15 Bullets & A Knife

Celebrating 20 Years of Resident Evil, I Look Back at the One That Started It All For Baby Kevin (Sorry, It Ain’t Part 1)

I couldn’t get past the first five minutes. A gorgeous girl in a crimson denim one-piece; a fire raging behind her, erupted from the gnarled remains of a tanker truck; a dank avenue littered with broken and abandoned cars; and half a dozen gore soaked zombies moaning into the night air. And I just couldn’t get past it.

I had weapons. I did. A handgun with fifteen 9mm rounds and a large hunting knife. My gaming experience up until that point told ten-year-old me that a gun and a knife meant I could take on the goddamn world. Yet, here, I could waste six to eight shots just trying to put down one zombie, leaving me with five other missiles-with-teeth menacingly shuffling my way.

I thought I tried everything, too. After emptying my gun, I’d pull out the knife and attempt to cut the damn things down. Over and over, I’d get overrun and poor, cute Claire would become third-meal. Okay, how about I soften them up with bullets and then put the kabosh on them with my knife? Nope. I’d get caught on a sidewalk where a ghoulish policeman would apprehend me in his decayed grasp. It went against everything I knew about games. I had equipment but… it wasn’t enough? What sycophant would make a game like that?

We had to return the game to Blockbuster (when was the last time you heard such ancient words uttered?) before I ever figured out how to get past the fucking intro. There, I conferred with anyone that knew what to do. There was a whole world I wasn’t seeing because I was stuck behind the virtual equivalent of velvet ropes.

“Yeah, he’s been stuck at the first part,” my dad explained to one of the clerks. Tremendously uninterested in video games – he’d sooner get lost in a Grisham novel than save some broad from a castle – he was, however, all about supporting me and my frivolous pursuits. And this game, this Resident Evil 2, had consumed me.

“Do you know what the hell to do? I walk by and he’s shouting at the same screen over and over again.” The clerk looked past my bear of a father and toward me.

She asked, “Have you tried the knife?”

Yes, I tried the knife!” There was no wisdom to be found here, I’d be stuck forever. “They keep crowding around me.”

“Hmm. Did you get the crossbow yet?” There’s crossbows?! I thought. I was missing out badly.

“No. I’m stuck at the first part. The very first part.”

“Oh!” It dawned on her and she gave me the very advice that unlocked sixteen years of me playing and loving this franchise. “Just run past them.”

$5 later and the weighty cartridge was mine again (the N64 port of RE2 is actually the heaviest cartridge in the console’s library – that tidbit comes at no charge, just the cost of my dignity for knowing such an inane fact).

It seemed counter-intuitive to tiny me. I’ve faced challenges in games before, no doubt, but none that forced real world logic on you. Years of playing Fighting Force and Mario had taught me that there was no problem I couldn’t pummel or jump on to death. This game actually rewarded you for giving in to your gut instinct. Giving in to fear. Taking flight over fight. I ran past those hungry goons, fled into an alleyway, made it to the Kendo Gunshop, and for the first time in at least thirty attempts… I made it a little bit farther.

The ensuing roller-coaster changed my life forever. I know that seems like a maudlin overstatement (to which my father would vehemently agree) but hear me out. Resident Evil equipped me with everything I needed to face the real world with at a very young age. The Raccoon City Police Department served as a metaphor for life:

It could be unrelentingly hard. It’s puzzles, until solved, could seem maddeningly arbitrary. You’re given very little to get by on; conservation and resource management are key. It seems everything you run into wants to take your head off. And, worst of all, you’re absolutely alone. But here’s the light in it all: If you’re brave enough, and, more importantly, if you’re smart enough, you will survive.

For as much as I’ve played the numerous titles in this series – from seminal genre changers (Resident Evil 4) to spin-off’s that should’ve thought twice about being spun (Operation Raccoon City) – I can’t quite pinpoint what’s resonated with gamers when it comes to Resident Evil. Not least of why its resonated for 20 straight years.

What began as hapless heroes entrenched by (very literal) corporate zombies transitioned to spectacle farce where the villains became more outlandish and the heroes more and more impervious. Maybe its the franchise’s willingness to try and change with the times that’s helped it endure for so long. Maybe its just that the original PlayStation Trinity of releases were so monumental the very name Resident Evil tugs too hard at the ropes of nostalgia for us to ignore when we’re beckoned to “Enter the World of Survival Horror.”

For me, it was gaming puberty. Where I learned gaming could be so much more than beating on baddies and leaping to the next platform. It could be visual storytelling – something this series has had in spades, each of its pre-rendered backdrops a digital work of art. It could be hard won triumph, where my trials were plenty but my victories savory sweet. It could be scary, where a tinge of dread darts through the hollows of my stomach every time I unlocked a new door and stepped through.

More than that, I learned gaming could affect you even after the disc stopped spinning in its tray. It could stick to your bones and change how you interact, and deal, with the world around you. It could change perspectives. It could be art. I’m sure several of you have better examples of a life defining game especially when it comes to weighing its artistic merits against another. I mean, I’m talking about a game that had you fetching ornamental keys and unloading shotguns into inside-out tongue beasts.

But that’s my gaming turning point. Resident Evil 2. At best, its design helped usher me from childhood and set me on a path where lateral thinking and problem solving became key character traits of mine. At worst, I know better than trying to take on a dozen zombies with a fucking hunting knife. For both, I’m thankful.

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