Feature Article

Resident Evil Creator Shinji Mikami Reflects on the Series' Roots

The root of all evil.

It's been 20 years. 20 years since we met Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, 20 years since we learned the value of typewriter ribbons, 20 years since we came to know the terror of being locked in place as we try to gun down the shambling embodiment of certain death. The Resident Evil franchise has evolved a great deal over the past two decades, but the impact of the original survival horror game can still be felt in everything from Dead Space to The Division.

To honor the anniversary of the game's original release--March 22, 1996--we decided to speak with series creator Shinji Mikami to gain an intimate history of its development. We also reached out to publisher Capcom, who put us in touch with original lead programmer Yasuhiro Ampo. Together, Mikami and Ampo's personal insights paint a fascinating portrait of the inception and creation of one gaming's most enduring franchises.

What's your earliest memory of the project? When and how did you first hear about it?

Sweet Home's original box art.
Sweet Home's original box art.

Shinji Mikami: The meeting that got the ball rolling on Resident Evil was in 1993. We were in Capcom's Osaka development studio and my current boss, Tokuro Fujiwara, called me in to talk to him. He said that he wanted us to make a horror game using systems from Sweet Home, which was a horror game for the Famicom that he had directed. I was actually a big fan of Sweet Home, and he was someone that I really respected, so I was excited about the project from the beginning. But I was a little worried about how well a horror game would really sell. I think that feeling had some influence on RE's development.

So it's true that Resident Evil was originally conceived as an adventure game inspired by Capcom's Sweet Home?

Yasuhiro Ampo: The item management aspect of survival horror is very much similar to how Sweet Home handles it, and I definitely remember being told, "Play Sweet Home!" when I first joined the team.

What made Capcom decide to pursue the project?

Ampo: The concept for Resident Evil came about at the dawn of the PlayStation era, where games were moving from 2D to 3D visuals. I am told that the chief of consumer products at the time had a very strong desire to "successfully create a brand new genre of horror gaming that had never existed before." I don't think that anyone, including the chief himself, ever dreamed that this would be such a long-lasting franchise that's grown to be what it is today.

From a business perspective, did Resident Evil's unique survival horror approach feel like more of a risk or an asset?

Ampo: To be completely honest with you, no one at the time expected the title to be such a success. It didn't get any special treatment, and in fact, got just the opposite. Most of the time, fresh new faces in the company or staff who had extra time on their hands were asked to help with the game's development.

But despite facing such an uphill battle, I think the director's passion and the team's efforts slowly started to come to fruition, and I think that's where we started seeing more and more acceptance of the game within the company.

No one at the time expected the title to be such a success. It didn't get any special treatment, and in fact, got just the opposite.

Yasuhiro Ampo

At its largest, how big was the team that worked on Resident Evil? How long did development actually last?

Ampo: Towards the end of development of the original Resident Evil, we had upwards of 80 people on the team. The development timeframe was approximately three years.

At the time, there was actually no such thing as a QA-specific company, nor was there a QA-focused department. Debug was performed by members of the development team while wearing headphones, and people from other teams were recruited to help out with this as well.

"Survival horror" games as we know them now didn't really exist before Resident Evil. Did you sense you were pioneering a whole new genre?

The epitome of horror in 1996.
The epitome of horror in 1996.

Mikami: Well horror movies were obviously around, and there was also a lot of pure horror stuff in the gaming world at the time--when I mention that I was worried that the game wouldn't sell, I mean that it felt like just making a normal game wouldn't cut it.

So I decided to try to think freely, without being tied down by traditional genres. I also thought that the sense of despair that you generally get in horror wasn't really that well-suited to games. So that was the jumping-off point. Not of a new genre, but of the creation of a game that wasn't tied down by traditional genres.

At one point during development, I thought about how exhilarating it was to take down a zombie and about how that was a feeling that you just couldn't get from watching a movie. That was the first time that I really sensed that we had a new genre on our hands.

Much of Resident Evil's design arose from technical workarounds. What was it like working within these constraints?

