It's 6th November 1996. Robson & Jerome are top of the UK's pop charts, Die Hard Trilogy is about to be released on the PlayStation and The English Patient premieres in Los Angeles to widespread critical acclaim.
Over 5000 miles away in Osaka, Japan a Capcom employee burns some data to a disc. This kind of activity wasn't uncommon for the time. It was the '90s after all and CD-ROMs, with the capacity to hold hundreds of megabytes, were cutting edge technology. Yet this mundane act of basic admin would be the catalyst that sparked a 15-year hunt, spanning multiple continents and involving death, betrayal and large sums of money.
The data on that disc was an early build of a sequel to the hugely popular Resident Evil. It was only 40 per cent complete by this point, but had more than enough playability for it to be used as a demonstration tool. This collection of code and assets would come to be referred to by many names over the years, among them "the 40 per cent build" and "the raw build". However, for most of its shrouded existence, those who knew of it would call it Resident Evil 1.5.
To tell the tale of the search for Resident Evil 1.5, we need to go back to mid-1996. The first game had been a huge hit for Capcom and the company understandably wanted a sequel. Shinji Mikami, lead planner on that legendary title, was rewarded with a promotion to producer and immediately set to work crafting a game that, in his own words, would tap into that classic notion of horror of the ordinary, made strange. Thus, he concocted the story of an outbreak set in and around a police station. Work progressed well and the aforementioned 40 per cent build of the game was sent to Capcom of America.
But by early 1997, Mikami began to feel that, despite excellent progress being made, his sequel simply wasn't good enough. On 17th February that same year, Capcom unofficially cancelled the project and the team started over, eventually producing the version of Resident Evil 2 that would scare the pogs out of our pockets in 1998. At this point, Resident Evil 1.5 ceased to be anything more than a handful of discs, each in different stages of completion, spread all over the world.
In December 1997, the office of north American '90s magazine GameFan, which was once known for filling its pages with high quality screenshots, received an advance copy of the soon to be released Resident Evil 2. This was important for a number of reasons. First of all, it enabled the masters of screenshots to show off a totally different game to the one attentive fans might have seen a year earlier, nudging those first few dedicated Resident Evil fanatics into a lengthy search for Resident Evil 1.5. Secondly, one of GameFan's staff writers, Andrew Cockburn, took a copy home with him for some extra-curricular gaming. A few days after GameFan's exclusive preview hit store shelves, the Hong Kong black market was awash with copies of the as yet unreleased Resident Evil 2. It wasn't hard for Capcom to figure out where the leak had come from.
Over 20 years later, Andrew Cockburn is a Christian minister in training, a vocation partially inspired by his experience in December '97. That one mistake effectively ruined his life, costing him his job and causing him to become entangled in a lawsuit. "I hurt a lot of people," he tells Eurogamer. "And I closed a lot of doors." It wasn't until 2009 - 12 years after Resident Evil 2 hit the black market - that Cockburn got back into the video game industry, taking a position at Naughty Dog and working on the Uncharted series as well as The Last of Us. Sitting in front of the family computer at his home in southern California, Andrew's calm and friendly demeanour immediately puts me at ease. Yet there's a very clear sense of pain and frustration as he relates the story of how the review copy made its way into the wild.
At the time, it was quite common for staff writers to take demo discs home. "All of us were allowed to borrow games" Cockburn explains. "I lent mine to a friend and, well, you know the rest." This decision effectively ended his career as a games journalist, turning him into "the Resident Evil 2 guy". He jokes even today, 22 years later, he's still being asked about it. Andrew accepts this one momentary error in judgement is something he'll have to live with forever, but from his perspective, it was symptomatic of the self-destructive lifestyle he was leading at the time. "I was a hedonist and a drug addict and I just wish I could rewind time and re-make those decisions," he explains. "The consequences were enormous and I wish I could just go back and tell myself I didn't have to go down that path." Not only did the decision cost Cockburn his job, but he also feels it alienated him from a lot of his friends. After all, as he points out, it put their livelihoods at risk.
Cockburn describes the experience of waking up with a US Marshal knocking on his door as one of the scariest and most surreal of his life. "I was high the night before," he says, allowing a little chuckle to slip out. "A Marshal with a search warrant and a bunch of police officers showed up at my door. They took my computer. It was concerning to say the least." Capcom would pursue and harshly punish anyone who leaked its intellectual property - an approach that permeated the hunt for Resident Evil 1.5.
