A chilling RPG created by Mega Man 2’s producer spooks Japanese gamers and inspires upstart developer Shinji Mikami to build a virtual haunted house.
Horror House: The Making and REmaking of Resident Evil
Chapter 1: The Other Mansion Incident
Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House…
The mansion wasn’t dying. It was dead. It was death.
Tucked far back in the forest, once it had been beautiful, but now it was fallen into ruin. Paint and plaster peeled like dead skin. Spider-web cracks marred the walls.
Inside, darkness hung thick and heavy. Grand, dilapidated rooms reeked of mold. Glass lay scattered across stained carpeting and marble tiles. Horrors roamed the halls — crawling, dragging, and pulling themselves along as they groaned into the stillness.
Players who guessed the mansion was built by one Oswell E. Spencer would be mistaken — and yet correct at the same time.
And whatever walked there…
Based on his appearance, few would’ve suspected that Tokuro Fujiwara was a masochist. Diminutive, slender, and quiet, Fujiwara accepted a position at Capcom designing coin-op action games in 1983. Two years later he took the reins as producer on Ghosts ‘n Goblins, a punishingly difficult side-scrolling action game. “Those two titles were the last arcade games I ever did,” Fujiwara told Continue in 2003.
By 1988, Fujiwara rose to the post of general manager of Capcom’s Console Games Division. “Up until then, arcade games were being ported to domestic console consoles, so the arcade controlled the flow to the domestic console market,” he explained in the blog interview. “But the Famicom market was big business, and making games for the system wasn’t just something you could do in your spare time. That’s why people started talking about dividing the company into separate divisions.”
Fujiwara further cemented his reputation for crafting pleasurable yet painful gameplay by producing Mega Man 2, a notoriously challenging platformer created by Akira Kitamura where players defeat bosses and use their weapons against other bosses, rock-paper-scissors style.
(Mega Man artist Keiji Inafune is erroneously credited as the creator of the character and series. Inafune set the record straight at the 2007 Tokyo Game Show. “I’m often called the father of Mega Man, but actually, his design was already created when I joined Capcom. My mentor [Kitamura], who was the designer of the original Mega Man, had a basic concept of what Mega Man was supposed to look like. So I only did half of the job in creating him.”)
One of Capcom’s most successful projects, Mega Man 2 started as something of a skunkworks game at Capcom. After the original Mega Man failed to rake in high sales, Capcom executives permitted the game’s designers to create a sequel on the condition that they work on it in parallel with other projects.
“So we, of our own accord, got together, spent our own time, we worked really, really hard, you know, just 20-hour days to complete this, because we were making something we wanted to make,” reflected Inafune in a 2004 interview. “Probably in all my years of actually being in a video game company, that was the best time of my working at Capcom, because we were actually working toward a goal, we were laying it all on the line, we were doing what we wanted to do. And it really showed in the game, because it’s a game, once again, that we put all our time and effort and love, so to speak, into it, designing it.”
Following the smashing success of Mega Man 2 in 1989, Fujiwara produced another NES game called Sweet Home. He envisioned it as a psychological-horror title loosely based on a movie of the same name. “Sweet Home caused me a ton of trouble,” Fujiwara said. “Up till then, I’d taken a lot of influence from arcade games. When I planned out original titles, I wasn’t focused on dealing with consumer limitations, but rather getting rid of monetary and temporal roadblocks. Then, talk began about doing a game based on a movie, and I figured I could make use of my ideas.”
In Fujiwara’s game, a team of five documentarians walk into a mansion to verify or debunk the myth that an eccentric artist had stashed his paintings there before disappearing. Whether or not the team survives is up to players.
Although psychological horror suffused every square inch of its virtual real estate, Sweet Home did not originate the survival-horror genre; it’s actually a role-playing game. Each of the five characters possesses a special item such as a skeleton key to open doors and a lighter that powered a generator, which restores power to previously inaccessible wings of the house.
As players wander around, random battles against macabre denizens of the house break similar to the turn-based combat systems seen in Japanese RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. If a party member dies, their special item follows them to the grave.
Fujiwara was merciless, but not cruel. Finite items lying around the manse perform the same functions as special items: If the player’s nurse bites the dust, they can scrounge up painkillers to heal their party.
Managing the party and inventory is essential to victory. Each character can only carry one weapon and two items in addition to his or her special item. When a character dies, players lose those inventory slots. They can divide characters into smaller groups of two or three to cover more ground, and if one group gets into a jam, the CALL option on the battle menu summons the other party — provided they’re close by. Thinking hard on which items to leave for later, which items to carry, and who should carry them adds gravitas to every decision.
Fujiwara’s team engineered visual and aural effects that enhanced Sweet Home’s stressful gameplay. Black borders ring the screen as players comb through wooded paths and basement passageways. Echoes and chants break out, complementing the moody soundtrack. Zombies and other terrors are depicted as tortured, angry, or hopeless.
“I got to see the movie and take a tour of the film studio, and use whatever essence I thought would work in the game,” Fujiwara said in 2009. “I carefully considered how to go about bringing elements from the movie to the game screen.”
Japanese gamers were suitably excited and scared to comb the corridors of Sweet Home when Capcom released it in December 1989. Lost diaries filled in the story, and solving puzzles — many of which could only be deciphered after players found a specific item or clue — set consumers on the path to a chilling final encounter that concluded with not one, not two, but five possible endings depending on how many of their party survived. “If someone else had made the game, I’d have wanted there to be a happy ending,” said Fujiwara in 2009. “When I’m put in charge of something, however, it somehow ends up being sad.”
