Ahh, Resident Evil.
Some gaming franchises are always a dream – Zelda, Mario, Bayonetta and so on. Others are like an abusive relationship – you know you should quit whilst you’re ahead or even behind, but you keep going back in the vain and misguided hope that maybe, just maybe, one day they’ll get it right again. See Sonic the Hedgehog. And, of course, Resident Evil.
There’s a common line that games should always strive for originality – but Resident Evil has never been original. Not once. Resident Evil took the concept of Warning Sign (a 1986 B-Movie) and the idea of a little-known JRPG from 1989 called Sweet Home (which had the door-entry scenes) and a healthy dose of Night of the Living Dead and mushed it together with the gameplay stylings of Alone in the Dark. Yup, Resident Evil was a long way from anything resembling original – but it didn’t matter. The tight, claustrophobic gameplay and careful attention to detail (like Zombie Forrest) coupled with that satisfyingly spooky squelching sound of the zombies moving around just felt great. It was a moment of ambitious clarity – movies and games, it was saying. Movies and games don’t have to be worlds apart. We can be cinematic. We can be just as engaging.
And with an interesting plot, interesting puzzles and some damned impressive boss encounters – it was a satisfying game to boot. Learning to steer Jill and Chris, learning their particular strengths and weaknesses, was always engaging. As we continued on, descending from basic horror tropes into a science-fiction scenario, it all felt kind of natural. This made sense. Oh, and the Hunters. Sweet Nipple-Clamping King of All Cosmos, the Hunters. They gave me some sleepless nights. And that was the point – Resident Evil wasn’t just a good game, it was actually rather scary to boot. Capcom had come out swinging on the PlayStation, and I loved it.
But thing is, I love Resident Evil not for its unhinged silliness, nor even the horror. If there’s one thing that keeps me coming back over and over again, it’s not the satisfying pop of an exploding zombies head – it’s the villains. And oh Merciful Polukus in a Sauna, if there’s one thing the series has always done right – even in its bleakest moments – it’s the villains.
Wesker (non-silly version). William and Annette Birkin (and Ada Wong, though she straddles the fine line between good-guy and antagonist with aplomb). Nemesis. Hell, I’ll say it now – all of these pale in comparison to the legend, the sheer titanic presence of the one, the only, the titan of Resident Evil villains… Alfred Freaking Ashford.
Yeah, I said it. Alfred Ashford is the best villain I’ve seen in the Resident Evil series. One of the best villains ever, in fact. I’m not joking. This is me being sincere, he’s absolutely balls-to-the-wall AMAZING! Unhinged insanity, tethered into a deep and rewarding life story of constantly being considered inferior to his sister – only to prove them wrong, by protecting his twin sister by… uhh… pretending to be his sister. Yeah, that’s right, Alfred Ashford cross-dressed and he still rocked (also, turns out his sister’s faith was well placed considering under his guidance, the Ashford family regained a lot of international standing and wealth in the game world!). He was cruel, malicious, arrogant, smarmy and hated losing. He has the most extensive character development of anyone in a single game of the Resident Evil series. He has the richest backstory of anyone in the series. This is for a single villain in a single goddamned game! And I love him for it. He’s the worst kind of human being – but still, thanks to how the story plays out, shown as human with all our human failings. He’s never played like Wesker, now some kind of super-mutant killing machine. He’s played as a proper villain, a Bond Villain almost. And his inevitable scenes are played with an unerring, calm and collected emotional impact that the series, for me, has never topped. Capcom nailed Alfred Ashford. Say what you want about the game – it is a little divisive – there’s no getting away that when they dreamed up Alfred, they were on the good stuff.
I’m not ashamed. Alfred Ashford is glorious.
And even the wacky antics of Resident Evil 4 had great villains – Bitores Mendez, Ramon Salazar, Osmund Saddler and yes, Jack Krauser were all worthy villains. Sometimes campy, sometimes silly but always with a presence that made them really stand out. Particularly Ramon Salazar, who is for me the second best villain in the series. There’s something about this rich, pampered Castellan that is both hilarious and equally rather terrifying, flipping from calm and collected one moment and then throwing the most childishly hilarious tantrum the next.
I think that was always my deepest-rooted issues with what followed. Resident Evil 5 just had Wesker again, and by this point he was just a glorified comic-book super-villain. The cool, sneaky Wesker of the past was all but gone, in his place was just a lame duck in black ably assisted by a now-blonde Jill being mind-controlled (and yes, I know the game explains why Jill was blonde but seriously, it’s still lame). Resident Evil 6… I mean, Evil Clone Ada was kind of cool, but it was all just a bit of a muchness. In a game trying so hard to be so many things, nothing got any time to develop – not even the villains. That’s a shame, because there was some potential there.
I even love the villains in the Revelations games. Particularly Alex Wesker – a tragic figure, and again, a well fleshed-out villain with an actual point and purpose. She’s bad; but there’s a reason to her villainy. There’s method in her madness. She’s smart, she’s wily and she’s clearly capable – so capable, in fact, that let’s spoiler this. She’s the only villain in the series to date in my eyes that actually SUCCEEDS in her plans. That’s right – the bad guy wins in Revelations 2. And she doesn’t just win – she manages to win without anyone knowing she’s won. That is a special level of devious evil that finally ends up playing back into the series moniker – Resident Evil. (But Revelations 2 also loses points because Claire Redfield is kidnapped again and taken to a prison island… again. Seriously, once is a misfortune – twice looks like carelessness…)
Also, the only person so far to succeed in their crazy and diabolical plan in this franchise happens to be a woman. Huh, I think that’s a topic for another day.
Whatever people may take from the Resident Evil franchise is up to them, of course. The series has had some glorious moments, and I’m writing this patiently waiting for my copy of Resident Evil 7 to fall through my letterbox. But if there’s one thing I need – indeed, demand – from Resident Evil 7, it’s to uphold what is a staggering legacy of truly magnificent baddies. The Baker Family have some real potential to be a fantastic set of antagonists. Even though the game is as unoriginal as hell – it really is so unoriginal at this point that I’m not even going to try explaining why because just seeing things with your eyes will tell you everything you need to know – if they get The Bakers right, I’ll consider it a good game.
Because killing zombies and mutants isn’t special anymore. You need a good villain to hang this from; good antagonists, people you love to hate. Resident Evil is at its best, at its peak even, when it keeps things sharply and keenly focused on the villains of the piece. Compelling, unhinged and sometimes even outright disturbing. Yes, gameplay and puzzles and a bit of combat shape and define the body of the game, but the soul has to come from who you’re up against. Making it seem and feel like your efforts are futile, or even just making them more unhinged and dangerous.
It’s in the name of the game. Resident Evil. There has to be a resident evil there. Something central and core to the game.
They are what keep me coming back, time and time again.
Viva la villains. Long may you rave!