Games of Death: Resident Evil

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Slipknot “My Plague”

 

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It may surprise you to learn that the Keeper of The Crimson Quill was actually once something of a hardcore gamer. Indeed, I’ve wrestled many a control pad over the years, battled fire-breathing dragons the size of the screen, saved numerous damsels in distress from certain doom, and spent more bullets than Johns Rambo and McClane combined. This likely had something to do with running an independent game retailer for over a decade as everywhere I looked, there were videogames and precious little reason not to donate them every available hour of my spare time. Being the all-in kind of guy, most of my wages went back into my store and I amassed a collection of games that could only be described as pathological. Every console on the market had representation in my household, from my beloved Xbox 360 way back to a pristine Nintendo NES still in original packaging. Obsessive I believe describes me pretty much spot-on.

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What is really shocking is the way that I hung up my joypad for the very last time. I recall feverishly anticipating the imminent arrival of two games I’d been awaiting for some time, Dead Space 3 and Aliens: Colonial Marines, and their release dates were imminent when something entirely unprecedented occurred. You see, I started writing, and suddenly felt no great need to devote my spare time to playing games anymore and it really was as spur of the moment as that. By that point, my Xbox gamer score was around 160k (more down to endurance than technical ability I might add) and that should offer fair indication of just how hooked I was. Despite the fact that I had a tendency to respawn at checkpoints more often than a hobo in a soup kitchen, I just couldn’t get enough of these lovingly crafted alternate realities and that didn’t appear subject to change. However, the very moment I touched Crimson Quill to parchment, this all ceased in a heartbeat and I haven’t shaken a controller in anger ever since, aside from a little Mario time with my boy that is.

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Being an avid horror buff, it was only natural that I follow games themed around this particular genre with rabid enthusiasm and this dated right back to Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins on the arcade and a little-known gem called Werewolves of London on my Amstrad 464. I adored the adrenaline rush that accompanied being pitted against heinous creatures with bloated health bars and saving the world from impending doom. However, the year 1996 was when it all went live and I have one particular game to thank for granting all my wishes in one. Said game was Shinji Mikami’s survival horror tour de force Resident Evil (originally titled Biohazard) from Japanese industry heavyweights Capcom and it just so happened to be one of the flagship titles for Sony’s 32-bit marvel, PlayStation. Other developers were already trying their hand at survival horror, most notably the likes of Fade To Black and Alone In The Dark, but these early 3D efforts struggled to make the transition from a 2D plane and suffered bugs galore and controls that were clumsy at best and an aneurysm waiting to burst at worst.

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Granted, they possessed a certain level of antiquated charm but it wasn’t until Resident Evil punched its outstretched fist through the top soil that things started to change dramatically. Let’s not tickle the Tyrant, controls were still something of an issue, but somehow this lent itself to making Mikami’s game even more exhilarating an experience. As I stepped inside the mansion and prepared for meet and greet, it was with eyes wider than the wingspan of an albatross and I couldn’t wait to explore this curious residence further. By pushing up on my joypad, the heroine Jill Valentine (or her male counterpart Chris Redfield) would shuffle forward, while a quick movement to the side enabled her to turn on the spot so uncomfortably that it appeared her hemorrhoids were set to explode in her ass crack. Mercifully hardware was provided in order to even the odds some (with limited ammo I hasten to add) and I began wandering the halls aimlessly with trigger cocked the entire time.

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I’ll never forget my first zombie. As I turned a corner to be treated to a short cut-scene of said dead head halting its chow down to provide undivided attention to its next meal ticket, I damn near shat in my breeches. For the record, it resulted in a demise most swift, leaving me a little older, a dash wiser, but even more fearful as I pressed continue like the glutton for punishment that I was. However, despite being far more ready for his lunge second time out, the bastard only went and did it again. By this point I was starting to wonder whether I was more cut out for Pac-Man but this didn’t dissuade me from entering the fray a third time, indeed I had never played anything quite so utterly compulsive and wasn’t about to throw in the towel without first overcoming this challenge. One felled entry-level zombie was all it took to acquire a taste for survival horror and, with a reinforced spring in my stride, I ventured tentatively on to see what lay in wait next. More of the same appeared to be the order of the day, or that is, until a pair of bloodthirsty canines came crashing through a nearby window with the sole intention of tearing me limb from limb and taking a dump in my freshly exposed windpipe.

