I’ve spent this past weekend getting away from Namco stuff for a bit, and decided that it would be a good idea to play the original Resident Evil. Admittedly, I did so for reference purposes; I’ve mentioned in the past my inability to model humans in Blender, so I thought I would load the game up and see how Capcom did it. What was originally meant to be a five minute look-through turned into me playing, replaying, and unlocking every secret in the game. It wasn’t even out of nostalgia, as RE2 is the game that I know like the back of my hand, not this one. I don’t have much in the way of nostalgia for RE1. Not that I didn’t play it back in the day; of course I did, but I never got very far in it, and by the time I understood how Resident Evil worked as a game, it’s bigger and badder sequel was already out and available to rent at the Hollywood Video around the corner from my house.
Before I had even finished the game for the first time in many years, it had dawned on me: the original Resident Evil is still an absolute classic. Even now, over twenty years later, with numerous sequels, spin-offs, and easily the greatest video game remake ever in the time since, it is still a solid, well-designed game. But, in looking around online, that seems to be a minority opinion? It seems to be that the legacy of the original Resident Evil is simply bad voice acting, that horrible, horrible song in the second Director’s Cut, and little more than that. And that’s a shame. It’s a shame that something as great as this has more or less been reduced to “meme” status. Let me be clear going forward: this post is not a “defense” of Resident Evil 1. This post is a reminder that Resident Evil 1 is a tremendous piece of work.
There’s a term that gets thrown around a lot when talking about old video games: Hasn’t Aged Well. As someone who spends a lot of time writing about retro stuff, I obviously don’t agree with this. I do not believe that graphics, game mechanics, and level design age. Now, if a game has some questionable imagery or narrative regarding women, queers, or people of color, I can get behind saying that something has not aged well. For example, since I’m talking about this series, Resident Evil 5 has not aged well. In terms of actually playing the game, it’s about as solid and refined as any game, at least any of the post-RE4 action focused ones, in the series. However, as far as its depiction of Africa and Black people, though, it sucks. That has not aged well, and you can argue if it even actually aged in the first place. Otherwise, games don’t age, even if advances in technology and understanding of how games work improve upon them, they don’t age. It doesn’t matter if it’s Donkey Kong or Super Mario Odyssey, Mario still runs and jumps as well as he ever has, you know?
Resident Evil 1 is a game frequently labeled as not aging well. One would assume that it’s because of the reasons I mentioned earlier: the acting and the Dual Shock version’s terrible soundtrack, but no, it’s levied against the game’s tank controls and graphics. This is strange, considering that Resident Evil has always had tank controls, up until RE5; just because the games stopped using fixed camera angles does not suddenly mean that they stopped using tank controls too. Tank controls are fine, gamers, get over it. Graphics? Well, I guess that’s up to your personal tastes. I think they look great, especially the prerendered backgrounds. An unfortunate thing, but the days of games with prerendered backgrounds are over, and I’m sure it will never come back.
But there’s more to a game than how it plays. At worst, the mechanics in RE1 are serviceable. No, what really pushes/pushed Resident Evil and made it what it was was its narrative. Now, I get it: I can imagine that you, in 2021, find it laughable that the game that gave us “Jill Sandwich” and “Master of Unlocking” can be compelling from a storytelling standpoint. I mean, Resident Evil was originally not going to even have a story. I mentioned in my RE6 piece that the initial concept was cyborgs vs zombies in a two-player shooter. Then someone at Capcom hastily threw a story at the game, and it somehow managed to work.
This barely put-together story not only managed to compel you to see where things go (even if it was just to laugh at more bad acting), but also managed to make the game somewhat relatable. See, the thing is, while the characters are no longer cyborgs, they are all still highly-skilled super cops. The S.T.A.R.S team are all walking, talking super-heroes. I can’t relate to Chris Redfield as a person; hell, I can’t even relate to the “normal” cast members, like Leon Kennedy or Claire Redfield. Now while I can’t relate to the characters, I can relate to the situation that they are in: a major corporation with ties to the government doing shady things that are and will continue to get people killed, all in the name of money. The Umbrella Corporation kidnapped homeless people off the streets, and did cruel, inhumane experiments on them, resulting in the Hunters, Chimeras, and Lickers that you have to fight.
I have said it twice already, but I will repeat it: what makes Resident Evil scary, and therefore also good, is the knowledge that the creatures you are killing were once human. The fast moving, bipedal reptile about to rip your head off was once someone down on their luck, sleeping in an alley somewhere. The freakish insect thing on the ceiling birthing larvae and maggots could have once been someone struggling with a drug problem. I can’t relate to big guys punching boulders, but I can relate to being a person cast off by society. I can relate to Big Business fucking people lives up to line their pockets just a little bit more. It’s not zombie dogs bursting through a window that makes Resident Evil so terrifying, it’s the more mundane aspects of greed and a desire for power at any cost. A bunch of rich shitheads with a love of eugenics used other human beings as test subjects for their biological weapons, and eventually the entire world would feel the effects. Despite being a sci-fi/horror setting, it’s not too far-fetched to believe that a large company could very well end up doing the same in our world; how long until Tesla or SpaceX start working with the military (assuming that they aren’t already), or have their own weapons program? And it’s not like the US government hasn’t experimented on people in the past, what with forced sterilizations of Black and Latino women, testing nuclear weapons on their own soldiers, testing the side effects of drugs and pesticides in low-income neighborhoods, among other things. Only difference between them and Umbrella is that we don’t have a ten foot tall man infected by a giant worm and carrying a rocket launcher around, but the similarities are no less monstrous.
Resident Evil is a game about exploring a large, opulent mansion full of ostentatious decorations, and finding a horrible secret underneath it. The political commentary is as subtle as a drunkards’ punch. It’s about ironically casting you as a cop, while also telling you not to trust authority. Other games would feature government bailouts, corrupt police forces, and exploitation of people and resources. That is what makes the series so good, even when some of the games have been less than stellar. And that’s what makes Resident Evil 1 a timeless classic: it had a point and that point meant something. Yes, it does have a remake, which is also the absolute best remake in the history of video games. But even in the face of that remake, that does not change the fact that the original game is still amazing, and didn’t age a single day since 1996. The fact that it plays well enough, and the exploration and sense of progression make sense doesn’t hurt, either. At the very least, Resident Evil deserves to be recognized as something other than a meme, or Resident Evil 2’s prequel.