a review of Resident Evil (REmake)
a videogame developed by capcom production studio 4
and published by capcom entertainment
for the nintendo gamecube
text by Thomas Callahan
Survival horror is the name of a genre, as befitted by obsessive-compulsive drones categorizing and ranking their favorite videogames to their heart’s content, and to every last decimal point. It certainly is a name that bears repeating. Survival horror. Wonderfully evocative, wonderfully specific.
I figure that yes, aside from the gloomy connotation it carries, apart from the notion of plodding, claustrophobic backtracking it implies, and despite having bogged down Shinji Mikami for almost a decade, survival horror remains a wonderful concept. In videogame terms it is long gone, sure, cast aside in favor of bigger, better things — namely, the functionally sublime run ‘n gun, Resident Evil 4. Whenever survival horror does resurface — that is, in Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami’s notorious collaboration, killer7 — it is only to be mocked and parodied. Yet I continue to gaze fondly in the genre’s effectively extinct direction, as its now-arcane devices and design philosophies were honed to perfection exactly twice. Survival horror served a purpose, is what I’m saying.
This game, a loving remake of the Resident Evil series debut, marks the second of two instances where survival horror jumped out of the mud long enough to spark something brilliant.
The original Resident Evil tried and largely failed to emulate the experience of watching a B-rate camp horror film. Ingredients were set in place; every last animal phobia was perpetuated, with a cast of giant snakes, giant sharks, giant spiders and . . . bees; porn actors were rented out to provide the now-internet-famously stilted voiceovers; and camera angles were fixed in place, lending an uneasy, half-obscured cinematic perspective to the schlock horror. Go back and play the original, however, and you’ll be stunned at how badly it has aged. That every hallway is fairly well-lit, often with comfortable fluorescent lighting, drains every last shred of suspense in one fell swoop. Navigating the mansion begins to feel like stumbling around the lobby of an only-slightly rundown nightclub at 3 pm in sunny California. There, that’s all. It didn’t work, it was hopelessly garish. The original failed simply because it was too bright.
In this Gamecube remake (neatly abbreviated REmake), the offending hallway lights are unplugged, smashed, and strewn across creaky wooden floors. I can now reevaluate the game, good as new. I am comfortable with calling it beautiful. Achingly beautiful, really; almost hallucinatory in its detail. As it represents a direct translation of Resident Evil series traditions onto more muscular hardware, however, a certain, peculiar graphical disconnect is amplified. Each camera angle is completely immobile, each area pre-rendered and static. The game, then, plays out as a series of photorealistic stills, each with the glistening fascination of moody nighttime photography, each completely non-interactive. Only the character models are animated: Jill Valentine, Chris Redfield and an assortment of T-Virus-infected monsters shuffle deliberately through this succession of elaborate photographs, this world around them, frozen in time. Shotgun pellets fired at glass windows go unnoticed, or what have you — nothing can be harmed. Unlike videogames that pride themselves on their fully destructible environments, REmake is intent on keeping its house of cards standing. By subscribing to popular suspense cinematography theory — most notably, the principle of One Correct Angle for each scene — REmake achieves a striking delicacy, one that gamers with energy to spare cannot disrupt.
Odder still are the controls. Detractors have long accused the Resident Evil series of suffering from “tank controls”. Here, in an earnest response to the user-generated catchphrase, a literal tank control setup is offered. Hold the “R” button like a pedal, and Jill accelerates forward. Spin the analog stick like a gearshift, and Jill lurches, rotating. This qualifies as bizarre novelty, though alternatives are equally if not more obtuse — in the default control arrangement, pushing the analog stick forward results in Jill, as seen from inconvenient and weirdly voyeuristic angles, moving forward from her point of view, rather than yours — continuing Shinji Mikami’s legacy of finely tuned, aggressively unintuitive control schemes. There’s something to be said for pointedly limited controls; REmake, which strips away our typical third-dimensional empowerment, and routinely sends us into bouts of fish-out-of-water panic, is living evidence.
And no less backhanded is the saving system, wherein “ink ribbons”, small black objects found in limited numbers within the mansion, are required to save game progress. Limited saves?! At some point it becomes clear that these snide little anti-features don’t really need to be redeemed. You’ll never die from careless use of stupid goddamn controls, you’ll never even begin running low on stupid hecking ribbons. These are malicious design decisions in theory — as such, the shuddering premise of them will keep any player alert, careful, and one step ahead of the game.
This is, by all means, a piece of entertainment pitted squarely against its audience. We are the protagonists, REmake is the antagonist. Escaping REmake‘s shocking obstacles is its own reward. And while this white-knuckle purity sounds exhausting, it’s enjoyable, honestly, to slip through REmake‘s cruel grasp. This is something compulsively replayable: a compact, intricate, high-stakes game of resource management. This is the survival horror genre, firing on all cylinders.
I used to carry a pistol along with my shotgun; I gave up this practice years ago. Keys and herbs would pile up, and soon enough I’d be right out of inventory space. I’m relegated to six item slots, yeah? So as I ramp up the difficulty level, space becomes a growing concern. Now I figure, hey, who needs a pistol? I don’t use it to shoot zombies — I never shoot zombies. Zombies take about ten wasteful bullets to kill. Then once they’re down, I’ve gotta pour lighter fluid over their rotting bodies and flick the match: if they aren’t reduced to a small pile of ashes, they’ll lurch back to life, grow 10-inch claws, and gain the terrifying ability to sprint. And I obviously don’t have enough room for lighter fluid and a match in my backpack, thank you very much.
No, smarter to bust moves around those zombies, avoiding their grasp. This works about 20% of the time. Sometimes the zombie in question will actually vomit from sheer confusion. Most times, though, it’ll grab me in a bloody embrace. Hopefully I’ve packed a knife to thwart its attack. If not, I withstand the pain for a few seconds before sprinting off, healing with a green herb, and hey, at least I free up some space by getting rid of that green herb.
And hey: when I kill and burn a zombie, it’s gone forever, though numerous other, angrier beasts soon take its spot. Everything is in decline, falling apart; the world becomes steadily harder to traverse. Halfway through the game, doors, previously a convenient artificial barrier to the undead, begin being punched aside by giant bloodthirsty bullfrogs. Backtracking becomes a harrowing task, and meticulous planning is required to avoid large-scale blows to my resources. Pivotal moments of the original are distorted, throwing me onto false trails. Audio cues manipulate me like a puppet: unhinged, screeching violins signal the entrance of a newfangled monster, or signal nothing at all. Enemy placement shifts, amidst repeated trips into the forest, or across the upstairs floors of the mansion, and oh . . . oh god. This is not intelligent horror by any means. It’s relentless, and not much else. Rising above it, however — plotting out paths, successfully micromanaging supplies — is genuinely gratifying. REmake is a rare breed, forcing players to adapt to, and overcome, its terrors. That, on top of an astonishing hyperrealist aesthetic, makes it a highly recommended purchase.