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Nary have I ever felt such blind panic but, little did I know, relief was just around the corner. I’m speaking of course about the save room, the only place in the entire construct where you could catch a breather and splice together those fraying nerves. There was even tranquil music to help steady the heartbeat some and a conveniently placed typewriter on hand to save any progress up until this point. In case it’s all sounding like a nice day out in the Everglades, the hounds of hell weren’t going anywhere and were waiting patiently for the very moment when I bucked up and grew a pair. But I now had myself a sanctuary and frequented similar rest stops whenever I stumbled across them. The zombies weren’t so bad once you got used to their lumbering approach and, while the mutts I could’ve done without, one clean shot would soon send them to doggy heaven or whatever equivalent Mikami had laid on for the fallen. Familiarity is your friend in videogames and it’s all about memorizing those attack patterns right? Indeed it is but the creators had a fair few tricks up their sleeve before I could crack this particular nut.

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You guessed it, things only got worse from thereon in, with all manner of muculent monstrosities mincing about in my personal space, from quick-witted hunters with talons sharp enough to shred me into a brand new ribbon for my typewriter to oversized Triffid-like plants with numerous ways to deplete both my health and ammo. The common thread was that each endorsed sweaty palms, quivering lower lip, and rectal convulsions as I drank in the foreboding atmosphere not altogether willingly. What really ground my goulash was the gargantuan serpent that slithered out from a desecrated fireplace resembling King Kong’s schlong. That I could’ve done without if I’m honest. However, I was well and truly hooked, and each door that slowly opened to reveal whatever terrors were lurking beyond left a tiny stain on my subconscious which made it necessary to hoist that bed linen just a little higher over my head come bedtime. Now that is what I call an interactive experience.

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Of course, it wasn’t all jovial hi-jinks as attempting to locate a hidden Eagle Crest to allow access into a new area meant considerable back-tracking, a distraction long-since alleviated by constant signposting and more simplistic puzzles. Trundling through barren hallways bereft of challenge had its drawbacks and harmed the pacing some but, by the same token, allowed my blood pressure to return to normal, making the next shock all the more delightful when it eventually arrived. I’d played a lot of games prior to my time with Resident Evil but none that had so clearly depicted where things were heading and nothing with anywhere where this level of excitement. My first play through took way longer than it should have and, by the time I battled the Tyrant last boss atop the helipad, I felt like I needed a vacation. It just so happened that Capcom already had just the holiday hotspot in mind for the inevitable sequel. As you can imagine, the ruins of Raccoon City were no more therapeutic a locale to visit.

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Anyhoots, I had the ominous pleasure of playing through every home console Resident Evil game that Capcom produced in-house over the years and have decided to take a glance back at each of them in turn and see how they all stack up in hindsight. Of all the long-running franchises that I’ve followed, few have possessed quite the same degree of consistency and, while the series has seen its low points, none have been sufficient enough to not feverishly await the next. Ultimately it’s all subjective and each of us will likely have our personal darlings, for completely different reasons. But here is my take. As I’ve already wrapped up my time inside the mansion, I’ll commence by awarding the original Resident Evil the only score I feel a game as revolutionary as that can warrant. While not without its mild teething problems, it laid the tracks most exquisitely. For those still uninitiated, I’d recommend tracking down the 2002 GameCube remake for the ultimate in slick revision.

Resident Evil – 10/10

 

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It took two years for Resident Evil 2 to arrive and, when it did, I’ll be the first to admit that it took a dash of readjustment before I could truly appreciate it for what it was. It certainly didn’t waste any time dropping rookie recruit Leon S. Kennedy behind enemy lines and surrounding him with leagues of marauding flesh eaters and an abandoned police precinct was the ideal knocking shop for more of the same pulse-quickening shenanigans. However, length appeared to be an issue and I sped through my first play through in far less time than I’d envisaged. Initially it was impossible to shake the slight feeling of disappointment after spending 48 months practically bleeding from my eyes for a rematch. Little did I know that I had just opened Pandora’s box and its true contents were still to make themselves known to me.

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You see, the strength in Resident Evil 2 laid in multiple excursions, with four separate stories to play through, each with their very own intricacies. I’d never really been one for replaying games previously, but Mikami and his team found plenty of new ways to keep me coming back, one of which being a damn near indestructible mutation by the dubious name of Mr. X who shared the same characteristics as the Tyrant boss from the first game and had a habit of popping up unannounced and wreaking havoc. The exploration, puzzle solving and combat was every bit as tight as before and, while unquestionably the shortest Resident Evil game of the entire series to date, the sequel was also perhaps the most effortless to revisit.

