This article is part of a new initiative on IGN where we spend a whole month exploring topics we find interesting in the world of video games. June is Icons Month at IGN, where we’re profiling iconic video game industry figures, characters, series and themes.
When it comes to game development in Japan, unless you’re throwing around names like “Shigeru Miyamoto,” few people will have had more impact on the industry than veteran game director, Shinji Mikami. The man is a bonafide hitmaker, creating not just incredible games but popularizing entire sub-genres into the mainstream. You’ve read all the stories before: After joining Capcom straight out of university, and proving himself on early 16-bit Disney-based properties like Aladdin and Goof Troop, he was entrusted with the Sweet Home remake that eventually transformed into Resident Evil (or, Biohazard, as it is known in Japan). Resident Evil’s world-spanning influence cannot be understated.
Besides adding an entirely new dimension to Capcom’s portfolio, which by that point in its storied history was beginning to tread water with the Street Fighter franchise, Resident Evil—with its 3D characters, striking pre-rendered backgrounds, and tense balance of puzzle-solving and zombie blasting—was a revelation for Capcom as a publisher, launching a massively successful franchise that continues to dominate to this day.
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Mikami’s zombie adventure made the survival-horror genre a thing in ways that the Alone In The Dark series—which had released three full games by the time Resident Evil emerged in 1996—never approached. It also spawned a legion of like-minded franchises in the genre. Arguably, without Resident Evil there would be no Silent Hill, Siren, Fatal Frame, Deep Fear, Alien: Isolation, or Dead Space.. Resident Evil reinvented zombies as a mass-market concern, resulting in countless spin-off games, movie franchises, and merchandise.
Incredibly, after directing or producing a successive string of hits—including further Resident Evil entries, Dino Crisis, Devil May Cry, and P.N.03—Mikami somehow turned in his most accomplished game to date, nearly 10 years later, in Resident Evil 4. Resident Evil 4 is Mikami’s defining moment, a 20-hour adventure in which he lets loose his iconic leading man, Leon Kennedy, into a world of hostile Los Ganados (zombie-like non-zombies), and redefined survival horror in the process.
Remember that between 2000 and 2005, Capcom released nine Resident Evil games of varying quality. Some were worthwhile (Resident Evil remake) while others less so (the light-gun games, Outbreak, etc.), but by this point, the survival-horror arena was reaching its saturation point. When Resident Evil 4 arrived it wasn’t a moment too soon, as it not only right the ship, but established a new template by which all other survival-horror games would be judged. In terms of game length alone, you could finish the first four Resident Evils proper in the time it took to complete RE4. Mikami’s opus rewrote the rulebook for the series: You could put items down, and could basically Tetris your inventory to make everything fit.
Of course, the change of scenery from the by-then tired Umbrella saga, and the move away from proper zombies was also a sea change for the series. Resident Evil 4 showed that you could stick to the formula, and yet change the conventions. Typewriter ribbons (although not typewriters) were done away with, and while Leon Kennedy didn’t suddenly turn into Dante from Devil May Cry, he still came bearing new tricks. A new about-face 180 spin, as well as the revamped over-the-shoulder aiming and shooting—while not quite Gears Of War-tier—meshed perfectly with the new action-horror pacing. The inclusion of The Merchant and his ever-expanding cloak of upgrades was a welcome addition to the otherwise standard staples of the series. Resident Evil 4 offered both quantity and quality, and as admirably as Resident Evil 5 and 6 tried to innovate, they lacked the Mikami touch.
Although Mikami’s final project for Capcom was the polarizing, low-budget brawler, God Hand—created by Capcom’s short-lived boutique development team, Clover Studio—he somehow resurfaced revitalized and energized at Platinum Games with Vanquish, the dizzying and electric action game for Xbox 360 and PS3. After collaborating with Grasshopper Manufacture on Shadows Of The Damned, Mikami set the stage for his third act, establishing Tango Gameworks in 2010, spending the next four years on his survival-horror comeback, The Evil Within. With Mikami’s long legacy of games behind him, and with Tango’s upcoming GhostWire: Tokyo in the works, IGN caught up with the icon to talk about game development, Die Hard, kung-fu movies, modern horror films, COVID-19, eagle crests, and survival-horror in daylight.
