Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be absorbing the DNA of Parasite Eve. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium. Where two dates are presented, the first indicates a Japanese release and the second indicates a North American release unless otherwise noted.
Though reliable information in English on Parasite Eve remain a bit scarce, I referred to the following videos quite a bit for an overview:
- The Sphere Hunter – Parasite Eve: The Cinematic RPG | Survival Horror History
- The Sphere Hunter – Parasite Eve 2: A Disappointing Sequel | Survival Horror History
- Stop Skeletons from Fighting – Parasite Eve Trilogy Review & Retrospective
Hideaki Sena was working toward his doctorate at Japan’s Tohoku University when he published his first novel, Parasite Eve, in 1995. The science-fiction story was inspired by his work testing mitochondrial drug reactions in a lab environment, though a television documentary served as the direct catalyst to begin writing. Its plot concerns the rise of Eve, an ancient being whose consciousness is dispersed among the world’s mitochondria, attempting to attain an independent physical form by subtly manipulating a group of scientists. Research assistant Toshiaki Nagashima sacrifices himself to advert this catastrophe, but Eve persists in her mitochondrial form.
Sena’s commercially successful book was soon adapted into manga and film. It also proved highly influential, impacting a generation of Japanese horror filmmakers during the late 1990s. By 1997, even video game development studio Square was eyeing up a possible adaptation of the novel.
Square had transformed from a comparatively niche Japanese developer of visual novels and Japanese role-playing games (JRPG) during the 1980s into an international juggernaut through the localization of its Final Fantasy intellectual property (IP). The Nintendo Entertainment System’s Final Fantasy (1987/1990) sold over 700,000 copies in North America alone, establishing a foothold for Square to become the foremost name in RPGs during the following decade. A string of critical and commercial successes on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, including Final Fantasy IV (1991), The Secret of Mana (1993), Final Fantasy VI (1994), and Chrono Trigger (1995) prompted the studio to grow still more ambitious at the dawn of the fifth home console generation.
A long corporate partnership with Nintendo was abandoned in 1996 as Square opted to exclusively develop content for Sony’s PlayStation. Sony had developed its hardware with an eye to the hefty storage capacity of CD-ROMs, eschewing Nintendo’s dedication to the (less easily pirated) cartridge format. This made the PlayStation a natural choice for Square, which was seeking to implement increasingly cinematic production values in its pursuit of cutting-edge storytelling.
Parasite Eve (1998)
Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who designed or directed the first five series entries and produced the sixth, began planning for Final Fantasy VII shortly after development wrapped on Final Fantasy VI. The game was initially planned to be a detective story set in New York City in 1999. While this design was eventually discarded in favor of Final Fantasy VII‘s more fantastical city of Midgar, the New York City detective plot was worked up into an entirely new PlayStation game called Parasite Eve.
Surprisingly, given Parasite Eve‘s status as a direct sequel to the events of Hideaka Sena’s novel, production did not involve the author in any way. It was instead created by Hironobu Sakaguchi’s team – including character designer Tetsuya Nomura – in consultation with Sena’s publisher. Consequently, while many ideas from the novel are present in the game, its characters are entirely new.
Players take on the role of New York Police Department (NYPD) detective Aya Brea during Christmas 1997. The inciting event is a spectacularly bombastic supernatural massacre by an Eve-possessed opera singer at Carnegie Hall, after which Aya discovers she is connected to the mitochondrial entity through shared DNA. She works with her allies at the NYPD to evacuate the city, fight an infestation of mutated creatures, and prevent Eve from achieving world domination. These allies include Aya’s partner Daniel Dollis, Aya’s boss Douglas Baker, gun enthusiast Wayne Garcia, and Wayne’s outspokenly anti-gun partner Torres Owens. The NYPD crew is augmented by American Museum of Natural History scientist Hans Klamp and a Japanese pharmaceutical expert – seemingly based on Hideaka Sena – named Kunihiko Maeda.
Gameplay represents a unique hybrid of Final Fantasy‘s Active-Time Battle (ATB) mechanic and the survival horror popularized by Resident Evil (1996). The player controls only Aya, rather than a team of characters, and explores locations throughout the city as she pursues Eve. Enemies appear randomly at preset locations throughout the environments, at which point Aya must battle them using firearms or melee weapons. As in Chrono Trigger, and in contrast to contemporary 3D RPGs like Final Fantasy VII, combat occurs within a limited area on the explorable field instead of switching to a discrete battle screen.