Resident Evil 2 – 9/10

 

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It seems a little harsh to say that Resident Evil 3: Nemesis provided my first taste of vague disappointment, as it hardly brought shame to the game and remains an excellent game in its own right. My personal beef here was the game’s overall length as it started so strong and I couldn’t help but feel that it was a little rushed to completion as the latter stages felt almost like an afterthought. Mikami and co. had the good sense to introduce a far wider array of locations for the second half of the game but superb areas such as the hospital felt under utilized and any momentum it had built up until that point felt a little squandered. That said, the clue really was in the title here as the eponymous Nemesis itself was more than worth its weight in gold bullion. I’ve got one word for you and anyone well versed on the series should feel their sphincters slacken as I recite it – “S.T.A.R.S.”

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If you heard this word uttered in the close vicinity then it really was time to start shuffling in the opposite direction as though your life very much depended on it. In the history of intimidating villains, the nemesis was right up there with pretty much anything flaming in Doom, and came bundled with a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher just in case gentle persuasion failed. Moreover, he could dodge most attacks and relentlessly pursued the hapless Jill Valentine from one area to the next. Save rooms were still the mini-slices of utopia they always were, only now you’d have to endure his buzz line “S.T.A.R.S” repeatedly while he minced about outside like Cujo with a femur. This alone made Resident Evil 3: Nemesis unforgettable and any slight niggles were soon laid to rest as a result.

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis – 7/10

 

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Capcom had taken things about as far as they could on existing hardware so the next installment arrived on Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast console a year later, boasting the most realistic visuals to date and a whole kind of new challenge. This time the dreaded T-Virus outbreak had spread as far as a remote prison island in the Southern Ocean and research facility in Antarctica and it was left to siblings Claire and Chris Redfield to put in the legwork. Aside from being striking to look at, Code Veronica was also over twice the length of any Resident Evil game in the series, not to mention a fair amount more challenging. Even the zombies now had been installed with upgrades, giving them the ability to bitch slap you from several yards away just to sap away your rapidly depleting health even faster. Meanwhile, frequent puzzles were a bitch and her auntie, and long periods of play quite often heralded precious little in the way of progression.

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If that sounds suspiciously like no fun then let me assure you that it damn well was. The sense of achievement that came with overcoming one of its many headaches was massive and never once did it surrender its grip until you’d reached the elusive end credit screen. Sadly it never quite found its audience as the Dreamcast was floundering from the offset and it wasn’t until a PlayStation 2 update, Code: Veronica X that the masses got to see what all the fuss was over. To this day, many regard this as their personal favorite of all Resident Evils and, while inclined to disagree, it showed precisely the kind of direction that Mikami would be required to take in order to remain one step ahead of the competition and did so with considerable aplomb.

Resident Evil: Code Veronica – 8/10

 

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Another home console that never really captured the hearts and minds of gamers worldwide was Nintendo’s GameCube and the fifth major installment seemed ill at home on such an ailing platform. Resident Evil Zero was actually a prequel to the first game and placed the player under the control of S.T.A.R.S. officer Rebecca Chambers and convicted thug Billy Coen, using its unique “partner zapping” system to switch between the pair at will. This was a novel inclusion and involved using the exclusive abilities of both to solve puzzles and progress. Regrettably this wasn’t without its minor quibbles, one of which being item swapping between characters which soon became tiresome and compromised the pace somewhat.

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Nevertheless, Resident Evil Zero provided a momentous challenge, was packed to the gills with old-school Resi gameplay at nigh-on its finest, and proved a worthy addition to the series. The problem here was that we had already glimpsed the future courtesy of Code Veronica and couldn’t help but feel like it was merely a mild diversion while awaiting the eagerly awaited Resident Evil 4 to launch. Controls suddenly felt a tad clunky and outdated, visually it was slick but we knew the GameCube could produce better, and it only served to highlight how far things had moved on since 1996. With competitors such as Konami’s Silent Hill and Tecmo’s Fatal Frame picking up a head of steam, it was high time for one almighty shot in the arm for the stalling franchise.

