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Resident Evil: A masterclass in reinvention

As Resident Evil 8 arrives and the series enters its 25th year, we look at how Capcom's horror IP has done what it challenges players to do: survive

Monster Hunter World may have become Capcom's biggest seller, but there's no denying Resident Evil remains the Japanese publisher's flagship franchise.

The series' lifetime sales stands at over 107 million units, far above the 66 million Monster Hunter's combined releases have achieved. But it's not the number of copies sold that tells the real story behind Resident Evil's long-lasting success, a tale of reinvention and influence -- more so than you might imagine.

It begins with the release of the original Resident Evil in March 1996, quickly becoming one of the most talked about releases on the first PlayStation -- a console that hadn't even been available for a year in the US or Europe.

Despite what now seem to be primitive graphics, the high production values of Resident Evil enabled Capcom to instil a sense of horror in players that had rarely been felt before. And it was more than just jump scares and grotesque monsters.

"At the key moments, Resident Evil has reinvented itself and reignited interest in the series. If it had stayed as a fixed-camera horror game, it would have died a death"

Wesley Yin-Poole, Eurogamer

"The series' ability to constantly shock is one of the main reasons people continue to be invested," explains Chris Scullion, features editor at VGC. "Not just shocking in the most obvious sense but in the way they play with gaming conventions to surprise players who almost think 'I didn't know games could do that.'"

The prime example he offers is a moment in the original game where dogs suddenly jump in through the window. Until then, PlayStation owners had been conditioned to believe walls and windows were always solid in games. In Resident Evil, those once impenetrable barriers might have anything lurking behind them.

"Resident Evil obviously wasn't the first ever survival horror game, even though it was the first to coin the term," says Scullion. "But with the greatest respect to Alone in the Dark, D and Clock Tower -- all games I love -- I think it's fair to say the majority of survival horror games released from the late '90s onwards owe most of their inspiration from the success of the Resident Evil games."

Other horror games began to emerge, such as cult favourite Silent Hill, and Capcom sought new ways to ramp up the tension. After the acclaimed Resident Evil 2, the third outing added the ever-present menace of the Nemesis, who stalks players throughout the game, but the developers knew it would need to keep expanding the formula if the series was to maintain its popularity.

The original Resident Evil terrified players in ways that had never been done before, and not just with jump scares

The original Resident Evil terrified players in ways that had never been done before, and not just with jump scares

So came the first shift in the series. Few AAA franchises have transformed themselves as wildly as Resident Evil has, and this evolution began -- according to Scullion -- with Dreamcast debut Code Veronica. While not as much of a leap from the classic formula as later entries, the introduction of a moving camera was a big deal at the time, given the first three games' use of pre-rendered backgrounds and static camera angles.

"Silent Hill had released in 1999 and many players were making a big deal about its moving camera, so when Code Veronica turned up the following year with a moving camera on its own, it became clear at that point that this wasn't a series happy to stick with what was working without trying to evolve," says Scullion.

"You can trace a line from Resident Evil 4 to the third-person action shooter genre that established itself the following generation with titles like Gears of War"

Wesley Yin-Poole, Eurogamer

That became most obvious with the arrival of Resident Evil 4. The next mainline entry in the series, initially exclusive to Nintendo GameCube, gave the series a new perspective -- specifically an over-the-shoulder camera that followed closely behind returning Resident Evil 2 protagonist Leon Kennedy. For many, this was not only the most dramatic shift in the series' history but also represents the peak of its output.

"It's considered to be one of the greatest games of all time, which perfectly married this sense of horror and dread with over-the-shoulder action," says Eurogamer editor Wesley Yin-Poole. "The camera is still quite claustrophobic -- it's not like your typical action game camera where you can see a lot of the screen. It's designed to make you feel up close and personal with what's happening, and you can trace a line from that to the third-person action shooter genre that established itself the following generation with titles like Gears of War."

Streamer and freelance journalist Jakejames Lugo adds that the influence of Resident Evil 4 goes beyond just the survival horror genre. The original concept for Resident Evil 4 was a more fast-paced affair that was deemed too drastic a departure from the series' roots. That concept became Devil May Cry, which has made its own mark on the industry.