Enemies and Aya move around the battlefield in real time, though the action freezes when Aya’s time-based ATB gauge fills up. The player is able to input commands at this point. Positioning Aya during the movement phase to avoid enemy attacks and being cautious about the length of an attack selected in the action phase, lest an enemy successfully strike Aya while she is executing the player’s command, are key components of the player’s combat strategy.
Aya’s inventory owes more to Resident Evil than Final Fantasy, on the other hand. Guns and other weapons are acquired throughout the environment, but limited inventory space means that the player must constantly make careful choices about which items to bring along while exploring hostile areas. A full inventory may keep Aya from being able to acquire a significant new item, while a sparse inventory may leave Aya high and dry without an appropriate weapon or healing item when needed. Boxes found throughout the game world allow the player to deposit a single item for access later.
Guns are a major focus of the game’s character progression system as well, complementing Aya’s improving stats and mitochondrial abilities as she levels up after acquiring experience points from defeated enemies. Most guns have characteristics or special elemental properties which can be carried over to new weapons at Aya’s NYPD office between missions. Cautious management of firearms, upgrading frequently without losing access to useful aspects of prior weapons, is necessary to successfully fighting the game’s increasingly challenging bosses.
Parasite Eve earns Square’s first Electronic Software Rating Board (ESRB) Mature rating with its startling horrific visual design. Pre-rendered backgrounds in the style of Final Fantasy VII are navigated by polygonal character models rendered in much more lifelike proportions than had been present in any earlier home console RPG, while highly detailed full motion video (FMV) cutscenes support director Takashi Tokita’s promotion of the game as a “cinematic RPG”. Its audio is a triumphant fusion of opera and electronica by Street Fighter 2 (1991) and Super Mario RPG (1996) composer Yoko Shimomura.
Reception for Parasite Eve was generally positive, with critics drawing attention to its impressive recreation of New York landmarks and detailed character models. Other aspects of the game’s presentation, particularly its lack of voice acting, were less popular. A New Game Plus mode that opens up a 77-floor dungeon set in the Chrysler Building helps to mitigate against criticisms of its otherwise short playtime. In what may be Parasite Eve‘s greatest measure of success, Hideaka Sena was reportedly satisfied with the video game sequel to his novel.
Parasite Eve II (1999/2000)
Following its first entry, direction and writing responsibilities for the Parasite Eve franchise was passed by Square from series creator Takashi Tokita to Kenichi Iwao. Iwao was most known for his role in writing the plot for Resident Evil (1996), though he had left publisher Capcom for Square following the release of this seminal survival horror title. Square wanted to emulate Resident Evil’s success with its Parasite Eve sequel, so the studio hired other former Resident Evil team members to work under Iwao. Though this follow-up was originally intended to be a spinoff featuring a new protagonist named Kyle Madigan, the game shifted to become a direct sequel starring Aya as the player character by the time a playable demo was covered by IGN in September 1999.
Given its radically different origins and personnel, it should come as little surprise that Parasite Eve II is a departure from its direct predecessor. The game opens in Los Angeles, where Aya has joined the FBI as part of its Mitochondrial Investigation and Suppression Team (MIST). An atmospheric prologue at an LA mall soon gives way to Aya’s exploration of a monster-infested Nevada ghost town called Dryfield. The few NPCs Aya encounters, including repurposed former protagonist Kyle Madigan, are entirely new to the franchise.
Gameplay resembles Resident Evil more than Parasite Eve; backgrounds are again pre-rendered, as they had been in Parasite Eve, but the game is now depicted from highly stylized cinematic fixed camera perspectives rather than a straightforward isometric or overhead view. This necessitates the survival horror genre’s infamous tank controls, in which the player turns their avatar with the left or right directional buttons and respectively moves forward or backward using the up or down directional buttons.
Combat is likewise heavily revised. The semi-turn-based battle mechanics of Parasite Eve are replaced by a fully real-time system in which the player holds a button to target an enemy and taps another button to fire a shot. Unfortunately, this system quickly grows challenging when Aya must be manually turned to face the often-moving targeted enemy. Parasite Eve‘s popular gun customization has been scaled back, though players can still craft new weapons and armor as they acquire items throughout the game world. In its most significant contrast with Resident Evil, Parasite Eve II actually encourages player combat with enemies through the prevalence of ammunition and inclusion of experience points acquired from defeated enemies.
