The following admission may be considered scandalous by Resident Evil devotees: My first experience with the series was when Resident Evil 2 was first ported to the Nintendo 64. It was no small feat getting the game to run on the N64, given the storage limitations presented by its cartridges.
FMV cutscenes and large amounts of spoken dialogue were easy to include on the PlayStation’s spacious game CDs — a much trickier prospect on a console. Nevertheless, for a long time the N64 version became the definitive Resident Evil 2 experience — alternate costumes, expanded lore, higher resolution visuals, improved controls and even an randomiser that would change item locations on every new playthrough.
This history lesson feels rather more pertinent when juxtaposed against the 2019 remaster of Resident Evil 2. The success of that N64 port led to Nintendo launching Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil Zero as timed GameCube exclusives, dropping the series’ fixed camera angles for an over-the-shoulder, third-person-shooter perspective that persists to this day. It also led to Capcom remastering the original Resident Evil as a GameCube exclusive.
Indeed, the shape and scope of this new remaster is coloured by almost every move the series has made in the two decades since that fateful N64 port. That this arc has brought us all the way back to Resident Evil 2 is some kind of beautiful, survival horror kismet.
The easiest way to describe this era in Resident Evil franchise is history might be “world’s longest zombie escape room.” It’s a scavenger hunt through a labyrinthine house of horrors that tickles each part of the gamer lizard brain — looting every part of the map for all its treasure and supplies requires a strong memory, attention to detail and (in my case) a willingness to take notes. The game’s map has been updated to note objects of interest within each explored room which is a big help, but I still can’t remember the last time I felt like I had to grab a pad and start taking short notes as I moved from area to area. Great stuff.
The map itself remains one of the most perfectly convoluted in the history of video game design. An older, art deco building that is as much a museum as it is a police station, you get the sense that the Racoon City Police Department would baffle even people who worked there every day. That you have to explore it after its been torn apart by the undead, quarreling survivors and even aircraft dropping out of the sky is a kind of happy punishment. Its corridors are tight and winding, and it will frequently trick you into think you’re making progress before revealing a dead end, the way a maze might. You’ll become very familiar with almost every part of the building as you backtrack regularly to open up new areas and scrounge for new items, ammo and tools.
Those areas that haven’t been destroyed have been comprehensively ransacked. Only a few items of interest remain, and your character must frequently use the game’s rudimentary crafting system to create new items by combining a pair of other ones (like a pair of green herbs to create a medium strength heal, for instance). Ammunition is at a premium, every bullet you find worth its weight in gold. This is mostly because even your garden variety zombie takes a seemingly random number of headshots to truly go down. To make matters worse, aiming is a deliberately floaty affair. It’s much easier to miss your target than it is to hit them and every stray bullet is massively wasted resource. Sure, for a trained police officer, even if its their first real day on the job, it doesn’t make much sense for Leon Kennedy to be a terrible shot, but sense isn’t something Resident Evil has ever traded in.
Resident Evil 2 uses this remaster as an opportunity to trim a handful of the original version’s rougher design decisions. In the PlayStation and N64 versions, the act of saving your game was a two-stage affair. Originally, saving your game meant finding a typewriter in the building and interacting with it. The typewriter, however, wouldn’t work unless you had a typewriter ribbon in your inventory. This meant, if you had no ribbon available, you’d need to scrounge around until you found one in order to save your progress. The remaster does away with typewriter ribbons (thank god), but has left the typewriters themselves as save points strewn about the map.
One element that returns from the original is the game’s dual-perspective campaign. In a narrative swerve that gives Capcom carte blanche to use the RPD map in different ways, Resident Evil 2 features tells a single story across a pair of 20 hour campaigns. Rookie cop Leon Kennedy is having the worst first day on the job in history, while Claire Redfield searches for her older brother Chris. Both stories play out independently of one another, but cross over at crucial moments to fill narrative holes. It’s an interesting approach, and one that cropped up a bit in the late 90’s. A method of reusing assets as much as a bold narrative choice, it’s something I’d like to see make a bit of a comeback.
The 2019 remaster of Resident Evil 2 represents the best version of (arguably) the best game in the series. For those who, like me, first played RE2 during their formative years, this will be a wild trip down the spooky version of memory lane. For those who’ve never played RE2 before, this will, I think, be something of a revelatory experience. Its fundamental design and remaining old school mechanics are so unlike the polished, round-edged design of many high profile games today that it may take some getting used to. This is a fine remaster, a project filled to bursting with love and respect for the source material but clear-eyed enough to know what needed to change. It’s a new high water mark for video game remasters and you owe it to yourself to play it.
FOUR S.T.A.R.S. (OUT OF FIVE)
Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Incredible atmosphere; Smart changes and updates
Lowlights: Those unused to classic Resident Evil may find themselves a bit frustrated
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC
Review conducted on Xbox One X with pre-release code provided by the publisher.