The internet in the late '90s was not the internet we know today. Today, getting online is not only easy, it's considered by many to be a basic utility, on the same keel as gas and electricity. Furthermore, it's dominated by social media news feeds and huge communities, all tied together by highly sophisticated search engines. In 1999, Google was a brand new, unheard-of website in competition with a bunch of more established search engines such as Yahoo and AskJeeves. MySpace wouldn't launch for half a decade and Mark Zuckerberg was still in high school.
This state of affairs meant the internet was somewhat like the Wild West. There were small, almost insular pockets of interest that existed beyond the scope of many search engines. Every hobby had a hundred fan-made websites and Resident Evil was no different. To list all of the sites that played a part in the search for Resident Evil 1.5 would take several paragraphs. Suffice it to say, there were a lot of them.
Bouncing around these various forums and websites was a guy who would come to be known to everyone involved in the search. His real name is Chris Brown, but those in the 1.5 community know him as Alzaire. Having bought a PlayStation specifically to play the original Resident Evil, the adolescent Alzaire was excited to see screenshots and read reports on the upcoming sequel. Yet when he eventually got his hands on a copy, something didn't quite add up. Leafing through old magazines, he soon realised the images shown in those early previews were not of the same game he had played, so he decided to try and find out what had happened. Over the course of the next decade Alzaire would rise to become the figurehead of the search for 1.5, playing a vital role in almost every interaction and revelation that was to come.
In late 1999, the owner of Bioflames, one of the many sites involved in the search, acquired and shared 138 mobile phone images of 1.5 in action. It was a huge coup. In retrospect, this incident marked the beginning of the serious, collective effort to find a copy of the game. Cameras on phones were a new thing at the time, so the photos had to be recent. Furthermore, Bioflames' moderator Kim Larsen said they were obtained from a Japanese friend who worked at Capcom, meaning the company still had a playable copy of the game.
The Bioflames collection of images also set the precedent for the somewhat sinister tone the hunt for 1.5 would take from this point on. Thanks to a sudden and widespread interest in these images, Larsen's friend immediately cut all contact with him, never to be heard from again. It is widely believed the employee was reprimanded for sharing the assets, and this theme of fear, disappearance and subterfuge would haunt the search for the rest of its duration.
Alzaire describes the next seven years as something of a golden era in the search for 1.5. Bioflames, which you can still visit, became the hub for the search and attracted fans from all over the world. One of them managed to get hold of a March 1997 issue of Famitsu magazine, showing the last build of 1.5 before it was scrapped, as well as some images of locations within the game previously unknown to western audiences.
Thanks to this and many other finds, the collection of 1.5 images grew to quite a considerable size. Some enterprising enthusiasts even attempted to create a map of the game based on these scraps of information and recorded footage shown off at various trade events. An even bigger breakthrough came in March 2005, when a Latvian fan known as Sardeljka posted images of what could only be rooms and assets from 1.5, generated on authentic PlayStation hardware. After questioning, it emerged Sardeljka found this data hidden away on a Resident Evil 2 demo disc that was packed in with a PlayStation DualShock controller - the very same demo version Andrew Cockburn had leaked all those years earlier. It seemed Capcom hadn't bothered to remove all of the old code for this demo version, choosing instead to simply leave all the rooms and assets on the disc. For the first time, fans of 1.5 had the opportunity to play through a few mostly empty rooms that were to be a part of the game that never was.
Alzaire describes this as the "second-biggest find for 1.5", directly after the Bioflames images. "Those files generated a lot of hype," he explains. "We had guys recreating backgrounds and people getting excited. It was just a really good time to be involved in the search." I can tell the memory of the hunt excites Alzaire, as if he's some grizzled old detective reminiscing about his days on the force. I ask him what drove him to do all of this investigative work. "I don't really know why I got so into it," he replies. "It just stuck with me. It needed to be found."
