Unlike movies, it can sometimes be hard for newcomers to enjoy classic games. Sure, movies can look dated, but older video games can be plagued by issues that make the play side of it unpalatable to modern audiences. Not only can old graphics offer less clarity, but archaic control styles or design philosophies can challenge players used to modern conveniences. This makes the video game remake an interesting proposition. How do you update a game without sacrificing what made the original so unique and beloved? What ways can you add to the core concept without making it a completely new experience? It’s a tough line to walk, and even 20 years later, few games have done it with the skill of the 2002 remake of the first Resident Evil.
The GameCube remake started production in 2001, just five years after the original game was released on the PlayStation. While the technology leap between those generations was one of the most pronounced in gaming history, design philosophies had not evolved as much. At that point, the mainline Resident Evil games were still using tank controls and fixed cameras, having not yet reached the game-changing fourth entry. In RE Remake, fixed camera angles are still present, but a different control option was added to the mix that does away with the tank controls many found fairly clunky. This meant that the remake was more of a refinement than a reinvention, retaining a lot of the charm and tension of the original while creating a smoother experience with its own identity.
The atmosphere is one of the strong suits of the remake, taking the iconic locations of the original and recreating them with higher fidelity pre-rendered backgrounds and 3D models. The developers made smart use of full-motion video layers and particle effects in order to keep the backgrounds from looking too static, bringing the Spencer Mansion to life with unprecedented clarity. The new console generation also meant they could do a lot more with lighting, creating the perfect rendition of the creepy old mansion. The extra horsepower and space allowed them to add in areas and subplots that were cut from the original, creating surprises for long-time fans who believed they knew exactly what to expect without straying too far from the experience they were used to.
Along with the enhanced visuals, there were many quality-of-life improvements made to the gameplay. Aside from the aforementioned non-tank control options, players were also given a free slot in their inventory to carry a default item for their character, like a lockpick for Jill. Even though inventory management was part of the fun and challenge of the original, this helped the player by not forcing them to decide if they wanted to lug around a starter item they don’t use often in one of their precious inventory slots that could be used by an important key or ammunition. Another inventory adjustment was the inclusion of a defensive item, which could be used to fend off a zombie as it grabbed you. It’s a welcome change that gives you a great in-the-moment choice to make: is this encounter desperate enough that I need to use my defensive item, or do I just take the hit and hope I can survive?
To me, Resident Evil is all about making compelling inventory decisions like that, and none are more compelling than the ones created by the best new addition to the game: the crimson head zombie. After a certain point in the game, zombies that you’ve killed have the possibility to come back as faster, more deadly versions of their previous form. Players have two options to prevent this from happening: decapitating a zombie when you initially kill it or burning its corpse with a fuel canteen and a lighter.
The sheer amount of tension-increasing decisions this change makes is staggering. Previously, as you progressed through the mansion you would analyze each fight, determining if it was worth it to clear a zombie out of a hallway or just save the ammo and run around it each time. Now, the choice to kill a zombie forces you to think more about how you want to do it. Should I wait for it to get close and hit it with a precious shotgun shell in the hopes I take its head off? Do I just put it down from a distance with my plentiful handgun bullets and use one of my few canteen charges to burn its body? Or the even more tense options, do I kill it, leave its corpse and deal with the consequences later? It’s the perfect evolution of the franchise’s iconic enemy that ups their difficulty and forces you to think even more about each time you run into one.
Obviously, this wasn’t the last time that Capcom remade an entry in this long and storied franchise. The remakes of RE2 and 3 decided to go a different route and update the game to a more modern third-person camera, bringing it in line with the RE4-6 style of gameplay. There were some great changes, like the stalker behavior of RE2’s Mr. X, that had big impacts on the design of the game, but I still can’t help but wonder if something was lost by giving the player more control of their view. Fixed camera angles give the developers so much authorial control over the tension in the game, while a player-controlled camera can sometimes cut into the “what’s around that next corner” feeling of the earlier games.
I don’t know if it would have been what players wanted, but the combination of the classic perspective with some more modern design sensibilities sprinkled in could have made for an experience more in-line with what made the originals, and the Resident Evil Remake, so great. It’s tempting for a remake to smooth off all the rough edges of its source material, but Resident Evil Remake knows exactly what to keep without losing its charm. While it won’t be possible to do with the upcoming Resident Evil 4 Remake, which already had the third-person controls modern players are used to in its original form, I would love for Capcom to take a risk and do a remake of Code Veronica in the classic fixed camera style as an experiment to see how audiences would take to it.