Matt Gardner remembers how an early brush with piracy led to a Resident Evil 3 experience like no other – at least, for a British gamer.

There are certain things that many of us, as gamers, don’t like to admit. That’s because as a pastime, video gaming is a moral minefield underscored by a competitive element, constantly forcing many of us to explore every route possible in order to guarantee success.

It’s not as simple as beating someone at FIFA on local multiplayer after weeks of training, or decimating the entire counter-terrorist team in CounterStrike with just a Desert Eagle and a decent camping spot, behind the barrels on cs_italy. By being a little sneakier, you might have set a high score by spamming a glitch, or picked a smaller character to face your mates in an FPS, lowering your chance of getting hit. You might’ve just given your friend a third-party controller because you knew the buttons were knackered, and it offered the ergonomic qualities of a Duplo castle.

I never really went down this route myself; I usually had pretty fair standards when it came to playing the games themselves. Instead, back in 1999, it was my method of acquiring games in the first place that warranted a court judgment due to moral bankruptcy – especially when I finally got hold of the all-round excellent Resident Evil 3.

Now, the game wasn’t the best Resident Evil game ever made, nor was it even the best Resident Evil game on the PlayStation. It did, however, give me the greatest sense of satisfaction when I finally beat it, and for good reason.

Resident Evil 3: Nemesis cover (Japan)
Platform

PlayStation

Year

1999

Genre

Survival horror

Developer / publisher

Capcom

You see, youth and impatience forced me to buy a “copied” release of it – i.e., a pirated version. I wanted it ASAP, and it wasn’t out in the UK for another three months. Justice for my illegal activities was swift when I finally received it, and I still can’t understand why I wasn’t more surprised at my dilemma when I got it.

You see, it was in black and white. And entirely in Japanese.

Geared for fear by PlayStation demonstrations

I’ve never had the best disposition when playing scary games, but that’s not to say I didn’t (and don’t) like survival horror titles. By the time I’d hit 13, I’d completed Resident Evil 2 a good dozen times, spent mornings ahead of school trying (and failing) to figure out the relatively nonsensical storyline of Silent Hill, and I’d successfully saved New York City in Parasite Eve from an operatic femme fatale with a taste for spontaneous combustion.

So much for the BBFC’s guidelines, but this was 1999 – games were still viewed by grown-ups as toys, and it’d be a few years before my parents and most gaming-averse adults assumed every new release was a murderer-making, debauched, let’s-kill-innocents-then-let’s-kill-our-friends-IRL experience. Even the obvious “18” in a red circle wasn’t taken half as seriously as it was on a film poster – at least, not by my mum and dad, who probably thought Silent Hill was a caravan park simulator, and Alone in the Dark was about finding the trip switch on a fuse box with naught but a candle for company.

Nonetheless, this open access to the violence and gore I craved as a pubescent young teen wasn’t without its issues; I had a nervous disposition. I hated the situations I was thrown into, I hated the jump scares, and I definitely hated the limited control systems that were unique to the survival horror genre. However, the intrigue of these alternate realities was like nothing I’d experienced before, and they transcended films – not least because I was given huge areas to explore, and I was always in control of my own destiny.

So when I heard Resident Evil 3 was slated for release, I could barely contain myself – I just had to have it, and learn more about the wanton destruction that tore Raccoon City and STARS apart.

The problem was, it was late 1999. RE3 wasn’t out in the UK until February 2000. I was only just 13, so had little disposable income. Most of my limited pocket money went on a Saturday special: an hour at the local swimming pool, lunch at the chippy, dessert at the sweet shop, and – once a month – a trip to Woolworths, to pick up a copy of Official UK PlayStation Magazine complete with its demo disc.

Annoyingly, it was PlayStation Magazine that got me into this fine mess in the first place. My first-ever issue of OPM was 31, as its cover was too irresistible to ignore – zombie hands reaching out for Resident Evil 2. The ten-minute-long demo of the Leon A campaign was a delight, and I played it to death just like Dan did with his demo of Panzer Dragoon Saga. Eventually, I borrowed the game off a friend’s older brother to experience the whole thing in its gruesome glory. And then again. And then again. I was hooked on survival horror.

