For reasons that escape me (read: abject cowardice), I’d never made it through the original Resident Evil. Thanks to PS Plus, I’ve finally addressed that oversight. I can now confirm that it is indeed a classic that remains terrifying despite the fact that the plot and the characters are patently ridiculous.
What’s truly remarkable is that neither the gameplay nor the tone feels particularly dated, which is weird because Resident Evil is most certainly dated. The HD re-release has a few minor updates – playing the game with the left thumbstick instead of the D-Pad feels much smoother for anyone accustomed to modern control schemes – but it still looks a whole lot like a game that came out twenty years ago.
So why does Resident Evil still feel fresh? I think it has something to do with efficiency. When people complain about old games, they’re often complaining about the lack of convenience. Though control schemes have become more complex, they’re also more refined and more intuitive, reducing the distance between the player and the character. You can be confident that you can see everything that the character sees and you’re able to act on that information with much greater precision.
Resident Evil violates those principles in numerous ways. For instance, the fixed camera ensures that you’ll often run into a zombie standing in the middle of a hallway. The jump scare feels artificial because the game is simply neglecting to communicate information that would be available to the character.
At the same time, the fixed camera does add to the suspense because it allows Resident Evil to hide things that would be plainly visible to the naked eye. The same is true of Resident Evil more broadly. All of the inconveniences feed into the overall tone and make it more suspenseful. The game is effective because it turns its design limitations into legitimate advantages, and you learn to accept the minor annoyances because it makes for a better horror experience.
The level design and the limited inventory system (Jill has eight slots while Chris has a measly six) are the best examples of that in practice. Most games have a sense of linear momentum. You clear one area and then move on to the next one. There’s some variation to that formula – many games allow you to backtrack to unlock secrets, while others loop back to a central hub and RPGs encourage you to revisit old towns after major events – but the introduction of new locales is usually the surest indication that you’re moving forward.
Resident Evil works on a much smaller scale. The game spends most of its time in one iconic mansion and much of the tension comes from that centralized design. You have to walk back and forth through the same halls as you try to figure out which keys unlock which doors while making regular trips to store rooms to swap out the items you don’t need for the ones you do.
At first, the restrictions are aggravating, and they almost feel implausible when measured against current standards. Why does Chris’s survival knife take up an inventory slot when his costume has a sheath designed solely for that purpose? It makes for a stark contrast with modern games that allow you to carry nearly everything you find, conditioning players to be prepared for every contingency with systems that designate at least one slot for guns, grenades, med kits, and accessories. Since the items don’t stack, you can have one of each and you never need to worry about not having the specific thing you need.
Resident Evil, on the other hand, slams everything together. Guns and ammo take up spaces that could otherwise be spent on the lighter and kerosene that you need to burn zombie corpses, which in turn take up item slots that you need to solve the game’s puzzles. It makes inventory management one of the most challenging aspects of the game because you’re always going to be without something you’d like to have. The game doesn’t necessarily limit your resources – although bullets are in short supply – as much as it limits which ones you have access to at any given moment. You can’t justify carrying a First Aid Kit unless you’re absolutely sure that you’re going to need it.
In a more linear game, that kind of system would be untenable because there’d be no way to distinguish essential items. The farther you got, the more you’d have to backtrack if you left something important behind and the wasted time would be obnoxious.
In Resident Evil, you’re never far from the things you need. If you run into an obstacle, you usually know that you have the items you need stashed away in an item box a few rooms over. You just won’t have them with you, which makes any situation far more unpredictable and more frightening. The inventory system forces you to make more trips across the mansion, and increases the amount of time that you’re vulnerable or exposed. Parts of the mansion do become more familiar over time, but Resident Evil disrupts that just enough to make you feel unsafe. Whenever a zombie opens a door or a Crimson rises from the dead, a place that was once familiar becomes foreign and strange and makes the next trip a little more uncertain.
That’s ultimately why the game holds up so much better than other games of its era, as well as why the game is worth playing now. Though Resident Evil is dated, none of the key design elements feel like concessions to the era. They instead feel like genuine features that were included to make the game more suspenseful, and the recent uptick in single-location horror seems like a tacit recognition of Resident Evil’s brilliance. Demos like PT and Resident Evil 7 are unsettling because everything is slightly off, making subtle changes to a home environment that are far more terrifying than splashy jump scares that pass without any lingering effect.
Resident Evil constantly reminds you that you’re not prepared for whatever might be next. It sticks in your imagination because you’re always worried that something will go wrong, and that knowledge is frightening when you know you’re not ready to deal with it.