‘Resident Evil’ Showed How Gaming Remakes Should Be Made
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Featured Image Credit: Capcom
It was the tiger statue, in the small corridor opposite the keeper’s room, where you find the infamous “itchy, tasty” diary, that really got me. By 2002 I must have completed 1996’s original Resident Evil maybe a hundred times. In my more obsessive phases, when I was learning how to speedrun and trying to beat what was then the record time of one hour and 17 minutes, I’d play the game start to finish maybe three or four times a day, drilling every boss fight, enemy dodge and item pickup to near perfection — there was nothing left in Resident Evil to surprise me. But this time, when I inserted the red gem and waited the exactly four seconds it would take for the statue to spit out the Colt Python, I was caught off-guard.
Instead of the trusty Magnum appearing after I’d slotted in the stone, four snakes suddenly dropped from the ceiling, instantly transforming my health from “worth-the-risk” yellow Caution to “I-might-as-well-just-reload-my-last-save” Danger red. Part of me was annoyed – this seemed like kind of a cheap trick. But a bigger part of me felt happy, gratified, like this beloved game series that I’d basically worked to death had a sudden injection of new life. It was still the tiger statue, still Resident Evil, but Capcom had twisted my expectations and used them to create something fresh. This wasn’t just nostalgia, for pure nostalgia’s sake. It was an invitation to re-examine, re-explore and fall in love anew with something I’d thought had lost its charm.
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Twenty years later, the 2002 release of Resident Evil for the Gamecube (and later PlayStations, Xboxes, Wii, Switch and PC) is held aloft as the quintessential example of how to remake a game. It inhabits this rare – seemingly simple, but actually very complex and difficult to reach – sweet spot whereby there is just enough of the original game left to satisfy fans, but all of it is remixed and reimagined to the point that it functions completely in its own right.
It may be a trite way to sum it up, but what 2002’s Resident Evil captures is not precisely the original game, but how you remember the original game, and what those memories make you feel. The circular balcony, above the main dining hall where you first talk to Barry, is, I think, the best example. Go and play the original and it looks, by modern standards, ridiculously cheap. The walls are all one texture, the view down into the dining room is via an unconvincing 2D image, and the enemies are all easily telegraphed and avoided thanks to their aged and predictable AI. It’s impossible, using just this original game, to ever recapture what it felt like back in 1996. But in the remake, with its detailed backgrounds, dynamic thunder and lightning effects, and zombies that will hunt you, wrestle you and even when you’ve killed them still find a way to come back to life, the urgency, fear and awe you felt towards the original rekindles and returns.
It’s a different game, but the experience, the emotion and the response you have is just like it was the first time; somehow both new and familiar at the same time; a recognisable feeling but undiminished – in fact, enhanced – by the passage of time. All the gaps that the original Resident Evil left to your imagination are filled and starkly illustrated. The game as you remember it, as you used to exaggerate and embellish when you effused about it to your friends (did anyone really turn the console off when they saw the first zombie?) is now actually there, on-screen, real.
Partly this is what makes a good remake: identifying all of the areas where people wanted more, imagined more, and then actually delivering it. A choice opinion maybe, but for me, the only good part of Final Fantasy VII was Midgar – as soon as I left that city and entered into what was supposed to be the game proper, I always became distracted and the story tailed off, and I found myself struggling to care about any of the other environments. And I can’t have been the only one, because what Final Fantasy VII Remake does so well and what it was lauded for was refocusing on that city, clearly one of Square’s most vivid and recognisable locations, now given much more substantial character and depth.
Likewise, I remember playing 2002’s Mafia and getting frustrated how despite the plot, the characters and the setting, whenever I entered a driving section or a shootout, it felt like I was experiencing something very clunky and artificial, that the competence and slickness of the overall presentation was never matched by the parts that you actually play. Hence, the 2020 remake, which leaves most of the story untouched but adds to it, refines it by making the missions equally as coherent (you don’t trip over the mechanics and have to keep restarting; when Tommy looks and talks like a killer in the cutscenes, he feels like one in the gameplay) stands out, again, as an example of what remakes should aim to achieve.
This, I think, is the positive side of Resident Evil Remake’s legacy. As the game turns 20, I feel like it still provides a model for other remakes (Max Payne and its sequel perhaps) to follow. The goal is to identify what people remember – what they remember seeing, feeling and doing – and then which parts of that are accurate and which are rose-tinted, over charitable nostalgia. And then you actually deliver on the rose-tinted, over charitable nostalgia. You take what people imagine or remember those old games being like – the Spencer Estate was a vast, terrifying maze; Midgar was a sprawling metropolis; Mafia was a great third-person shooter, with tense and difficult gunfights – and you make it real.
The flipside to this approach is how remakes, if they are done well, can end up replacing the original game in both players’ memories and broader gaming history. As game-makers increasingly go back to the well and get better and better at remaking the games which made them big in the first place, we’re at risk of forgetting from where our culture first came. The influence of Resident Evil Remake, over not just the remakes of Final Fantasy VII and Mafia, but of Demon’s Souls, Black Mesa and of course Resident Evils 2 and 3, is very significant, and without it those games would not be as successful.
It would be foolish, then, to think that the lessons that may be learned from older video games only go back as far as 2002. Remakes can improve and serve as addendums to old games, but they shouldn’t be treated as replacements. It might be the yellow gem that gets you the Colt Python now, but you only enjoy that twist, and appreciate its lineage and how it's playing up to your expectations, when you remember a time when it used to be the red.
Follow the author on Twitter at @esmithwriter