Shinji Mikami: ‘Resident Evil’ Director Reflects on 30 Years in Games

For Shinji Mikami, 2020 marks more than one milestone.

For one, it sees him celebrate 30 years in the gaming industry, as he joined Capcom in 1990. And Mikami’s footprint across those 30 years is a big one; he earned his title as “the godfather of horror games” when he directed the first “Resident Evil,” helping to launch what would become a billion-dollar franchise across gaming and film.

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of his studio Tango Gameworks, which he started in 2010, as he tells it, to give younger talent a chance to thrive. Now 55, that’s more of where Mikami’s focus lies, as he’s currently helping the team on Tango’s “Ghostwire: Tokyo,” an action-adventure title slated to come out next year.

Mikami’s three decades in games have been full of ups and downs — and some industry-changing moves, too. In a long, wide-ranging Zoom call with Variety, through a translator, Mikami was reflective, looking back on many of those moves with the benefit of hindsight. He even had a sense of humor about some of the more controversial moments of his career (including, yes, that big deal with Nintendo for “Resident Evil 4” and the bold comments that came with it).

Below, Mikami talks about his start, the beginning of the survival horror genre, why he left Capcom and started Tango, what he wants to do in the future and why he might not be done directing just yet.

The Origin of ‘Evil’

“I started [in the industry] because I really liked games,” Mikami says. “You want more detail than that, though, right?”

Long before the days of Capcom and “Resident Evil,” Mikami’s first experience with games, he remembers, was playing “Space Invaders” in a café for ¥100 per game. Around the age of 20, his friends started dragging him to arcades — reluctantly, at first. But eventually, he conceded, and started to go more and more often, taking to fighting games at the time. It wasn’t until he was 22 that he had enough money to get the Famicom, Nintendo’s home console.

But when it came to starting his career, gaming wasn’t necessarily his focus. What he did know was that he wanted a job where he could create something, so he applied to steel manufacturer Nippon Steel, which was moving into the bio industry at the time. He was rejected, however, and tried to get interviews for finance jobs, which also didn’t work out. After that, his friend brought him a flyer for a party at Capcom, which was hiring, so he attended.

There, he found out Capcom’s chairman, Kenzo Tsujimoto, wanted to make a public stock offering for the company. Mikami says it was “a crazy big dream” at the time, as the only gaming company that was listed in the first level of the Japanese stock exchange was Nintendo.

“I thought the chairman was crazy,” he laughs. “It was a crazy venture that he was going for. And so it’d be fun to work with a crazy person who sits at the top.”

Mikami got the job, and got to work. His first project, he remembers, was a competitive quiz game for Nintendo’s Gameboy. “It was hell,” he recalls, having to work until 5 a.m. every day for three months. He intended to quit after the project was done, but his boss beat him to it. With no one to quit to, he moved onto the next project, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” also for the Gameboy.

He worked on a few more Disney-licensed properties, “Goof Troop” and “Aladdin,” before the development head at the time, Tokuro Fujiwara, came to him with what would eventually become “Resident Evil.” In the beginning, it was meant to be purely a horror game, based on the system used by Fujiwara’s horror title “Sweet Home.”

But there was some hesitance on Mikami’s part, as he was worried the game wouldn’t sell in its current form. So he made some big changes — namely, “the concept of surviving.” He didn’t just want the player to run away from the danger; he wanted them to have the means to defeat the danger. Suddenly, the player wasn’t just scrambling to get away. They had a gun and could find health-rejuvenating objects to actually give them a fighting chance.

In retrospect, it was a decision that would set up the decades-long success of the entire “Resident Evil” franchise. But at the time, Mikami faced pushback from his team.

“They were saying, ‘It’s a horror game. Why are you having the main character hold a gun in a horror game? Isn’t it bad to have the main character actually defeat the scary creature in the game?’ They were against that idea,” he recalls. “And I didn’t have a logical answer to that, and so I had to just keep telling people whatever I could to make the development continue and push forward.”

