In Memoriam: a Dead Rising retrospective – Part 1

Posted by Will Ooi | Posted in Favourites, Gaming | Tags: , , , , | Posted on 27-04-2012-05-2008

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This blog is a tribute to the original Dead Rising, the game that helped usher back into mainstream consciousness the lovable appeal and popularity of the Zombie Apocalypse, a genre now near-oversaturated and encompassing almost all forms of media. Whether it be the hilarious Undead Nightmare expansion to Red Dead Redemption or real-life “Zombie Walk” social-event-meets-cosplay events, would any of these tongue-in-cheek, self-deprecating moments truly have been possible were it not for the fun people had photographing female zombie knickers for high ‘Erotica’ scores through the camera lens of the game’s everyman main character, Frank West, himself clothed in a tight-fitting red rose dress direct from Willamette Mall’s high-end fashion section? Wait, what? That wasn’t how you played the game? No way.

Esteemed origins

Japanese developers Capcom had previously frightened a generation of players in the mid-90’s with its original entry to the Biohazard/Resident Evil series, simultaneously coining a new term for the experience as we came to grips with the jump up in quality of the 32-bit generation. “Survival Horror” made its debut on the original Playstation and took gamers on a horrific expedition through a sprawling mansion and secret underground laboratories populated by nightmarish creatures, forcing them to salvage scarce healing and ammunition resources – knowing full well that the more the player explored the game setting, the more risk they’d encounter. The need to conserve bullets wherever possible, accompanied by both a harsh difficulty level and limited amount of in-game ink ribbons to simply even save one’s progress, ensured that the ‘survival’ aspect of the title was alive and well, even if that meant that the selectable player characters, Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, often weren’t. Add to that a ‘horror’ attribute stemming from classic moments such as the infamous dog-jumping-through-the-window trick, the unsettlingly gorgeous but deliberately claustrophobic pre-rendered backgrounds and just as limiting “tank-like” control scheme which always kept players within the grasp of the game’s multiple and grotesque enemies, Resident Evil was an instant, terrifying success.

Despite spawning countless imitators in the Survival Horror subgenre (including the memorably bizarre ‘Survival Panic’ title Dino Crisis: essentially Resident Evil-meets-Jurassic Park), it wasn’t until the release of Dead Rising in 2006 on the Xbox 360 that a video game had seriously attempted to approach the interpretation of zombies offered by the “Godfather” himself, filmmaker George A. Romero, nor his satirical takes and social commentaries seen in Night of the Living Dead and – especially – Dawn of the Dead. Forget creepy mansions with giant snake and Venus Fly Trap bosses or ominously-named Hunter creatures ready to decapitate you with one swipe out in the moonlit gardens; in order for the zombie genre to have its truly representative game equivalent, it needed to be set in the most recognisable and classic setting of them all: the American Shopping Mall.

Enter DEAD RISING

The co-designer of Mega Man, Keiji Inafune, who had also previously worked on Resident Evil 2, saw fit to fill that void with a title that not only kept alive a sense of threat from its distant predecessor, but also offered a truly quirky take on the established tropes of Romero. Example? How about that same dress-wearing Frank West from before ignoring all the main missions, opting instead to chug down entire bottles of Whiskey in one hit, throwing up, and having a stream of pursuing zombies slip and fall on the vomit? Or the achievement in the game, ‘Costume Party’, earned when you “Place[d] novelty masks on at least 10 zombies”. And, what the hell, you could even take a photo of the ridiculous scene afterwards if you wanted to and earn some bonus ‘Outtake’ points to go with those ‘Erotica’ ones from those earlier zombie upskirt shots. Pervert. Cue that same generation of gamers still scared shitless from the mutated Tyrant end-bosses and other horrific G-Virus mutations  in the Resident Evil games, now with perplexed smiles on their faces, shaking their heads slowly in disbelief at what to make of it all.

Dead Rising introduced to the masses the sheer fun and maniacal laughter to be had in killing, quite literally, thousands upon thousands of undead with an assorted variety of innocent-looking everyday items in your archetypal sprawling shopping mall, complete with a kill count tally in the bottom corner of the screen to track one’s homicidal tendencies. But the game was about quality as well as quantity, you see: with almost every imaginable item usable as a weapon, from life-sized plastic mannequins turning into gruesome explosions of scattered limbs and miscellaneous body parts (real and fake) to repeatedly shoving apparently-useless pushbrooms in zombie faces so many times that they turned into deadly impaling weapons once they snapped, the options and their results were fascinating. If anything, Inafune’s creation was the anti-Resident Evil where those more traditional forms of dealing death – blades and guns – were now not only in ample supply, but took a complete backseat to the sheer number and creative appeal of the unexpected arsenal available. “Unexpected”, perhaps, being the key word to sum up it all up; take for instance Frank’s unarmed targeted attack…spitting. Utterly useless and confusing even in its very inclusion in the game, yet through experimentation and bringing an odd combination of items to a blender (say a piece of cabbage and some mustard),  you could create “Spitfire”, a deadly-phlegm-inducing concoction that brought the act a head-busting edge to go with its existing social taboo status. Oh how Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine wished they could’ve done the same, counting their valuable bullets and lamenting the pathetic range of those combat knives.

