After a long absence from Bio Hazard’s director’s chair, Mikami jumps at the chance to remake the original game with new technology, game mechanics, and bone-chilling scares.
Horror House: The Making and REmaking of Resident Evil
Chapter 4: Lingering Trauma
“What is your philosophy?”
A string of sequels followed in the wake of Resident Evil’s success. Resident Evil 2, released in 1998, set events inside a rambling police station that evoked callbacks to the first game’s Spencer estate. Resident Evil 3 followed in September 1999, and traded in claustrophobic interiors for a labyrinth of streets patrolled by Nemesis, a super zombie that dogged players through the game, upping the tension to its breaking point. Less than six months later, Resident Evil Code: Veronica ushered the series on to new hardware, Sega’s Dreamcast, and retired the series’ use of pre-rendered backgrounds with 3D environments and camera movement.
Each Resident Evil raked in sales and critical acclaim, but none were helmed by Mikami. Resident Evil’s high scores and revenue earned him a promotion to producer, a position he didn’t want. Producers got mired in bureaucracy and busywork. Directors got to make games. For nearly four years, he sat on the sidelines and watched other directors get their hands dirty in design and directorial work—the creative labors that fueled his passion for games.
When the opportunity to return to get back behind the wheel of the series arose, Mikami seized it. In 2001, Capcom executives inked a deal with Nintendo to develop a string of titles exclusively for the upcoming GameCube console. One of those was Resident Evil 4. The other was a remake of the original Resident Evil, which Mikami would direct.
To fans, moving the premiere brand of survival horror exclusively to Nintendo hardware seemed like a non sequitur. Nintendo advocated family-friendly games like Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country. Resident Evil, with its shambling corpses, exploding heads, and foreboding atmosphere that intensified dread to suffocating levels, seemed a better fit for Sony’s PlayStation 2. Capcom and Mikami took steps to reassure fans that neither Resident Evil 4 nor the remake of the series’ critically acclaimed debut would suffer on its new home.
“The Resident Evil series has slowly moved away from its origin of horror,” stated a Capcom representative present at the September 2001 event. “What our users have supported over the years was this feeling of horror. After much thought, we have decided to return to the beginning and start from [number] one again.”
Mikami’s decision to throw in with Nintendo was not made lightly. In fact, Nintendo was not his first choice. As far back as 2000, Mikami made it known that he disliked working on PS2, citing the complexities of its hardware as his main reason for wanting Resident Evil to jump ship. The question was, which ship should it jump to?
Nintendo had been a mainstay in the games industry since single-handedly revivifying it with the release of the NES in 1985. Meanwhile, billionaire Bill Gates had tossed Microsoft’s hat into the ring with the announcement of Xbox, a beefier console than either the PS2 or GameCube. Despite the Xbox’s impressive stature, Japanese developers turned up their noses. It was an American-made device they believed was doomed to fail in Japan, where consumers remained loyal to Nintendo and Sony.
During the 2000 holidays, a year before the launch of the GameCube and Xbox, Mikami took a meeting with Microsoft executives, detailed in an extensive expose published on Eurogamer.net. According to the article, the behind-closed-doors meeting started off on the right foot, but fell apart when Mikami asked bluntly for Xbox director Kevin Bachus, who handled negotiations with third-party studios like Capcom, to summarize what Xbox would offer developers.
“What is your philosophy?” Mikami was reported as saying. “Sony says games are entertainment, something larger, fuelled [sic] by the Emotion Engine. Nintendo says games are toys, created by the legendary Shigeru Miyamoto, perhaps the greatest game developer of all time. What do you feel?”
When Bachus failed to answer satisfactorily, Mikami stormed out. To be fair, the language barrier between the Japanese and American executives in the conference room hampered discussions.
According to Bachus, “I almost jumped out the window because we had said repeatedly over and over and over that we aspire to enable games that could be considered to be art, much like film, that because of the maturity of the development tools and the APIs and the power of the technology, game developers on Xbox would be able to concentrate on the finesse features that elevated games to being something more than they were otherwise. So the guy who reported to me said, ‘Oh, that’s so great! I wish that I had known that.’ But unfortunately it was too late.”
And it turned into…
Resident Evil’s reimagining, affectionately known as “REmake” to fans, started more as a proof of concept. Although the PlayStation original had looked impressive for its time, it aged quickly. Mikami wanted to build a new graphics engine to render visuals that would never go out of style.