Despite all the reports of progress being made during this time, there are an equal number of times when the game slipped through the community's fingers. Multiple leads were followed, only to emerge as hoaxes or mistakes. Thanks to Sardeljka's screenshots, Alzaire was able to identify leads as being cobbled together from old trade show footage, or simply honest mistakes. In-fighting between the admins of certain websites, each of whom wanted to be the king of Resident Evil fandom, began to spill out into forums and poisoned the well for many fans. An admin of a popular emulation site who went by the name Mushindo came forward, believing she might have had a copy of the game, and was subsequently scared into hiding by rabid fans sending her insults and death threats. "That was the hardest part about managing the search and the community," explains Alzaire. "If there was even the slightest hint of 1.5, everyone would jump all over it. Then these people would get hundreds of emails in their inbox from random people, asking for it, demanding it, making threats against them for it. It was overwhelming for them." He's not without understanding though, stating: "I get it, everyone wanted to be the one who found it. But it really did cause a lot of problems."
By August 2007, the search for 1.5 had gone stale. So many hoaxes and near misses had left what few fans remained deflated and without hope. What they didn't know at the time, however, was one of the most significant moments in the hunt for RE 1.5 was about to occur.
One of the few ways to get out of a contract in the USA is to die. That might seem like a crass statement, but under US law a non-disclosure agreement cannot be enforced post-mortem. So it came to pass that the estate sale of a recently-deceased Capcom employee happened to contain a copy of Resident Evil 1.5.
Unfortunately for the community, this wouldn't become apparent until after the fact. But the opportunity didn't pass them by - a high-ranking member of the 1.5 fandom was contacted by a party interested in selling him a copy of the disc. He quickly took to the forums to raise an impressive $4000 in donations, only to be beaten to the punch by someone else who offered just $300. Once again, 1.5 had slipped away.
...or had it? Almost immediately after this sale, a video appeared on a website called PlayStation Museum which contained 10 minutes of footage from the game. Evidently, this was an upload by the man who bought the coveted disc. On the forums, this person became known simply as "The Curator".
"When people realised this guy had the real deal, everyone jumped on it," Alzaire says. To combat this, he decided to approach The Curator personally. I ask Alzaire how he felt at that moment, dealing with some random stranger who possessed the very thing he'd spent so long searching for. "Oh, I hated it," he responds, "but it also gave us hope maybe things can start happening now. Someone who is not a Capcom employee, has, for better or worse, got a copy of the game."
Alzaire shared some important pieces of knowledge with The Curator, including how to access certain walled-off rooms using the game's debug menu, as well as translations for item descriptions and dialogue. Unfortunately, when the subject of him possibly releasing the game to the public came up, hopes were dashed. The Curator demanded $10,000 for the privilege. The talks broke down.
The Curator then appeared to embark upon a campaign of taunting upon the 1.5 community. He created multiple dummy accounts on the Bioflames forums and regularly took jabs at various users. In response to one user saying they thought a miracle might still happen, The Curator created a video of himself playing 1.5 with Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing playing in the background. The line, "I believe in miracles", was sung to the backdrop of zombies' heads exploding. This all seems silly in retrospect - and it certainly is - but at the time, and to a community who had craved getting their hands on 1.5 for so long, it felt like malice.
By December 2007, the fans were desperate. Not only was 1.5 out of their reach, but that insidious beast, disc rot, would surely claim the CD sooner or later and any chance to play the game would be lost forever. Mustering all of their financial strength, forum users came together and raise the $10,000 requested by The Curator. He promptly refused the offer, demanding "a healthy sum" for what he now believed was a priceless piece of gaming history. The Curator then listed 1.5 on eBay for an eye-watering $125,000, and any chance at an amicable agreement was lost.
Despite all the negativity, Alzaire had scored a kind of victory. The Curator had shown his hand. He needed money, desperately, and over the next few years he went on to list many of his most prized pieces on eBay. Items such as PlayStation development kits and rare unreleased games came and went, with Team RE knowing they only needed to wait and sooner or later, The Curator would have to strike a deal. The next time that happened, they'd be ready for him.
It's hard not to imagine The Curator as some sort of cape-wearing, mustache-fondling Saturday morning cartoon villain. The truth, according to Alzaire, is more mundane. "He seemed like a generally OK guy," he explains. "I think he had good intentions and just wanted to preserve the game on his website. Everybody getting onto him just frustrated him, scared him and made him spiteful in the end, but I don't blame him for that. If I had piles of emails, messages and threats demanding a copy of a game, it would scare me away, too. I wouldn't want to be friendly to those people either."
