Remakes, remasters, and re-releases of old games are practically a business model unto themselves these days, with aging hardware and ever expanding display technology making it increasingly difficult for nostalgic types to appreciate the classics the way they were originally intended. But Resident Evil, the 2002 GameCube refresh of the 1996 PlayStation survival horror game of the same name, was something else. Coming along a decade before “HD Remaster” entered the gaming lexicon, the remake took the beloved but flawed guts of the original game and put them inside a brand new body — one that not only added new story elements to upgrade the creep factor and bring the game in line with series lore, but pushed the boundaries of what was possible for console graphics at the time, with an attempt at photo realism that still looks damn impressive today… as long as you have access to a working tube TV.
For those of us running modern HD displays — AKA the overwhelming majority of gaming households in 2015 — Capcom has remade the remake, giving it the full 1080p treatment, a smattering of upgraded lighting effects, and an optional control method that ditches the tank-style navigation in favor of a more modern “push where you wanna go” setup. The game definitely shows its age, with Capcom apparently choosing to upscale readily available 480p assets rather than digging out (possibly nonexistent) source elements for the static backgrounds that make up most of the game world (a few have been recreated with textured geometry and look great); still, this year’s release is the new definitive version, and if you prefer the remake over the original, you won’t be disappointed. Unless, that is, you’re a loyal Nintendo fan hoping for some HD GameCube goodness, in which case you’ll have to look elsewhere, as Capcom has again skipped the Wii U with this outing.
And what of the game itself? Perhaps you’ve never played the remake because you didn’t own a GameCube, or you were born after the release of the 1996 original, meaning you’re just now legally able to experience the granddaddy of 3D survival horror? No matter; the Resident Evil HD remaster is the same delightfully campy, constantly spooky, and sometimes frustratingly plodding experience it’s always been. Taking control of either Jill or Chris, two members of a paramilitary outfit called S.T.A.R.S., your mission is to unravel the mysteries of a creepy old mansion on the outskirts of Raccoon City, and ultimately just to survive the night as the various undead and mutated denizens conspire with the house itself to tear you limb from limb. The Spencer Mansion is literally a haunted house, hiding both the secrets of a pharmaceutical company and the sad, unnerving tale of a family whose lives were destroyed by the company’s twisted experiments. But it also wears its admiration for 1950s B-movies and schlock horror on it sleeve, with groan inducing dialogue that will have you smiling as long as you remember not to take it seriously.
The game can often frustrate, with inventory management often halting that euphoric sense of momentum that comes from solving a puzzle. I can’t count how many times I was stoked to finally enter a new area, only to realize I’d have to trudge halfway across the mansion, expending ammo and supplies along the way, just to drop items into a storage box so I wouldn’t run out of inventory slots when I found the next key or crucial item. But that’s just the nature of the beast. And despite its occasional frustrations — even the updated control scheme won’t save you from the game’s often jarring camera shifts — Resident Evil remains a textbook example of survival horror. Supplies are extremely limited and zombies you thought you’d killed will come back faster and deadlier if you don’t properly dispose of them, so every bullet counts, every ink ribbon (for saving progress) is essential, and every wasted herb or first aid kit can potentially bite you in the ass in the end. Run out of supplies, and you’re dead: it’s really that simple.
Veterans of the remake might be surprised to find that a new, third difficultly option doesn’t make the way-too-easy easy mode harder, but instead adds an even easier mode, which I can only assume is for the Candy Crush crowd. That means more ammo, more herbs, and more chances to save. If you want the true Resident Evil experience, make sure you choose the first option at the top when the game asks you about mountain climbing, riding a bike, etc.
The original Resident Evil, though certainly still playable today, is a relic from a time when game developers struggled with the transition from 2D to 3D, from sprites to polygons. The GameCube remake refined it into something that was as gorgeous as it was campy, as terrifying as it was frustrating, and this latest re-release is just better enough that it now feels at home in the HD era, even if it’s not quite the visual leap I was expecting. There’s no better way to experience this most classic of classics, so make yourself a Jill sandwich, turn off the lights, and stay away from the windows… the mansion is back.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Resident Evil is based on final review code provided to us by Capcom for the PlayStation 4. The game launches on Tuesday, January 20th, 2015.