Not too long into exploring the
Baron von Locked Door Mansion Spencer Mansion, players come across the room belonging to the mansion’s animal keeper, and a journal that includes what’s probably the game’s best writing.
The journal describes the keeper’s cruel refusal to feed the mansion’s dogs, his interactions with a “new” animal specimen that “looks like a shaved gorilla,” and the day one of his colleagues woke him up wearing a full hazmat suit, demanding he wear one as well. Slowly the entries dissolve into madness — the keeper starts to limp as his foot gets a big infected blister, rotting flesh drops off his arm, he’s feverish, itchy and sweaty all the time, and he stops wearing his hazmat suit.
May 19, 1998: “Fever gone but itchy. Today hungry and eat doggie food.”
May 21, 1998: “Itchy itchy Scott came ugly face so killed him. Tasty.”
4/ / : “Itchy. Tasty.”
It’s a moment that perfectly captures both creepiness and campiness, a textual microcosm of why Resident Evil itself that is worth revisiting. But surely you already knew that.
As Jim Sterling noted in his own review of Capcom’s newest re-release of Resident Evil, this isn’t the most necessary review you’ll ever read. It’s likely you know whether you’re a Resident Evil fan or not and whether the $20 Capcom wants for an updated version of the 2002 Nintendo GameCube remake of the 1998 original is worth it to you. Let’s go ahead and dispense with the housekeeping.
The HD Remaster, at least on PC, is as slick as it was in 2002. New aspect ratios mean you can play the game on modern screens and graphical elements like lighting effects have been improved to make its creepy world generally look better. Textures are still a bit muddy — they haven’t fared well in the 13 years since Resident Evil first made its way to Nintendo’s purple box. But overall, Resident Evil was and is a gorgeous game, and this is a better version of the best version of it. Play the damn thing.
Resident Evil is heavily ensconced in its moment in video game history, and that’s never been more apparent than it is in the remake of the remake. The tight, intimate spaces and tough-to-handle controls — I admit that I abandoned my mouse and keyboard for a gamepad, something I try not to do on PC releases — are in many ways at odds with titles of the modern era. The entire game is spent wandering through a mansion and getting to know the space. The map you carry around almost never tells you where things are or what you need or what to do next. You just go about trying to unlock doors and not get killed. It’s a beautifully hands-off presentation, and I can’t help but wonder how this game would be received if it were released today instead of nearly two decades ago.
Revisiting Resident Evil has been an exciting affair, because the game is just as effective and fun as it was more than a decade ago. It’s a testament to Capcom’s work on the GameCube remake that it holds up so well even years later, and the remarkable improvements made to that game — most notably, the Crimson Head zombies — are still as powerful today as they were then.
After years of intervening experiences that have made shooting zombies borderline dull (or far-over-the-borderline dull), Resident Evil reminds why these monsters were so unsettling that they managed to kick off a massive trend in video games and beyond. The addition of the Crimson Head zombies, the stronger, faster, clawed versions of the creatures that pop up after you drop a standard zombie, make fights we’ve grown accustomed to for years that much more unsettling. Every fight with every zombie becomes a real question about alternatives, not just dumping ammo into the creature to clear it — because if you kill this zombie now, do you have the means to fully dispatch it, or will it become a bigger problem for you down the line?
Not everything about Resident Evil holds up nearly two decades after its release, of course. The game is unwieldy, even frustrating, even if you’ve made peace with the conceit that its control scheme is made purposely difficult to use in order to handicap the player and make Resident Evil scarier. You can feel the technical limitations in the decision: Resident Evil’s originally pre-rendered backgrounds gave the game gorgeous visuals, but also required stationary camera angles, which meant constantly changing perspectives for the player as they moved through rooms and the camera shifted from shot to shot. “Tank controls,” the infamous RE scheme that forward motion on the “up” button no matter where you’re facing, solve the perspective problem but handicap the gameplay.
Twenty years on and with plenty of strides forward, Resident Evil’s classic scheme doesn’t really accomplish any goals of making you feel vulnerable in a deadly situation, it just makes basic command of your character a slog; it’s a physical barrier in feeling like you’re one with the character you’re controlling.
Inventory management, too, is simply annoying, with the constant reshuffling of what’s in your backpack being much more of a focus of your time than actually being scared of your scary environment. Limiting capacity for what characters can bring with them creates lots of good-on-paper scenarios, like forcing the choice between potentially useful keys or puzzle items and the evergreen need of herbs and bullets, or forcing a player through dangerous situations by the skin of their teeth, only for them to realize they brought the wrong emblem and they need to head back through the nightmare. In practice, though, it just means you’re spending lots of times in menus and not in the world, or guessing at what you might need rather than weighing the pros and cons of what to bring on a dangerous foray into the greater unknown around you.
And while I love the intimacy and near-claustrophobia of the mansion itself — and the way the game will lull you into thinking you’re safe and then shake up locations by reintroducing monsters — much of the game requires too much back-and-forth. It’s not that backtracking is a problem, because getting to know the mansion is what makes the mansion work. At the same time, having to run through three or four sets of hallways because a door is broken, over and over again, is filler that takes away from the central thrust of what Resident Evil attempts to convey.
Moving through a hallway once is scary; returning and seeing changes (and new potential dangers) is scarier. But there are gobs more backtracking than there are alterations to the script, and what once made the environment feel shifting, alive and ominous quickly becomes banal. It’s a pacing problem born from elements, like the inventory system and the puzzle system, that don’t always work well together.
Still, so much of the game is great, even if on paper it would seem at odds with where game design stands today. I love certain elements of the goofy controls, like how shooting works — it really does make you feel like a regular person facing overwhelming odds, and the early warning system of aiming down a hallway whose end is hidden by a camera angle, trying to see if the auto-aim reveals a monster, is superbly, oddly dread-inducing. And the rest of it, the stingy ammo drops, the tough-to-kill enemies, the convoluted puzzles: they’re all elements of game design that can be and have been incredibly effective. Resident Evil feels like a reminder that it’s okay to let games play a little rougher with us, to be a little more opaque, to hold our hands a little less, to let us squirm a little more. Resident Evil forces you to learn a great deal, about its space and its quirks, and in so many ways, that’s a good thing.
If you need me, I’ll be over here, investigating this blood some more. Let’s just hope it’s not Chris’s.
This is a review of the PC version of Resident Evil HD Remastered. Review code provided by Capcom.