There’s a moment in Season 4 of the hit TV show Breaking Bad when a couple of lovable meth heads get into a spirited debate about zombie video games. Which is better: Resident Evil 4 or Left 4 Dead?

Though the argument ends in inconclusive fashion, it does make one point extremely clear: The Resident Evil series is synonymous with zombie culture. Evidence for this fact is everywhere. A character on the show Smallville says, “I was looking for Tess when the whole building went Resident Evil.” The zombie-themed music video for “Clint Eastwood” by Gorillaz features a character with a shirt that reads T-Virus — a reference to the famous Resident Evil mutagen strain. Out of all the zombie media released in the past 20 years, it’s Resident Evil that has the firmest grip on our collective cultural psyche.

Resident Evil 7’s release on January 24 will take the venerable game series in a new direction, embracing a first-person, virtual-reality-ready approach to the iconic horror series. Then, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’s cinematic release on January 27 marks the purportedly last installment in the 15-year film franchise. Today I’ll examine the two-decade trajectory of the franchise, including its numerous cinematic spinoffs, in a bid to answer the question: How did Resident Evil get so big?



Rebellions Are Built On Hope



Rebellions Are Built On Hope

Resident Evil
- 1996

Resident Evil comes out in 1996 on the Sony PlayStation and immediately revolutionizes the survival-horror genre. The two playable characters, Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, are members of an elite task force sent to investigate a series of grisly, cannibalistic murders on the outskirts of Raccoon City. Set upon by a pack of dogs, the agents take refuge in a secluded mansion. Soon they are battling zombies of all denominations.

Critics are flabbergasted. “One of those rare games that's almost as entertaining to watch as it is to play,” raves GameSpot. The game’s 3D environments are vertiginous and foreboding, the enemies downright unsettling. The moment when the first zombie turns to look at the camera, its palsied mouth stained red, will never lose its bone-chilling power.

What’s scariest about this zombie isn’t the blood on its face or its plaster-of-Paris skin — it’s the undeniable intelligence, the intent in its black-rimmed eyes.

Resident Evil sells 5 million copies and cements Capcom as a giant of the video game industry. But the series is only getting started.

Resident Evil 2
- 1998

Resident Evil 2 takes place in Raccoon City itself, where the insidious pharmaceutical Umbrella Corporation has transformed residents into zombies via the T-Virus.

Like the original game, Resident Evil 2 features high-fidelity, pre-rendered environments and polygonal character models. It also shares the first game’s awkward control system — left and right on the D-pad to turn, forward to run in the direction the character is facing — which causes players to uniquely feel fear and uncertainty.

Resident Evil 2 is a tremendous commercial success, selling 380,000 copies over its first weekend and eventually nearing the 5 million mark. Critics praise its tense atmosphere, gritty storytelling and cinematic merit.

At this point, the folks at Capcom have produced two best-in-class survivor horror games, jump-starting the genre. The only question is: Can the studio do it again?

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis - 1999

Resident Evil 3 is Capcom’s first step toward the action-oriented style that will characterize future games in the series, but is far from perfecting it. Released only a year after Resident Evil 2, the game follows agent Jill Valentine as she attempts to escape the infested Raccoon City. As she flees, Valentine’s footsteps are dogged by a superpowered zombie named Nemesis.

Major changes to Resident Evil 3’s gameplay include a 180-degree turn capability, a dodge ability, and improved enemy A.I.. Nine enemies can appear on screen at a time. Sales are relatively good, but you can tell the new car smell is beginning to wear off; the critical response is tepid at best.

The publication Game Revolution is less than thrilled by Capcom’s latest effort. “I got a plate of old brains,” the reviewer writes, “stale brains, brains that had been stuffed in Tupperware, stored in the fridge and briefly reheated in the microwave.”