Ampo: We had originally attempted to have everything appear in full polygons. However, it became very clear early on that this wouldn't be possible given the limitation of the hardware at the time. The director's priority was making sure the zombies' visuals conveyed a sense of fear, so the decision was made to use polygons for them. The backgrounds were then swapped out to pre-rendered visuals, and this was when we decided to use the static camera as well.

The fixed camera system might actually be Resident Evil's most distinctive feature. Where did this approach come from? Were other options created or considered?

Mikami: At first, we were developing RE as a fully 3D game. But the graphics level that we were going for didn't get along so well with the original PlayStation's specs. It was looking like, if we didn't make a change somewhere, the project could end up on indefinite hold.

A room forever burned into the collective consciousness of gamers everywhere.
A room forever burned into the collective consciousness of gamers everywhere.

That was when we took a look at Alone in the Dark. The environments were pre-rendered, and the characters and such were in real-time 3D. It seemed like that approach would allow us to create the game that we wanted, but there were control issues, and the changed perspective had an effect on immersion, making the player feel a bit more detached. It took a little bit of time to get my feelings in order and make the call to change it.

What inspired the team to include multiple endings? How were these endings decided upon?

Ampo: The director had placed a strong emphasis on having the player "live their own storyline through their experiences," rather than showcasing a pre-packaged storyline. The multiple endings and split pathways throughout the title were created in correspondence to this vision.

Were there any expectations or collective feelings regarding the game's international release?

Ampo: The director's influences came heavily from horror flicks and zombie movies, so from that standpoint, I think the contents naturally veered towards an international perspective. However, all of the development staff was Japanese, so we inevitably ended up with poor localization that I hear hindered the realism and immersion of the title. I think that factor was also part of the reason we decided to later remake the game.

During the time we were making it, my personal feeling was that Resident Evil was not a game that should be made into a series.

Shinji Mikami

What has stuck with you most from your time developing Resident Evil?

Ampo: From a personal standpoint, I'm really glad that things turned out favorably. The title was created by a director and team that had such a strong desire and passion to create something they believed in, and it's amazing to think that it resulted in popularizing a brand new genre of gaming.

I think the timing was also just right. Compared to modern day, I think it was relatively easier attempting to create something new back in the PlayStation era, especially because development teams were so much smaller. Now that I think about it, I think the development environment back in the day is far more comparable to the indie scene that you see nowadays.

Mikami: During the time when we were making it, my personal feeling was that Resident Evil was not a game that should be made into a series. This is because horror tends to have strong patterns that are easy to get used to, meaning they're easy to get tired of. I never thought that the game would become such a huge hit.

I can't help thinking that, if Resident Evil hadn't sold so well, maybe I could have spent that period of my 30s doing creative work as a studio director instead of working as a producer. Although I still feel like a very lucky man to be able to have those kinds of worries.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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Scott Butterworth

Yes, his mother is Mrs. Butterworth.
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Goldsickle

So after a lot of flip-flopping, Mikami finally made it clear that the prerendered backgrounds is a second choice, due to the limitations at the time and even hesitated a bit before switching to prerendered.

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whitejackel

Its the only zombie series i will play and enjoy. one thing i do miss though is its cousin dino crissis they scared me more than the RE games but after the bad one on the xbox they never went anywhere. it would be nice to see them come back.

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brunod_f

I got to play Resident Evil 2 first back then, but i remember when i got to this classic first one i felt that that really was something unique. Back in the early Playstation 1 days everything was so new and exciting though, it was awesome. Oh and on a side note i'm looking forward to the Resident Evil 2 remake. I think its about time we have some news on this project already.

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gamebuyer22

Atleast Mikami gave credit to Alone in the Dark. The Gamespot interviewer seemed oblivious.

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scoobybri

I remember playing this when it was released. It felt like you were playing something that had never been done before. Back in those days, moving from one generation of hardware to another allowed developers to create genres and experiences that were new and revolutionary. Now, that's not so much the case. I love being a gamer now, but I miss those days where there were new "h*ly sh1t" moments all of the time.

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Warlord_Irochi

Dear Gamespot. Can't read your article due to today's website crappy publicity turning all white. Fix that, please.

