The Resident Evil franchise turns 20 years old this March, and the series has seen its share of ups and downs over these two decades. I unsuccessfully predicted the appearance of Resident Evil 7 as far back as E3 2014, and by now I’m almost embarrassed that said game has still not been announced. As it turns out, Capcom had different plans for the franchise, and while it’s still safe to assume there will be another “core” entry in the series, there’s much more to Resident Evil than just that these days.
I’m among the fairly large group of people who enjoy bitching about how Capcom ruined the Resident Evil series after Shinji Mikami‘s departure from the fold, following the infamous console-exclusivity fiasco concerning Resident Evil 4. Whether you like Resident Evil 5 and/or 6 or not, it’s quite obvious that Capcom did take the series into a place where Mikami wouldn’t have, and objectively speaking damaged the presence of the series’ legacy in these later games. That’s not to say they’re automatically bad games – in fact, I enjoyed Resident Evil 6 quite a bit, even if it’s not your ideal Resident Evil title (although there are few games in existence that I loathe more than Resident Evil 5) – I’m simply viewing them in context to what the classic games were.
Capcom has received a lot of crap for their decisions regarding the intellectual property they own, and Resident Evil is no different. Alongside Mega Man, this franchise is likely the biggest subject of ill will fans have towards the Japanese publishing colossus. I’ve recently come to notice, however, that with Resident Evil, Capcom have indeed done everything within their power to please all of their audiences – the loudmouth fans of the old games who hate the action-oriented gameplay of the latest titles, as well as the wider (in their own words) following of more accessible and faster games they’ve put out since 4.
Let me elaborate that a bit. Fans of the old-school games crave for a survival horror experience, with inventory management and puzzle solving. In 2012, in fact before the release of Resident Evil 6, Capcom launched Resident Evil: Revelations, an eerie adventure game that, despite the contemporary camera mechanics and controls, pays obvious homage to the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere of the first game from 1996. This appeared to be their response to the unceasing cry for more classic-style Resident Evil games. Revelations was well received by critics and fans alike – I myself enjoyed it as well – and it got a deserved sequel just last year. While not quite as acclaimed as the first one, Resident Evil: Revelations 2 still got favorable reviews, and stands to prove that fans of these types of games are still catered to, despite Capcom’s claims from back in the days of Resident Evil 5 that survival horror games have no audience.
Even the latest core game did acknowledge the existence of demand for a classic Resident Evil experience. While the gameplay itself was the same for all of the campaigns, Leon’s story had an atmosphere quite reminiscent of older games, right down to the return of zombies, whose absence did feel unfamiliar in 4 and 5. The Ustanak monster in Jake’s campaign was a throwback to Mr. X and Nemesis from Resident Evil 2 and 3, respectively, and even if it wasn’t quite as successful in creating a feeling of urgency and impending doom (in fact it felt quite mechanical with all the quick-time events), it still demonstrated that the developers were aware of the series’ roots.
Back to the Source
We can actually go 10 years further back to take a look at how the origins of the series are honored. In 2002, Capcom released what is the best Resident Evil game to date in my opinion: the GameCube remake of the first game, also called Resident Evil. Back when remakes and reboots weren’t quite so ubiquitous as they are now, the Resident Evil remake did something a little bit uncommon in going back to an earlier entry in the series and bringing it up to speed with at the time current hardware capabilities. The end result was something that made me swear off the original entirely – save for occasionally brushing up on the unique dialogue – and be happy about it. There’s hardly been another case where a remake of an old game was both as justified and as overall superior to the original as Resident Evil was.
The same year, on that same console, Resident Evil Zero was also launched, and while its gameplay was slightly different than what we were used to, it was still pure survival horror. It was significantly more challenging than previous games, and it required much more creative thought in handling your inventory and solving puzzles.
But these games came out before Resident Evil 4. Some argue that it was in fact Mikami’s last project with the franchise that put Resident Evil on the path of ruin, and while Resident Evil 5 was a travesty of a game, it simply rolled deeper down that same path instead of going there on its own. Whether or not that’s true, there is still more evidence to the contrary of Capcom just crapping all over Resident Evil beyond that period in time.
Capcom went back to the first game one more time, as in January 2015 the remake was re-released in HD format on a variety of consoles. While it’s certainly fun to point out the irony that the company who felt they should shift away from survival horror because of dwindling popularity would re-release a 13-year-old remake of a nearly 20-year old survival horror game, it’s more important to note that they have come around to really respecting the wishes of the fans of the series.
As if that’s not enough, it has been confirmed that Capcom is in fact developing another remake, this time to recreate Resident Evil 2, which a lot of fans consider their favorite – or at least their first touch with the series. The company actually went so far as to reach out to a group of fans who were attempting to remake that game on their own, to ask them to put the project on hold because they would be making an official one.
What About the Rest?
Certainly, the franchise is also plagued with odd spinoff titles such as Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City, that are – while fun in concept – something that fans of the series hardly want. But let’s not pretend that’s a new phenomenon – it’s actually quite common Japanese game publishing philosophy to dish out various kinds of games under the same name, to sell the franchise to different audiences. Resident Evil is no exception: the first such game, Resident Evil Survivor, was released after Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, in 2000, only 4 years after the first game was released. It was followed by the Resident Evil Survivor 2 and the weird Resident Evil Gaiden just next year, Resident Evil: Dead Aim and Resident Evil Outbreak in 2003, a sequel to Outbreak the following year, the rail shooter Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles in 2007 and its sequel, The Darkside Chronicles, in 2009. That’s just how the Japanese handle many of their franchises; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a plethora of incomprehensible “Japan only” games that feature characters of the series engaging in pie fights.
In truth, Capcom has put themselves in a position where they can’t win – every decision they make regarding the series will be unsalvageably wrong. It’s not because their remakes and classic-style games are met with negative reception – on the contrary, they are arguably some of the most beloved titles in the entire franchise – but they are inexplicably omitted from consideration when most people form their opinions on Resident Evil as a whole. I must admit that until recently, the name of the series did initially invoke images of the two latest core games quite strongly, and only after that I could recall that there’s a variety of other games even in the recent history of the franchise.
I think the primary reason for this phenomenon is quite clear: we are used to thinking that in a series where the core games are simply numbered, any other games are secondary in relevance and often even non-canonical. This makes us regard the “better” Resident Evil games as supplementary titles. While this is essentially nonsense, I must note that Capcom has perhaps done a disservice to the “non-core” games in naming them in a way that appears to diminish their significance. The numbered “core” games do have much higher sales than those with different titles, but a part of that difference can surely be attributed to the degraded appeal these games have in the eyes of less informed gamers.
With this elaboration, I believe it’s clear that Capcom isn’t ignoring the needs of long-time fans of the Resident Evil franchise; on the contrary, really. They’ve gone through considerable trouble to consistently put out games that cater to the demands of survival horror enthusiasts, and these titles are actually greater in volume than the now arguably unsatisfying core titles, especially in recent years. The argument remains that these games are no match for what once was, but that’s something that can’t be avoided – whether or not Shinji Mikami was involved, and whether or not the series shifted its gameplay format from horror to action, there would still be a loud minority calling for the reversion of the series’ progression to what it once was. Resident Evil is essentially as good as it ever was – just don’t look at the core entries for that good survival horror experience.