In early 2011, The Curator uploaded more footage of 1.5 to YouTube. He also confirmed what many fans had suspected: the original copy had finally succumbed to disc rot and the only copy left was sitting on his computer's hard drive. In response, Alzaire formed a delegation of seven or eight high-ranking 1.5 experts from the various forums. These people had, by this point, spent well over a decade searching for the game. Pooling their funds together and employing a take it or leave it approach, they finally negotiated a deal. A sum of $8000 was agreed upon and a few weeks later, in April 2011, a disc arrived on Alzaire's doorstep.
"It was surreal," Alzaire says, remembering the first time he fired up his modded PlayStation, put the burned disc into the system and - after 15 long years of searching and hoping - finally witnessed Resident Evil 1.5 in real-time. "There it was in my hands. I could control the character and move them around. There was the inventory screen, the map screen, all of these things we had desperately wanted to see for ages. It was like a dream. Here was something legit we were playing, instead of just speculating and fantasising about."
This should have been the end of the story, but just like in all good questing tales, the object of everyone's desire would end up corrupting the hearts of those who searched for it.
Richard Mandel, who would later go on to write a book about the hunt for 1.5, describes what happened next as "a decision that still makes the average video gamer scratch their head". It's decided 1.5 will not release to the fans. Instead, Alzaire and his associates would keep their acquisition for themselves. Furthermore, they resolved to secretly patch up the game. Between the screenshots, videos and collective knowledge, they were able to form a rough idea of what the finished product would have looked like. All they needed was the expertise to mod the game. So, they contacted some well-known modders and hackers and formed Team IGAS (a jokey reference to the classic Resident Evil line "I got a shotgun").
Speaking to Mandel in 2019, he explains why he believes the team made this call. "You have to understand the mindset at the time," he begins. "Put yourself in their shoes. When they finally got their hands on that copy of the build, they quickly realised, to their horror, that what Capcom had been saying all along was right. It was a bad game. The legend had proven to be bigger than the product. There wasn't an intent to adjudicate what was and wasn't worth releasing - at least not at first."
Speaking to Gemini, lead programmer for Team IGAS, I get a somewhat more expanded reasoning. Gemini, who had been modding old PlayStation games for a while before joining the project, was hand-picked by Alzaire and his crew for his ability to create and use what he refers to as his "tools". Taking occasional drags on a cigarette, he speaks with the kind of confidence only a guy with an incredibly niche set of skills can pull off.
"When they acquired the 40 per cent build, they were initially also hunting down other, more advanced builds from collectors," he explains. "They chose not to release it at first so as not to ruin the potential release of those other builds." At the time, anyone who had their hands on a copy of any version of 1.5 was essentially sitting on a goldmine. If someone were to acquire and release a build to the public, it would severely reduce the value of everyone else's copy. By keeping their acquisition a secret, Alzaire, Gemini and Team IGAS were proving to those other collectors they could be trusted.
Alzaire himself confirms this, but adds another, simpler reason for keeping the acquisition a secret: "I personally would have been happy to just do a grand reveal and release the game to the public." he states. "But some of the other members of the team, particularly the ones who has put the most money in, had other ideas. They wanted to create something better than what we had and I was happy for that to happen."
Regardless of intent, the team's attempt at secrecy would inevitably prove futile. Within months, one or two people burned a copy for a friend, others shared a couple of images on Facebook, and before long, the scene elites who were holding out on a copy of the holy grail of horror gaming became little more than an open secret. What's more, to the dismay of many fans, these elites were revealed to be messing around with 1.5, changing it, adding assets from Resident Evil 2 as well as their own custom-made models and textures.
Mandel's opinions on Gemini and the team's attempts to 'restore' 1.5 are quite negative. In his book, Mandel paints Gemini as the leader of an opposing political party, tasked with stamping out dissent in the ranks. He talks about how he treats other modders with "condescending arrogance", berating, insulting and demeaning any perceived rivals into submission. Regardless of whether or not this is accurate, by early 2013, the restoration effort had split the community in two. On one side, those in favour supported Gemini and Team IGAS, while an increasingly vocal group, including Mandel, felt strongly 1.5 should be kept as close to its vanilla state as possible, or even released as it was. Mandel claims Team IGAS began spying on dissenters, infiltrating private forums and working to discredit other fan attempts at restoring the game. He even claimed they stole and doctored the work of other modders in the community in an attempt to discredit them and achieve sole control of 1.5's creative direction.
