Several of my worst memories about the game that started it all were horribly accurate. The FMV cinemas, few and far between as they are, still contain the worst cast of actors this side of Marvel's unreleased Fantastic Four motion picture. The game focuses almost painfully on endless puzzles, monotonous mind benders and frequent visits to the same handful of rooms. Cheap hits are plenty, and Capcom punishes you each time you hope to save your progress. Alongside all that, however, came something I wasn't really anticipating... motivation. I'm not sure what was different this time around, but I just could not convince myself to put the controller down. Within a week, I'd completed the game twice and still hungered for more. But now I'm getting ahead of myself.
The story's been mocked, mimicked, revisited and thieved so many times, it's almost comical. As either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, you play a member of Raccoon City's "STARS" special police unit, dropped with minimal explanation into an empty field. Your main objective is to discover the fate of the previous STARS unit, though that's quickly overtaken by a fight for survival as you discover the field (and the nearby mansion) have been overrun by zombies, mutants and other similarly-themed monsters. You wind up adventuring your way through the twists and turns of this museum, uncovering more and more of the owner's evil organization as you move along.
I'll make it really blunt; the story is absolutely terrible. The uninspiring characters meander their way through the events without a care in the world, occasionally encountering plot holes large enough to drive an oversized bus through. Nagging issues, such as why somebody would lock their home's single shotgun away in a room that's only accessible through a string of unrelated tricks and puzzles, aren't even touched upon. What if somebody breaks in, in the middle of the night? Is the owner of the mansion really going to have time to roll out of bed, run downstairs, jog to one side of the house, move around a couple statues, grab a key, run to another corner of the house, open a door, grab a fake shotgun, return to the original side of the house, unlock the doors and replace the "real" shotgun with the fake? And then jump through a couple more hoops before retrieving the ammo? I suppose the story does the right thing by failing to even mention these things, but they'll still tug away at the back of your mind as you play.
To its credit, Resident Evil really does play like a bad horror movie. Every cliche is covered, every horribly overacted scream is replicated to perfection. The cutscenes, especially, reek of amateur actors, low-budget special effects, off-key foley work and poor lighting. Chris and Jill, the two playable characters, are laughably pathetic. They're both written into corners, acting the part of a squeaky clean superhero to a flaw, every bit the lead character in an edition of Friday the Thirteenth or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Any time one of the game's characters gets a speaking role, it's time to just sit back and laugh.
The graphics of the first Resident Evil really haven't aged well. Humans and zombies alike wander around stiffly and unrealistically, each one looking almost identical to the others. Polygon models are simple and blocky. Textures are pixelated and undetailed, looking more like a game assembled on the Super Nintendo's SuperFX chip than a PlayStation title. The series' characteristic pre-rendered backgrounds are poorly compressed and difficult to navigate in places, forcing players to turn out all the lights in the house and squint their eyes just to make their way through the room. Merging still images with live polygons, Resident Evil feels like a strange amalgamation of the PC classics Myst and Alone in the Dark.
The bread and butter of any console title, its gameplay, is the one area where you'll really learn to love or hate this series. Rather than bothering with camera angles and awkward environments, Capcom has instead sent players through a series of screens, occasionally containing interactive elements of their own. You'll control Jill or Chris from a series of dramatic angles, never in control of the camera itself. They'll enter a screen on the left side, mosey around a little bit, kill a couple zombies and leave the screen on the right side, immediately entering the next screen from another direction. Though it was a somewhat novel concept at the time of its release, this scheme brought with it numerous problems, the most notable of which was your interaction with enemies on the next screen. A zombie can often see you long before you can see him, thanks to the positioning of these cameras. It's not uncommon to run full throttle off the edge of one screen, only to find a zombie waiting for you right at the edge of the next. It's a really cheap way to take a hit, and can mean a speedy, frustrating death in later stages.
