HOW CAPCOM USED COMIC BOOK TROPES TO BUILD THE RESIDENT EVIL FRANCHISE

I love Capcom’s survival-horror franchise Resident Evil, and it’s surprising to me how I got to this point.

Growing up, I admittedly was a huge scaredy cat. My earliest memory of going to the movies is cowering in the back seat of my parents station wagon at a drive-in screening of Ghostbusters II when Viggo emerged from his painting. When going to visit one of my aunts, they had to hide my cousin’s black-and-white Freddy Krueger before I came over because it hung parallel to their bathroom. If Freddy was visible, I simply wasn’t going down that hallway.

It wasn’t until I was 10 that I saw Aliens, though I had the action figures since the third grade, and even then it conditioned me to fear going into basements because a face hugger could pop out from anywhere. A toy left downstairs at a friend’s house? It’s fine, they can keep it. Better them get face huggered than me! During the summer, my parents would ask me to bring our dog in for the evening, and my brain immediately painted the image of a Xenomorph popping out from the shadows and ending me.

It’s funny then that ever since I slotted a rented copy of Resident Evil 2 into my Nintendo 64, my introduction to the series, that I’ve been hooked on the franchise ever since. My love has wavered, in particular during the launch of Resident Evil 6 that I skipped entirely, but for the past twenty years, I’ve replayed classic Resident Evil titles to the point that I know them better than my parents, read the novels and comics, lined shelves with action figures and other collectibles, I was even there opening weekend for all of the live-action films.

Lately I’ve come to realize exactly why I have gravitated toward Resident Evil, and it’s due to how the trajectory of the series has closely followed another medium I’ve cherished since I was young: comics, in particular North American comics.

RESIDENT EVIL HAS AN ONGOING CONTINUNITY

Released in 1996, the original Resident Evil told a somewhat simple story about a Special Forces police team known as S.T.A.R.S, or the Special Tactics and Rescue Service, who find themselves trapped in a haunted mansion filled with zombies and other unholy creations. Provided you’re able to navigate the deadly halls of the Spencer Mansion and its surrounding structures, the player uncovers that the creatures you’re battling are not demons spawned from hell or a parallel dimension, but rather the twisted machinations of the Umbrella Corporation.

Controlling S.T.A.R.S members Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, the player slowly peels back the mystery of Umbrella’s mutagenic toxin known as the T-Virus. Used in the creation of biological weapons, the virus escaped, turning researchers into flesh eating zombies hungry for your flesh. It turns out your captain, Albert “Sunglasses at Night” Wesker, is also secretly an Umbrella agent who purposefully lured his teammates into this hellish nightmare to record combat data for his own purposes. Chris and Jill escape, but not before Wesker seemingly meets his end by a powerful creature known as Tyrant.

The following sequels on the original Sony PlayStation, 1998’s Resident Evil 2 and 1999’s Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, continued the saga of regular people trying to survive further viral outbreaks instigated by the Umbrella Corporation, introducing new beloved characters and returning favorites. In chapter 2, rookie police officer Leon S. Kennedy meets up with Claire Redfield, the sister of Chris from the first game. They find themselves trapped in the Raccoon City police station where they run into other survivors while trying to escape with their lives in a city infested with the undead.

Paralleling those events in Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Jill Valentine is getting chased by an unstoppable creature hunting down surviving S.T.A.R.S members known as the Nemesis. Throughout her journey, which ends with Raccoon City getting erased from the map by a nuclear missile, Jill traverses some of the same rooms in the RPD as Leon and Claire.

As the series moved away from the original PlayStation and branched off into other consoles, Resident Evil would resurrect characters, introduce clones and villains with a split personality. Eventually this would all culminate in a game like Resident Evil 6 that saw multiple protagonists meet up with one another in a globe-trotting sci-fi action game. Thankfully the series would return to its humble roots with the highest numbered released chapter to date, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.

If all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because it reads very much like an ongoing comic published by either Marvel or DC. Resident Evil’s continuity is, to put it mildly, bonkers, but it’s also one of the most endearing parts of the franchise. When a new entry is shown off for the first time, the mind wanders as to what characters will return and how it will fit into the overarching narrative.