And push forward it did, coming out originally for the PlayStation on March 22, 1996. Mikami estimated that it would move 500,000 copies and then “probably stop selling.” That estimate would prove to be incredibly modest: over its lifespan, the original “Resident Evil” has sold more than 5 million copies. Capcom had a new blockbuster IP, and work on a sequel quickly ramped up.

Before “Resident Evil 2” came out, however, Mikami almost left the company. He wanted to be more hands-on with development, but his boss, Yoshiki Okamoto, told him he should become a producer on “Resident Evil 2,” rather than continue to direct. Luckily, there was a member on Mikami’s team, Hideki Kamiya, who Mikami trusted enough to hand the reigns to.

“Resident Evil 2” was a critical and commercial success, also selling over 5 million copies. However, the development wasn’t without its hiccups. About 70{066dbc63777e5ed549f406789d72fdeebd77a32711d57f7b38ff2b35c4ba2a42} into the process, the team came to Mikami and said they needed to start over.

“Before I had to even say anything, the leaders from that team came to me and said, ‘We want to throw away all this stuff and redo everything in a different way,’” he remembers. “It was that level of super talented people.”

Mikami also remembers being “very grateful” to the execs at Capcom who allowed them to start from scratch, resulting in a very different game than they had originally embarked on. Mikami would continue to work on the series, producing “Resident Evil 3: Nemesis” with director Kazuhiro Aoyama, before stepping back into the director’s chair for “Resident Evil 4.”

Making Changes

“Resident Evil 4” marked a major departure for the series, veering away from horror and more toward action. It wasn’t a hard, deliberate decision — it was one that just went with “the flow of things.” “It just felt more fun,” he says.

It’s a direction that’s been heralded after the fact, but Mikami was concerned at the time that fans would reject the move. It didn’t help that people within his own company were against it, too, as he received some harsh feedback after a few internal play sessions.

“I do remember receiving a two-page report fully just packed with comments, saying negative things about ‘this is not “Resident Evil,” this is completely not “Resident Evil” and I will not let this happen,’” he says. “But I was very lucky I was strong-hearted. I was able to survive reading all that.”

Mikami’s instincts were right, however, and “Resident Evil 4” ended up becoming a huge success, considered by many to be the best installment in the series and landing on several lists of the best video games of all time. But surrounding its success was some major industry chatter revolving around a controversial decision made by Mikami.

Ahead of “Resident Evil 4’s” release, Mikami signed an exclusive deal with Nintendo. It was a decision, he explains, that was born out of concern for the gaming industry. Sony had PlayStation, but there was a belief that if its gaming endeavors didn’t work out, “they might just go back to what they’re good at and what they’re known for.” He had the same concern with Microsoft and its Xbox.

“At the time, I was thinking, ‘Well, Nintendo might be the only one left in the future that would have games for people — not just children, but also adults.’ That was the thinking at that time,” he says.

He adds, laughing, “And so I was wrong completely.”

Mikami was also adamant that “Resident Evil 4” would be exclusive to the Nintendo GameCube — even putting his job at stake to preserve that exclusivity.

“I do remember the chairman of Capcom, Tsujimoto Kenzo-san, called me in and asked me, ‘Are we really not going to release on other platforms?’” he says. “And I had to say, ‘Well, if you want to do that, you can do that, but you have to fire me first.’”

He felt so strongly about it that he infamously said publicly that he would commit harakiri — a Japanese ritual suicide by disembowelment with a sword — if it were to be released on other platforms.

Ultimately, “Resident Evil 4” was ported onto several other consoles, and Mikami stayed with Capcom (for the time being, anyway). Now, Mikami has something of a sense of humor about the ordeal, and can even acknowledge that “going multi-platform probably was the right thing to do, business-wise.” “Resident Evil 4,” after all, did end up selling 10 million copies across its lifespan.

But he did take his licks for making such strong statements. Mikami remembers it becoming a joke within Capcom, and “a lot of people on the internet were asking, ‘Hey, when is this Mikami guy gonna actually do the harakiri?’”