One of my major qualms about this series has been its tendency to punish players who have outside lives of their own, limiting the number of saves they can make by rationing out "ink cartridges" as the game progresses. I have no idea how typing "Chris - 01 - Medicine Room B1" can use up an entire ink cartridge, but I suppose we can file that away under "plot holes to never be explained," right next to the question about the mansion's owner and his shotgun. Anyway, without one of these little guys, you can't save your progress... and for such an important item, they're relatively scarce. As an avid Final Fantasy player, I've acquired the tendency to save every ten minutes, so it took a big mental adjustment for me to swallow my fears and dive into the fray without a save for hours at a time. Tie that with the large number of cheap hits, and you've got an airtight recipe for frustration.
Looking back, the control scheme employed here is notably revolutionary. Rather than applying a more traditional platformer's control layout, Resident Evil introduced gamers to a stationary rotation-based configuration. Left and right don't serve to strafe, they stop the character's movement altogether and rotate them left or right in place. Up moves you forward, and down moves backwards. Pressing R1 draws your weapon, and pressing X at the same time fires. It's a scheme that's more appropriate for the kind of stationary gunfighting and marksmanship that's defined the action portions of this series since day one.
Depending on which character you've chosen to control, the game allows you to carry six or eight items, with Jill able to hold two more than Chris. These restrictions do nothing to account for the size of these items, and the only way you can discard something on your person is to either use it or place it in one of the half dozen magical chests scattered around the house. If you put something in one of these chests, it's suddenly available from each of the others in the mansion, which is yet another little burp to throw into the bag of unresolved issues. The number of items on your person is actually a major issue with this game, as you'll find yourself returning to these large chests often to swap whatever you're carrying for another obscure item. All in all, if you don't utilize a guide or online walkthrough to hint at what's to come, the strict limit on carryable items adds a couple hours to the game completely on its own. In addition, you can't choose to use an item without first picking it up, which is a major problem from where I sit. It's ridiculous to watch as your character sits near death, staring at a life-giving herb or first aid spray that Chris won't use because he doesn't have an empty spot in his inventory.
Many of the tricks and puzzles buried within the mansion aren't so much brain teasers as they are time wasters. You'll realize what needs to be done within moments, but chances are good you won't have the piece needed to do so on your person. It took me about six and a half hours to beat the game for the first time as Chris, cautiously walking around, learning the position of the zombies, figuring out the puzzles, groaning as I realized the piece I needed was sitting in a chest, fifteen minutes away, and repeating that process. The second time through, playing as Jill and remembering which random item I would need where, I finished in three hours and twenty minutes. That's one heck of a variation.
The soundtrack to the first Resident Evil is really something that's difficult to categorize. Imagine, if you can, a blend of symphonic suspense, the song that plays when you push "demo" on a keyboard, and elevator music. That's Resident Evil's melody. The composer tried to capitalize on the few "jump out of your seat" moments the storyline provided, but surrounded by cheesy samples, monotonously repeating tunes and quality that sounds more like something on the N64 than the PSX, there was only so much that could be done. You'll either tear your ears out and lose your mind, listening to this stuff, or you'll do as I did and create lyrics to sing along. The music is downright cheery at points, which is really funny when contrasted by the serious, somber mood the graphics are trying to introduce.
The sound effects are done well, considering this was the early CD-ROM era we're talking about. The voice acting is, as previously mentioned, about as bad as I've ever heard, but the zombies and monsters are unique and clear. Zombies, in particular, are just fun to listen to as they stand there and mumble along.
On the large, this was a different kind of game than what we were getting at the time, something fresh. It wasn't a blockbuster, oh-my-god-get-me-the-sequel-now, mind numbing experience. I can understand why a game like this would deserve a sequel, but even today I couldn't have predicted the amount of games it would spawn. It defied genre, so players and critics alike created a new bracket especially for it; survival horror. Resident Evil wasn't the first time game makers attempted to combine horror movies with video games, but it was the first time it was done somewhat successfully. Despite all the cheese, this is a pretty good title. I won't be mounting it, framing it and sticking it up on my wall as a remarkable work of video art, but I won't be throwing it into the microwave to watch the homemade lightning strike it, either.
Overall Score: 7.6