In Retrospect: Raccoon City
Well let me take you back, it was 1996 everyone was still talking about the new kid on the block. The little grey box which showed you the future, games on compact discs with dialogue in a fully 3D world. The little grey box which trumped Nintendo’s arrogance, showed Sega that a name alone can't sell hardware and emblazoned video games as a medium to be reckoned with.
I am of course talking about Sony’s original Playstation. Everyone has a game which sticks in their mind when they don their pair of rose tinted glasses and gaze upon past experiences with little electronic boxes filled with magic. For me a pair of blood red glasses would be more fitting as the only game I remember when looking back on the origins of the house built of squares, triangles and circles would have to be Resident Evil (Sorry Snake).
I borrowed my friend’s Playstation to experience this gem of gaming and its superb siblings. Experiencing the sheer terror when you know a zombie is near but you are too scared to venture to the other side of the room to change the camera angle and find out. To the utter panic when you find yourself barrelling down a corridor with zombie hounds clipping at your heels to reach the sheer relief of your nearest exit. Only the sense of security soon fades with the slow clacks of the door handle and groan of the creaky hinges opening another fright filled office or creepy laboratory for you to survive the horror within. Also the absolute horror myself and my brother experienced when faced with the prospect of having to hand my buddy’s Playstation back.
The sheer brilliance of Resident Evil at the time was something to behold, I remember everyone who had a Playstation was talking about it, and those of us without such fortune were fawning over it. Currently the game to be remembered as the first real mainstream entry into survival horror which was marketed and available to the masses, and as a result spawned a thousand zombie and let’s not forget horror games. (Alone in the Dark not withstanding). Building on what was relatively new and exciting in the mid nineties, to create a franchise that has probably not been bettered since.
Resident Evil gave us one of the first games which had a great setting and story coupled with great design choices and a gameplay style which showed us something we had never really seen before. The original game starts with a rather sinister bang showing a gloomy cloud covered sky and rather creepy voice over explaining the goings on in Raccoon city, with the STARS team sent in to take out the cannibalistic murderers that have been reported around town. Then the cut to the full motion video with the battered and bruised STARS team running for their lives to what they believe to be a safe haven in the gloomy forest mansion, how wrong could they have been. Resident Evil may have started with a sinister bang but it soon gets even worse with the STARS team fighting not only zombies and bio weapons but also puzzles and traps all along the way, while figuring out the writhing plot.
Resident Evil will be remembered for things other than zombies and horror; it was one of the first games I remember which had a fleshed out story and kept you hooked from the start to finish. Giving you plenty of twists and turns and characters you cared about, even with the hammy dialogue and limited animations the story still shone through. Its story was again something new for a new generation with more gore and violence than you could shake a stick at. More subtle tweaks in the game will also be remembered with fondness, and to the credit of Capcom were ingenious ways to leverage the Playstation’s limited technology to create a tension building mechanic like no other. I am of course talking about the iconic loading screens, giving you both a safe haven from the horror and a pant wetting lead up to it. The controls also played a part in building tension forcing the player to choose between a digital manifestation of everyone’s in-built fight or flight reflex’s, which when you chose right was one of the most exhilarating experiences you could have at the time (saving the Princess couldn’t even come close). The pre-rendered backdrops also showing more detail and atmosphere than a limited blocky environment which would be the most modest description of the Playstation’s abilities back in 1996. The fixed camera angles were again a nice touch giving you nice perspectives of certain areas which would build upon the already tense situation.
Other concepts were entwined into the fabric of the game building yet more dread, the distinct lack of ammo dotted around forcing most of us to tackle a very new concept in 1996, being very frugal with our firearms. This again became an aspect of the fight or flight scenario forcing you to choose your ammo over another notch on your shot gun. Don’t get me started on the save system, forcing you occupy a slot in your limited inventory just to allow you to save your game, an absolute nightmare for most but also pure genius. With many a quivering bottom lip and broken controllers a direct result of Chris or Jill narrowly escaping a double helping of mutant dog mayhem, followed up with an undead dessert to find themselves beaten and bloodied, but having reached the safe room without an ink ribbon.
