarding when you play through the game several times and recall where everything is, so you can replay and get faster times (very early speed running- you can unlock an unlimited rocket launcher and Colt Python by beating certain times.)
Where Resident Evil shines most is its high quality soundtrack, creepy ambiance, effective utilization of sound effects and the shocking use of blood and gore. There is even a warning when the game starts up regarding it! It actually feels like you are in the mansion- crisp sound effects like glass breaking, gunshots and screaming will send chills down your spine and make you jump in fear. The soundtrack makes you feel malaise as you struggle to get through the hordes of ravenous foes- with the save room theme giving you an emotional reprieve from the horrors of the Spencer Mansion. Rooms, hallways and outdoor areas are dimly lit with mold, slime and filth gathering in all recesses. Even after dying numerous times, the game rewards you just enough to keep going so that you can survive another day. The cutscenes, while simplistic and blocky by today’s standards, feature violence and gore that had not been featured in prior video games. Specifically, the part where you confront the first zombie sends chills down my spine still to this day. Unfortunately, the live action intro was censored in the United States and removed much of the blood and gore in the Japanese release. See below for the original introduction, which embodies 1990's gaming at it's finest.
Director’s Cut: Dualshock Version
There were several misguided decisions made regarding the Dualshock Version which have made it critically derided by fans of the series. Most of what I mentioned earlier for the vanilla and standard Director’s Cut versions is true, but there are a few distinct differences that make this version greatly inferior. Even though it is advertised as having the uncensored intro video, the disc does not include it. The soundtrack has also been switched- to one that is laughably inferior. Particularly the mansion basement soundtrack, which has been described as “clowns farting.” Years later it was revealed to be part of a major scandal involving an up and coming pianist that had someone ghost write his music for over twenty years. This was the first version of any Resident Evil game that I played, and I didn’t even realize it was the worst version until many years later. The gameplay itself is totally fine and identical to the prior releases, but the only good feature is the addition of Dualshock support. It isn’t worth it when you consider the terrible soundtrack and misleading marketing. Please see below for the "Mansion Basement" music referenced earlier:
So is Resident Evil worth purchasing and playing today? Even as a fervent fan of the series, I can’t recommend playing any version of the original game unless you are a die hard fan. If you are new to the series, the control scheme has a high threshold of entry and the game itself is notoriously difficult. Reportedly, the US release is much more difficult than the Japanese release in order to get people to rent it more often to try and beat it. It is hard to deny the fact that while Resident Evil is one of the most important video games ever made, many advancements were made in its direct sequels that there isn’t much of a reason to go back and play it. If you want to explore the series canon, I highly recommend playing the 2002 remake as it implements many improvements to the gameplay mechanics. If you are curious about the hilariously bad voice acting, live action cutscenes and other quirks- there is YouTube to watch these without having to put in hours of gameplay on an old game (see at the bottom of this article for a compilation.) The vanilla and original Director’s Cut releases are also fairly expensive to purchase, especially the Sega Saturn version.
I especially do not recommend the Director’s Cut: Dualshock Version as it removes the original soundtrack and replaces it with an inferior one.