My weirdly obsessive relationship with Resi 2 slowly built up my survival horror resolve, not least because after so many playthroughs, I knew when the dogs were going to burst through the windows, when the massive spiders appeared, and when that fucking Licker burst through that fucking mirrored glass in the police interrogation room, no, I didn’t jump every time, you jumped every time.

I was impatient, largely broke because of my love of chips, and lacked the ability to buy it over the counter even if it was on general release, owing to my age. Luckily, fate – and the aforementioned lack of morals – intervened at the perfect time.

You cannot resist the power of the dark side

In early 1998, my friend Simon decided to “chip” his PlayStation, in order to play knock-off copies of games. I was so angry with him at the time, and looking back on it, my outrage seems ridiculous. I mean, I’ve been known to rage quit the odd game in my time – haven’t we all? – but why was I so frustrated?

Sure, jealousy’s one possible motive, but I wasn’t envious; far from it, as I had loads of games. It was because it felt like an affront to what I adored – a beloved industry was being challenged with his greed. Back then, it was a simpler time, when you didn’t question developers or console manufacturers – only the games themselves. Konami was god-like, even though it released the horrific Nagano Winter Olympics ’98 at the height of its fame. Similarly, Psygnosis was responsible for Psybadek, Acclaim shat out The Crow: City of Angels, and Eidos published Deathtrap Dungeon – a game so bad that even a desperately hired, youthful, leather-clad Kelly Brook couldn’t save it.

Kelly Brook promoting Deathtrap Dungeon back in 1998.

But I (and many others) didn’t judge the companies, just the rubbish titles, and these could be avoided by demo discs. There seemed to be a lot more respect, a lot less questioning, and seemingly 100 times more positivity towards developers and publishers, even if it wasn’t justified (nowadays, it’s possibly gone too far the other way). You took the rough with the smooth, you read reviews, tested them in demos, and left it at that. I just felt lucky to be involved with games, and treated the market with a surprising amount of honour.

But that was before I saw just what Simon had access to. In one weekend alone, after picking what he wanted off a double-sided piece of A4 paper coated in game names, he bought Spyro the Dragon, Tomb Raider III, Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and MediEvil – games I’d only ever dreamed of playing, and had only scratched the surface of courtesy of my dependable demo discs.

I couldn’t borrow any of them, because I didn’t have the kit. I didn’t want to mess with my PlayStation, because it meant more than life itself. However, I’d heard on the grapevine that there was an entirely different solution to my problem. All I needed was a plug-in box and some Blu Tack, and I was good to go.

Hunting the Game Hunter

I’d picked up my less morally bankrupt alternative to Simon’s chip in 1998 at a computer fair in Peterlee, County Durham. As the get-together was basically just a load of fat, old, bearded blokes sat behind fold-up tables in a school sports hall selling any old electronic shit (OH HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED), you had to know what you were going for, and I had £20 of ring-fenced birthday money set aside for one thing only: a Game Hunter.

The Game Hunter for PlayStation.

It plugged into the Parallel I/O port of the PlayStation and interrupted the boot-up process after the SCEE logo, stopping the disc from spinning and dumping you into a menu where you could access a few options, most notably cheat modes for most games released to that point. It was all in black and white, but at least games would revert to full colour once you continued past these options.

This is where things got clever. You could push some Blu Tack into the button held down by the closed-cover failsafe pin, thus conning the console into thinking it was never opened. By putting in a real PlayStation disc to start with, then opening the PlayStation to replace it with a copied disc, you could press “play” on the menu and it’d then run any game written with a standard CD rewriter.

It was no wonder Blockbuster was true to its name and went bust; from that point on, I could get any game for £5 from a 40-year-old guy who I’d call during the week for the goods, and he’d deliver them to my house out of a bin liner filled with CD-Rs in the boot of his Datsun Sunny, like a Poundstretcher Santa crossed with a failed drug dealer.