Resident Evil Zero – 7/10

 

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Someone at Capcom was clearly paying attention as, when Resident Evil 4 arrived in 2005, it effortlessly reinvented the whole tired formula and moved the goalposts once again. Ditching the tried and tested approach in favor of a revolutionary over the shoulder third-person perspective, it did a thousand other things too and each of them quite brilliantly. This time relocating the threat to a rural village in Spain, it marked the return of fan favorite Leon and dropped him quite literally bang in the thick of it barely five minutes in. While there were no lumbering zombies this time to slow him down, the infected villagers (Los Ganados) were a whole different hazard entirely and didn’t take at all kindly to this outsider’s intrusion. That said, while the odds were stacked worryingly against our hero, he was aided by all new context-sensitive controls, making it possible to interact with the environment, dodge at the last-minute, or perform a number of snazzy finishing moves. Turned out he’d damn well need every last one of them.

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It’s hard to know where to start with what made this game so monumental as it was head and shoulders above anything on the market at the time. The backgrounds were no longer pre-rendered and much more vibrant as a result, far more emphasis was placed on survival as he now had to retreat to a secure location to fend off the approaching waves, and the player was barely provided a solitary second’s breathing space. Resident Evil 4 was an absolute technical marvel and moved from one stunning set piece to another even more dazzling than the last and did so consistently from start to finish. The bosses were epic, the game’s length impressive, and not once did it feel like you were simply going through the motions. When you consider that the series had been floundering for some time now, that’s one helluva remarkable feat. In short, this was as close as videogames get to absolute perfection and an achievement that has rarely been surpassed since.

Resident Evil 4 – 10/10

 

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With the Resident Evil brand flying high once again, Capcom were keen to consolidate and took their sweet time preparing their next slice of survival horror. When it eventually landed in 2009 on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, initial signs were more than encouraging for Resident Evil 5. Moving this time to a fictional region of Africa, it wisely held onto the control system pioneered by its illustrious predecessor and certainly didn’t skimp on the gung-ho action front. Moreover, there was far greater impetus placed on replay as players returned to former stomping grounds to bag themselves high scores and rare items. There can be no denying that it ticked pretty much every single box but somehow I still came away feeling as though something was missing.

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Multiplayer was undeniably a huge factor this time as games were no longer considered good value unless they provided the complete package and it excelled on this front also. That said, I couldn’t help but miss a little of the true horror of yesteryear as the focus was unapologetically wham bang action this time around, to the point where it ceased feeling quite like the Resident Evil of old and became more of an exercise in spilling testosterone left, right and centre. Despite this minor quibble (and many didn’t share my concern it has to be said), Resident Evil 5 provided bang for the buck and yet another masterclass in channeling adrenaline.

Resident Evil 5 – 8/10

 

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The wheels were inevitably going to fall off the cart at some point and, when Resident Evil 6 took centre stage to a wave of indifference, it appeared that the long-running series had finally come a serious cropper. Told from numerous perspectives and through four interwoven storylines, it presented a whole host of new gameplay innovations from the ability to roll in any direction, run whilst shooting and sliding, and assume cover. In addition, it featured a four-player co-operative campaign enabling guests to drop in and out as they wished. Regrettably the quick time events introduced were a mixed bag at best and, while hard to pinpoint exactly what was lacking, something definitely didn’t feel quite right.

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As a result, the game didn’t fare at all favorably with reviewers, with some going as far as labelling it a travesty and blight on the proud Resident Evil name. While in agreement with a number of the points raised and not altogether pleased with the results, it was still better than most of the dross dropping into the marketplace at the time and never anything less than fun to play. Set-pieces were plentiful, there were a far wider range of mutants than ever before, and the single-player campaign could never be accused of not having legs. If anything harmed the end product, then it was its attempts to cram too much into the melting pot all at once, as opposed to tweaking the fundamentals and highlighting its numerous strengths. By no means the disaster piece many bill it as, Resident Evil 6 is still arguably the weakest in the entire legacy.

Resident Evil 6 – 7/10

 

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So there you have it then, forgetting the numerous cash-ins and side projects, the Resident Evil franchise has formed the staple diet of many twitching gamers worldwide. It has spawned countless merchandise, both live action and CGI movies, graphic novels and so much else besides and deserves tremendous kudos for not compromising its initial vision but instead moving with the times and ringing changes only when necessary. All these years later however, the thing that still resonates strongest are those first few steps inside that mansion, the first glimpse of the tyrant, the wonderfully cringe-worthy dialogue and of course the soiled draws which it induced across the board. No other horror series in videogame history has hit the mark with such precision and regularity and, with Resident Evil 7 already in the works, it doesn’t look set to come off the gas any time soon. Here’s to the horror Grueheads, I do believe that job’s a good ‘un. 

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