Twenty years ago today, when Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” was ruling the music charts and the Coen brothers’ Fargo had just hit theaters, a new game lurched onto PlayStation, its dead hands outstretched for our brains… and, well, our cash.
Resident Evil was a smash hit from virtually day one, and it’s easy to see why: it combined the brain-teasing puzzles of point-and-click adventure games of the 1980s and ‘90s with a healthy dose of real-time action. It wasn’t the first horror game but, just like Halloween wasn’t the first slasher movie but kick-started the slasher genre, it was the first game to convince large numbers of people that horror—and, more specifically, survival horror—was its own bankable genre.
The creation of a late twenty-something developer called Shinji Mikami, work on Resident Evil began in early 1994. In a somewhat unlikely leap, Mikami was then best known for his Disney game adaptations, including successful titles like Aladdin and Goof Troop for the SNES. The horror game Mikami settled on making was a loose update of Capcom’s Sweet Home, a 1989 RPG title in which five characters are trapped together inside an abandoned mansion by the vengeful ghost of a woman who died there years earlier. From the excellent Sweet Home, Mikami borrowed the claustrophobic setting, the iconic “door opening” animations, the focus on puzzles, and (most essentially) the emphasis on survival. All of these were updated for the new generation of videogame consoles released in the mid-1990s, in this case specifically Sony’s new Playstation console.
Of course, looking at the original Resident Evil from the vantage point of 2016, what is notable is not so much the game’s “next gen” capabilities, but rather what it managed to pull off with limited technical firepower. Much as the smartest horror movie directors compensated for laughable effects and silly premises by relying on audience’s imagination, Mikami and his team took what could have easily been technical shortcomings and turned them into advantages. For instance, early on, the team was forced to ditch its dream of using fully 3D graphics in favor of pre-rendered backdrops with static “camera” shots. Rather than this being a weakness, however, Resident Evil opted for impossibly Hitchcockian camera angles which left players in a constant state of paranoia about what was lurking just out of frame.
Much the same can be argued about the cumbersome control system, which some gamers point to as a weakness of the original Resident Evil. Was it as fluidly smooth as a game like Quake, the other big title that gobbled up my time during the summer of 1996? No way. Did its dodgy controls, which had the on-screen characters rotate on their axis like particularly skittish tanks, make you panic even more when a zombie was lumbering after you? You bet. Resident Evil’s controls were the gaming equivalent of one of those nightmares where you’re running from some unseen threat, but your limbs just won’t do exactly what you want them to. I’m not sure this was entirely the point—but it certainly worked.
The least defensible aspect of the game is its terrible dialog. When they’re not creeping around the game’s dilapidated mansion, which comes straight out of The Shining, Resident Evil’s characters participate in some of the most hilariously naff conversations to ever make it into a professional title. Worse than just “clunky,” Resident Evil’s script sounds like it was run through a dozen languages in Google Translate before being translated back into English and given final approval. How else to explain the immortal lines, “That was too close! You were almost a Jill sandwich!” or “Don’t be a hard dog to keep under the porch, Barry?”
But despite this, what is miraculous is that the game’s protagonists Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield remain as memorable as they are—despite the best efforts of the script. (By comparison, quickly see if you can name two non-ghoulish characters from Argento’s Suspiria. I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count, and I had to think for a long time about it!)
In truth, though, nobody was playing Resident Evil for deep character development. They were playing it for scares—and the game did not fail to provide them. Whether it was the cutscene where you see your first zombie, its lidless eyes turning toward you in extreme close-up, or the jump scare in which two Doberman dogs, infected by the zombie virus, leap through the window as you walk down a quiet corridor, Resident Evil’s best moments rank among the most iconic in videogame history.
As noted, the game proved a sales juggernaut—which ensured that gamers hadn’t seen the last of Raccoon City and the sinister Corporation. Unlike virtually every horror movie franchise out there, however, subsequent Resident Evil games haven’t been a case of diminishing returns. In fact, despite the piles of money gamers appeared willing to throw at anything bearing a Resident Evil logo, follow-up titles have regularly shown an ability to improve on what came before — and even reinvent the genre when needed. Resident Evil 2, 3, Code: Veronica and Zero all tweaked the survival horror genre to improve on aspects of the original, while 2005’s Resident Evil 4 reinvented it as a more action-packed third-person shooter without sacrificing any of the horror or atmosphere—indeed, it remains Resident Evil’s artistic high-point. Later outings have done their best to live up to the high standard the franchise has set for itself. (It’s also launched a cottage industry of related movies, novelizations, comics, action figures, and even a disturbing “brain cake” served at the Capcom Bar in Shinjuku, Tokyo.)
Like any phenomenon, pinning down why Resident Evil became such a smash hit can’t be reduced to just one reason. It arrived at a time when videogames were beginning to be taken seriously as something more than frivolous entertainment for keeping kids quiet. Titles like Mortal Kombat and Night Trap had already gotten the public worked up about “adult” games, but Resident Evil truly felt like a title geared toward grown-ups. Sure, us kids played it in droves, but it was one of a select wave of Playstation releases that made people wake up to the fact that games could be serious entertainment and as immersive as a good movie.
Like any classic horror title—regardless of the medium—today the first Resident Evil carries an unmistakable air of creakiness and nostalgia. For a generation growing up on the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, the 1996 original looks more than quaint, much as Hammer horror movies or Italian VHS “video nasties” do in 2016. The graphics are dated, the puzzles have been bettered by countless other games, voice acting has mercifully improved across the industry, and the kind of storytelling Resident Evil helped usher into the mainstream has led to more sophisticated games like The Last of Us.
But the game still retains much of its ability to shock and surprise. Joke all you want about “Jill sandwiches,” but I still defy anyone to lock themselves in their darkened apartment—the stuttered whizzing of their decades-old Playstation disc providing the only non-game soundtrack — and play through the 1996 Resident Evil without jumping out of their seats once or twice. Its power remains, and there’s no reason that won’t still be true 20 years from now.
Luke Dormehl has written for Fast Company, Wired, Empire, Politico, SFX, The Guardian, and more. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems… And Create More, published by Perigee.