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gamefreak215jd

Even if the game may not have been all that scary it still is tense,engaging and fun.

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Redsyrup

The bad translation was really part of its charm. Not all games can benefit from that kind of camp. I think if Kojima had gotten the poor english translation he was pushing in MGS it would have hurt his game. However with Resi being a horror title 'love bloomed on the battlefield'..

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StonerDemon

I was hoping to find the "Any news on Evil Within 2?" question at the end of the article, but sadly, there wasn't any.

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RSM-HQ

@StonerDemon: Me as well. Completed the game so many times >_<

For all the faults TEW has it's one of my favorite games in recent memory.

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StonerDemon

@RSM-HQ: I really loved the art design, sometimes very vintage, sometimes modern. The spanish last names used in the game, combined with the vintage, country feel made it reminiscent of the Franco dictatorship era (a la Pan's Labyrinth). And the whole atmosphere made me feel the good survival horror vibe of older games. I hope we get news of a sequel soon.

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RSM-HQ

@StonerDemon: Definitely agree :)

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jocaju

The original is still my fav. What a classic.

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senorbusyman

1st & 2nd Resident Evil games are still my fav. hell ive played those 2 games the most on my playstation & never got tired of them. although sucks that RE went downhill after 4 but 5 had a good story & Wesker & the return of Jill but 6 really was a letdown. Only good thing about 6 were Leons campaign & Adas. Leons campaign had some of that old school RE style like when they were in the school but i really hope RE7 truly goes back to its original roots. RE Revelations was like that

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RaveNRolla

@senorbusyman: i agree, although for me the series never went downhill. i like the survival horror games as much as the shooter games and i even like re6, apart from the inability to discard unwanted weapons. The stamina bar was definitely something new and quite fitting for a horror game imo.

I didn't like Revelations that much, though i did like playing with Jill. But every other chapter you had to play characters you don't care about and they didn't have to solve any puzzles or look for secrets, they just had to kill everything. That kinda killed the game for me. Revelations 2 did a far better job with some solid new mechanics, a really interesting story and just the right pace (plus the whole game costed like 20€ at launch which is totally ridiculous compared to other games nowadays).

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cjimrun

Recently picked-up RE Remake and Revelations during the anniversary sale and then went ahead and bought Nemesis too. All great entries but 2 is still my all time.

Avatar image for Scarshi
Scarshi

I still remember frantically trying to finish the game in under 3 hours for the bonus. Had everything written down in front of me step by step that I needed to do to complete it.

The notes I used were from playing over and over, not from the internet, which I didn't have access to back then. Magazines gave hints, but I had to work it all out myself. Games these days are missing that. Too much information before I even start a game.

Fun times.

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hystavito

@Scarshi: Did you succeed?

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Scarshi

@hystavito: I did. 1996. So long ago now. I was 18 years old.

Infinite rocket launcher was overkill, but worth it.

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Thanatos2k

Should have asked them if Capcom intends to make the next version not suck, unlike recent efforts.

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Spaced92

RE4 was a fun action game, but the series really hasn't been good with horror since RE 3 when the idea of a monster following you from screen to screen was mind blowing, and it was never really that scary, just innovative. The dogs breaking through the windows scared people shitless because games hadn't done it before, no other reason. Silent still blew it away in terms of being a horror game. Also Alone in the Dark was the first 3D survival horror game, although RE was unique.

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franzito

Even after RE4 the series managed to get through the changes for a while. But then RE 5 and RE 6 came out with FPS structure and nonsensical plots. Plus, they created the subpar Revelations series to piece together events they thought we were supposed to know about Jill, Chris and co. but they were just filler content with random nostalgic flashbacks of what the main series used to be.

My hopes aren't that high for RE 7. I don't want to see Leon, Chris, Jill or Claire getting embarrassed by whatever CAPCOM is planning envolving zombie-filled areas, overpowered weapons and silly story with tons of mediocre unlockables like RE 6 was. The way the things are going, with RE 2 remake on the run, CAPCOM might end up remaking even RE 3 and re-relaunching everything for next-gen systems.