As before, the REmake would superimpose 3D character models over pre-rendered environments. Now more experienced, his team crafted photorealistic backgrounds with a twist. Backgrounds in the first Resident Evil had been static, immovable. REmake’s environments were embedded with full-motion video and particle effects to add a dash of animation to areas: ripples of water in puddles, creaky chandeliers that paint light and shadows as they sway, branches rocking in the wind, and flashes of lightning that light up areas as thunder rumbles and cracks.
Ditching Resident Evil’s cheesy live-action cutscenes, Capcom motion-captured professional actors, such as Canadian model Julia Voth, the new face of Jill Valentine, to portray characters. Motion-captured footage was spliced with 3D character models that featured smooth skin and clothing, completely devoid of the jagged polygons from the PlayStation game. Zombies looked more decayed than ever, featuring soggy-looking flesh, rotten teeth, and missing patches of flesh.
Mikami harnessed REmake’s improved graphics technology to create juxtapositions of light and darkness—the better to hide enemies and let them come shambling out of the shadows. Looking back, environments in Resident Evil had been almost laughably bright, with many rooms and corridors flooded in light. REmake’s derelict mansion is gloomy, such as a hallway where moonlight shines through windows and stamps pale squares on the far wall — and clearly shows silhouettes of undead straining to break through the glass.
As REmake’s graphics technology bore fruit, Mikami and his team grew more ambitious. Their intention had been to update Resident Evil’s graphics and import the original story and puzzles. Over time, they devised plenty of fresh ways to make players’ skin crawl. Puzzles were remixed to ensure that veterans who knew their way around the Spencer mansion better than they knew their own homes wouldn’t be able to breeze through, and new ones were stirred into the bloody concoction for good measure.
Pulling out blueprints of the Spencer mansion, Mikami constructed new areas such as an old cabin set deep in the woods, and an outdoor terrace on the second floor of the west wing that connects two adjacent rooms. Players can clear the terrace of enemies and rely on it as a safe passage, or take the old route if they feel confident in their ability to dodge monsters.
Another example can be found on the first floor of the east wing. The doorknob bridging the save hallway and a serpentine passage breaks after three uses, pressing players to think carefully between opening it or take two longer, zombie-infested detours. All too soon, players discover a new track: a cemetery connecting the mansion’s foyer to the hallway near the save room. A sidekick character repairs the doorknob midway through the game, allowing players to choose between the cemetery or the normal path from that point forward.
REmake’s new terrain flows organically from pre-existing architecture, and forces players to consider the best paths through its twisted corridors. Defensive items add another tactical stratum.
Strewn here and there throughout the game, defensive items come in three flavors: Taser batteries for Jill, grenades for Chris, and daggers that both characters can wield. Before, players had no choice but to mash buttons to throw off zombies that grabbed them. Now, they can tap a button to activate a defensive item. Each item functions differently. Jill’s Taser fries most enemies in a single blast. Chris stuffs a grenade in an enemy’s mouth, and shooting it causes an explosive detonation that decapitates enemies. Daggers force enemies back, buying time to escape or reload.
Of course, defensive items can’t be found just anywhere. They’re in short supply, and should be used only as a last resort.
Defensive items are worth their weight against normal zombies, but toothless against REmake’s most fearsome new enemy, the Crimson Head. In REmake, deceased zombies rise again after approximately 20 minutes—faster, stronger, able to withstand nearly three times as much damage, and sporting lobster-red skin. The best way to fight them is to prevent zombies from evolving into their crimson counterparts in the first place. Decapitate a zombie using firearms or Chris’s grenades, or incinerate them by combining kerosene—contained in a handful of jugs strategically placed around environments—and the lighter.
Lisa Trevor, another new foe, cannot be killed with conventional weapons. Preceded by heavy footsteps and the rattle of rusted chains, she stalks players through the game. Though not as pervasive a presence as RE3’s Nemesis, Lisa’s tragic backstory and the low rattle of her chains induce fear. Lisa was experimented on by Umbrella’s mad scientists and left to roam the mansion. The Lisa subplot was cut from Resident Evil/Biohazard, and its reinstatement rounds out the plot.
The advent of defensive items, alternate routes, and ferocious new enemy types support Resident Evil’s flight-or-fight design rather than throw it out of whack. Every time players come to a fork in the road, or a hallway inhabited by zombies, or get grabbed when an attempt at skirting around enemies goes awry, they must make a choice: between longer, safer paths, or shorter ones inhabited by monsters; between using a defensive item when grabbed, or conserving them, knowing zombies will get in a bite or two before they can be shoved away; between incinerating slain zombies to inhibit them from rising again, or not, guaranteeing that a Crimson Head will be waiting in its place sometime later.