In terms of many other video game series, Resident Evil is somewhat unique on this front. At the time of its introduction, the biggest series on the PlayStation were Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy, both of which had numerous chapters released on that console. Though the series would eventually have diminishing returns, it was exciting to get a new Lara Croft adventure, but each entry was more or less independent from the one before it. Over the years Tomb Raider has had more in common with a property like James Bond having already seen two major franchise reboots. Final Fantasy has dabbled with sequels and spin-offs, but each major entry, especially on the PlayStation, introduced a whole new world and cast of characters.

Nintendo has had franchises running longer than Resident Evil, but continuity seems far more like an after thought. They’ve implemented a time line in the Legend of Zelda series, but the excitement in a new Zelda chapter mostly comes from what new gameplay mechanics will be added and less how it will build upon the story of past and future games. The closest thing Nintendo has to Resident Evil in terms of an ongoing story is Metroid, but the entries have been spaced out so far apart that it rarely matters and like Zelda, Metroid is largely about interacting with worlds and collecting new abilities and weapons.

Capcom has now remade the entire original PlayStation saga, first in 2002 with Resident Evil on the GameCube – it has since been ported to other consoles – and the recent Resident Evil 2 and 3 releases from the past few years. Though they’re fresh takes on the material, the core story beats have remained mostly unchanged, and what new additions have been very much welcome. In Resident Evil’s remake for example, a new character, Lisa Trevor, an early experiment of Umbrella’s, further fleshes out the companies’ depravity.

Regardless if you’ve played the original, their updates are both, all fit snugly into the bigger Resident Evil picture.

“NEW NUMBER 1’S”

To bring in new readers, or lapsed ones, comic book publishers will often reset the numbering on a series. When trying to figure out where to dive in, it’s far more enticing to pick up an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man with a big number 1 on the cover as opposed to one well into the six-hundreds at one point. After slapping a fresh #1 on a cover, continuity is still ongoing for the most part, though there are exceptions like DC’s “New 52” initiative from 2011 that was meant to start everything over from scratch. This too was even reverted back but a few years ago.

If done correctly, new number 1’s offer an entry point for people to jump in on while also honoring the material that came before it for people who have stuck with a character, team or story. In the past, Resident Evil has done this twice, first in 2005 with Resident Evil 4 and more recently with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard.

Up until the release of Resident Evil 4, the series had largely remained unchanged. New wrinkles to the formula would be thrown in, like controlling two characters at once in 2002’s prequel Resident Evil 0, but the structure remained the same. The player navigated fixed camera angels with divisive tank controls against somewhat familiar threats. Horror comes from a fear of the unknown, and in the case of Resident Evil, fans were well versed in the life cycle of the T-Virus.

Both as an effort to bring in a new audience and shake things up, Resident Evil 4 steered the series into action-horror and went as far as to end the Umbrella saga in the opening narration.

1998…

It was the year when those grisly murders occurred in the Arklay Mountains.

Soon after, the news was out to the whole world that it was the fault of a secret viral experiment conducted by the International Pharmaceutical Enterprise, Umbrella.

The virus broke out in a near by mountain community, Raccoon City.

And hit the peaceful little with with a devastating blow crippling its very foundation.

Not taking any chances, the President of the United States ordered a contingency plan – to sterilize Raccoon City.

With the whole affair gone public, the United States government issued an indefinite suspension of business decree to Umbrella.

After that, Resident Evil 4 quickly informs the player that things have changed drastically. For starters, the camera is no longer fixed and follows over-the-shoulder of returning Resident Evil 2 protagonist, Leon S. Kennedy. Where once the players was contending with slow moving zombies, the base enemies of Resident Evil 4 were now far more intelligent, able to co-ordinate as a group and even wield deadly weapons like chainsaws.

Just as it was in 1996, players were once again discovering the origins of a new biological weapon, the Las Plagas parasite, a prehistoric organism with the ability to dominate the mental facilities of its host. Though Resident Evil 4 is beloved, it’s also divisive among lovers of the series as it shifted away from slower paced survival-horror to tense action where ammo was plentiful.