One of those modders, a Brit who goes by the name DXP, had been hanging around the Resident Evil fan scene for a while by this point. He was (and still is) a talented artist and along with his friends, Martin Biohazard and The Mortician, DXP worked on what was, at the time, one of many attempts to reconstruct 1.5 from screenshots and videos. They were effectively trying to backwards engineer the Resident Evil 2 engine and splice in the backgrounds, models and cut-scenes they believed would have been in 1.5. DXP's job was to attempt to recreate the room backgrounds from the various ageing mobile phone images and video stills that were available to them.
As he tells it, "this began before the actual image leaks started to occur in 2012."
"We still had no idea what exactly these rooms looked like in reality, as we were just going off images and videos like everyone else was back then." However, it wasn't long before The Mortician got hold of those leaked files and shared them with DXP. "As you can probably imagine," he begins, "I was absolutely ecstatic and my mind was blown when he sent me an entire archive of every file from the 40 per cent build. All the renders, the enemy and character models, the soundtrack etc."
The Mortician, who DXP affectionately refers to as "Morti", started work on a conversion program that would allow them to take that 1.5 content and turn it into room data for the Resident Evil 2 engine. Within two weeks, Morti and DXP had converted the entire 40 per cent build into a working set of rooms. As he tells it, this endeavour caught the attention of Team IGAS. DXP's tone turns to one of bitter frustration as he tells me the story of what happened next.
"They somehow had access to our private files when we were working on that project," he explains. "The images had been viewed over 20 times. There was only seven of us in the team and those images were set to private. Having the direct link to it was the only way to view them. They began to constantly bully us, stalk us and put every member down in an attempt to make us give up on our project. To make matters worse, they were actually monitoring private message traffic, and I mean all of it, just to see who had information about 1.5."
DXP describes an incident involving The Mortician and members of Team IGAS regarding another app he wrote. "Old games used masks to hide a character when they were behind a table, or a door frame is above their head or something," DXP explains. "Morti was the first modder to make an actual tool that allowed us to finally use masks. They didn't take it kindly though and antagonised him over it, claiming the tool was fake and he was just seeking attention. Morti even released it to prove the tool's authenticity and yet they were still adamant it was a fake. We speculated at the time - and continue to do so - they themselves tampered with the image just to add more 'evidence' to their argument." He sums up his feelings on the incident by simply stating that to this day, it still hurts him to think about it.
Gemini's response to this is one of mild humour. "I still think the image was a fake to be honest, because there's no way you can produce that kind of artifact on the game." While he does acknowledge some glitches with very specific graphics cards may lead to misaligned pixels, he remains sceptical. He also finds it hard to believe anyone was spying on them. "Why would we even care about that? Why would we violate their privacy? Unless you just want to have a giggle about it, there's nothing of interest at all."
Gemini often chuckles or sneers as I read out quotes from my conversations with DXP, and Mandel's book. Perhaps he's just tired of being called an "asshole" - in fact he even jokes he had his role in Team IGAS altered to read "professional asshole" because that's what his detractors were calling him. Whatever his motivation, the question of whether or not any members of Team IGAS were engaged in acts of subterfuge and sabotage is still hotly debated over half a decade later. I suspect, as with most conflicts, neither side's hands are entirely clean.
It's around this time Alzaire began to step away from the scene. After all, the search was over, he'd achieved what he set out to do and increasingly found himself playing the role of a politician more than an enthusiast. "I was just trying to keep the peace, stop leaks from happening and salvage what little information we could," he says. "But the leaks just kept happening and it started becoming more stressful than it was fun. It was starting to feel like a job." Still, despite the bitterness and frustration that marred the last year of the search, Alzaire looks back on his time in the scene with fondness. "I loved those days when everything was still a mystery," he says. "We'd get on MSN messenger and try to figure out how the maps were laid out, how the rooms connected, what the story was. We had such a great time. I wish it had ended differently, for sure, but prior to that, we had a good time and I made a lot of friends."