More than the original Resident Evil and nearly every survival horror game before or after, Capcom’s REmake is predicated on how consequences impact the player’s odds of survival.
“Enter the survival horror.”
Mikami’s REmake team started small: just the director and four programmers. The project got off to a slow start. As the game was Capcom’s first GameCube title, early stages were divided between dreaming up features and feeling their way through incorporating them. Fourteen months later, the final two of which the team worked straight through with no time off, Resident Evil arrived in stores on March 22, 2002.
Critics heaped praise on Mikami’s return effort, praising the graphics engine, terrifying atmosphere, and new layers of strategy . However, sales failed to live up to REmake’s critical acclaim. Less than two years later, only 445,176 copies of the game had been sold in the U.S. That number had increased to 1.35 million by May 2008, far short of desired results.
“The Resident Evil remake is actually one of my favorites of the series too. But it didn’t sell very well,” Mikami admitted. “Maybe there weren’t many people ready to accept that. Because of the reaction to the Resident Evil remake, I decided to work more action into Resident Evil 4. Resident Evil 4 would have been a more scary, horror-focused game if the remake had sold well.”
Many long-time fans of Resident Evil took offense to RE4’s move to action-survival horror. To them, Capcom had betrayed their faith and loyalty by packing in more explosions, more ammo, and bigger guns. To play devil’s advocate, Resident Evil 4 did incorporate many of the ingredients Mikami believes necessary to cooking up a great survival horror experience. Although the game was more action oriented, the atmosphere was just as tense as that of classic RE titles. On higher difficulty modes, resource management is still vital to success.
And while resources were more plentiful on normal difficulty, it would be disingenuous to claim that RE4 shunned fight-or-flight design entirely. Its take on Mikami’s formula was just different. The game’s over-the-shoulder camera and free-aiming functionality did enable players to shoot more accurately, but enemies were smarter and faster than in previous RE games. As a result, players had to think more about strategic possibilities inherent in their environment than just the supplies in their inventory. Doors could be barricaded, ladders knocked down, and the knife brandished to much greater effect than in past games.
“With Resident Evil 4, I intended to make more of an action game – 5 and 6 were outside of my responsibility, of course – but with Resident Evil 2 and 3, that wasn’t necessarily the intention I started with,” Mikami said. “With Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, and all the rest of the series before Resident Evil 4, I was always saying to the staff, ‘Scaring the player is the number one thing.’ But for the first time, in Resident Evil 4, I told the team that fun gameplay is the most important thing. That’s what I said. And then the [next most important] thing is to be scary. That’s what I said to the team. That all came out of the commercial failure of the Resident Evil remake. And then of course Resident Evil 4 sold really well. I have kind of a lingering trauma there, because the Resident Evil remake didn’t sell – much more than people would think.”
Mikami departed Capcom after Resident Evil 4, but survival horror lives on. In 2015, Capcom published a remaster of the REmake showcasing HD graphics and a more intuitive control scheme for new players. True to Mikami’s vision, the graphics still hold up. Later that year, an executive from Capcom announced that work had begun on a total remake of Resident Evil 2, a fan favorite since its release in 1998.
Unfortunately, other entries in the Resident Evil series strayed from its roots. After Resident Evil 4’s blend of action and survival raked in millions, Resident Evil 5 and 6 went all-in on action-heavy battles and grandiose cutscenes. Until “REmake 2” either lives up to years of expectations or fails spectacularly, Mikami’s REmake remains arguably the deepest, scariest, most satisfying survival-horror game ever made.
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The following resources were helpful in writing this article:
* “Capcom Brings the Evil to Cube.” IGN.com. http://www.ign.com/articles/2001/09/11/capcom-brings-the-evil-to-cube.
* “Why Xbox failed in Japan.” Eurogamer.net. https://www.reddit.com/r/gamedev/comments/xddlp/describe_what_developing_for_each_console_youve/.
* “Capcom Releases Lifetime Sales Numbers.” IGN.com. http://www.ign.com/articles/2008/05/23/capcom-releases-lifetime-sales-numbers.
* ” Why Mikami shifted Resident Evil from horror to action.” Engadget.com. http://www.engadget.com/2013/09/27/why-mikami-shifted-resident-evil-from-horror-to-action/.