But tragedy! The first Friday I asked, he didn’t have Resident Evil 3. “It’s not out yet, son, and probably won’t be for about six months,” he said, instead offering me Gex: Deep Cover Gecko as something to keep me busy. “Ah, go on then,” I ruefully replied. Another weekend went by without Resi 3. Just 20 more to go. At least Danny John-Jules’ voiceover kept a smile on my face for the short term.

On Monday lunchtime, I was kicking a tennis ball about with my mates, playing “Bagsy” – a game where if a tennis ball hit your schoolbag three times, you were out. It was a game of pure tactics; you had to abandon your bag to target others, and rush back to defend if you were in danger.

Someone kicked the ball hard at my mate Darren’s bag. There was a loud crack. He yelped, picked up his bag and opened it, and pulled out a shattered copied version of Resident Evil 2. “Ah, Darren, I thought that was Resi 3 you had there!” I said, the excitement wearing off. He perked up and said: “Why, do you want that? My dad does these – he has that and you can have it tomorrow for £5!”

Biohazard 3.

It might as well be written in Japanese

The next day, there it was, in my hands. Except it wasn’t called Resident Evil 3; the poorly printed cover said BIOHAZARD 3 LAST ESCAPE. I saw someone who looked like Jill Valentine on the back, which was at least a little promising. “It’s DEFINITELY the game,” Darren said, perhaps a little too forcefully for me to actually believe him. Still, I had it, and £5 changed hands.

And so the Game Hunter held my PlayStation to a pause once more, the black and white screen loading up to give me cheats for three-year-old games. I skipped the screen, and the game loaded up.

The splash screen was all weird symbols. Odd. It was probably just a company logo. Oh, at least the main screen was in English – it’s still called Biohazard, though. Oh.

Oh.

It’s in black and white. And the menu’s in Japanese.

I reset the console. I booted it up again, running through every setting on the Game Hunter. Nope, it’s still B&W, still in Japanese. I tried other games, but no, they were in colour and in English. Something was wrong.

The next day, frustrated, I took the copy back to Darren and asked for my money back – just like a man clearly deserving ROI on £5 spent trying to learn how Magic Carpet worked. But to no avail. “How do I know you haven’t done something to the disc?!” he said, with a particularly wry smile on his face. At that moment, I realised he clearly knew that it was Japanese when he gave it to me, and he instantly became one of those Jackass Genies that seemed to purposefully misunderstand my simple request, making the phrase “be careful what you wish for” all that too real. Basically, the plot of Bedazzled.

Yeah, well, fuck you too, I thought to myself, tail between my legs as I tucked the game away in my bag. I’m gonna complete it anyway, even if I have to guess my way through puzzles, can’t see the gore, see any hard-to-see items, and ultimately not understand a fucking word of it.

Just like old times

I might have paid the price for my eagerness to pirate a game in order to play it early – and cheaply – but I still had a good £20 worth of experience for a quarter of the price. One thing it had going for it, at least, was the fact that Japanese developers had stayed true to the game’s setting of Midwest America: FMVs were in American English, subtitled with Japanese. Even in black and white, they were a delight to behold in 1999.

And immediately, fears about understanding the game as a whole were further assuaged by other non-FMV cut scenes, which were in English too. At least some of the story was there; the interactions with the environment, not so much. Well, not at all.

Luckily, given my circumstances, Capcom took Resident Evil 3 in a new, more action-led direction; while the pre-rendered backgrounds and control mechanic remained the same, it became much more combat driven. Ammo was more plentiful, the guns were better (there was an assault rifle, mate!), and all kinds of new and devastating monsters were coming after you – including the devastating Hunter, which was an all-star bastard. It could kill you with one strike, too – not that you could see it, as you’d just hear a noise and the screen would fade out as it happened. It was odd. Actually, it faded out a lot. There was very little visceral content at all – not regarding your freshly-dead, green-herbless cadaver, anyway.

Hunter from Resident Evil 3.