Parasite Eve II is generally regarded as a disappointment. It sold well, but critics compared it unfavorably to both Parasite Eve and the Resident Evil franchise. Had it launched in 1997 and been an original IP, it might have been considered an interesting early entry in the evolving survival horror genre. Launching in 1999/2000 as a sequel instead suggested a franchise which crassly abandoned its identity in pursuit of a trend.
The 3rd Birthday (2010/2011)
Whether due to its alleged loss of the right to use the Parasite Eve name or the studio’s intent to position the franchise’s third entry as a spinoff, Parasite Eve II‘s sequel is simply titled The 3rd Birthday. It was originally planned by developers Square-Enix and HexaDrive as an episodic adventure for Japan’s FOMA mobile phone platform, but production shifted to the PlayStation Portable by 2008 when creative producer Tetsuya Nomura and director Hajimi Tabata settled on that platform as a better fit for the game’s shooter mechanics. Few of The 3rd Birthday‘s initial design concepts survived this hardware transition.
The advancement from mobile devices to PlayStation Portable allowed Square-Enix and HexaDrive to create the most visually lush entry in the series so far. Pre-rendered background are abandoned in favor of fully polygonal environments, while character models – already a strong aspect of earlier Parasite Eve titles – are more detailed than ever. For the first time, the player can manually rotate the perspective around Aya in full 3D. Yoko Shimomura returns to offer contributions to a soundtrack largely composed by Mitsuto Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Sekito.
The game is an even greater departure from the franchise’s foundations than Parasite Eve II had been a decade earlier, though its setting has more in common with the first game than the second. Two years after Aya Brea loses much of her strong personality in a case of amnesia sustained at the game’s start, she must confront the rise of monsters as they invade the streets of Manhattan on Christmas Eve. She is aided in this effort by the Counter Twisted Initiative (CTI), a government organization created to fight the creatures. Kunihiko Maeda returns from Parasite Eve while Eve Brea and Kyle Madigan return from Parasite Eve II.
Gameplay takes the form of a third-person shooter with only limited RPG elements. Aya accepts missions in a hub area, after which she engages enemies using fully real-time over-the-shoulder shooting mechanics throughout linear stages. The absence of a right analog stick on the PlayStation Portable means that the home console third-person shooter genre’s characteristic free aiming functionality is omitted in favor of tapping a shoulder button to target enemies. A team of CTI allies, which can be ordered to offer cover fire or other assistance, typically joins Aya on her missions.
Two additional abilities augment The 3rd Birthday‘s gunplay: Overdrive and Liberation Mode. The former allows Aya to switch bodies with an AI ally, taking on their health and weapon loadout. This serves as an extra life system, as Aya can switch bodies with a surviving NPC teammate if her health points are fully reduced, but also allows the player to tactically move Aya around the field during battle. Liberation Mode serves as a power-up which permits fast movement once an associated energy gauge is filled. RPG elements consist of experience points being used to level Aya and her weapons up as the player completes combat encounters.
The 3rd Birthday was criticized for its shallow gameplay and divergence from its source material, but its most divisive addition is its cosmetic health system. When wounded, Aya’s clothes are torn and eventually fall off as she becomes weaker. According to a pre-release interview with Tetsuya Nomura, this intensely sexist system was designed to force heterosexual male players into a risk/reward decision if they were seeking titillation. The game’s commercial performance fell short of Square-Enix’s projected 500,000 million units sold and remains, at the time of writing, the final Parasite Eve game.
Parasite Eve was a promising RPG based, strangely enough, on a Japanese science-fiction horror novel. Against the odds, it was localized outside of the territory in which the novel was sold and became a cult classic in Square’s growing library of excellent PlayStation titles. A sequel designed by Resident Evil writer Kenichi Iwao leaned into the popularity of that developer’s former work and sadly jettisoned much of what had made its predecessor unique. Despite the presence of several of Square-Enix’s top talents, the franchise’s third entry would burn any lingering goodwill through the wholesale abandonment of its protagonist’s strong personality and emphasis on the male gaze. Though Square-Enix finally registered a new Parasite Eve copyright in Europe in 2018, two poor sequels should makes fans of the 1998 original skeptical about whether Square-Enix can still deliver such a compelling hybrid of RPG and survival horror.
What do you think? What’s your favorite Parasite Eve game? What do you think about the ways that Square and Square-Enix tried to grow the series over time? What’s the deal with Tetsuya Nomura? Let’s discuss below.
Here is a tentative preview of upcoming Franchise Festival entries:
- #77: Might and Magic – November 29
- #78: Yoshi – December 6
- #79: SSX – December 13
- #80: Dark Souls – December 20