Despite garnering positive press, Sweet Home did not cross the ocean to the U.S. Fujiwara filed it away. Perhaps he would get the opportunity to revisit the game one day.
Walked Alone. — Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Shinji Mikami loved a good scare. As a student in elementary school, he listened raptly as his teacher narrated Yotsuya Kaidan, a revenge story about a woman who’s poisoned by her husband and returns as a ghost to drive him mad.
His love of scary stories didn’t help him when, after joining Capcom in 1990, he was appointed the designer of a quiz game for the Game Boy. Development wrapped in just three months. Impressed, his manager, Tokuro Fujiwara, put him in the charge of the Disney-licensed Aladdin and Goof Troop games for Super NES. When both games released to positive reviews, Fujiwara assigned Mikami to a pet project of his that had been gathering mothballs in Capcom’s archives.
“Biohazard’s starting point came when my boss at the time—Fujiwara-san—told me to make a horror title using the game system of Sweet Home,” Mikami told Now Gamer in 2010.
Fujiwara explained that the advent of Sony’s PlayStation afforded Capcom the technology to create more original properties. “The basic premise was that I’d be able to do the things that I wasn’t able to include in Sweet Home,” remembered Fujiwara. “It was mainly on the graphics front that my frustration had been building up. I was also confident that horror games could become a genre in themselves.”
To his surprise, Mikami didn’t leap at the opportunity. On the contrary, his young protégé looked worried. Fujiwara asked for an explanation; Mikami quietly replied that he did not care for being scared. That, Fujiwara countered, made Mikami just the right developer for the job.
“If he’d answered that he never got scared, I couldn’t have trusted him with the project,” Fujiwara said in 2009. “People who aren’t afraid of anything don’t understand what’s frightening. In my view, you can’t make a horror game if you don’t have any fear.”
Mikami found himself compelled to do exactly as Fujiwara bid. In a 2001 interview, he described the general manager as a “scary master for me. Maybe evil master. I’ll put myself at his feet. He has some kind of different atmosphere than other people. He is not big or macho and he doesn’t raise his voice either but he is really scary. His way is not ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ only YES. I learned a lot from him. One big thing I learned from him is ‘create freedom inside restriction.'”
In late 1994 Mikami sequestered himself away to lay the groundwork for his assignment. Early in his self-imposed exile, he mapped out a story that revolved around evil spirits. “For me, the things I’ve always been scared of the most are ghosts,” Mikami confirmed.
Then he changed his mind. Ghosts were inarguably spooky, but were poor enemies for an interactive scary story. “Thinking about it, though, in the capacity of a game, there wouldn’t be any real feeling of exhilaration if you were shooting at, or attacking, ghosts,” he said. “When I realized that during the initial planning stages of development, I decided to scrap the ghost idea and find a different type of enemy threat.”
After giving the matter some more thought, Mikami decided on zombies—monsters that resembled and acted like human beings, but bereft of morals or rational thought. “At that time I recalled the film, Dawn of The Dead; I loved that film,” Mikami said. “It was unfortunate, as far as the audience was concerned, that [the characters] couldn’t survive; but with a game, the players could use their own techniques and thinking in order to survive the experience.”
Over the next several months, Mikami sketched characters, rooms, traps, and puzzles. “For the first six months of development, I was the ‘team,'” according to Mikami. “Six months down the line I was joined by another planner, but after three months of working together he left to do development work on another project.”
When he emerged, the concept he brought to Fujiwara bore a resemblance to Sweet Home, but was also a unique beast. His story would revolve around a pharmaceuticals company that invented biological weapons that transformed humans into mindless, deformed abominations able to win wars in place of human soldiers. Some trappings from Sweet Home, such as the mansion setting, save rooms, multiple endings, careful management of supplies, and journals to flesh out the story, would be transplanted. Unlike Sweet Home, which was displayed from a top-down view, Mikami’s spiritual successor would unfold in first-person perspective—immersing players even further in the horrific setting.
Fujiwara approved the design and asked what the game would be called. Mikami answered swiftly.
“Bio Hazard.” 
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Preview for Chapter 2: Backed by a growing team of eager developers, Shinji Mikami and Tokuro Fujiwara lay the groundwork for Mikami’s house of horrors.
The following sources were helpful in writing this article:
* This article was revised from the original published in RETRO Videogame Magazine issue #10, published in February 2016.
*  Author’s note: The original Resident Evil was released in Japan as Bio Hazard, two words. Subsequent releases were called “Biohazard,” using the conjoined word.
* “The Making Of Resident Evil.” Now Gamer. http://www.nowgamer.com/the-making-of-resident-evil/.
* “Shinji Mikami: the godfather of horror games.” Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/30/shinji-mikami-evil-within-resident-evil.
* “The Man Who Made Ghosts’n Goblins.” Glitter Berri’s Game Translations. (Original article published in Continue, a Japanese gaming publication.) http://www.glitterberri.com/developer-interviews/tokuro-fujiwara/.
* “TGS ’07: Mega Man celebrates 20th anniversary.” Gamespot. Published 23 September 2007. http://www.gamespot.com/news/6179759.html/.
* Hoffman, Chris, “The Best Damn Mega Man Feature Period,” Play Vol. 3 No. 4.
* “Top 100 Game Creators of All Time.” IGN. http://www.ign.com/top/game-creators/13.html.