Resident Evil The Movie - 2002

The video game series’ success practically guarantees a movie tie-in, and in 2002 it finally happens. Unfortunately, any hopes of a cinematic masterpiece are dashed when Resident Evil releases to widespread critical derision. The review aggregator Metacritic scores the film a dreadful 33 out of 100 (though it should be noted that the user score is a much more positive 6.6 out of 10). Unlike the first two Resident Evil games — upon which the film is loosely based — it’s less survival horror than action blockbuster, with teams of commandos performing nonstop acrobatic zombie massacres.

The film opens with Milla Jovovich’s character completely naked on a bathroom floor for seemingly no reason other than putting Jovovich on the screen completely naked. To many, this scene speaks unfortunate volumes about the artistic intentions (or lack thereof) of those who wrote, produced and directed it.

Still, no amount of critical disemboweling can halt Resident Evil’s invasion of the box office; it grosses $17 million in its first weekend and roars onward to reach $102 million worldwide — a studio success for a film with a $33 million production budget.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse - 2004

Buoyed by the success of the first film, Jovovich and co. immediately begin work on a sequel. The result is Resident Evil: Apocalypse, an even bigger hit, with a $23 million opening weekend swiftly followed by a $129 million worldwide gross.

From a critical perspective, things are less rosy. If Metacritic is to be believed, Apocalypse, which takes place in Raccoon City, improves only slightly on its predecessor, earning a 35 out of 100. As Roger Ebert writes in a blistering half-star review, “An utterly meaningless waste of time. ... It is a dead zone, a film without interest, wit, imagination or even entertaining violence and special effects.”

The gap between Ebert and the film’s fanbase is vast. On IMDb, where Apocalypse enjoys a relatively healthy 6.2 out of 10, one user explains the appeal as simple, visceral and socially old-fashioned: “To be honest, it's really quite refreshing to see a movie like this in this day and age. ... The Resident Evil franchise throws realism and political correctness to the wind and just has fun pitting Pretty Girls With Big Guns against Ugly Monsters With Big Teeth.”

In other words, the same embrace of action-movie tropes that so irritates Ebert is exactly the source of the film’s appeal for its many enthusiastic fans.

Resident Evil 4
- 2005

Though there were other spinoff titles in the intervening years, including the critically acclaimed Resident Evil – Code: Veronica and a GameCube remake of the original title, Resident Evil 4 is the next numbered addition to the series. Reversing the trend set by an underwhelming Resident Evil 3 and two questionable films, Resident Evil 4 is universally considered to be downright fantastic.

Here’s where the Resident Evil series earns its fame and fortune. Despite a few misfires, it’s managed to deliver several extremely solid and innovative titles. Resident Evil 4 isn’t really survival horror; it’s an action game with horror elements. Gone are the intentionally awkward controls and the dizzy fixed camera. Now we view the world over our protagonist’s burly shoulder. Combat is the focus, with shots to different parts of an enemy’s body producing a variety of intuitive effects.

Critics praise the game, heap on multiple game-of-the-year awards, and quibble only over details like whether the dialogue is goofy (and whether it matters if it is). Across all platforms, it ultimately sells 5.9 million copies.

Resident Evil: Extinction
- 2007

And then we get another Resident Evil film. This one is set in the desert wastelands of the Southwestern USA. By this point, critics have mostly resigned themselves to the presence (and popularity) of the series. As Frank Scheck of The Hollywood Reporter writes, “Fast-paced and filled with brisk action sequences, the film should reasonably satisfy the devotees.”

It does exactly that. The third Resident Evil film again outsells previous installments, grossing $148 million worldwide.

With both Apocalypse and Extinction in the rearview mirror, the only question remains: Where can the filmographic naming scheme possibly take us next?

Resident Evil 5
- 2009

Resident Evil 5 is a decent game by most accounts, but it sets itself up for controversy by placing its Western protagonists in Africa, where they proceed to slaughter black-skinned zombies by the thousand. Hmmm. Didn’t I once read about a time in history when Westerners mowed down large groups of African people? Oh, right, that whole “centuries of imperialism, oppression, and slavery” thing. Critics pick up on this right away.

