Few video game franchises have persevered as long as Resident Evil. Launched all the way back in 1996, the series has survived for more than 20 years. It’s rare that any pop culture property lasts that long, let alone thrives.
Resident Evil has had its bumps along the way (plenty of them, in fact) but it’s become a cultural touchstone and has spawned sequels, comic books, and movies. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard just hit stores, proving the property is still going strong. How? Zombies and survival horror are a dime a dozen in this day and age. Yet, something draws people back time and again. Something keeps that title magical to video game fans. What is it? How do the Resident Evil games stay important all these years later?
The Horror, The Horror
When it comes down to it, you can thank the zombies for Resident Evil’s continued success. People just love being scared, and they especially love being scared by the undead. The RE games are partly responsible for the more recent zombie renaissance. When the series launched in the ’90s, the genre wasn’t that popular. Since then, we’ve had Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead and countless more films and movies that have made the undead cool again. As a rabid zombie fan, I say thank you, RE.
Though the Resident Evil games have become about so much more than just zombies, that’s still the core of the horror. When it comes down to it, these games are still about outrunning and outlasting flesh-eating ghouls. There is something captivating about the fear sprung from zombies. It’s a combination of creeping dread, claustrophobia, and the fear of infection. This fear is only enhanced by the medium. Experiencing this in a video game makes the fear feel more immediate and real. It’s all so much scarier when you’re controlling the hero rather than just watching them on screen.
Zombies bring players back to the series again and again. But there is so much more to be scared of, from the disgusting monsters that the Umbrella Corporation created to spooky settings and dreadful music. The games just know how to scare people, and it has mastered the survival horror genre. People will always like being scared, and the Resident Evil games will always scare people. That is one of the major reasons they’re alive (well, dead alive) and kicking two decades in.
The Twisty, Turny Plot
The Resident Evil franchise has one of the most complicated and deep storylines in video game history. It’s full of multiple reoccurring heroes, villains, and locations. There are relationships between these characters that go back years, full of double-crosses, revelations, and danger. There are overarching stories about the Umbrella Corporation and its t-Virus, of course, but the plot lines have branched out into various directions. They are a spider web of intrigue, personal history, and cannibalistic monsters.
There are multiple characters that show up repeatedly, changing over time but retaining the same attributes players love. Each game adds a little more to this vast and ever-changing plot, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. You can spend hours sorting through Wiki pages on backstories and villains and locations. The games have created an ecosystem of story that is constantly adding more and also changing.
That’s not to say the plots are always stellar. There have been plenty of misses, half-baked ideas, and repetition. But it’s refreshing to see a video game series consistently attempt world-building on such a large scale. The games deviated greatly from the established storyline after several sequels. That was ultimately for the best. Just when the games could’ve grown stale, they were revived with Resident Evil 4, an entry that changed things in terms of story and gameplay. The plot was still connected to its predecessors but was altered in a refreshing and necessary way. Evolution is key, which leads us to our last point.
Things can’t stay the same forever. I’m sure it’s enticing to never change and continue slight variations of the same thing, but that way leads to dullness and diminishing returns. The creators of Resident Evil realized that and began to tweak its well-worn formula for success. Take a look at the first RE games and compare them to the latest ones. A lot has changed.
Gone are the pre-rendered backgrounds and cumbersome character controls. Gone too are the creepy camera angles that made combat damn near impossible at the time. The puzzles are few and far between, swapped out for fast-paced action and gunplay. The change is similar to what happened in the Alien movie series. Ridley Scott’s Alien is a straight-up horror movie, a haunted house tale told in space. Scary? Oh yeah, it’s terrifying. Then came James Cameron’s Aliens, a shoot-‘em-up action flick filled more with loud explosions and gunfire than spine-chilling scares. And like the Resident Evil games, the Alien series is still alive and kicking all these years later. Evolution is important.
Fans have generally received these changes well. Sure, the games are radically different than they once were, but they contain the same themes, stories, and characters that keep people coming back. This is a fan base willing to follow the games into new genres and styles. The alterations through the years have also allowed new players to dive into the series. For example, the refreshingly different Resident Evil 4 brought in loads of new fans. The tweaks make the games continually new and create a good jumping-off point for gamers. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, another extreme departure from those before it, will surely invite a bunch of newcomers. The series lives on.
Resident Evil is Here to Stay
The scares, the plot, the evolution – all of this has come together to keep these games vibrant and important as so many others have failed and faded away. There are many imposters, many that mimic what Capcom’s master creation has done. But nothing does Resident Evil like Resident Evil.
These games have become a tentpole of modern gaming. Even when there have been misses (trust me, there have been plenty), the franchise has always felt vital to the medium. It has stayed important for many reasons, and that’s terrific. The video game industry is stronger when it has inventive, consistent, and truly scary games. The video game industry is stronger when it has Resident Evil.