Alzaire talks about wishing he could have seen the hunt for 1.5 through to the end, and how his ideas of what could have been, in early 2000 and at the wide-eyed age of 14, were never truly realised by the eventual outcome nearly 15 years later. Alzaire dedicated his entire adult life to this search, became the world's foremost expert in a particular field, but found himself compelled to leave his baby in the hands of someone else because of how unwieldy it had become. In many ways Alzaire deserves to be the hero of this story. But as in Resident Evil, in real life things rarely work out nicely.
In June 2013 the 1.5 community is pretty much a shambles. Years of in-fighting, combined with a sense of resentment at Team IGAS' refusal to release the object of everyone's desire, left the fandom fragmented and resigned to defeat. During all the turmoil, an eBay auction popped up. It contains a collection of console gaming relics, including a PS2 test kit, some obscure old games, and... yes, a disc purporting to be a copy of Resident Evil 1.5.
Richard Mandel would go on to describe his initial reaction to this auction in his book. "I immediately assumed it to be a fake," he writes. "However, as debate continued to rage over it on all the forums, I began to wonder." Mandel spotted one crucial detail: a single screenshot from the game he'd never seen before. "It didn't exist in any of the old screenshots of press coverage collections," he continues, "and it wasn't a grab from one of the old videos. It also wasn't one of Team IGAS' images either."
What Mandel had stumbled upon was indeed a legit copy of the game. He knew what he had to do. On 4th June 2013, Mandel won the eBay auction with a $2025 bid for a copy of the most coveted horror game ever cancelled. Much to the chagrin of Team IGAS, he released the game into the hands of other 'purists' and the rest, as many a hack journalist has written before, is history.
For Mandel, the story continues beyond this and you can read all about the aftermath of his shock release in his book. But certainly, the tale of Resident Evil 1.5 and its eventual release to the rabid fans who had waited so long to experience it ends here. Speaking to Mandel, he's confident Capcom is still holding out on a practically finished build of the game. "They still have that final (80 per cent) build of 1.5 on hand," he says. "I'm also fairly certain none of it will ever see the light of day, unless Capcom Japan wants it to or there's an internal leak, and the odds of that happening are quite low."
After spending the better part of a month delving into the story of the hunt for Resident Evil 1.5, speaking to the people involved and hearing how it affected their lives, I'm left wondering what I'm supposed to take away from it all. What's the lesson to be learned here?
For Andrew Cockburn, the lesson has been one of reaping what you sow. He's had to live with the decisions a younger, naive version of himself once made. Now, Cockburn is remorseful and, clearly, has learned a lesson. He sums up his feelings to me with a quote from one of his favourite authors, C. S. Lewis: "To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you."
Gemini, on the other hand, feels he's learned to avoid the reaping. "Work in the dark, don't tell anybody what you're doing," were the words he said to me before we parted ways. Weirdly, the person he clashed with, DXP, more or less agrees with that sentiment. "It should have remained in the dark where no-one could get it," he says of 1.5. "The amount of damage that thing has done after it was obtained is shown through how many people have either left the community, or just blanked out that entire set of years." From the perspective of Alzaire, this is a story all about virtues. "Be patient," he says, "but most importantly of all, be trustworthy."
Finally, there's Richard Mandel. He's the oldest of the group, and he's achieved his dream of being a published writer. His story would seem to be the only one that ends happily. Yet his book is, to put it mildly, controversial. Its top review on Amazons accuses Mandel of lying, misrepresentation and painting himself as the hero when he's really the villain. He's facing a possible lawsuit for defamation from several of those involved in the search, and he's doing it all while battling cancer. In a way, Mandel's story is the darkest.
For me, the search for Resident Evil 1.5 is a classic tale of the quest for a coveted relic worthy of an Indiana Jones movie. But there's no Indiana Jones in this story. No dashing hero who gets to put the relic in a museum. Indeed, what we really have here draws a better parallel with Frodo Baggins. Unable to escape their experiences, unable to forget the things they've done, these guys have to soldier on knowing although their journeys are over, they'll never truly get to live happily ever after. I think Mandel sums up the story perfectly, so I'll leave you with the words he chose to end his book with:
"For treasure is what you make of it, and treasure always attracts the bad as well as the good."