Where Resident Evil Went Wrong & How it Can Find its Way Back - Part I - ArticleBen Burnham , posted on 29 April 2015 / 15,138 Views
There’s little doubt that the gaming landscape has changed in a major way since the 32-bit era.
It was a change that happened gradually; one that took the form of a natural evolution, with the art of gaming spreading beyond those who were traditionally defined as “gamers”. With that, we’ve seen games become more accessible, far more cinematic, and for the most part easier to master.
Resident Evil was a series that, upon its debut in 1996, featured game design that couldn’t possibly have been more at odds with where gaming (and the series itself) would wind up heading years later. Playing Resident Evil was an exercise in exploring your surroundings, fighting off zombies with ridiculously small ammo reserves, and figuring out what to do and where to go on your own. Those first Resident Evil games didn’t hold your hand whatsoever, dropping you into their settings with little direction or any sort of clue as to what to do first.
You’d explore the isolated settings and solve tricky puzzles, sometimes going for hours with no human interaction or narrative. You’d read journals in search of clues or information, seek out keys to unlock barred doors, and look for ways to arm yourself against the undead. Everything about the game was meant to be challenging.
One thing that’s become standard in the industry over the years has been the ease with which your game is saved. In the early Resident Evil titles, not only could you only save at designated save points, but you had to possess ink ribbons to be allowed to do so, making an action as necessary as saving your progress something that had to be done sparingly and with careful thought. The inventory management system, similarly, was about as unforgiving as they got, with rules in place that made even dropping an item to make space for another an impossibility unless you happened to be at an Item Box to store it.
It’s hard to believe, especially looking back from this point in time, but Resident Evil, despite its inaccessibility, was a majorly popular franchise during the 32-bit era. It was a series that sold millions upon millions of copies, was ported to nearly every platform under the sun, and was a key figure in gaming. But even then, the industry was going through major changes. From its heyday on the PS1, Resident Evil saw diminishing sales numbers as the years went on, with Capcom and creator Shinji Mikami eventually forced to re-imagine and modernize the series in order for it to fit in with the games of its era.
Resident Evil 4 was the result, a game that brought the series fully back into the spotlight and revolutionized both horror and action games in the process. It featured a more forgiving weapon and saving system, was more cinematic in its storytelling, and kicked the pacing up a major notch from anything the series had seen previously. The game was such an incredible success not only because at the time there was nothing else like it, but it for the most part thrilled both series fans and invited in newcomers, finding just the right balance between “action” and “survival horror.”
But then things changed. Mikami departed Capcom, leaving Resident Evil in different hands, and the series’ shift in focus was undeniable. Resident Evil 5, to many old school fans’ dismay, stripped away many of the remaining horror elements left in the fourth installment, introducing frequent auto-saving, co-op play, and very linear gameplay that took on a level-to-level structure. With a huge marketing campaign and the hype engine running in full gear thanks to the popularity of its groundbreaking predecessor, Resident Evil 5 went on to become the best-selling entry in the series, though fans were polarized by its dramatic shift in direction.
Resident Evil 6 followed, demonstrating a Capcom unwilling to listen to the dissenting voices. It continued full-steam ahead into Action Game territory while ditching the core gameplay mechanics featured in Resident Evils 4 and 5, replacing them with something far less satisfying and original. Poor reviews and disappointing sales would follow, ending the series’ winning streak and leaving Capcom at a crossroads. Spin-off games in-between (such as the Revelations series, most notably the first installment) have tepidly re-introduced some of the horror, and the recent HD re-release of the original Resident Evil seems to have done well, though I’d imagine that most of its audience consists of people who have played it in the past.
What’s become incredibly clear in the wake of the misfire that was the sixth installment is that Resident Evil needs a major change in direction in order for it to remain relevant. There's little doubt that Capcom’s attempts to emulate popular action series like Call of Duty haven’t worked well, and it’s my belief that the time has come to once again chart a new course.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I discuss what that course should be.