Even I sometimes need a break from playing and writing about 30-60 hour JRPGs by Squaresoft and Atlus. I wanted something short, and there was an HD remake of an old 2002 remake of the original Resident Evil going for cheap, so why not?
Anyway, towards the end of my game some poor planning on my part got another character killed off. A friend who was watching asked if I was going to reset to my last save, and I said, “no, this is survival horror; I have to live with the consequences of my actions.” And then I went and accidentally fell to my death anyway, making my decision completely moot. Which comes pretty close to encapsulating my experience with Resident Evil REmake HD (man, what an atrocious title).
Survival horror was an unusual hybrid genre which lasted only a few years, and the original Resident Evil served as the genre’s codifier, if not its chronologically first example. In a looser sense of the phrase, survival horror games are still being made, but they’re usually just action games with an aesthetic sheen of horror painted over. Classic survival horror was really more of an heir to the point-and-click adventure titles of the 90s, or even the text adventures of the 80s, with game worlds that are treated as puzzles to be unlocked. And there were already horror-themed adventure games like Dark Seed. What survival horror did was to add some deliberately cumbersome combat into the mix, along with limited combat resources. The point was to not just make use of horror fiction’s aesthetic toolbox, but to also simulate the feeling of actually being a character fighting for their life in one of those stories. You were supposed to feel like you were always one wrong move away from death, and that a narrow escape was the best outcome you could go for.
So it’s not hard to see why the genre died young. People were already getting tired of the often bizarre logic of adventure game puzzle design, and the line between provoking a feeling of helplessness and a feeling of utter frustration. The only real surprise was that it’d be Resident Evil itself that’d break things up, with the fourth numbered entry being a balls-to-the-wall action power trip.
Anyhow I got pulled into the genre with Resident Evil 2, and only moved forward from there. I played the other Resident Evil sequels, the Silent Hill games as well as some more obscure stuff that no one remembers (Galerians, anyone?) but never bothered to check out the original Resident Evil; it just seemed too crude to return to. I was excited for the very stylish looking remake, but the fact that it was a Gamecube exclusive title made it unlikely that I would ever get around to playing it.
And so finally playing the HD version of that remake nowadays feels a bit strange in how it managed to feel both new and also kinda nostalgic. I also felt like the window for its maximum effectiveness on me had already passed. If I had played it, say, a decade ago, it’d probably have blown my mind, whereas now it provoked a much more, “yeah this is an excellent game,” response. It’s aged surprisingly well, and is perhaps the best single example of the genre, but there’s none of the sense of discovery I felt with stuff like RE2 or Silent Hill 2. Part of this probably also has something to do with how, in today’s zombie-saturated pop culture, Resident Evil isn’t quite the novelty it once was, and so horror themed stuff needs to go the extra mile in creativity (like Strange Journey) or in b-movie camp (like RE4) in order to really captivate me.
Resident Evil‘s plot is quite perfunctory: you play as either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, members of the STARS police force’s Alpha Team who are investigating the disappearance of Bravo Team (who were themselves investigating some zombie related murders). The thrust of the story is that within five minutes everyone’s trapped in a spooky mansion infested with zombies and other assorted horrors, and you need to find some way to escape.
So you spend the game zig-zagging around the mansion and surrounding environs, solving puzzles while making decisions about the enemies you face: do you risk sneaking by, or do you use your ammo? Zombie corpses which have not been properly disposed of (which requires either landing a lucky shot or using some precious fuel) will eventually revive as the much stronger and more vicious crimson heads, and so there’s an additional layer to that decision. Added to that is an extremely limited amount of inventory space. The result is a game which is all about balancing short-term and long-term risks, and for the most part its pulled off quite well. There’s a genuine thrill to be found in finding yourself with only fifteen bullets and trying to make each one count.
Another notable thing: this game was, I think, one of the last games to ever make use of pre-rendered backgrounds. As I’ve suggested on a couple of other occasions, I consider the pre-rendered background to be something of a lost art. The remake’s backgrounds are stunning, and hint at how amazing they could have been if they ever managed to live past the early 3D period.
So I had a good time, and apparently enough people did similarly to get Capcom to announce a remake of Resident Evil 2. For a console which I will probably never own.