“Resident Evil 4’s” legacy continues to this day, with Capcom just recently greenlighting a remake. Mikami isn’t involved with the remake, though, and hasn’t heard from the Capcom team about it. “They have a good formula of taking the IP and using it in a routine way to create revenue,” he acknowledges, “and that’s a very good way for increasing business.”

Mikami would end up leaving Capcom a couple of years later. He had been working at Clover Studio, a development studio under Capcom, and handed off his management duties so he could direct 2006’s comedic beat-’em-up “God Hand” off-site. But he “didn’t know what was going on, internally, at Clover Studio,” and it closed. Suddenly “there was nowhere for me to be.”

Wanting to be more hands-on with games again, he moved to PlatinumGames in 2007, along with his fellow Clover Studio alums Atsushi Inaba and Kamiya, and directed third-person shooter “Vanquish” there.

A couple of years later, though, he was compelled to go and create his own studio. “There were a lot of young, talented creators in Japan and I thought, ‘I should do something with these very talented people,’” he says.

Moving Forward

Mikami launched Tango Gameworks in 2010, and it was acquired by ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda, that same year. His goal was to give emerging talent in Japan a chance, and his plan was to make one big title and two smaller titles at a time, with veteran developers working on the former, and the younger employees working on the latter.

He says they were told not to work on the smaller titles anymore, though, creating a challenge for giving opportunity to younger talent who may not be ready for major titles. But they were able to work on games for the sake of experience — including one with a particularly bizarre concept that never saw the light of day.

“In the beginning, we had a game where the main character was a cockroach, and the cockroach was to defeat humans,” he explains. “The cockroach was about four inches tall, and would, at times, walk on two legs and at times walk on four legs — or all the legs that a cockroach has — and sometimes would pick up a gun and start shooting up at humans to defeat humans.”

“The execs obviously were not happy with the concept and it didn’t get released,” he adds. “But we did make the game to the end.”

The studio is perhaps best known for its 2014 survival-horror title “The Evil Within,” the most recent title that Mikami directed. It wasn’t a deliberate return to horror, Mikami says, but he remembered the fun he had making “Resident Evil 4,” and wanted to build on that. At the time, he said it would be the last game he’d ever direct. Now, however, he doesn’t quite feel that way.

“The Evil Within” started as a project called “Noah,” although the game that resulted evolved into something completely different. But if Mikami had the chance to make the original concept of “Noah,” he says, maybe he would.

“My thinking is that if I had a chance to make a game from the beginning to end that’s completely my vision, then definitely, that would be my big last project as a director,” he says. “It would probably be more fitting as that ‘last game I direct’ kind of thing.”

For now, he’s focused on Tango’s next release, “Ghostwire: Tokyo,” a PlayStation 5 exclusive coming out next year (although ZeniMax was acquired by Microsoft in a mega-deal earlier this year, Xbox boss Phil Spencer previously confirmed that “Xbox plans to honor the PS5 exclusivity commitment” for the game).

“Ghostwire,” which Mikami announced at Bethesda’s 2019 E3 presentation, will see the player use psychic abilities to defeat the ghosts haunting Tokyo. Mikami classifies it as an action-adventure game with some horror elements, although he notes that there might not be as much horror in the game as some customers might be expecting.

Ten years in, Tango’s goal remains giving younger talent experience, and he’s staying true to that with “Ghostwire.” He says he’s allowing director Kenji Kimura and his team to handle the day-to-day work, letting them “realize their vision,” and stepping in when needed. “Basically, I’m just doing troubleshooting whenever there is trouble to shoot,” he says.

Mikami has no shortage of ideas, and they definitely aren’t limited to horror. He indicates interest in everything from puzzle game to RPGs, but, he notes, “I am getting old, and so it would be more of a matter of how much energy I have.”

But even though he is getting older, Mikami intends to keep working — and to stay in the gaming industry.

“If I do have to leave the game industry, then I’ll take a part-time job working at a convenience store,” he jokes. “The idea of making a rice-porridge restaurant has been scrapped, since there’d be too much competition.”

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