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IGN: What question are you most tired of answering?
Shinji Mikami: I’ll answer any question, and there aren’t any questions that I can’t really answer. So ask away.
IGN: Do you ever feel trapped by the success of this genre that you helped define? Obviously you’ve taken breaks from survival-horror to make games like PN.0.3, God Hand, and Vanquish, but do you ever feel like a victim of your own success?
SM: Yes, that’s right.
IGN: David Bowie once went on his Sound + VIsion tour to play the hits one more time and never again. Do you ever feel like “This is the last one?,” meaning your last survival-horror game?
SM: [Laughs]: I’ve felt this way a lot. Speaking for myself I was done with survival-horror after the first Resident Evil.
IGN: You’ve obviously managed to channel that frustration into a long history of survival-horror games…
SM: I wasn’t so negative for the first game because I felt that we were making the game that players wanted and that gave me the energy to create and produce. I think the thought that players are wanting to play the game that I make, that expectation, is what keeps me positive about game development.
IGN: If Resident Evil hadn’t been successful, what kind of game do you think you would have made next?
SM: I wanted to make an action game that felt like a movie; a movie like Die Hard.
IGN: Is there any particular reason why you haven’t gone on to make that game?
SM: At the end of Resident Evil I submitted a game proposal to Capcom to make a game like that, but they prioritized making a sequel [to Resident Evil].
IGN: Hence “trapped by your own success.” Speaking of action, apparently, you were once very into Chinese martial arts. How deep did this interest run?
SM: I was into martial arts for about five years before going into college.
IGN: Who were your favorite martial arts stars?
SM: Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
IGN: What about Jet Li and Donnie Yen?
SM: I like all of them!
IGN: How would you describe your approach to making survival-horror games now compared to when you first started out—when you were still experimenting with what worked and what didn’t work—and now, with all the graphical power you have at your disposal?
SM: I feel like because I have this experience of making games that I’ve become more of a perfectionist, and because of that perfectionism it actually slows the development and creative process down.
IGN: Back during Resident Evil’s development the lack of processing power on the original PlayStation forced you to use pre-rendered backgrounds. Now you don’t have any such limitations. Are there any limitations nowadays that inspire you to solve problems creatively?
SM: There’s a little bit of that. It’s a little bit of both. At the same time, the lack of limitations allows you to be more creative and create anything which provides for a more creative environment.
IGN: Regarding GhostWire, by this point in your career you know how to effectively scare people, so what is your design process like now? Do you start with an original idea, or is it a strictly collaborative process?
SM: We started with the idea that the director [Ikumi Nakamura] had and the idea that she wanted to make.
IGN: So you’re acting as the producer on GhostWire?
SM: The initial team started with about five people and we worked on it for six months. We then expanded to 10 people and we worked on it for a few years before we went into full production.
IGN: You weren’t kidding about working slowly. Working on an early version for a few years is something of a luxury.
SM: This is probably the longest I’ve taken on any game I’ve made in the past.
IGN: When do you swoop in and involve yourself in the process? Do you massage the process and make small suggestions? Or do you give the team time to work on things on their own and then come in and add your ‘Mikami touch’ to things?
SM: I came on to assist the team around the beginning of .
IGN: When you say “assist,” are you being humble or understating your involvement?
Tango Gameworks: Mr. Mikami is talking about the GhostWire: Tokyo team here, and for projects where he isn’t the director he respects the director’s opinions and focuses on only assisting the director, so when he says he’s “assisting” he’s not being humble. However, Mr. Mikami is the executive producer at Tango and has vast experience making games, so he helps the director make the game “more fun for the player.”
IGN: You’ve cited Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre as influences, but modern horror movies have undergone a renaissance, with movies like The Witch, It, The Babadook, and Hereditary being notable newcomers. But recently the movie Midsommar was released, which was unusual compared to other films because its horror elements take place in the daytime, often in the full light of day. Do you think you could make an effective horror game that avoids the darkness altogether?
