Last month I celebrated the 20th Anniversary of The House of the Dead, but we all know what horror game franchise is getting the pomp & circumstance that a double-decade anniversary deserves this year. March 22, 1996 saw the original Japanese release of Capcom's Biohazard on the Sony PlayStation, and a week later the game saw North American release under the name Resident Evil, due to the word "Biohazard" not being copyrightable over here. The game not only marked the directorial debut of Shinji Mikami (Dino Crisis, God Hand, Vanquish), but also coined the phrase "survival horror" that has gone on the define an entire genre. The phrase is so defining that even Frédérick Raynal's Alone in the Dark, which first came out in 1992 & helped inspire Mikami's team, has been retroactively deemed to be survival horror. This also applies to an extent to 1989's Sweet Home, a Famicom RPG by Capcom based on the horror movie of the same name; in fact, Resident Evil was originally conceived as a remake of this game.
In the end, while Alone in the Dark & Sweet Home did introduce a lot of concepts that Mikami & producer Tokuro Fujiwara also used in their game, Resident Evil still did a number of things first for the genre it coined... Or did it? Yes, the franchise did do some things first, but many things that RE is generally credited for are not actually concepts & ideas that were done first via that franchise. This is not me trying to lessen the impact or importance of one of Capcom's biggest franchises, but rather I want to take the opportunity to give credit to six "survival horror" video games that did introduce concepts to the genre before Resident Evil eventually utilized them; in fact, one of them has yet to even be used by the series. I guess think of it as me celebrating the 20th Anniversary of "survival horror" more than anything. Regardless, let's get going before a zombie comes up from behind & bites me in the jugular.
Starting off this list is easily the most obscure one of them all, but is probably the most important of them. When Raynal made Alone in the Dark, PCs at the time could render some 3D polygons, but in the end his team decided on using polygonal characters on top of bitmap-rendered 2D backdrops, with cinematic camera angles to create tension. Similarly, when Mikami & Fujiwara made Resident Evil, they decided that having it be completely 3D was too much for the original PlayStation to handle, so they went with polygonal characters on top of pre-rendered environments alongside cinematic camera angles. Capcom wouldn't create a full-3D survival horror game until 1999's Dino Crisis, & the first full-3D RE games wouldn't be until 2000 with Survivor & Code:Veronica, but the fact of the matter is that survival horror went full-3D six years prior to when Capcom did it. In fact, it did so before Resident Evil was even fully developed.
Riverhill Soft may not be a major name in the history of video games, but it has some importance. For example, the Prince from Prince of Persia only got his classic "turban & vest" design when Riverhill Soft altered the character sprite for the Japanese release on the PC-98 & PC-Engine CD, which then stuck until the Sands Trilogy rebooted his design. Similarly, the studio is responsible for taking survival horror into a completely polygonal world before it even became a genre when it released Doctor Hauzer back in 1994 on the 3DO. Similar to Alone in the Dark, the game is about a man who investigates an abandoned mansion, this time to solve the mystery behind the eponymous Dr. Hauzer, but unlike any horror game before it, Riverhill Soft put this in full-3D; everything in the game is a polygon. Not just that, but the game let you freely switch between three camera settings: Third-person, overhead, & first-person. Yes, while Mikami & Fujiwara originally planned on making Resident Evil a first-person game, which wouldn't happen until Survivor & will be revisited with next year's Resident Evil 7: biohazard, Doctor Hauzer was already giving players the ability to explore the game in such a perspective. Sadly, though, Mikami & Fujiwara's worries about hardware strength were right, because Doctor Hauzer is obviously too much for the 3DO to handle, with the frame rate being insanely low right from the start. Luckily, there are no enemies to contend with, instead treating the mansion itself as the foe via its many deathtraps, but that may have been simply due to the fact that the 3DO could only just barely play the game in the first place.
I do plan on eventually giving the game a full playthrough & review one day here, but Doctor Hauzer is sadly a generally forgotten/ignored piece of survival horror history, one that attempted to bring the yet-defined genre into a full-3D world that it just wasn't ready for yet on a technical level. This isn't Riverhill Soft's only contribution to survival horror, though, and I'll get to the next one a little later in the list.