The game’s design and progression shines whilst defining the future formula of the RE franchise, the mansion revealing its more sinister side as you explore with the rather unexpected industrial and scientific research areas giving a more horrific and real setting rather than the ‘creepy old house in the forest’ cliché. The finale giving one of the biggest highlights when your missing team leader and Guile from STREET FIGHTER look alike, Wesker (who is the best bad guy in the Resident Evil series for many reasons) turns out to be the villain, revealing the mystery about the T-Virus and unleashing the ultimate bio-weapon in the form of the tyrant. Now I’m sure plenty of people must have seen this treachery coming from a mile off, but I didn’t and wet my pants in sheer delight at the fact that Wesker the fearless leader of the STARS team was to become Chris and Jilll’s nemesis for many games to come. This is again another reason why I love Resident Evil with its ample scares, minor subtleties and huge smacks in the face, it quite rightly became one of (if not the) flagship franchise of the mascot-less Playstation brand. Cementing itself as a sure fire gaming behemoth of the future for both Capcom and Sony.
Capcom knew they were onto a winner and a second installment was put into production to keep the survival horror train rolling. It wasn’t however to be plain sailing for Capcom with the original game design deemed boring by series producer and creator Shinji Mikami with the plug being pulled while it was said to be on the final straight in development terms. When it was released a year later with a full redesign in 1998 it was met with critical acclaim from critics and consumers alike. The buzz returned around the playground, Resident Evil was back. I have a small confession to make, Resident Evil 2 is my favourite game of the series and is what I would consider a sequel which has bested its predecessor, but not to the extent that its older brother is relegated to your shelf of gaming relics forever.
Resident Evil 2 starts again with a rather sinister bang two months after the initial incident, Raccoon City has encountered a T-Virus out break and the city is in a major amount of peril. Don’t worry Leon Kennedy and Clare Redfield are here to save the city though again with a similar Male / Female protagonist setup for you to choose from. Resident Evil may have set the formula for how the games would be played for the far future (Until 2005) but Resident Evil 2 started to set the ground work for more than that, taking the initial steps of fully fleshing out the series universe giving us a major insight into the previously faceless (for the most part) Umbrella corporation. The story in Resident Evil 2 being the greatest achievement for the game in my opinion giving a glimpse of the desperation of the Umbrella corporation during the T-Virus fuelled zombie outbreak. While also bringing a face to the players in the overall conspiracy story surrounding Raccoon City through the Birkin family, and sneaky counter agents such as Ada Wong and Hunk. The back story of the previous heroes, particularly Chris and his connection to Clare were nice touches filling in players on the events between the first and second game sowing the seeds of the franchises future in a very subtle form.
Resident Evil 2 will be remembered like its predecessor for its greatest character(s), the settings and places you visit along the adventure. Who could forget the Police station with its dimly lit foyer, the STARS office and the police briefing room. Not to mention the soundtrack that fitted so well, drawing out a sense of somewhat upbeat intrigue and dread during quieter sections of the station. With the fitting increased terrifying tempo when the bioweapon flavoured faeces hits the proverbial fan. Resident Evil 2 also brought a more balanced game to the table as well easing up on the ammo shortage a little bit, with there not being enough for you breeze through the game. But enough that you weren’t a blubbering wreck after four hours. One of my gripes of the original game was the monsters were all relatively grounded in reality, you had zombie dogs, zombie crows, zombie sharks, giant zombie plants. Most of these survived to the sequel and why not, but the inclusion of more truly horrifying monsters really gave Resident Evil 2 a bit of an edge in the horror department. The design of these new enemies was a natural evolution taking the Tyrant from the first game and running with that design model, Resident Evil 2 will be remembered for the great addition of the more horrifying bioweapons littered around the city. Lickers and the rather gruesome ocular endowment of the G-Virus infected Doctor Birkin being two highlights in particular.
Resident Evil 2 also stays true to its roots in terms of gameplay, the game was very similar it still had puzzles the slow measured combat was there and why would Capcom want to change that in 1998? Fast forward to 2005 and we have seen the effect of Resident Evil 4 and how polarising a major shift in game style can be, especially for a treasured franchise such as Resident Evil . The pacing of the game was very similar to the original with the shift from a more familiar setting such as the streets then the police station, then our protagonists found themselves again in bowels of the Umbrella lair within the more sinister science labs, leaving you to ponder what horrifying things were grown or born in this place. Capcom again finished the game with a satisfying ending where you saved what is left of the city from the potentially unstoppable force that Dr Birkin had become, while saving what’s left of his family in the form of his daughter Sherry (Depending on if you picked Clare or Leon of course).
