Welcome back to another Love/Hate series! You may be surprised to hear that, despite having a whole Retrospectives series about the Resident Evil movies, until just over a year ago I hadn’t played through a Resident Evil game from start to finish. Sure, I had owned and played several Resident Evil games over the years, but it never really resonated with me much til recently. I’ve since been on a journey exploring this franchise and I’m now ready to put out my thoughts on most of the mainline entries. To start, we’re going to look at the Game Cube remake of Resident Evil (aka REmake), often touted as the definitive way to play the game. Does it still hold up almost 20 years later? Read on to find out…
- The Spencer Mansion – There are several iconic and well-designed locales in the Resident Evil franchise, but the Spencer Mansion is probably my favourite of the bunch. Its layout is maze-like and filled with locked doors but you’ll become very familiar with it over time, which is helped by the way the developers encourage you to traverse the map in a figure eight pattern. Its design also reminds me of the best parts of Dark Souls, where opening up new shortcuts makes the whole thing more interconnected.
- Compelling Gameplay Loop – The basic gameplay in Resident Evil revolves around “find items to open new areas” and “manage your items and plan your routes to best survive”. While simple, it’s very compelling to play through. Every time you figure out where a key item needs to go it feels satisfying and every single item you take with you has to be strategically calculated because you’ll never have enough for all the weapons, ammo and healing you may need. Moreso than any other game in the franchise, Resident Evil is a game that emphasizes exploration over combat. The game’s basic, slow and infrequent combat works well because it keeps the tension going and makes the exploration feel dangerous.
- Encourages Replayability – REmake has a frankly ridiculous amount of replayability. First off, the character you pick at the start of the game isn’t just a cosmetic choice – they can have a huge impact on game progression, cutting off entire boss strategies, providing unique weapons, items and skills (eg, Jill knows how to play piano whereas Chris cannot which makes solving a particular puzzle different), and opening up opportunities to get items early (eg, Jill can get a shotgun early if she performs actions in a specific order). In addition to this, while the game plays out largely the same, the story itself changes pretty significantly as Chris and Jill interact with different cast members who are absent from the other run and the ending you get changes depending on how many characters you keep alive. This makes a “B Scenario” run a very different experience. In addition, the game is more satisfying and can be completed in about half as much time as a first playthrough when you already know what needs to be done.
- Atmosphere – One thing REmake does really well is nail the spooky, gothic atmosphere of the Spencer Mansion. The art direction for this game is spectacular, giving the Spencer Mansion a very antique, lived-in feel that comes across as believable. In addition, the game’s fix camera perspective allows the developers to direct players’ attentions in very deliberate ways, hiding enemies just off-screen to get a very cinematic scare or showing the action in a very voyeuristic manner to put you on edge. It gives the whole affair a very cinematic feel.
- Meaningfully Adds to the Original – REmake takes the skeleton of the original game and remixes and polishes it to make for a much smoother and expanded way to experience this story. Additions like defense weapons make the minute-to-minute gameplay less punishing and overall this feels less like a graphical overhaul and more like a second chance to let us experience Resident Evil as it was always intended.
- Option For More Traditional Controls – While REmake originally released with classic tank controls, the HD remaster added in the option to play the game with an altered control scheme. This altered scheme essentially allows you to move with traditional analog controls and removes the need to hold the sprint button. Basically, point the analog stick in the direction you want to go and the character will move that way. The controls are essentially reset every time the camera moves, but if you were already heading in a direction the game will continue to move you that way until the stick is shifted, at which point it will update. It still takes some getting used to, but for someone who didn’t grow up on tank controls it was easier to get into and actually made tank controls easier to wrap my head around.
- Crimson Heads – Crimson Heads were a brilliant addition in REmake. In case you’re unaware, every time you kill a zombie in this game, their body will stay behind and a timer will begin to countdown. You have about an hour to either blow their head off or light them on fire or the body will resurrect as a fast, hard-hitting zombie the next time you pass by. This works so well on numerous levels. First of all, it provides a huge, unexpected shock for a first time player or veteran of the original game. The best part though is that even if you know about them ahead of time, it transforms the dynamic of every zombie encounter. There isn’t enough kerosene to burn every zombie, so you find yourself avoiding zombies for as long as possible, burning them only at the most high-traffic areas and remembering where you’ve left bodies that you’ll have to deal with later. It’s so weird to me that Capcom hasn’t brought them back since (unlike, say, Regenerators) because they’re top-tier Resident Evil enemies and brilliant game design.
- The Map Feels Half-Baked – REmake‘s map is handy and will be a constant companion as you learn the layout of the mansion. Beyond showing the building’s layout, it will also show you what doors are locked and unlocked, where you have found typewriters and item boxes and whether a room is unexplored, has items still in it or has been completely explored. That said, while it’s nice that it’s more than a bare-bones map, it could have gone so much further to make for an indispensable resource. For example, knowing which key you need to unlock which doors, what items are still in each room, what other points of interest there may be, etc. There is a lot of shit to keep track of in this game, especially in the mansion at the start of the game, so having it laid out on-screen would have been nice. It feels like it’s just pushing you to buy the guidebook to get all the item locations in one place… which, now that I mention it, is probably why the map is the way it is.