While Alone in the Dark & Doctor Hauzer were taking horror into the third dimension by using polygons, there were still horror games coming out that relied on tried-&-true 2D sprite work; in fact, this is the only 2D game on the entire list. Interestingly enough, while Resident Evil coined the phrase "survival horror", it was still theoretically possible to take out any & all monsters that were out to get you, i.e. you could actually survive & feel safe. 1998's Resident Evil 2 made it more difficult to kill everything out to get you by throwing lots of enemies at you at times, sure, but it wasn't until 1999's Resident Evil 3: Nemesis that a seemingly unkillable stalker was always after you. The eponymous Nemesis was a randomly-placed hulk that would suddenly appear out of nowhere to ruin your plans & make you run; you could fight & incapacitate it, but it's usually a waste of ammo & it's only temporary. Still, while Capcom was given a lot of praise for the addition of Nemesis, that was really nothing more than a copy of the original survival horror stalker, Scissorman.
Originally developed by Human Entertainment (Fire Pro Wrestling, Vanguard Bandits) for the Super Famicom in 1995, also predating the original Resident Evil, Clock Tower is a 2D horror adventure game where you guided orphan girl Jessica Simpson around the mansion owned by the wealthy recluse Simon Barrows, which is nicknamed the "Clock Tower". She's there because she was adopted by Barrows, alongside some other orphans, but winds up being hunted by a deformed young boy who wields a giant pair of scissors, hence the name Scissorman. In essence, Clock Tower is a point-&-click adventure game, where you move a cursor around the screen to tell Jessica where to go & what to interact with, and at random points Scissorman would pop out & hunt after her. Since Jessica is not Jill Valentine, your only choice is to escape her stalker, either by hiding where possible (though he stops falling for repeated hiding places) or by finding something to stop him for the moment, like knocking over a bookshelf. The game is also famous for featuring nine possible endings, though only four were "good" endings. Clock Tower has wound up being one of Human's biggest legacies since its dissolution in 2000, with the original game being ported to the PlayStation, Windows PC, & even the WonderSwan (all given the subtitle The First Fear) , a PS1-exlcusive sequel in late 1996 (the first to see official release outside of Japan), a PS1-exlcusive spin-off game in 1998, & finally a third game released on the PS2 by Capcom & Sunsoft in 2003, with all of the successive entries done in full-3D. Yes, eventually Capcom would make its own take on Scissorman, even giving him a Scissorwoman partner.
One interesting aspect that links many of the earliest survival horror games is that they feature multiple playable characters; Doctor Hauzer & Clock Tower are notable exceptions. That being said, they still focus on the player controlling only one of them for the entire story, with the other usually being out of the picture, minus for some story bits. Yes, Sweet Home allowed the player to control multiple characters & switch between when needed, but that was due more to its status as an RPG, so I'm purposefully not counting that on a technicality. While Resident Evil 2 had parts where you controlled a third character for short periods, it wasn't until Resident Evil 0 in 2002 that the player could actually utilize two characters in the same playthrough & switch between them at will. Still, while people hyped up Capcom's "partner zapping system" with interest, & it was cool, the idea of having multiple playable characters that could be accessed at any time in a survival horror game had already been done six years prior (or four years prior to 0's initial announcement in 2000). In fact, it was Riverhill Soft that had beaten them to the punch, yet again.
Released in Japan in mid-1996, with an international release by Electronic Arts the following year, OverBlood is essentially the spiritual successor to Doctor Hauzer. It also utilizes polygons for everything, but by being released on the somewhat more capable PlayStation than the 3DO, the game also runs at a much more reasonable frame rate; this also allows for enemies to be added instead of simply having the environment kill you. You also have the multiple camera options like Hauzer, but this time only in the first & third-person variety. The game has you play mainly as Raz (Lars in Europe) Karcy, an amnesiac who is accidentally woken up from cryogenic sleep, and he quickly feels the need to escape the facility that he's housed within. The sci-fi motif is another notable aspect of the game, but I'm not quite sure if it can truly be called the first suvival horror game to use that motif. Anyway, Raz quickly comes across & befriends a robot named Pipo, & works with a woman named Milly Azray, and while playing you can switch between the characters at will; each character has a specific advantage over the others, like Pipo's ability to use some computers. Admittedly, this is kind of like Sweet Home, but OverBlood is nothing else like it after that. Today, the game is a bit of an easy target for poking fun at, due to its outdated design & rough English voice work, but it was enough of a success to warrant a sequel in 1998, which received an English release only in Europe in 2001. Said sequel is more of an action game, though.