The biggest boon was only revealed at the end of the game, with the game plus mode, this allowed you to play the game again from the perspective of the hero you had not picked on the first time round. Unlike the first game this did not involve an almost carbon copy of the original experience, but it was in fact almost a whole new game with your second run through taking place in parallel. Yes you were treading the same ground but a new Tyrant (Mr X in a snazzy trench coat) bioweapon antagonist and subtle tweaks to the main storyline made the game feel fresh again. The culmination of these changes resulted in the feeling that you were only a few minutes behind your character in the previous play through, another stroke of genius from Capcom. Not to mention the other extras thrown in for good measure such as the fourth survivor mode where double crossing Umbrella special forces agent Hunk has to escape the city with the last sample of Dr Birkins precious G-Virus. All in all Resident Evil 2 was worth the wait and more.
Starrrrrssssss! If there is anything that most people will remember from the last instalment to hit the Playstation before its younger brother took centre stage it will have to be the Nemesis. Who could forget the pant wetting huge one eyed behemoth with his unforgettable catchphrase. With Jill valentine in the driving seat this time and only Jill, this allowed for a more streamlined narrative. The player was encouraged to get a bit of payback on the T-Virus fuelled hoards of Raccoon City, while also having access to the tools to exact some of said revenge. Resident Evil 3 took a more action orientated approach, I assume to open the game up to a slightly larger audience, I say slightly because it was by no means a full scale shooter with near infinite ammo, but some slight tweaks to the game play mechanics and game design allowed for a more relaxed and ultimately satisfying experience. Taking place in parallel with Resident Evil 2 both before and after the events of its predecessor, the game offers the full low down of the Jill’s escape and the demise of Raccoon City, while fending off the nemesis in the process.
As mentioned earlier Resident Evil 3’s main star was again the setting I can’t think of many game series where the gaming environments have stuck with me for so long. (With the exception of Halo Combat Evolved) The greatest highlight of the game being finally let loose on the streets of Raccoon City for the first half of the game, visiting the hospital and gas station among all the little alley ways and back streets in the dark was what fans had been calling for, whilst they clawed their way through packs of zombies and other unknown entities. The increase in zombie count was also a welcome addition with the increase in action and also in peril when you were low on ammo. The concept of constantly being stalked throughout the game brought a certain thrill not seen before in previous instalments. The further you progressed without encountering the Nemesis only increased your dread as you knew he was coming ever closer around the corner.
The inclusion of Carlos Oliveira, Nicholai Ginovaef and Mikhail Victor, the Umbrella Biohazard Countermeasures service also brought about another aspect of the Umbrella Corporation and their increased deception and exploitation of people in and around Raccoon City, with Carlos and his buddies joining forces with Jill to continue their escape out of the city. The game goes on to complete the hatrick and you enter the third secret base owned by Umbrella contained within Raccoon City. What evil corporation is silly enough to have three secrets bases within one small city? Surely that is calling for a disastrous outbreak and the end of your company? Come to think of it I had three Game stores and a Gamestation in my city centre all within about two minutes of each other so maybe there is a pattern there. Jilll defeats the mutated Nemesis and saves the day as you would have expected for you to escape the doomed Raccoon City just in time with fan favourite Barry before it becomes an even less welcoming places than when it was filled with zombies and monsters.
The story arc of Resident evil 3 did feel familiar but fresh with new and old characters alike. For me the story didn’t hold up to Resident Evil 2 and ultimately felt a little flat, this could be argued that many gamers myself included had become a little complacent about Resident Evil and the changes made to Resident Evil 3 to make it more mainstream had in fact diluted the magic. It was the starting point for some of the other resident evil spin offs such as the mercenaries mode which was the seed for the fully fledged 3DS game of the same name. The game did go on to be successful but would not be remembered with such fondness as it two older siblings and was ultimately the begging of the end for the golden age of resident evil in most people’s opinions, no wonder Capcom have tried to capitalise on this reverie every fan has for this particular time frame in the universe with Resident Evil Operation Raccoon city.
All in all the original three Resident Evil games were the greatest highlights of the Playstation and the success of the series is again down to the partnership of Sony and Capcom pushing it as a flagship series for the little grey box. Resident Evil did go on to expand the universe and release books, comics, films, a multitude of ports to Dreamcast ,PC and the fabulous Gamecube remake. Although for my self and many others the time the franchise spent at home was where Resident Evil was at its height. At the time Resident Evil was feeling like a leaner beast (or should i say bio-weapon) smelling as fresh as an open zombie bite, raw and bloody with some life still in it, rather than a fetid maggot infested walking corpse, like today.