As radical as these changes were though, a sense of mystery not seen in many years had returned to Resident Evil. It also allowed players turned off by the earlier entries a chance to dive into the series with its far more user-friendly controls. Just like in comics though, Resident Evil 4 rewarded longtime fans with returning characters such as Ada Wong, not since since Resident Evil 2 in 1998, and Albert Wesker who would get more screen time in future rereleases of the game starting with the PlayStation 2 port in late 2005. Once thought dead, Wesker returned as Resident Evil’s big bad starting in Resident Evil CODE: Veronica.

Resident Evil 4 was a big success for Capcom, but in trying to chase its sales figures in the next two numbered entries, the franchise veered even further away from its roots until the name Resident Evil was little more than a brand name. Resident Evil 5, while still enjoyable, was a co-op action game while Resident Evil 6‘s story was so convoluted and bombastic that it was downright comical.

Like how it was in 2005, Capcom knew they had to have a “new number 1” with the seventh entry. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard shifted the perspective to first-person and allowed you to experience the entire campaign in virtual reality, but it also felt like a refreshing return to form. Once again players found themselves in a claustrophobic location where resource management was key to survival.

As new to the series character, Ethan Winters, you’re trapped in the Baker residence in Dulvey, Louisiana. Ethan is there searching for his lost wife, Mia, but instead finds himself being hunted by the Bakers who appear to be infected with a new biological terror. In between tussles with the family, Ethan has to contend with black, tar like creatures known as The Molded.

Prior knowledge of Resident Evil up to that point is not entirely necessary going into Resident Evil 7, but just as it was with four, it certainly helps. There are plenty of Easter Eggs to uncover that are nods to the series over two-decade history with the most obvious being Chris Redfield who swoops in to help save the day in the end. Many months after Resident Evil 7’s release, Chris would even get his own free to download expansion that served as the proper epilogue to the game.

SPIN-OFFS

Popular characters like Spider-Man, Batman and Superman have always commanded their own monthly books, but often there exploits are spun out into other series. Some of these hold more weight to a character’s legacy while others are merely fun extensions. Resident Evil is no different.

Starting with the original PlayStation, Capcom was keen to branch out their new intellectual property in unique ways like in Resident Evil: Survivor, a low-budget, first-person shooting game that sadly had its best feature, light gun support, pulled from its North American release in response to the Columbine school shootings. The “Survivor” line would continue with a retelling of Resident Evil CODE: Veronica and Resident Evil: Dead Aim, one of the many outings in the series set on a boat like the top-down Game Boy Color outing Resident Evil Gaiden.

More traditional arcade shooter games would release on Nintendo’s Wii and Sony’s PlayStation 3 to take advantage of their motion controllers. Combined, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles and The Darkside Chronicles would recount the series from Resident Evil 0 to CODE: Veronica while filling in gaps in the series lore previously unseen.

More recently, titles like Resident Evil: Revelations and its sequel have become far more important to the overall canon. In particular Resident Evil: Revelations 2 that brought back fan favorite character, Barry Burton, not seen since the first game and Claire Redfield. Throughout the course of Revelations 2, the duo find themselves in the crosshairs of Alex Wesker, the sister of Albert, who could play a part Resident Evil’s future moving forward.

MULTIMEDIA

Though not exactly unique to comics, Resident Evil has broken out of its humble video game roots to become a multimedia juggernaut just as many comic book properties have. Starting out with books, novels and action figures, Resident Evil has gone on to become a billion dollar grossing live-action film franchise that will get a reboot in 2021.

via MovieClips Classic Trailers YouTube

The first six-chapter series that started in 2002’s Resident Evil and concluded with 2017’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter played fast and loose with the series mythology, pulling in characters and monsters from the games. Ultimately though, it was independent from Capcom’s software. The new feature film however is set to recount the events of the first two games while placing the emphasis on characters like Chris, Jill, Leon and Claire.

On top of its live-action film legacy, Resident Evil has also been the subject of animated features that are considered canonical to the series’ lore. This is set to continue on streaming service Netflix who has also commissioned a separate tv series too.

Whether intentional or not, it can’t be denied just how closely the evolution of Resident Evil adheres to that of comic books. From its continuous story, soft resets, spin-offs and how it has branched out into other entertainment mediums, Resident Evil has all the trademarks of the best superhero comic titles on the market.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s