"We wouldn't have certain hack 'n slash games that we love -- DMC, Bayonetta, NieR, Onechanbara -- without the foundation of Resident Evil," says Lugo. "I would even make the argument that Resident Evil as a series really popularised grotesque enemy and character designs, or at least influenced games over the years that featured organic enemies or body horror. Look at Mr. X from Resident Evil 2 and then look at some of the big baddies from games that came in the years that followed -- you'll notice a lot of similar characteristics."

Resident Evil 4 was the first major reinvention for the series, and stands as one of the most popular

Resident Evil 4 was the first major reinvention for the series, and stands as one of the most popular

However, the shift towards a more action-oriented approach in Resident Evil 4 was taken a little too far in the eyes of core fans. Yin-Poole suggests that where the series went "off the rails" was the following two games, where player characters essentially became super soldiers.

"Chris Redfield punching a boulder [in Resident Evil 5] like he's Captain America has become a meme, whereas the roots of the series have you playing as someone who's desperately trying to survive against the zombie hordes -- someone who's adept at shooting guns, but didn't have any special powers or anything," he says.

"We wouldn't have certain hack 'n slash games that we love - DMC, Bayonetta, NieR, Onechanbara - without the foundation of Resident Evil"

Jakejames Lugo, streamer

Ryan Wiemeyer, owner of indie studio The Men Who Wear Many Hats, adds: "That was a weird period to be a fan of the series. On one hand, they would throw fans a bone here and there with characters and monsters we know and love... but it didn't play or feel like the Resident Evil I wanted. The hand that taketh away also giveth; with the addition of co-op, I was able to share these games with friends. I don't begrudge these decisions -- I think one of the reasons Resident Evil has lasted so long is because it's not afraid to experiment."

It's worth noting that, despite negative outlook from fans today, Resident Evil 5 and 6 were not failures commercially -- far from it. To date, Resident Evil 5 has sold over 12.5 million copies across three different versions, closely followed by Resident Evil 6 at 10 million across two. In the UK alone, GfK Chart-Track's Dorian Bloch tells us, the week one sales for the two games combined account for 36% of all launch-week sales for the entire series.

By comparison, Resident Evil 4 reached 10.6 million -- but those sales date back to 2005 and are spread across nine different platforms (not counting mobile). Perhaps the more relevant comparison would be launch versions, with Resident Evil 4 at 3.9 million units (PS2/Gamecube), RE5 at 7.8 million and RE6 at 7.7 million (both PS3, Xbox 360 and PC).

The point is that, on paper, there was seemingly no need for Capcom to change Resident Evil again -- but that was not the sentiment from fans and critics. In fact, Resident Evil 6 holds the lowest Metacritic scores of any mainline entry (not counting re-releases), peaking at 74 on PS3 and as low as 67 on Xbox 360.

Resident Evil 7 both reinvented the series and took it back to its roots, garnering critical and commercial success

Resident Evil 7 both reinvented the series and took it back to its roots, garnering critical and commercial success

"It was clear after 6 came out that the series did need to take something of a break," says Yin-Poole. "The plot had become way too over the top and convoluted. It was very difficult for fans to understand what was going on, there were so many different characters, so many interconnected storylines -- it was almost impenetrable. If you skipped an entry, you'd be lost and any newcomers found it quite unapproachable."

This was exacerbated by the increasing number of spin-offs. In the same year Resident Evil 6 launched, Capcom also launched 3DS outing Revelations and poorly-received multiplayer title Operation Raccoon City. While Revelations remains the outlier -- in that it is well-respected among fans -- most of these additional titles, dating right back to 2000 light-gun shooter Resident Evil Survivor, failed to add something meaningful to the franchise.

"One of the reasons Resident Evil has lasted so long is because it's not afraid to experiment"

Ryan Wiemeyer, The Men Who Wear Many Hats

There became a distinct lack of that classic survival horror flavour. Wiemeyer reveals his love for the early Resident Evil games even encouraged him to try to recapture their charm himself, starting work on a similar title in 2015.