SM: I watched Midsommar. It’s an unimaginable horror set in bright scenes. The underlying essence of the movie seems to lie elsewhere, but I don’t want to spoil the movie [for those who haven’t seen it.]
A movie that inspired me most recently is a little old: Inception. You can see the inspiration in The Evil Within. Players seemed to be scared of zombies and creatures in the 80s and 90s, but they seemed to have gotten immune to physical horror and it doesn’t seem to scare people as much anymore.
But there’s horror that doesn’t change over time; humans and our societies and culture. As long as we are human, there is nothing that scares us more than ourselves. Recent zombie movies use zombies as “background dancers,” which are used to aim the spotlight of the horror onto the main characters. Simply stated, I think you can say that horror has transitioned from direct, physical horror to quiet, psychological horror.
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IGN: The interesting thing about The Evil Within 2 is the focus on psychological horror. Was there any particular catalyst that prompted your decision to move towards a more psychological horror, besides a simple weariness of zombies.
SM: For The Evil Within 2 I wasn’t the director, so I can’t speak to the director’s inspiration, but the team had made a conscious decision to move towards psychological horror because zombies were old-school and not the trend at the time.
IGN: On any game you’ve worked on in the past, did you ever do anything with your development teams, like taking them to a remote cabin in the woods, and make them endure something in real life that they could take as inspiration for the game?
SM: For the first Resident Evil I did take the team to visit an old Western building in Kobe to experience the Western architecture—not to experience the horror or have a scary experience, but to study the western architecture, the architectural style, the physical presence of the building itself, the lighting and the atmosphere to use in the game.
IGN: As you’re surely aware of, in recent times, with movies like 28 Days Later and World War Z, movie directors have tried to modernize the formula by making zombies run really fast. Do you feel like the zombie concept is played out at this point?
SM: There is a sense of the zombie concept being overdone, and the users become immune to zombies, meaning they lose their sense of threat, and you reach a point where things become like Zombieland, it just becomes a comedy. It might be scary at first but when you’re playing a game, it becomes so repetitive and the player is encountering a zombie so often that no matter how fast they move, they stop feeling like a threat. So with Left 4 Dead, where the zombies were really fast, that came out almost 10 years ago, that’s probably where it began to feel like zombies were overdone.
IGN: You mention Zombieland, which is a funny movie and it works because zombies are still a cool fictional catalyst. But most survival-horror games are super bleak without any levity to balance things out. The first Resident Evil was unintentionally funny, because of the localization, but I’m sure you didn’t plan it that way. You mention Evil Dead as an influence, and one of the best things about Sam Raimi films is that he injects lots of humor into his movies, especially his horror films. Do you think there’s space for a similar approach in horror games?
SM: I think Yoshinori Kawano’s Dead Rising does a good job blending these elements. Yoshinori Kawano and I joined Capcom at the same time.
IGN: The whole world has been on lockdown because of COVID-19, and we’re seeing the world in a different way because of it. It almost feels like something out of a video game. Do you think the real world situation we’re dealing with now either crosses paths with the pandemic future your games ‘predicted’ or do you find anything interesting that may influence future ideas?
SM: In Resident Evil, I chose a virus as the reason humans turn into zombies. I remember feeling excited by the new idea that a virus—a real enemy that can’t be seen by humans—would cause tremendous fear in people. Now, I think it will be difficult for my games not to be influenced by the struggles we are experiencing right now.
IGN: One of the criticisms of the early Resident Evil games is that they were too short, and could be completed in under two hours. With Resident Evil 4 it almost felt like you were out to prove that you could make a long survival-horror game, since the game takes 20-plus hours to complete on average.
SM: [Laughs] I had no intention of making it a long game. It’s just that after we put everything I wanted into the game, it ended up becoming a long game. We actually took out a lot of content.
IGN: What sort of content got cut?
SM: There’s a castle stage, which I think we threw out about 40% of. The space was too big with a lot of blocked off areas that lacked freshness and just wasn’t fun. Also, [we removed it] because we couldn’t make it within the time we had to develop the game. Those were the two reasons for taking that section out of the game.
