The greatest magic trick that the HD remastered version of Resident Evil managed to pull off is that it made me remember D.
It’s okay if you don’t remember D. It’s not one of those games folks think upon fondly, especially when its obvious influence, Myst, took center stage even when the game was brand new. The mechanics, the puzzle solving, the exploration are almost carbon copy. Not that I cared. I was a console kid to the bone. I had never played Myst, and wouldn’t until years after the fact. So, when D hit the first Playstation the March after the system launched, I was all over it. For its time, it was dark, moody, atmospheric in a way no other game was at that point. It starred a girl, all alone in a dark, ominous castle, with a disembodied voice popping up every once in a while, urging her to leave. For a time, it was good. And just as quickly as I was hooked in, Resident Evil came along later that month, and drove D out of my Playstation, never to return.
Because, in 1996, zombies weren’t ubiquitous. They weren’t iconic. They were the sole realm of horror nerds still trading bootleg copies of Peter Jackson’s Braindead at conventions. And yet, for the first time, serious, shambling bastards were waltzing up to my character, a hardcore beret-wearing soldier, with no regard for the fact that she was pumping round after round into them until the distressing click, followed by squishy, painful-sounding biting. I can look at clips of the original Resident Evil and see a blocky mess. But I also see 14-year-old me scared shitless, unsure of how to get this thing off me, and just when I thought I was safe, dogs come barging in from the windows. That’s the power of nostalgia. It’s rarely about the thing itself. It’s about who you were when the thing came into your life. Ideally, a thing you remember fondly is good enough to grow and change with you, where you in the present gets something out of it.
I remembered D because it was the game I stopped getting anything out of the second Resident Evil came around and showed me what interactive horror COULD be. It was the genre’s giant leap. I thought of it during Resident Evil HD because playing it as an adult made me feel the same way. When I play this newly remastered port of Resident Evil, all I can see is 14-year-old me dazzled by the elaborate, detailed new Spencer Mansion, screaming out loud the first time a Crimson Head brought a dead enemy back to life, and breathing a sigh of relief that the series’ signature tank controls could be swapped out for a more intuitive variant. I saw 14-year-old me for about an hour or two, before 32-year-old me wanted to load up something else infinitely more interesting, and never play it again.
The problem here is that although the original Resident Evil set the standard in 1996, it hasn’t been that standard in over 10 years. The Gamecube port upon which the HD remaster is based did wonders at the time updating the game to modern sensibilities: The visuals are all at once opulent and incredibly foreboding. New features, like the ability to tase or stick a knife in a zombie that gets too close, were huge helps. The puzzles have been redesigned to prevent the folks who’d played the PS1 version to death from being too familiar from the jump. This was also the version that brought us the Crimson Heads, which made every dead zombie that didn’t get a security shot to the head, or doused with gas and burned, into a potential nightmare. Yet, even with all that work, it still felt like a game panting and wheezing, trying to catch up to the rest of gaming. While the remake managed to give Resident Evil a nice Gamecube facelift, Silent Hill 2, Fatal Frame and Eternal Darkness were happening all around it.
That was 13 years ago. The question posed by giving us a prettier but largely untouched rendition of the Gamecube port is, “what does Resident Evil have to offer now?”
Story? Never the series’ strong suit, and even after the remake nixed the laughable original script translation for something a bit less Plan 9, it’s still ultimately “Zombies Evil Scientists Government Conspiracy = Profit”. While there’s an initial desperation to the proceedings after Wesker goes missing, and your fellow soldiers start turning up dead, it’s a temporary feeling.
Exploration? Granted, Spencer Mansion is still a grand place, a well-designed labyrinth of false entrances, secret doors you may never enter again, and unexpected trap doors, but proceeding still too often defies all semblance of logic, and the space you have to carry the items you need is still painfully limited, which means solving a lot of the game means trekking back through half a dozen rooms to find the storage chest, grabbing the item you need, opening a door, then going back to get the big ass gun you need to kill a boss, and praying that you have enough ink ribbons to save after its done so you don’t have to do it all over again. That’s not to knock illogical exploration as an adventure game staple, but that necessary sense of accomplishment or advancement that makes the arduous slogging worthwhile is nonexistent here. What should feel like accomplishment too often feels like a stall for playing time. A very easy mode exists to make the challenge more palatable to someone who just wants to tiptoe through the game, but, again, see the thing about story.
This is also one of the things that ends up killing the game’s scare factor as well. The game still does jump scares like nobody’s business, but aside from Crimson Heads, it doesn’t know how to turn surprise into fear. Resident Evil’s far from the only game, even now, to not understand that (this is me judging you, Dead Space), but there’s nothing for the game to fall back on to keep away from an “Oh, it’s another one of the crusty undead” level of apathy.
It doesn’t help that while the game itself got a nice 1080p spitshine, the CG cutscenes didn’t. The first reveal of a bloody-mouthed zombie after you’ve interrupted its meal loses its impact when all you’re noticing is the hideous artifacting around its head.
What about just the sheer joy of destroying zombies? I can name 30 games off the top of my head without even having to consult Wikipedia that offer that joy a lot faster, a lot scarier, where it’s a lot easier to get the satisfaction only a headshot can offer, and with characters I’m a hell of a lot more attached to than Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine. One of which just happens to be Resident Evil 4, which I’d gladly throw $20 to Capcom to revisit.
Ultimately, Resident Evil’s only sin is being a first wave Playstation game, facelifted, botoxed, dressed up pretty, and trotted out one too many times. There’s very little from that era that doesn’t scream “Made in 1996” from the highest mountain, and if anything, the HD remaster ensures when we need to show how survival horror has evolved to a future generation, the resolution and detail will be clearer than ever.
For a time, revisiting Resident Evil was good. And just as quickly as I was hooked in, I played P.T.
Justin Clark is a freelance games writer living and freezing in Rochester, New York. Formerly at CHUD.com, his work can currently be found at Slant Magazine, Gamespot, and Joystiq. He can be found on Twitter at @justinofclark.