Resident Evil revolutionized horror games, but it couldn't have done so without the foundation built by a small licensed title for the Famicom.
In March of 1996, the Sony Playstation saw the release of Capcom’s revolutionary horror title Resident Evil. The game is known as Biohazard in Japan, and boy, that sure is a much better title. It would be an understatement to say that the game made waves. According to Capcom, throughout its life, the original Resident Evil has sold over 2.7 million units. That’s not even counting the multiple re-releases the game would get over the next few years: a Windows release in 1996, a port to the Sega Saturn in 1997, two versions of a Director’s Cut in 1997 and ‘98, a full remake on the Gamecube in 2002, and - weirdly enough - a port to the Nintendo DS in 2006. I mean, heck, there was even a Game Boy Color version in development for at least some span of time.
Resident Evil breathed new life into the zombie genre, with prominent filmmakers such as Alex Garland, Simon Pegg, and even the father of zombie fiction himself George Romero crediting it for the popularization of media starring the undead in the early 2000s. Upon release, Resident Evil received a 38/40 from Famitsu, which tied it with Tekken 2 and put it just one spot below Super Mario 64 for the highest rated game of 1996 from the publication.
Basically, it was a big deal. Such a big deal that it pretty much named the genre that it revolutionized: survival horror. But while it gave the genre its name, Resident Evil is not the game that is generally considered to have invented it. For that, we have to turn the clock back a few years to a small licensed title for the Famicom.
Before games like Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, or Silent Hill, horror was not exactly a genre that was produced all that often in the context of video games. There are certainly examples of it back then: games like Haunted House for the Atari 2600 or 3D Monster Maze for the Sinclair ZX81. Outside of that, however, horror games were largely relegated to licensed titles, such as the infamously bad Friday the 13th NES adaptation or action games with horror elements such as Konami’s Castlevania or Namco’s Splatterhouse.
It’s not hard to see why this was the case, as technical limitations made it much more difficult to scare the player, compared to what is possible today. Sound design was limited, creating a spooky atmosphere was next to impossible, and monster design had some real hurdles as a result of their low visual fidelity.
But in the late 1980s, this did nothing to dissuade production company Itami Productions from deciding that they wanted a tie in game made for their upcoming horror film, Sweet Home. The film follows a team of documentary filmmakers as they enter the long-abandoned home of a famous artist to restore and document the frescos he had painted on the walls. Eventually, it becomes clear that the mansion is cursed by the ghost of his grieving wife, leading to what I can only describe as “angry acid shadows.” It’s a goofy experience with some legitimately impressive practical effects for the time, and I definitely recommend it to anybody who enjoys an old horror flick. So anyways, Itami decided they wanted a video game based on their film to be made and released in the same year, and settled on Capcom as the developer. The film’s producer, Juzo Itami, became the producer of the game, while the film’s director and scriptwriter, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, joined the development team in a supervisory role. To fit in the role of the game’s director, Capcom decided to assign one of its biggest rising stars at the time to the project: Tokuro Fujiwara.
Fujiwara joined the games industry in 1982, originally starting at Konami. By his own admission, he didn’t have any interest in video games before joining Konami, and in fact, he didn’t even know Konami was a game developer when he applied for the job. While Fujiwara was there, he developed two arcade games, Pooyan and Roc ’N Rope, but he jumped ship only a year later and moved to Capcom in 1983. It was here that his career truly began to take shape.
His first project with the company was a side-scrolling shooter called Vulgus in 1984, but it was in 1985 that he would truly hit his stride as the director of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. From there, he would go on to develop yet another arcade classic for Capcom, serving as the director for Commando and its kind-of-but not-really sequel (depending on what country you lived in) Bionic Commando. In 1988, he would go on to direct the sequel to his first major success, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. It was pretty obvious at this point that Fujiwara was a very productive member of Capcom’s arcade division, and he enjoyed his time there as well. Though he had dabbled in helping the console division out a few times up to this point, serving as an advisor or producer on games like Mega Man 2 or the NES version of Bionic Commando, he had little interest in leaving his arcade roots. Unfortunately for him, Capcom had other plans.
With the Itami Productions deal already in place, Fujiwara found himself transferred to the console division immediately and placed in the director’s seat for Sweet Home, thus beginning development. To prepare Fujiwara for the job, he was sent to take a tour of the film set, read the script, and view the various locations where the movie took place. During this visit, Kurosawa told him not to worry too much about matching the plot exactly as it was in the film. This gave him a large amount of creative freedom, and he returned to Capcom brimming with new ideas.
So what is Sweet Home? Well, as you’ve probably gathered by this point, Sweet Home is a horror game. However, what you might not have figured out quite yet is that Sweet Home is also an RPG. Much like the film it’s based on, the game puts the player in control of five documentary filmmakers who have entered the abandoned home of deceased artist Ichirou Mamiya, in order to take photos of the frescoes painted on walls throughout the house.
Each of the five party members have their own special item only they can use, each performing a different purpose vital to completing the game. Kazuo has a lighter that can be used to burn ropes that block the path forward, Akiko has a medical kit that can be used to heal her fellow party members, Taro has a camera that is mainly used to take the assigned pictures of the frescoes, Asuka has a vacuum that can be used to remove debris from the floor or dust from the frescoes, and Emi has a key that is necessary to unlock various doors around the house. Some of these items can even be used in battle.
No, you didn’t mishear me, I said battle. Remember when I said this was an RPG? This is true, right down to the fact that there are random encounters with things like creepy dolls, bats, or my personal favorite: WORMS!!
