Last week, I wrote an essay of sorts over at my website questioning whether Resident Evil 6 lives up to its predecessors. Instead of just offering another opinion on a game that has already garnered more discussion than the presidential election, I thought I’d look at things in a slightly different way. The reviews for 6 are mixed to say the least, but what about the Resident Evil games of the past? What did the critics think of those games at release? It wasn’t exactly a definitive study – there aren’t many complete sources for reviews on the original games – but I found out quite a lot. Today, I’m going to compress the 6000 words to something a little more accessible.
Resident Evil started off on a high. The original game received perfect score after perfect score, and anything lower was mostly still impressive. The interesting thing is what the critics enjoyed. The term “interactive movie”, which has become something of a negative in recent years, was used almost constantly in regards to these early Resident Evil games and the first and second especially. Some critics would even expand on the actual skills of character in the game, exaggerating what the player would be capable of to the point where you’d think the reviewers had seen Resident Evil 4 in a crystal ball.
The interesting thing is how much the critics of the time let the game get away with. Although bad controls, cheesy dialogue and the like were always mentioned, these problems never seemed enough to actually detract from the score. The ageing graphics and pointless puzzles were mentioned in reviews written years later, but both were celebrated at the time. Resident Evil 2 was allowed an awful lot of leeway as well, and although critics complained about short campaigns and bad controls, it held its fair share of perfect reviews. The hiring of screenwriter Noboru Sugimura and an increasing use of cutscenes made 2 more of a movie than the original, and fans and critics loved it.
Nemesis is where the series took a turn. Although 2002 is the most important year for the franchise (as we’ll see), Nemesis was an important release in itself. In the full essay, I was surprised to see that Resident Evil 3 is, to me, the Resident Evil 6 of the PS1 generation. It tried to do everything that earlier games had been unable to do. It added a more action-based mode of horror, creating tension through a constant threat rather than through situation. It also allowed you to create ammunition, reducing the reliance on saving ammo. Dodging moves and the 180 degree turn reduced some of the horror aspects at the benefit of playability, and it’s something that Capcom would do time and time again throughout the rest of the franchise’s run.
Nemesis got great reviews, but it was obvious, from a sales perspective, that former fans were getting bored. The likes of Silent Hill (and even Dino Crisis) had taken away Resident Evil’s monopoly on the genre and were shaking things up as well. Code Veronica would be another critical hit, but it would fail to take full advantage of the Dreamcast’s power, using it for smoother graphics and more enemies on screen. By 2000 – four years and four main games since the original – critics seemed more excited about the idea of a Resident Evil with shiny new graphics on a shiny new system than about a Resident Evil that shook things up, and they awarded it as such. Comparing the reviews for Resident Evil 6 with the reviews of the PS1 games is fascinating: the things we complain about today are the things we celebrated over a decade ago, especially where Nemesis is concerned.
Although constantly called a must-have Dreamcast game, Resident Evil: Code Veronica didn’t do especially well on the Dreamcast, nor the PS2. Whereas the original game had sold 5 million copies on one system, Code Veronica sold only a little over 3 million units across two systems (one of which would become the most successful system of all time). Code Veronica is my personal favourite of these original style games, but later reviews of both this and Nemesis proved once and for all that the franchise needed to change. Things that were once praised were torn apart in the re-releases and mechanics that had been introduced because of PS1 limitations were no longer valid in the modern gaming world.
2002 would prove to be the final nail in the Resident Evil as-it-was. Resident Evil 0 would be the first Resident Evil game to have real, constant complaints about series staples (controls and inventory, especially) and the Resident Evil REmake would hit high scores but fail to sell much better than recent entries in the franchise. As sales for the games dropped again, the movie surpassed all expectations. It got terrible reviews, and rightfully so, but it was entertaining enough that people went multiple times. It did little to help the series as it was, but it must have given Capcom a clear idea of what needed to be done.
The next Resident Evil game would not be released until 2005 and it would completely shake up the series, both in terms of accessibility to the average gamer and in terms of sales. It would surpass the original game and sell upwards of seven million, but it would also impress the critics who had been disappointed with 0 and new fans for whom the series had never really appealed. Although much of what made 4 special makes an appearance in 6, it is no longer innovative, no longer first to the punch. Gears of War and the like have built upon devices started in Resident Evil 4 and Capcom, for whatever reason, have not.
The final surprise during my research came in two forms. The first was that Resident Evil 5 basically got the same reviews as Resident Evil 6, with the exception of the score, and the second was how negative some people had chosen to be about Resident Evil 6. Despite the fact that Resident Evil 6 does indeed fix much of what critics hated about 5 (the AI is better, the plot faster and more “epic”), it ended up with worse scores. Even if you don’t agree that they managed to improve on many things for 6, the fact is that despite some sites giving almost the same review as they had done for Resident Evil 5 – same complaints, same basic “should be the old Resident Evil” comments – the score was largely halved.
The comments made by fans as well are almost cut-and-paste from articles about Resident Evil 5, with many saying they should go back to the old way the game was made. This is ironic given that, logically, many of these people never actually bought the games they want to return to, a fact that caused Capcom to change tact in the first place. It stands to reason that many of the people who bought Resident Evil on the PS1 never made it to Resident Evil 4 and I think it’s fair to say that it is many of the seven million that bought Resident Evil 4 that currently support the series, and they do so far more successfully than fans of the old series ever managed.
My second discovery – that critics who wanted to give Resident Evil 6 a low score did so by only focussing on the negatives – isn’t that much of a surprise. I don’t want to name names, but there were more than a few major sites that focussed in on very specific faults that A) most people wouldn’t necessarily come across or B) are vastly outweighed by the positive. I’ve seen long multi-paragraph complaints about co-op missions that have one player doing something whilst the other doesn’t, but that don’t mention the other 18+ hours where this isn’t applicable. Worse, I’ve seen reviews actively knocking off points for it not being the Resident Evil “we know and love” – not a terribly professional thing to do, and ignorant of control and plot issues from the PS1 era.
I’m not trying to defend Resident Evil 6 with this article (nor with the longer essay); quite the opposite, in fact. The next Resident Evil game needs to innovate in the same way the original did, in the same way 4 did, or it risks sales dropping like they did at the turn of the millennium. It also needs to increase the polish, something that would have made the difference with 6. This is a more successful franchise than it was ten years ago, partly due to the films, but that doesn’t make it invulnerable.
At the time of release, Resident Evil was let off for a lot because they managed to do something really quite special, and the series continued to get high marks for the best part of a decade because Capcom knew how to make a Resident Evil game. People buying games were less impressed, and day-one purchases became pre-owned possibilities or even rentals. What the critics loved, fans felt became dry, and by 2003, even the classics were getting negative re-reviews. Now Capcom seem to have lost the support of critics and of the people who played those original games long ago, but they’re now entertaining and selling to more people than they ever did in ‘96 and, objectively, that can’t be a bad thing for the fans or the industry.
You can check out the full essay on Mat’s website here.