The Master of Unlocking

Humourous violence via ordinary retail items notwithstanding, the true achievement of Dead Rising was that unlike anything before it, it nailed (probably with a nail gun, too) one of the key principles of Romero’s Dead series in making human survivors – not the zombies – the main threat to the protagonists. Whether it be the crazed Psychopath boss characters featuring a supermarket manager wheeling a Carmageddon-style trolley down the fruit and vegetable aisles or the especially memorable dual-chainsaw wielding and poisonous gas balloon-popping clown known simply as ‘Adam’, through to the more docile survivors with frustrating AI (purposely programmed that way for effect, too, I would argue) helplessly littered around the complex and in need of rescue, the game was brimming with personality and madness in equal measure. Add to the mix an overall story arc involving the gathering of these survivors for a dramatic helicopter rescue, all their internal squabblings and betrayals, and with an ever-present theme of the pointlessness and fickle nature of consumerism as Frank tested every item he found as a viable weapon, snack, or outfit, the long-awaited and faithful homage to Romero was perhaps too successful. Sure enough, despite the disclaimer “THIS GAME WAS NOT DEVELOPED, APPROVED OR LICENSED BY THE OWNERS OR CREATORS OF GEORGE A. ROMERO’S DAWN OF THE DEAD™” being placed prominently on the game’s packaging, the copyright infringement lawsuit duly arrived soon after the game’s release, ultimately ending in Capcom’s favour.

It is perhaps a further testament to the enduring influence and impact of Dead Rising that, among others, Valve’s Left 4 Dead 2 then paid homage back with a graffiti reference to Frank West sprawled on a safehouse wall within the popular co-op shooter, which itself took the zombie game into the first person perspective and borrowed elements from the film 28 Days Later where the traditional model of a slow, lumbering zombie had now been transformed into sprinting, hellishly ferocious threats. Dead Rising, though, had been the first video game yardstick to gauge the genre’s potential appeal, giving rise to the popularity of not only the living dead as enemies for players to face once again, but also the variety of methods and tools with which one could use to vanquish them. Sick of shotguns and Uzis? Left 4 Dead 2 let players vary up the slaughter with cricket bats, frying pans, and of course – the chainsaw – the trademark weapon which essentially channeled the spirit of both Inafune and Romero. The trend spread like an airbourne virus and the tradition continues today in other games such as Dead Island and even a ‘Nazi Zombie’ mode in the Call of Duty series, not to mention film and TV shows where the essential components of humour and cheekiness still feature prominently.

Yet despite its success and key role in re-igniting the zombie craze, people definitely weren’t laughing about the game’s overall design; the general consensus seeming to be that Dead Rising fell short of perfection due to its gameplay’s major, even completely off-putting, shortcomings.

Back to being a Jill Sandwich

Right when it looked as if Inafune had brought the pure fun back into killing zombies by forever changing the way players looked at objects in a hardware store and relaxing the stringent, survival demands and difficulty levels seen in the early Resident Evils, many players were gobsmacked by the features he’d instead replaced them with: an unavoidable, time-governed system emphasising – or rather, enforcing – consequence-learning gameplay over multiple playthroughs where it was virtually impossible to complete the game the first time round. Even those tank-controls were back when Frank entered into aiming mode, unable to move while pointing a gun, throwing an object or even spitting at the approaching hordes. But the most dreaded, resurrected monstrosity of them all? Rearing its ugly head and slowly forming a sick, deadly smile not unlike the first cutscene which set the tone in the original Resident Evil: a solitary save slot.

In an age where short single player story modes, autosaves, and incremental checkpoint progression had become the norm, fans of the game appreciated and loathed these design choices in equal measure, the latter of whom feeling as if they’d been foolishly lead into a false sense of security akin to those first victims to die in your typical cheesy horror flick. So never mind searching desperately for ink ribbons, Dead Rising made you constantly overwrite that one single, vital,  save you had, forcing you to live with all the consequences that followed. To make matters worse, still, even the manner in which the game made you do so was quite literally a piss-take, manifesting in the form of Frank urgently and constantly needing to relieve himself in the bathroom, the audio quality of his unzipping captured in high fidelity to boot. Cue that same generation of Resident Evil fans, bemused smiles slowly fading from their faces as they realised they’d bunged their save files and denied themselves any further progression, letting out those all-too-familiar groans of frustration long since forgotten.

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Stay tuned for Part 2 of this In Memoriam retrospective, where we’ll assess further the game mechanics that made, but also very nearly broke, Dead Rising.

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Also seen on Gamasutra and Galaxy Next Door


Comments posted (2)

Although I don’t have a lot of love for Dead Rising today, I remember it being that game that proved what the Xbox 360 was capable of.

What’s interesting is how it’s adherence to old school design was both a blessing and a curse. The save system in particular was a curious beast that was either touted or reviled, depending on who you talk to.

Can’t wait for part two…

check your pms on NeoGAF man

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