It’s always a pleasure to get reacquainted with an old classic, so what’s better than the chance to get reacquainted with three of them all at once? It’s a bit of a bumper week on the Nintendo Switch eShop right now, with Resident Evil Zero, the 2002 remake of the original and Resident Evil 4 all suddenly available.
A finer cross-section of Capcom’s series you’d be hard-pressed to find. There’s either ends of Resident Evil’s first era, defined by those slightly awkward camera angles and the pre-rendered backdrops, and perhaps the biggest surprise is how well both games hold up today.
The original Resident Evil – in its sumptuous remade form, of course – is every bit the timeless classic, retaining so much of its majesty and malice. It’s funny how so many of the quirks that were held against it in subsequent years – the fixed camera angles, the tank controls – now feel like conscious design decisions, all playing into the sense of helplessness and fear.
It’s about wilfully withholding information – as is all good horror, really – and the first Resident Evil makes an artform of this, from those famous idiosyncrasies down to subtler details such as how your health points are only ever displayed in the abstract of an oscilloscope, or in how you can never predict exactly how many bullets it will take to down a zombie.
Resident Evil 0 is a quirky little beast, with its character swapping mechanic and a neat line in opulence all taking aspects of the original game and extending them out towards something like a logical conclusion. Play it today and it’s a treat, though back in 2002 it didn’t go down so well – something, perhaps, with how quickly Capcom had run and re-run through the formula in six short years.
The series needed to change, and so in 2005 change it did with Resident Evil 4. Radically so, in fact. You know the story by now, I’m sure – of how development twisted and turned, with aborted versions and errant attempts to reboot the formula. After all that, it’s kind of amazing that Resident Evil 4 turned out as well as it did – another modern masterpiece, an exceptional piece of pacing and pure, thrilling action.
It plays wonderfully today, although it could do with some love. Time hasn’t been as kind to Resident Evil 4 as it has to some of its predecessors, its textures murky and some of its primitive geometry robbing it of the timeless quality that both the first Resident Evil and Resident Evil 0. It needs the softening fuzz of a CRT monitor to serve its autumnal aesthetic, and for all the re-releases it’s had over the years it’s a shame that more hasn’t been done to retain the original look on newer hardware.
Resident Evil 4’s a funny one, too – a high point for the series, for sure, but from those heights it all came spiralling down so quickly. You can probably chart the move away from traditional horror back to 4’s more bombastic action, and each subsequent game cast in its mold it moved further and further away from what first made the series so beloved. Resident Evil 5 and 6 aren’t bad games – the former I’ve always found fine if forgettable, the latter unfairly maligned as for all its sloppiness I appreciate its mad, maximalist take – but they’re far from the very best.
Can you really blame Capcom for continuing to iterate Resident Evil 4’s formula when it was so widely loved? I don’t really think so, and after all that worked for the first three games. Maybe it’s because Resident Evil 4 got things so right first time out that it left little room for subsequent games to discover much new. Still, if you can divide those first six numbered entries neatly in two it’s clear that the first half boasts more quality than the second.
It’d take another reinvention for that downward spiral to be halted, and thankfully Resident Evil 7, with its radical first-person perspective, exquisite VR implementation and sharply focussed horror was just what the series needed. This year’s Resident Evil 2 remake was even more impressive, in my eyes – finding the perfect balance between the horror of the first three games and the action of the second three, it suggests that Capcom’s finally found the sweet spot for Resident Evil, and that its future is now brighter than ever.