In 1996 Capcom created a beloved classic gaming franchise that pushed an entire genre into the mainstream and has since crossed over into film to become a true pop culture landmark. The original Resident Evil set a bar for the survival horror genre that I’m not convinced has been cleared yet. It was a game people bought the PlayStation just to play along with established brands like Final Fantasy. This was one of the games that helped cement Sony’s presence as the new king of the console scene.
The original game has since been released as a director’s cut, remade, and ported to nearly every console in existence. From a gameplay standpoint, most gamers can agree that Resident Evil hasn’t really aged well, but for those of us who were there when it revolutionized horror storytelling in gaming and gave us a whole new experience in fear, we’ll always have the memories. Here are the moments that creeped me out so much that I still remember the feeling nearly twenty years later.
Eight arms to hug you with.
Most creatures on God’s green Earth don’t really scare me much. Lions and tigers and bears are just big kitties and furry critters and I think snakes are cool. But spiders, man. That shit freaks me out. I can’t even be in the same room with one without shaking and twitching uncontrollably. And this from a kid who used to keep pet tarantulas. Yeah, I don’t get it either.
Anyways, I remember the abject horror of playing those early PlayStation games and experiencing (for the time) lifelike threats on my screen for the first time. I went from classic Nintendo to these hairy 8-legged monstrosities who would rear up like a real spider in a threat pose. It chilled me to the bone and induced complete panic the first time I saw it. And the fact that they were clinging to the ceiling and would drop down right next to you made it even more horrifying.
If nothing else, experiencing the giant spiders in Resident Evil prepared me for the HD arachnids infesting Skyrim, which may have caused me a heart-attack if I hadn’t been prepared for it by plying through this PS classics so at least some good came out of almost wetting myself.
Off with her head!
Resident Evil’s save system was part of what made it so nerve-wracking. You explored the mansion and its grounds scrounging every little thing you could find to survive the onslaught of monsters. You could only save in certain rooms, but on top of that, you needed ink ribbons to activate the typewriter to record your progress. So no save-spamming allowed. You had to use them sparingly.
At some point you get comfortable with the slow-moving zombies and other enemies you learn to kill or skirt around without taking too much damage. Then these goddamn Hunters enter the scene. These bipedal bastards are fast and smart and the want nothing more than to take a flying leap and knock your head off with one swipe.
Potentially hours of in-game progress gone in an instant. With every single bullet a rare prize, and the beasties often coming at you faster than you can even aim shooting them is not always an option so a lot of the time, you run. It really adds a lot to the tension of a horror game when you feel that fighting back isn’t a course of action worth the risk and you aren’t able to save every step. You’ve got something to lose and you are being pursued by a tireless and formidable threat capable of ending you with one well-placed attack. Encountering Hunters was terrifying.
Dark wings, dark words.
Now this is the meaning of the word suspense. You walk down a hallway lined with paintings and switches. Perched above you is a flock of crows lining the walls, cawing, and watching you expectantly. You need to use the paintings to figure out which order to trigger the switches.
While observing the paintings, one may forget the Hitchcockian predicament your character is in. Well, should you initially fail in your appointed task, the game will very quickly remind you where you are with a flurry of fluttering as your avian audience suddenly swoops in and attacks you, sending you running down the hallway in total panic mode looking for the exit. Well-played, Capcom.
This works not only as an awesome classic horror homage, but it plays with classic game mechanics as well. Generally, one doesn’t expect the background decorations to attack you. The scene creeps you out then gives you something else to occupy your mind, lets you get comfortable, and then springs the trap at the perfect moment if you fail. It’s a beautiful setup.
Spiders aren’t actually the only things that terrify me. I’ve also got a thing about water, specifically sharks. Being in water is a situation where us land-based mammals really exposed, and the idea of large marine predator effortlessly biting us in half while we’re powerless to do anything about it is probably a large part of that.
Naturally, Resident Evil knows this and has the player wade into chest-deep water in an underground section of the mansion to progress. As you make your way down the hallway feeling uneasy about this whole thing, the camera actually switches to show the point of view of some thing swimming beneath the water line. As it rounds the corner your character’s legs come into view. The experience was like a perfect storm of AAAAAAAAAHHHHH!!!!!!!!
The camera returns for you as not just any shark but a zombie shark comes rushing towards you, looking absolutely terrifying. If you’re lucky and aren’t frozen like a deer in toothy headlights, you can escape through a nearby door, but those moments are the sort of things we need to see more of in horror games.
Scritch, scritch, scritch…
All right, so you’re exploring a mansion full of mutant cannibal zombies, giant carnivorous plants, freaky spiders, sharks, dogs that smash through windows at unexpected times and other unspeakable horrors. Shit happens. But then you enter a room and you hear this scratching sound.
For a long moment, you are desperately trying to locate the source of that sound. There is no possible fucking way that scratching is a good thing. Not in this game. Then you see the mirror in the background and DEAR GOD THERE IS A PARAPLEGIC ZOMBIE CRAWLING TOWARDS YOU.
Now if this were real life, the offending undead monstrosity would be clearly within your field of vision, but this is Resident Evil, baby. Bad third-person camera angles are part of the experience. The room is small, the zombie is faster than you’d think, the controls are not set up as helpfully as you’d like for this situation, and you are now in full headless chicken mode.
One could argue that what made this scene really scary is bad game design, but seeing that the game was designed to freak you out, it’s kind of genius. Those moments between when you hear the mysterious scratching sound, see the reflection in the mirror, and then locate the freakishly crawling zombie are nightmarish.
So yeah, what a scary game, right? Somebody should make a movie out of it! It’d be really scary and awesome and there’d be a thousand zombies and laser beams and Slipknot could be on the soundtrack! Or, you know, it could be terrible and lame and there could be too many zombies, laser beams, Slipknot could be on the soundtrack, and Milla Jovavich’s legs could be the only thing really worth seeing in it. Could happen.
It’s not just recently that gaming is outdoing Hollywood when it comes to putting together immersive stories that draw the player into the world of the game. Resident Evil was doing it way back when in spite of laughable voice acting and pixelated graphics. You’d think anyone adapting it to film would have understood what made scenes like these work and tried to replicate those feelings that made the game such a memorable experience. You’d think.
Resident Evil is the very definition of a classic gaming experience and everyone has their favorite moments. I’ve given you mine. What are yours?