Aside from their importance in terms of helping establish survival horror, though, probably the coolest bit of trivia regarding Riverhill Soft is that it was the starting ground for a man named Akihiro Hino. He was the main programmer for Doctor Hauzer, before being promoted to lead programmer for OverBlood & then lead designer, writer, & director for OverBlood 2. Why is this important? Because after OverBlood 2, Hino left Riverhill Soft & founded his own game company... Level-5. Today, Akihiro Hino's company is considered one of the premier Japanese video game developers, and it all started with the origins of survival horror.
Part of what made survival horror so effective when it first "debuted" was the limitations that it instituted, like the cinematic camera angles that could cleverly hide upcoming enemies or the limited amounts of things like ammo & health recovery. Another major restriction instituted early on was not letting the player move while attacking or allow the use of items without opening up a menu first. I'll get to why exactly Capcom did this a little later, but it was definitely a very strong aspect of the Resident Evil series, so much so that it wasn't until 2012 that moving while aiming was introduced to the franchise via RE: Revelations, and allowing items to be consumed in real-time was only introduced a few years prior to that with 2009's RE5; to be fair, Dino Crisis did allow moving while aiming, too. Still, this was a restriction that was often cited by some as a flaw or unnecessary & intrusive, so some other developers thought about maybe removing them. The first to do so was Sega, with (I believe) the only survival horror game to come from the company.
Co-developed by Sega AM7, ISCO, & System Sacom, with SIMS helping with the CG cinematics, Deep Fear was released on the Saturn in mid-1998, first in Europe (surprisingly enough) & then in Japan a month later. Similar to how Resident Evil was inspired by zombie flicks like Night of the Living Dead, this was inspired by the likes of Leviathan & The Abyss, with the game having you control ex-Navy SEAL John Mayor, who works with the Emergency Rescue Services on a naval feuling & research facility called The Big Table. The crew takes in a chimpanzee inside of a space capsule that just crashed back to Earth after a 40 year stay in space to see how cosmic radiation affects living creatures. Naturally, this results in humans being mutated & even brought back from the dead. Deep Fear's big hook is that you have to keep John's oxygen level up, since you're underwater, but what the game brings in terms of advancing survival horror as a genre is that you can move (& even run) while aiming & use things like healing items in real time by hot keying them to certain buttons. While this sounds like a no-brainer & might confuse people as to why Capcom took so long to do this, there's a good reason for it.
The idea behind survival horror when Mikami & Fujiwara conceived it was that the player had limited options to them when in a pinch; it was about surviving the situation, not exterminating it. They quickly realized that allowing the player to move while aiming would remove a lot of the risk & horror; it's not too scary when you can shoot the zombie while backing away. Dino Crisis got away with this because it was categorized as "panic horror", i.e. it had a more fast-paced & combative feel to it. I bring this up mainly because the main complaint for Deep Fear is that being able to move while shooting makes the game too easy at a lot of points &, most importantly, removes a lot of the fear that the game is supposed to instill. Sega did show that you could operate more realistically in survival horror, but Capcom knew that it would only join the club when it could be done without removing the feeling of horror.
Up next is an interesting concept, mainly because Resident Evil as an entire franchise has never used it yet. When it comes to the early survival horror games, you mainly had only one thing to keep track of when it came to the actual "survival" aspect, your health. It seems natural, but as time went on games started to add extra factors to keep in consideration, all of which made sense in their own uses. Deep Space's Extermination, a 2001 PS2 game that's probably now best known as an early game designed by Hidetaka "Swery65" Suehiro, had you keeping check on your infection level, as having it reach 100% would eventually result in your character becoming like the monsters you were fighting. Climax/Crazy Games' Illbleed on the Dreamcast the same year had you keep your adrenaline level up, keep your heart rate stable, & even patch up any bleeding you suffered upon taking damage. I guess you can also include the need for oxygen in Deep Fear, too, but that had areas where oxygen was infinite, while the others were constant worries. In that regard, it looks like the first to do that was a game that may still be one of the more curious games to come from the early "Golden Age".
