There’s a kind of irony in Back in 1995’s title. At a glance, it informs a certain level of self-awareness, speaking directly as a throwback to the glory days of survival horror (now almost 20 years on) — in the same way that tacking a “2” onto a sequel addresses the audience, if not its diegetic subjects.
The beginnings of the genre are a bit older. Resident Evil was essentially developed to be a spiritual remake to Sweet Home, a 1989 Famicom title set in a haunted mansion teeming with monsters. Players had limited resources at their disposal and were up against permadeath — once the games characters were dead, they stayed that way. Of course, the 8-bit Famicom’s processing power meant Sweet Home had to be limited to 2D graphics. It lacked the aesthetic choices that would later come to define the genre. (It was also, technically, an RPG).
1992’s Alone in the Dark was the next step. Suddenly, 3D characters and environments introduced the beginnings of a new era characterized by obtuse tank controls and a directorial camera that would reorient you randomly, depending on your position. It kept the emphasis on tense gameplay, only now the monsters were on screen with you, not fought in random battles.
Resident Evil would go on to combine and popularize just about all of these traits in 1996, as the original returned full circle, back to a similarly overrun mansion. Going by milestones in the genre, then, 1995 was simply the first year in the original PlayStation’s lifecycle. It’s a date, the importance of which to survival horror is trapped in limbo.
This has to be somewhat intentional. Billed as a lost game from the era, Back in 1995 has the definite appeal of period authenticity without being from the period: its requisite low-poly graphics, offbeat soundtrack, fixed camera angles, scarce inventory and off-kilter mood make it the PS One horror launch title we never had.
It’s not an uncommon practice in the indie world to simply capitalize on a style that’s out of vogue without much substance to back it up, and if the games purpose had rested on those shallow terms, it still would’ve at least been an interesting experiment. But this isn’t a pixel-art platformer. So why recreate something considered so relatively niche?
Possibly because 1995 is well-aware that survival horror is more than just the sum of its parts. In fact, you might easily make a case for horror games of the time possessing more character than most other types by their nature. Considered on their own, ideas like severely under-powering your character, making it a struggle to survive against disproportionately strong monsters and running back and forth all over a map to solve odd item-based puzzles don’t sound like much fun – and if you think about it, it’s obvious they weren’t meant to.
Accepting those aspects just at face value, particularly against more modern design, its not particularly surprising that not all players cared for its somewhat acquired taste. Still, gameplay is only half the equation here.
Survival horror’s philosophy of limitation (whether intentional or by the happy accident of hampered technology) also permeates into the realm of experiential concerns, lending the genre a unique personality. You get a certain texture playing something like Resident Evil, just as you might watching a serial adventure or a slasher film, and if you’re familiar with tropes you know what to expect.
If not, the odd ways sound makes the world feel jarring and heavy — so often announcing the presence of something before you see it — the lack of visible health bar (characters usually limp or slow when severely injured) and canted, constantly changing viewpoints can be deliberately off-putting at first. Either way, they lend classic survival horror a sort of unwieldy charm that’s been almost entirely smoothed out in most modern incarnations.
As a genre defined by its tone, it’s also multifaceted. Resident Evil earned its reputation right away as cheesy interactive B-movie when it was released, offering up a story of monsters spawned from viral outbreak acted out in oddly stilted scenes. The paradigm shifted with 1999’s original Silent Hill, which brought on a new level of discomfort and stress thanks to a hallucinatory world that operated outside of reason, and had a camera that would pan as you moved across static scenes — a kind of living tracking shot. (To say nothing of Akira Yamaoka’s otherworldly, industrial sound design, which can still elicit gut dread to this day.)
It’s important that 1995 isn’t from the year of its namesake; if it were, the restraints of pre-Resident Evil horror, even accounting for Alone in the Dark’s critical success and two subsequent sequels, would have left any shot at an effective tribute tragically incomplete. Instead it reaches across time to craft a tailor-made nostalgia, picking and choosing elements from across survival horror’s history to create a more resolute homage, warts and all.
It appears evident from the opening moments of the game, where, over a dull, synth-y monodrone, the game’s protagonist, Kent, looks out over the tops of a black-shrouded city at a distant tower. The narration explains that you must get there, somehow. With no further explanation, control is forced on the player, whose only option to descend from the roof into the building’s dumpy, low-res interior.
From an gameplay standpoint, 1995’s systems are classic Resident Evil, with a familiar-looking inventory, health and filing system for notes. Your direct control over Kent surprisingly seems modeled closest to Alone in the Dark, only without a way to run, and despite the game’s fully 3D modeling, character models and geometry are basically on par in terms of resolution, too, as you might expect from a game trying hoping to evoke the look of a certain far-flung year.
Yet the situation immediately feels dreamlike and surreal — much closer to Silent Hill. As if needing to prove its intent, Kent quickly encounters by one of the game’s eerily abstract monsters, a misshapen, two-armed blob that floats awkwardly at you with a ragged animal squawk.
“What the hell is that?!” flashes across the screen, probably a winking nod to Barry’s exclamations when encountering various t-virus creations in Resident Evil, and absolutely, you have no idea. Cue low-compression John Carpenterish score as, weaponless, you make your slow escape.
Despite how it sounds (and with the appreciation that the potential for some goofiness is always present in dated representations of survival horror — that too is part of the fun), none of the above detracts from the game. With the confined audio and a sheer inability to compartmentalize this saggy grotesque rationally, the scene is a little creepy almost in spite of itself.
And it continues on as it should. Soon you meet an old man whose answer for the weirdness is “they just showed up one day,” after which point he barricaded himself on the the top floor of the building, which already has the bizarre joint characteristics of a hospital, office and tenement complex. No doubt about it, this is survival horror to its core. (Sony, please get on a PS4 release already.)
Interestingly, there’s still some demand for this kind of thing, at least if recent activity over revivals is anything to go by. Capcom’s 2015 remaster of the Gamecube’s Resident Evil (a 2002 remake of the original that kept nearly all of its old-school sensibilities intact) became their fastest selling digital title in the company’s history. A remaster of 2004’s Resident Evil Zero followed earlier this year to similar acclaim, in the wake of an announcement confirming development on a long-requested remake of Resident Evil 2.
Conversely, the backlash against Konami when they abruptly pulled the plug on Hideo Kojima’s Silent Hills was so strong it probably killed any hope the company had of ever trying to revive the series for good. Several maligned attempts over the years to recapture the spirit of Team Silent’s original four games is probably proof enough that the team’s disturbing imaginations were borderline irreplaceable.
There’s no guarantee that either series would ever fully commit to a new entry in a completely old-school style, either. Modern horror typically defines itselfth wi fairly rigid self-seriousness (though Resident Evil hasn’t lost its camp), a standardized third-person camera and, often on the bigger budget side, more empowerment. These can be great in their own right, but developers really don’t make them like they used to.
The contrast makes 1995 a refreshingly honest proposal, and even for how modest it is, one that takes guts to unleash on today’s audience. More crucially, it serves in some small way as a reminder that, far removed from the parameters of standard design, survival horror was never supposed to be pretty.