- The Story – I’m pretty mixed on the story in Resident Evil. On the one hand, it’s very simple and functional, which serves the gameplay well, so that’s a major point in its favour. However, for the story we do get, we’re missing some major context to understand it. We get thrown right into the game with no real idea who is in S.T.A.R.S. Alpha or Bravo team, so whenever we run across a comrade in this story I have no idea if this is one of the survivors I’m supposed to be finding or someone who came with me and got lost. The story is also baffling at times, like when the player finds Enrico and then he GETS SHOT by someone behind you… and then Chris or Jill decides to focus all their attention on Enrico instead of, y’know, the murderous gunman who is just behind them. That said, we’ve also got stuff like the story of Lisa Trevor, which is conveyed well over the game’s runtime through text files and environmental storytelling.
- HD Edition Graphics – The HD remaster of REmake is the most accessible version of the game out there, but its presentation is compromised compared to the Game Cube original. Apparently Capcom either lost the assets or source code for this game and had to Frankenstein the HD remaster together with what they had available. The pre-rendered backgrounds have had to be up-rezzed and stretched into widescreen and the results are mixed. I’ve played this game in 1080p on PS4 and you can definitely notice the low resolution there, whereas in 720p on Switch in handheld mode it holds up much better. Worst of all are the pre-rendered cutscenes which are in incredibly muddy 480p stretched to HD widescreen. Imagine if someone threw a bad Youtube rip into a game and you can imagine how it looks. Thankfully the character models are pretty decent, although I can’t help but feel that Jill and Barry got a lot more effort put into them than Chris and Rebecca. Chris’ dead-eye stare is more unnerving than most of the game’s zombies… The graphics issues don’t really tarnish the game overall, but they do hold back the presentation because, when everything falls into place, this game looks incredible.
- Old-School Design Takes Getting Used To – As I have alluded to, if you didn’t grow up on old-school Resident Evil then REmake is going to take time just to get used to the simple act of moving around. I had tried to play this game 2 or 3 times before I finally knuckled down and did a full playthrough for this series. That said, the experience and knowledge of the Mansion I got in my previous attempt certainly helped make this playthrough much easier to slide into. It’s just too bad that there’s such a potentially steep learning curve to overcome before you can enjoy the game.
- Inventory Management Can Get Frustrating – While inventory management is a fundamental aspect of Resident Evil, it can be frustrating, especially in a first playthrough. The item box is never far away, but you don’t know what enemies to expect or what you’re going to find, so you pack your best weapons and head out. Within a few minutes, you’re loaded up on key items, so in order to advance you’re going to have to go back and dump them in the item box. Then you set back out and, lo-and-behind, you find where those (or a different) key item needs to go, so now you have to turn around again and get them, then head back to use them, etc. Resident Evil‘s game design encourages conservative play, especially with its punishing save system, but the drawback is that it will bore you if you play conservatively. Again, this is why repeat playthroughs will be a bit more enjoyable since you should know when and where you need key items, but prior knowledge shouldn’t be a crutch for game design. There has to be a middle-ground where you maintain the game’s strategic inventory management while making it less frustrating, such as having less inventory slots overall but you can carry all key items, or maybe you could get an attaché case pickup that can store key items only.
- A Lot of Uninspired Enemy Designs – For a series with such iconic, mutated monsters as Lickers, Hunters and the Regenerators, it’s surprising to go back to this first game and find that most of the enemies are just big animals. Seriously, four of the main bosses in this game are a big snake (who you fight twice!), a big spider, a big plant and a big shark. They don’t even look mutated or disfigured either, they’re literally just big creatures.
- Voice Acting – Look, I get that the dialogue and voice acting in this game are a HUGE improvement over the original game, but if you think the voice acting in the game is good then you have a serious case of nostalgia. Most of the line-readings in this game are stilted and awkward. It’s an early Game Cube game from a Japanese studio and the voice acting is what you would expect of that era (eg, Final Fantasy X). In Jill’s campaign this wasn’t too big a deal for me – Barry and Wesker give the best performances in the game so that helps offset things, and Jill’s line deliveries give the game an unintentional B-movie horror tone. But, oh my God, the voice acting and writing is so bad in Chris’ campaign. I beg you to check out that link; between Chris’ dead expression, the awful dialogue and bad line deliveries, I cannot take the story seriously at all.
While it did take me a long time to come to grips with this game, I’m really glad that I finally gave REmake a fair shot. It’s still a really fun time and its emphasis on exploration above all else still gives it a unique feel which no other game in the series can really boast. Plus it takes what worked with the original game and expands it, polishing it to a mirror sheen and establishing itself as the definitive way to experience this story. If you have any interest in the series, I’d definitely recommend checking this game out.