"There's a cut-scene of a white blonde woman being dragged off, screaming, by black men. When you attempt to rescue her, she's been turned and must be killed. If this has any relevance to the story it's not apparent in the first three chapters, and it plays so blatantly into the old clichés of the dangerous ‘dark continent’ and the primitive lust of its inhabitants that you'd swear the game was written in the 1920s," writes Eurogamer’s Dan Whitehead.

It’s the most action-focused Resident Evil yet; a third-person shooter with a wide variety of weapons and a co-op mode that subverts any vestiges of atmospheric horror with double the frenetic gunplay. The controversy over the game’s setting can’t keep it from reaching 7 million copies sold; years later, Resident Evil 5 remains Capcom’s best-selling game of all time.

Resident Evil: Afterlife - 2010

Shocking everyone, Resident Evil: Afterlife is a fantastic film, winning three Academy Awards and — just kidding. It’s more or less as critically panned as the rest of the series, dubbed “the first 3D motion picture to simulate the experience of watching paint dry” by Brian Orndorf of Dark Horizons, and slapped with a 37 out of 100 on Metacritic.

Afterlife does depart from the rest of the series in at least one noteable way. As Eric Hynes reports, “This is the first film in the Resident Evil series in which Milla Jovovich neither begins nor ends the movie stark naked.”

None of the criticism does anything to stop fans, who flock to the cinema. Afterlife posts a simply staggering $296 million worldwide gross, supported by $236 million in foreign revenue. By this point, Resident Evil is well-cemented as the highest-grossing series of films based on video games. Its admittedly simple formula of slow-motion-bullet-meet-zombie has a visceral thrill that can no longer be denied.

Resident Evil 6 - 2012

The sixth major addition to the Resident Evil video game series marks something of a decline from the historically acclaimed Resident Evil 4. Early in Resident Evil 6’s development, producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi indicates that the goal is to create the “flagship title of the horror genre.” This suggests a departure from the action-oriented games of the recent past. But by March 2012, Capcom admits that the survival-horror market is just too small.

Resident Evil 6 changes dramatically in its final days of development, becoming more action oriented, and the result is a less-polished product. IGN summarizes the uneven quality of the sixth entry: “When this game is at its height, it sets new standards for the series in every way. Unfortunately, there are no shortage of lows either, taking what could have been an excellent experience and making it something considerably lesser.”

Despite all its failings, Resident Evil 6 sells 6.5 million copies, proving that the brand has enough momentum to turn even unpolished editions into blockbusters. Still, a sales decline is a sales decline, and the fact that Resident Evil 6 falls 500,000 copies short of Resident Evil 5 gets Capcom thinking that maybe — just maybe — it’s time for another bold change.

A Promising Future

There have been two constants in the history of the Resident Evil franchise: The games are at their best when they seek to shake things up, and the films are critically panned (yet wildly popular) no matter what. This trend continues with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, which finally eschews action for true survival horror. Resident Evil 7 takes risks. It abandons third-person for a chilling first-person view, and embraces the latest graphics and VR technology to foster a maximally unsettling experience.

Maybe this is why the Resident Evil series has such a hold on our cultural psyche. The video games are generally high quality, but they also display a persistent commitment to innovation. That’s remarkable in an industry where established blockbuster series tend to follow a bland annual-installment model. The original Resident Evil, Resident Evil 4, and now Resident Evil 7 — these games are memorable because they’re both good and different. They deserve acclaim and all the cultural prominence that comes therewith.

Meanwhile, the film folks have whipped up another project, the dubiously titled Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, which released in Japan last year and hits US shores on January 27.

Maybe this one will be the critically acclaimed masterpiece that film critics have been denied for so long. Even if it’s not, the numbers don’t lie — it is on track to be another impressive commercial success.

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