And while this made it a little more fun and a lot less intimidating – a feat the cartoonish and misjudged Resident Evil 5 later replicated after the utterly brilliant Resident Evil 4 – the lack of English language made everything a surprise. No warning could be heeded, no diary entry could be understood, and no explanation of future evils ever registered.

Finally, a true Nemesis

One thing Resident Evil 3 did better than its predecessors was creating a character that was, ultimately, a truly focal bad guy. Look, I appreciate that the RE Universe is rich with characters, but hear me out.

The biggest traditional gaming rule that the Resident Evil franchise had ignored up to the point of RE3 was that it never had one specific antagonist. In its debut, there was a final pseudo-boss in the form of a relatively lacklustre Tyrant, while Albert Wesker was the big bad wolf operating in the background – and the many horrors inside Spencer Mansion and the surrounding Arklay Mountains conspired to create a consistent horror throughout. They even had to crowbar Lisa Trevor into the remake to seemingly make up for lost ground.

Even the spiked ceiling promised to create a Jill sandwich, and that was just part of a building. Hell, most people remember the first zombie as one of the scariest enemies (despite it looking like a fridge in a green jacket), but that was probably because it managed to inexplicably conjure a massive pool of blood from its victim and onto the carpet despite the fact it had already eaten half of the poor sod’s face.

In RE2, you had Mr X – who later evolved into a Tyrant himself – alongside Chief Irons and William Birkin. Birkin was so close to being one of the best villains in gaming history – never mind Resident Evil – but the mass of flesh he eventually became was a huge let-down, and he was destroyed quite abruptly, robbing gamers of a true feeling of closure.

Yet Resident Evil 3’s titular Nemesis-T Type was perfect. He was fucking ugly, colossal, and had a rocket launcher as a standard sidearm. His inimitable growl of “STARRRSSSS…” was genuinely terrifying, and the early murder of Brad Vickers – whose fate I was already aware of courtesy of the classic “don’t pick anything up on the way to the police station” secret of RE2, when he appears under the station and offers up a locker key for your troubles – was a gruesome delight to raise the fear factor from the get-go.

Fighting Nemesis was a complete ballache, though, and certainly put me between a rock and a hard place as the Japanese language once again got the better of me, just as I thought I’d settled in. On a lot of occasions, you were presented with two options when he appeared; often, they amounted to “run” and “fight”. I ALWAYS managed to guess “fight”, thus running down my ammo and forcing me to run around in circles until I ultimately got bummed in the gob and had to restart, and attempt to remember which option I didn’t take. Rinse, repeat.

Jill gets ill

One of the few parts of the storyline that I could actually deduce from handily-placed cut scenes was the fact that all-American action girl Jill Valentine got infected by Nemesis. As I tried to secure a helicopter for an escape, I remembered I’d only played the game for an hour, so I knew something was going to happen. Sure as shit, Nemesis turned up – a bellend in the bell tower – and he shot it down, before giving Jill a nice dose of the T-virus. Fuck a doodle doo.

Then you were Carlos Oliveira, a mercenary with no real backstory (or personality), but at least he had great weaponry – perfect for exploring the classic horror trope in the form of the local hospital. Nothing could possibly go wrong there, right? Anyway, you eventually found a cure, and Jill was saved. Hip hip hooray.

As for the rest of the game, there simply isn’t anything else memorable for me. Even now, I just think of it as “Resident Evil 2 with a better baddie”. True, a recent playthrough as part of this review reminded me of a few touchpoints – not least the final mutation of Nemesis, and the disbelief-suspending weaponry you have to use to secure victory – but my experience of it really might as well have been in Japanese. The storyline was thin, puzzles were guessable, and it was actually a lot easier to play – and not actually that scary, in real terms.

Essentially, if RE2 had RE3’s elevated level of combat and provisions, its improved graphics, as well as a keener focus on Birkin – yet basically kept the storyline the same – you’d have the perfect Resident Evil title.

Once I completed the game, I consigned my copy to the bedside drawer. I’d defeated it fair and square, and Darren was blacklisted on the game-buying front. I never played Japanese RE3 again.