"I felt like the market was sorely missing the unique combination of survival horror and character-driven story that games like Resident Evil, Dino Crisis, Parasite Eve, Deep Fear and Silent Hill had," he says. "Ultimately I failed, due to overambition and lack of funding. It seems like publishers agreed with Capcom's assertion that the classic games were too niche."

But Capcom had not given up. There was a five-year gap between Resident Evil 6 and 7: Biohazard -- the longest wait between mainline entries so far, but the extra time the publisher took paid off. The first-person game took the series back to its survival horror roots, swapping action for slow-paced tension, and in doing so "rekindled a love and respect for Resident Evil," says Yin-Poole.

The game went on to sell 8.5 million copies, which stands as the biggest selling entry in the series -- and second best-selling Capcom game ever, bested only by Monster Hunter: World.

It's a lesson Capcom had previously learned with another of its flagship franchises, the Eurogamer editor observes: "There are so many parallels between Street Fighter 4 and Resident Evil 7. Capcom had been releasing too many games, the series had become too complicated and people didn't understand what was going on. But then they took a bit of a break and came back with something fresh and new, and that got people excited again."

Two years later, the Resident Evil 2 Remake "cemented the comeback" for the series with sales of 7.8 million (compared to 4.96 million for the PlayStation original), and now Resident Evil Village, the eighth mainline entry, is off to a strong start. Released last week, it arrived to warm reviews, is already the second highest UK boxed debut this year, beaten only by Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury, and SteamDB reports it has set new series records on Steam.

Village's Lady Dimutrescu has already become one of the most iconic faces of the Resident Evil series

Village's Lady Dimutrescu has already become one of the most iconic faces of the Resident Evil series

For Scullion, the game also signifies the direction in which this long-running franchise is heading, even more so that Resident Evil 7 did: "At the time, it could have been believed that 7's decision to go first-person was maybe a one-off designed to try and mix things up a bit -- similar to the way Silent Hill 4: The Room included first-person sections then ditched them for subsequent games. The fact that Village doubles down on the first-person viewpoint, though, is a much stronger indication that Capcom believes this is legitimately the main style for the series going forwards, at least for the foreseeable future."

"Village is a much stronger indication that Capcom believes this is the main style for the series going forwards, at least for the foreseeable future"

Chris Scullion, VGC

Lugo adds: "Whatever comes next will give us that horror vibe we get from the likes of Resident Evil 7, Village, and RE2 Remake. That's Resident Evil at its absolute best, and I think Capcom has realised that after a long time learning through trial and error."

The streamer notes that, to an extent, nostalgia for the earlier games is helping to drive the series at the moment, fuelled by both the AAA remakes and Resident Evil 7's return to the franchise's roots.

"For all the bad moments we see from Resident Evil in games, movies, or other media, we just can't forget how great some of those really good moments were," he says. "Every new change we get for Resident Evil has the potential to give us more memories like that."

Scullion believes the series' ongoing appeal comes back to that ability to truly scare players, something Capcom has experimented with since the beginning. In addition to the window-shattering dogs of the first game, the second toyed with its iconic door-based loading animation, adding zombies to the scene to give players a fright. Nemesis is unrestricted by scenery, the villages of Resident Evil 4 break down doors and put up ladders to find Leon, and the Baker family can destroy walls in 7. In Resident Evil, there is rarely a safe place to hide.

Scullion adds: "The series' success in my eyes is based on its continued focus on not just scaring the player with typical jump scares, but doing things like this that make them think 'Well, I didn't know a game could do that and, now all bets are off, I'm nervous.'"

Those dramatic shifts in design are also key to the franchise's longevity. While not all have been for the best -- paging the "action flicks" of Resident Evil 5 and 6 -- Resident Evil 7 proved Capcom knows how to scale things back to what players want, and what attracted them to Resident Evil in the first place.

"At the key moments, Resident Evil has reinvented itself and reignited interest in the series," Yin-Poole conclues. "If it had stayed as a fixed-camera horror game, it would have died a death. It came out with something that had never been seen before -- the incredible production values of Resident Evil 1 and 2. Then Resident 4 was a spectacular reinvention of what it had already done, and then Resident 7 reinvented it again. Where it's had periods of downtime, Capcom has found ways to reinvent what Resident Evil can be."

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