In the 90s, the survival horror genre of gaming was dominated by titles like Clock Tower, Dino Crisis, Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark and most importantly, Resident Evil. Capcom’s pioneering franchise spawned numerous sequels and spin-offs during the PS1 era, responsible for elevating the potential of horror in the gaming world. Fast-forward a console generation later and survival horror was once again changed by the arrival of Resident Evil 4.
Directed by Shinji Mikami, Resident Evil 4 was a game-changer for the survival horror genre that spearheaded a new wave of video games in the industry. It arguably laid the foundations for games like Dead Space, Alan Wake and even newer Silent Hill games, becoming a landmark release at the time. What was so special about Resident Evil 4 that it received such high praise and still continues to be cited as one of the most influential horror games of all time?
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After the release of the original Resident Evil trilogy, there was a small boom of survival horror games all attempting to replicate the template and success of Capcom’s winning franchise to varying degrees of success.With the next generation of consoles on the horizon, it probably dawned on Capcom that Resident Evil wouldn’t be able to survive the over-saturated market – a market that it was now partially responsible for. It was clear that things needed to change if the series were to adapt and flourish again.
The first thing that needed an overhaul was the gameplay. Resident Evil 1-3 used fixed camera angles to increase tension and the uncertainty of not knowing what’s around the corner. This might’ve worked wonders at the time but Capcom had new technology at its disposal and a wealth of fresh ideas brought to the table by Mikami. An over-the-shoulder camera perspective was adopted for the next entry with gameplay spread out across multiple diverse locations.
This allowed Capcom to also experiment with taking the series to new heights in terms of terrifying new areas, enemies and combat. After some early development switch-ups, Resident Evil 4 ws finally on track with a clear, strong and very risky vision. Capcom had no idea how fans would take to the massive gameplay and tonal changes. While it still contained horror elements, the change in perspective and expanded story and combat meant that action would mostly be at the forefront of the experience.
As it turns out, this was the best thing that could’ve happened to Resident Evil. Upon release, Resident Evil 4 received universal acclaim and went on to become one of the company’s biggest commercial success stories. The game sent waves throughout the industry and had developers quickly scrambling to latch onto this new formula that Resident Evil, once again, pioneered. Evidently, this was also the worst thing that could’ve happened to Resident Evil at the same time but we’ll get to that later.
At its core, Resident Evil 4 still very much contained the DNA of the franchise despite the big changes. Likeable protagonist Leon S. Kennedy went from being a rookie cop to a hardened government agent since Resident Evil 2. You also had all the trademarks of a traditional Resident Evil experience baked in: herbs, shotguns, limited ammo, resource management, zombies (kinda) and a story that featured the mysterious intentions of Umbrella Corp.
This helped to not alienate fans of the previous games while introducing newcomers to a fresh new identity for the series. Parasitical enemies replaced traditional zombies while new gameplay elements such as quick-time events and dazzling cutscenes were also introduced to mix things up. Instead of being confined to one location, Resident Evil 4 spanned several locations in Valdelobos, a mountainous region of Spain and its surrounding areas comprised of lakes, castles and underground labyrinths.
This deviation of formula for Capcom proved to be a success even greater than the legendary release of the first game. Developers like Visceral Games would take those blueprints and make its own original, critically acclaimed survival horror with the Dead Space franchise, while Capcom pushed ahead with this style knowing that the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
Resident Evil 4 broke the shackles of the survival horror genre’s limitations and doubled down on its blockbuster potential that would later push this once-niche genre into the mainstream spotlight. I guess when it really comes down to it, Resident Evil 4 popularised the survival horror genre more than anyone really expected at the time. Apart from being just a damn good game, it successfully delivered mainstream appeal plus catapulted Resident Evil to the front of its own established genre again.
Change is a double-sided coin, though. Capcom’s confidence in this new, distinct style for the series eventually led to Resident Evil 5 and 6, which both ramped up the action factor in perhaps a misguided understanding of what made Resident Evil 4 so popular in the first place. It wasn’t the action, it was how well it managed to balance action with horror without losing its terrifying appeal. The sequels became Hollywood action romps that strayed so far from the formula, it alienated long-time fans and introduced new ones that were only further confused by this series’ identity crisis at this point.
There is a silver lining to this saga, though. After a decade of Resident Evil losing its way in its own literally explosive missteps, the franchise was brought back to its survival horror roots with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard. In fact, I’d argue that Resident Evil 7 actually did a lot more positive things for the genre. You just need to take a look at how the industry is treating the survival horror resurgence right now, including Capcom itself.
I can’t say that everything that came out of Resident Evil 4‘s success was good or entirely benefited survival horror, but there’s no denying the creative mastery that went into the game overall. It left a long-lasting legacy in the gaming industry that arguably still hasn’t been topped since then. With the Resident Evil 4 remake closing in, perhaps it’s time for Capcom to remind the world why this game was such a big deal in the first place.