A soul cleansing

It stayed in the drawer until two years later in 2001, one year before I got an upgrade courtesy of my PlayStation 2. I took the executive decision to bin every single copied game I owned. There were only around a dozen, which I’d bought myself or been given by disaffected mates. Some simply didn’t work anymore – that’s what you get when you get games on Aldi CDs – but they all left a bad taste in my mouth. I had a solid collection of 30 or 40 A-list titles on my shelf, and that was all I needed. I was a traitor to the cause. Also, they weren’t playable on the PS2, and I was hoping to get one soon, so the cull had to happen.

I had one last round on the excellent V-Rally 2, then threw it in the bin with the rest. Later that day, to make a point, I bought it in a second-hand shop for £6. The arse had truly fallen out of the market; prices had been forced down by the PlayStation’s jet-black successor, and parity was restored for a pocket-money punk like me.

On my way out, something caught my eye. Higher on the shelf, for £12, was Resident Evil 3. I checked my pockets – I only had less than a tenner, which I’d saved for weeks. “Any chance I can get my money back for this and buy that?” I asked, waving my battered “new” copy of the Infogrames racing classic. The gruff shop owner shook his head. “There’s nowt wrong with it, so why should I take it back? And anyway, how do I know you’re 15?” he said, despite the fact I was 6’2” and had a deeper voice than him.

Yeah, well, fuck you too, I thought to myself, tail between my legs as I tucked the game away in my bag. I’m gonna complete V-Rally 2 anyway. For the sixth time.

In glorious Technicolor

It wasn’t until 2010, over ten years after first playing Resident Evil 3 for the first time, that I finally experienced the game in glorious English. It confirmed a couple of things: firstly, that it was ultimately a lot easier than its two prequels, and that it was actually censored relatively heavily in Japan, to my own detriment; death sequences faded out much earlier, while the entire Hunter’s one-hit kill animation was outright removed, which at least explains the confusion there. For its time, it was actually a pretty brutal death, too – nothing from Resident Evil 2 matched it, aside from the decimation wreaked by the Custom Shotgun on a zombie from the torso up.

The biggest surprise was, perhaps, that it was scarier in 2010 than in 1999. Granted, the gore finally came in visceral reds, and every written word conveyed the horror of the situation. But this time, I was an overweight, single, self-sufficient adult with actual bills to pay and a shit job. Surely I was already in a scarier place than Raccoon City?

Nope. While the graphics and sound weren’t too bad, even by then-contemporary Xbox 360 standards, they certainly weren’t believable. It was the lack of emotional bond with the game I’d experienced back in 1999 (due to, you know, Japanese) that made me feel like I’d never played it before. I went in blind despite completing it, forgot basically everything, and so it all seemed that little bit more harrowing. If anything, I just kinda wished I’d completed Resident Evil 2 in Japanese, just to relive that game for the first time ever once more. I’d likely still be a gibbering wreck if that was the case, mind.

Completing it that second time wasn’t difficult. It was pedestrian. Yet of all my achievements in gaming – including the time I beat three people at Automobili Lamborghini using my feet, or when I went 100-0 in Golden Gun mode on GoldenEye 007 – the most impressive will be overcoming this puzzle-heavy survival horror in a language I couldn’t even begin to comprehend.

All because I was a greedy bastard with low morals. No regrets.

Pros

  • A more guns-blazin’ Resident Evil, with less stress put on inventory management
  • Beautiful graphics for its time
  • Nemesis was arguably the greatest enemy in the history of the franchise
  • Much more fun to pick up and play

Cons

  • Thin storyline with little character exposition
  • Puzzle elements were weaker than those in the prequels
  • Carlos was a cardboard cut-out with an assault rifle
  • Hunters were a little unfair to fight at times
  • Not quite as scary as other titles in the series

Matt’s take

A game doesn’t need to be amazing in order to give you an amazing experience, and Resident Evil 3 certainly proved that to me. While it had its issues, it was a true, nicely-balanced successor to the beautiful Resident Evil 2, but if it hadn’t’ve been for a Japanese copy, the act of completing it might not have been half as satisfying.