Certain items like Kazuo’s lighter or Taro’s camera can be used in battle, as certain enemies are weak to its specific effect. Got an issue with some bats? Give ‘em a taste of that camera flash and you’ll find they’re no longer any problem at all. Defeating an enemy rewards any party member that participated in the fight experience that, as expected, will help them level up and get stronger, just like your usual RPG fare. However, this is about where the similarities to your usual RPG end. Enemies do not drop items or currency of any kind. In fact, there is no currency to be found within the game at all, as there are no shops and no armor. The only boss you’ll find in the entire game is at the very end. And the most important difference of all? If a party member dies, they’re dead for good.
The party can be split up and sent to different locations in the house in any combination the player wants, and the player can switch between these different parties at any point. Teams can be made up of a maximum of three characters, meaning at any time there are two characters you will have to leave elsewhere. Team buildup has to be decided based on who has the specific items you need to get through the area you are currently exploring.
Speaking of items, you may remember that every character has a special item necessary for completing the game that only they can use. Does this mean that with the permadeath system in place, losing a single character has the potential to make the game impossible to complete? Fortunately, no! Throughout the game, the player can find various single use items that serve the same purpose as the character specific ones, such as matches with the same functionality as Kazuo’s lighter. This means that even if a character dies, you can still find your way to the end, although it just becomes a bit harder to do so. Hoarding these items is not an option, as every character has incredibly limited inventory space, with four slots in total: one for their special item, two for usable items, and one for a weapon. Inventory management becomes one of the game’s greatest challenges as you make your way through the Mamiya household.
The plot of the game mirrors the film overall. However, as Fujiwara and his team were given permission to expand upon it however they wanted, the game actually gives more detail throughout the adventure, using diary entries left by those who have explored the mansion before you. It also greatly expands the size and scope of the Mamiya home. In fact, having played a bit of the game before watching the film, I had expected the house in the movie to be way bigger than it actually ended up being.
As a whole, Sweet Home is just an interesting and unique game through and through, and Japan seemed to think so, too. The film Sweet Home hit Japanese theaters in January of 1989 with an ad for the upcoming video game adaptation tacked on to the front of it. The film itself seemingly didn’t make huge waves, but the game, released in December of the same year, was relatively well-received by critics and players alike. Many reviewers at the time even remarked that they had enjoyed it more than the film it was based on.
Sweet Home has been praised extensively since its release, but most of that praise only came retroactively due to certain factors, not the least of which being its lack of an international release. There has never been an official reason given for Capcom’s decision in this regard. Some speculate it was due to the gruesome imagery found throughout the game, turning Nintendo off on the idea. Others believe it was because RPGs were seen as a niche genre overseas and Capcom didn’t feel like the game would sell. It’s more likely, at least in my opinion, that the decision to not localize and release the game in other regions was made simply because the game was based on a film that would likely never see the light of day outside of Japan.
Nevertheless, Sweet Home has acquired a bit of a cult following in the west since its release, especially due to a fan translation that emerged in 2000. The game has unfortunately never seen a rerelease of any kind, even in Japan. These factors aside, the impact that Sweet Home had on the industry, especially the career of Tokuro Fujiwara, is unmistakable.
Fujiwara would remain in Capcom’s console division for years following the development of Sweet Home, serving as producer on titles like Mega Man 3, DuckTales, Gargoyle’s Quest, Breath of Fire, Mega Man X, and many, many more. Then, in 1994, a horror project that had been in the works for the Super Nintendo had its development scrapped and shifted on to Sony’s PlayStation, with Fujiwara taking the helm as producer and suggesting to the director, Shinji Mikami, that they remake Sweet Home in 3D with the higher processing power the PlayStation offered. After all, the limited capabilities of the Famicom were a frustrating sticking point for Fujiwara during production of the original game.
Eventually, the idea of a remake was scrapped and the team settled on simply borrowing the haunted mansion setting. Ghosts were replaced with zombies, while the documentary crew was replaced with officers of the law, and as a result, Resident Evil was born. Even with these changes, the fingerprints of Sweet Home are clear to see: from managing a very limited inventory, to a larger party splitting up into two teams, to notes and diary entries providing extra context for the story, right down to the iconic door opening loading screens. That’s right, kids, those actually came from a Famicom game. Go figure, right?
Resident Evil would end up as the biggest highlight of both Fujiwara’s and Mikami’s careers, launching what is still to this day one of Capcom’s biggest franchises, as well as one of the most recognizable horror franchises in the world. Fujiwara would leave Capcom one year later to establish the studio Whoopee Camp, and go on to develop and release the PlayStation title Tomba! in 1997. Whoopee Camp would eventually shut down in 1999, leading Fujiwara to briefly return to Capcom in 2005. In 2009, he decided to step away from the industry for health reasons, with his last credited game being Platinum’s MadWorld for the Nintendo Wii.
Resident Evil would fall solely into the hands of Mikami, who would go on to bring one Hideki Kamiya - a planner on the first game - into a directorial position for the sequel. Both men would continue to work on the franchise until they too left Capcom in 2007, to establish Seeds Inc, the studio that would later become Platinum Games.
Sometimes, it’s weird to look back at the branching paths that brought us to where we are today. One guy applied for a job at a game studio - despite not even knowing it was a game studio - he wound up at Capcom making arcade games, got assigned to a little Famicom game meant to promote a movie, and accidentally wound up revolutionizing an entire genre in the process. It just goes to show you that sometimes, it pays off to take on that little project you aren’t entirely thrilled about doing. You just never know what kind of doors it might open for you in the future…