Originally released in mid-1999 in Japan, with an international release in 2000, Galerians by Polygon Magic (Slap Happy Rhythm Busters, Incredible Crisis) is an interesting take on survival horror. Instead of zombies, space creatures, or other traditionally considered horror fare, this game uses a future-noir motif, with a specific focus on psychic phenomena. You control Rion Steiner, a teenage boy who wakes up in a hospital only to find out that he has no memories & now has psychic powers, ranging from telekinesis to pyrokinesis to psychokinesis. He quickly finds out that he has a relation to a girl named Lilia, as well as one with Dorothy, an experimental AI program gone out of control. In terms of gameplay, Galerians is mostly standard, with pre-rendered backgrounds, fixed camera angles, & all manner of puzzles to solve. The main difference is in how Rion fights back. Rather than wield weapons, Rion uses his psychic powers, which each having their own energy bar that drains with each use & requires drug usage via neck injection to refill; yes, Rion is essentially a druggie that's hooked on psychics. This leads into the new survival aspect, which is the AP gauge. As Rion moves around & uses his powers, the AP gauge fills, & when maxed out results in what's called a "short". Rion's head will ache, he'll slowly stagger around, & is unable to use his powers, but at the same time any regular foe to gets close to him will die from head explosion! Unfortunately, Rion also loses health while shorting, and has to take specific pills to reduce the AP gauge to zero again, lest he dies. It's part of what makes Galerians one of the more interesting games in the genre from the late-90s, & is a major part of why the game received not just a more action-oriented sequel but also a full-CG OVA adaptation in 2002. The character designs by Shou Tajima (Madara, M.P.D. Psycho) also gave it a visual style all its own.
We're ending the list with a first that, compared to the others above, is a pretty minor one, but at the same time it's what wound up being a major part of survival horror's transition to the more action-focused fare it wound up being in the mid-to-late 00s. Similar to how Capcom restricted gun use to standing still & item usage only in menus, the simple act of reloading a firearm was only available in two forms early on. You either had to enter the item menu to do it manually, or it would happen automatically when a clip is emptied. The idea was to instill the feeling that, when caught in a tight spot, your next shot against an oncoming monster could be your last before having to reload, heightening the tension. This also helped keep these early games from being more action-focused than they were supposed to be, with Resident Evil 4's use of "active reloading", where you reload at will in real-time, changing the entire landscape of horror games; some would argue for the worse, in fact. Still, it wasn't 2005 when active reloading was first used in survival horror, but rather it was before the dawn of the new millennium, in a game barely anyone talks about.
Oddly enough, survival horror rarely utilizes vampires, with the most recent one that I can think of being Vampire Rain on Xbox 360 & PS3 (though that might be more "stealth action" than "survival horror"). In fact, the first vampire-themed survival horror game to be released (outside of Japan) was Bandai's Countdown Vampires, which was released December 1999 in Japan, & then August 2000 in America. During his assignment as bodyguard at the Desert Moon, a newly-opened horror-themed casino, Seam Rim City Police detective Keith J. Snyder winds up being surrounded by newly turned vampires after a mysterious black liquid sprays out of the sprinkler system due to a fire. Simply put, this was the first survival horror game to allow the player to reload at will, as well as switch between a lethal weapon & a dart gun without having to go to a menu. To be honest, the active reloading isn't really what gives the game any sort of real identity, because it's mostly your standard "genre clone", but rather it's the fact that you can either kill vampires or knock them out via dart gun. If you use the dart gun, you can then use holy water to make them human again, which is interesting. There are also a number of instances where Keith has to accomplish something within a time limit, which is where the "Countdown" part of the title comes in. Finally, if you finish the game within 8 hours, you apparently unlock a special story mode that expands on the plot & reveals new information you normally would never find out during the first playthrough, like the identity of a mysterious "Man in Black".
The game received an extremely mixed reception as time has gone on, ranging from near-perfects to nigh-abominations. I've considered getting a copy myself one day, but it tends to never be sold for cheap nowadays, normally going for at least $30-$40 online.
Since the dawn of "survival horror", the genre has transitioned from one focused more on mood, atmosphere, & tension to a more action-focused style, with Capcom even categorizing 2012's Resident Evil 6 as "dramatic horror" to explain the change in focus; obviously, there were exceptions to this change, too. Since then, though, the genre has seen a shift back to focusing more on scaring & feeling helpless in the situation. Still, the advancements of the genre have made their impact in more ways than one can count, whether it's the shift to full-3D, keeping you paranoid of a boogeyman that can appear anywhere & anytime, not making you alone, making you worry about more than your health, or allowing you to behave & react more realistically. Resident Evil tends to get the spotlight for these advancements, & it more than deserves celebrating 20 years, but it alone has not made the genre as popular as it wound up becoming.
Now, I did say that Countdown Vampires was the first vampire-themed survival horror game to see release "outside of Japan", so what came before it? Well, before I get to that, I should talk about a certain "Vampire Hunter", one who only goes by a single letter...