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IGN: Are there any particularly interesting stories that stand out in the development of your games?
SM: All games are hard to make, it’s just a lot of hard work.
IGN: Were there any happy accidents, even in localization, that happened during development?
SM: I remember hearing that the “tank controls” in Resident Evil really helped to intensify the game, and that was intentional, but also it was also the only way I could think of to make the experience work. I remember how nervous I was the day the game came out. I prayed that people would give the game a chance. I knew there was a learning curve to the controls and it would take about an hour to get used to them. But, I was nervous and afraid players would give up before they could get used to the controls.
IGN: So, even then you knew the tank controls weren’t ideal?
SM: If the tank controls were ideal we would have kept it for all the games but we changed it for the latter games because the movement was awkward.
IGN: Did you ever experiment with traditional 3rd-person action controls? Meaning, push right to move right, left to move left, etc., instead of having to steer your character?
SM: [Tank controls were] the method that was the scariest and could express the horror of things. In this way you couldn’t see the zombie coming, but you could still hear it coming, you could hear the footsteps without revealing that they were there. This was best for a horror game.
IGN: From a design perspective it’s understandable why you would need to gate a player’s progress, by preventing them from passing through a certain door until they accomplished something else. But did you ever find it ironic that players couldn’t get past a wooden door with an Eagle Crest on it while they’re standing there holding a rocket launcher?
SM: [Laughs] Not at the time, but as the technology advanced and we now have games where you can go anywhere you want, in hindsight it does look silly that you can’t through a door like that.
IGN: You mentioned that part of the fear was not being able to see zombies coming, but one of the fun things about Resident Evil is that you always give players unlockable rewards like rocket launchers with unlimited ammo, which shows you’re not averse to letting players blow off some steam. Have you ever thought of including a ‘lights on’ mode so you could just run around and see everything?
SM: I’ve never thought about that. [Laughs] But that’s interesting, that might be fun.
IGN: In the past you used to be a very visible icon of Japanese development, appearing in high profile press conferences, usually with Capcom. The press conference where you revealed Devil May Cry being especially memorable. These days you seem to have stepped back from the limelight. Do you prefer to keep a low profile now?
SM: I originally didn’t like to be out in public or in the media that much, so this is more my normal state. There was a time when Capcom would push me out into the limelight a lot more. So as a part of my responsibility and my job I did that, but I prefer not to. [Laughs]
IGN: What do you feel is the most integral ingredient to make a successful survival-horror game? Do you feel it’s like something must constantly pursue the player, or is it the other way around where the player never knows what he/she’ll run into? Is there anything universal that you feel is important?
SM: There has to be something that provides a constant, overwhelming terror, and that the player is able to defeat that terror. Those are the two things that I feel are absolutely necessary.
IGN: What are your feelings on remakes? Capcom has spent the past few years remaking the original Resident Evil games, having remade RE1 and RE2. But the rumor is that now they’re moving on to remaking Resident Evil 4. How do you feel about that?
SM: I saw a video of the Resident Evil 2 Remake and I thought it was very good. I think they’re going to continue to remake these games since they’re selling well.
IGN: Resident Evil 4 has been ported to multiple consoles multiple times, but some developers are very adamant that certain games are perfect just the way they are. Is it safe to assume you don’t have any issues with seeing your, some would say, ultimate work remade by a new team?
SM: As long as it turns out good I have no issues with it.
IGN: One time during an interview with Hideki Kamiya, I brought up the PlayStation 2 port of Viewtiful Joe and he got very irritated by its existence because his original was developed for Gamecube.
SM: [Laughs deeply] I don’t have any feelings like that. The past is the past.
IGN: Last question. What should someone drink and eat while playing your games?
SM: Drinking? [Laughs] Diet Coke and potato chips. Lightly salted potato chips. Calbee, yes yes! When you eat the potato chips you should use chopsticks so your fingers don’t get greasy.
IGN: Famous last words?
SM: GhostWire is a completely new type of game so I really hope people look forward to it.
James Mielke (Milky) is profoundly lactose intolerant, and makes a habit of interviewing Japan’s most notable game developers when possible. Follow him on Twitter.