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Oopiedoopie

No one asked him how he managed to go from helping to make a masterpiece like RE4 to making a shameful, 2 steps backwards RE4 clone called Evil Within. Many of the battles were ripped directly from RE4, the combat was clumsy, aiming was imprecise, and the story was terrible.

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RSM-HQ

@oopiedoopie: You're right I so remember fighting a boss that takes his own head off just to respawn & pursue while throw land mines in a steam vault.

What's that? Resident Evil 4 doesn't do that. . At all. . But that would mean your comment is full of %&^$

You haven't played TEW dood fess-up. Haters gonna hate, but haters don't gotta lie :P

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Spaced92

@oopiedoopie: Well, the last 3 things could be said about RE4 as well. And I liked that game.

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RaveNRolla

@spaced92: what's that avatar you all are using? is that a beard or a tongue sticking out? Seems to be pretty popular.

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DarthRevenX

I think when i was a kid i saw a few horror movies that scared the crap out of me to the point that no movie or game can really scare me.....

the stuff I fear comes from real life, I fear being blown up in nuclear fire, the world going to crap, I fear the same stuff anyone else does really but when i see a horror movie I don't cower in fear, I get into movies when i watch so sneaking up on me and touching me will startle me but that's not cus you scared me.....it's cus you pulled me out of the moment...

anyways I've tried many times to get into RE and never really could.....IDK, if I was on the team at that point i would have foreseen some success....there was no other games like RE at that time and games were shifting rapidly yet there were games that had a horror element, Quake for example had a horror element to it and due to the sounds and score it was genuinely creepy in parts....RE was good at creating many scenes similar to what George A Romero was known for as well as other horror movies so just that I would have foreseen some success in it but I don't think anyone can predict a blockbuster.....you can try to make one and most of the time that fails cus you're actively trying to make something that appeals when if you just went with what you think is cool you'll see far more success...basically do your own thing not copy others is what succeeds.....being genuine not a copy of a copy.....not that I'm blaming these guys for that, they followed what they thought was cool and succeeded.....

basically I'm not a big horror person but i can see why the series at least the early games were so big.....in a way it's games like RE and MGS that paved the way for modern storytelling in games......

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Spaced92

@darthrevenx: I think horror games that try to scare you tend to be really bad, but psychological horror (Silent Hill 1-3) is pretty good. To build tension around a characters fear and instability is more interesting than trying to shock the gamer, but having said that very few games do that well. The first RE games you just had to experience it at the time.

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RSM-HQ

Hope he's working on TEW 2. Resident Evil hasn't really been on form for awhile so I'll take Tango's next game over the dudebro coop shooter Capcom has planned.

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Oopiedoopie

@RSM-HQ: You want another RE4 ripoff with a crap framerate, clunky movement and combat, and a nonsensical story? Why?

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Warlord_Irochi

@oopiedoopie: Ever heard of a thing called "tastes"?

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RSM-HQ

@oopiedoopie: Did you play TEW?

No, ok.

How do I know this? Because the FPS issues are minor compared to a ton of current generation games. I'm sure the frame-rate so slightly dipping during heavy coded moments is a strain to you (wawawa) so best you just not play games. Because chances are, you own plenty that perform far worse.

Could go on but seeing as you have no clue all I'll state is

I smell a filthy Casul XD

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WahjahEater

The only reason the game lives on is because of its weeaboo fan base and that's it. I've only ever enjoyed Resident Evil and Resident Evil 2.

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Warlord_Irochi

@wahjaheater: I don't think you know what "Weeaboo" actually means.

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RSM-HQ

@wahjaheater: Watch out, we've got a badass here.

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butterworth

@wahjaheater: Then this is the interview for you since it focuses entirely on the first game!

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yeah_28

"my personal feeling was that Resident Evil was not a game that should be made into a series. This is because horror tends to have strong patterns that are easy to get used to, meaning they're easy to get tired of. I never thought that the game would become such a huge hit."

That makes sense, and its also why imo the games clearly based their success on gameplay and theme, not on being scary or unpredictable. Had it been for effective horror alone, the franchise might not even exist.