Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
Since we’re in the waning days of October – or as my churchgoing friends know it, “The Month That Definitely Doesn’t Contain A Holiday” – and since I kicked off this series last time with the greatest horror game ever, it only makes sense to spend my sophomore session analyzing another scary sequel: Resident Evil 2.
The original Resident Evil (known as Bio Hazard in Japan) was published by Capcom in 1996 for the Sony PlayStation and quickly became a surprise hit for the company. In the words of producer Tokuro Fujiwara, “No one expected the title to be such a success.” Indeed, there was no blueprint for the Resident Evil series; the only other commercially successfully horror game had been Alone in the Dark four years prior. So when the title – inspired by George Romero’s Dead film series – greatly surpassed its sales expectations and inadvertently brought survival horror games to the mainstream, it only made sense that Capcom would return to that well.
The creator and director of Resident Evil, Shinji Mikami, was tapped once again to helm the sequel, this time in the role of producer. Mikami’s horror philosophy was that of “the ordinary made strange”; he wanted to develop a game that featured everyday city locations that were transformed by the zombie outbreak, so that the player might feel like this scenario could really happen. His nearly 50-person team mostly completed a build of the game, but it contained fundamental flaws in story and atmosphere (Mikami would later admit that it was “dull and boring”, but at the time had to be told by supervisor Yoshiki Okamoto) that caused them to massively rework the game.
One big change made in this stage was to the second protagonist; the developers mostly left rookie police officer Leon Kennedy alone, but original character Elza Walker was dropped in favor of Claire Redfield, who provided a connection to the events of the first game as the sister of RE‘s Chris Redfield. The setting was also altered to feature more outdoor areas in addition to the memorable police station that fans of the game know and love (which was itself “updated” to be less modern and more atmospheric).
The task of fixing the first-draft problems with the story was now outsourced to screenwriter Noboru Sugimura. During this entire retooling process, Mikami took a more hands-off approach and only checked in on the team’s status monthly, alleviating the creative disagreements he’d had with new director Hideki Kamiya. This change seems to have paid off massive dividends, as the finished Resident Evil 2 was met with critical acclaim upon its 1998 release and still holds up as one of the best horror games available.
The finished story revolves around Leon and Claire’s struggle to survive the T-virus outbreak in Raccoon City. Most of the game takes place in the R.C.P.D. and the evil Umbrella Corporation’s secret facility beneath it – I’m pretty sure “build secret underground facilities” is actually in their mission statement. As in Resident Evil, the player chooses their avatar and encounters different characters and events depending on who they control. Leon mostly interacts with Ada Wong, a mysterious woman attempting to uncover the truth about Umbrella, and frankly, her story is much more interesting than his. Claire runs into Sherry Birkin, the young daughter of two Umbrella employees at the heart of the game’s plot. The story has a few interesting twists and is above average quality, if a bit too in love with elements that are now considered cliché.
The genius of Resident Evil 2, though, comes from its (poorly named) “Zapping System”: A complete game is actually two play-throughs, one for each character, and the experience is significantly different depending on which one you chose first. Items and enemies you interact with in the first scenario affect your survival options in the second, making it more difficult. So in all, there are two different, complete stories contained in RE2: Leon A/Claire B and Claire A/Leon B. As if that weren’t enough content, there was a hidden “4th Survivor” mini-game that introduced dark horse favorite Hunk, and even an extremely challenging and silly scenario involving an anthropomorphic, knife-wielding block of tofu if the player cared to go that far.
While the minute-to-minute experience is largely unchanged from its predecessor, Resident Evil 2 ups the fear factor (and overall quality) by balancing its appeals to the player’s mind and adrenaline. It’s hard to call the horror in play here psychological a la Silent Hill, but the assorted door-opening puzzles and creepy files left for the player to find do more than artificially pad the game’s length; they contribute to a rich world for the player to explore. One important addition to the game was an unkillable monster that menaces the player at various points, enhancing the sense of desperation the developers were shooting for – this idea would be reused throughout the series and in many other horror games. The player occasionally gains control of a side character, and is made to feel considerably less powerful as their arsenal of weapons is left with the hero. And as usual with good horror games, the relative scarcity of ammo means that even the calmest moments carry the tension of what you might face next.
Part of the reason Resident Evil 2 remains a perennial favorite is its difficulty; players are given no choice but to balance their current survival with their future needs. Would it be best to use the green herb now to heal a bit of health and avoid dying, or save it until you can mix it with a red herb to heal yourself fully? Even the save system plays into this scarcity; there are a finite number of ink ribbons you can use at typewriters in certain locations, and if you use them all, you can’t save your game. That was hardcore, even back then!
Unsurprisingly, Resident Evil 2 has seen a number of ports since its release, and players looking to give it a go have multiple options. Even though most versions of the game after the initial PlayStation release featured a bonus minigame (“Extreme Battle”, a predecessor to later titles’ “Mercenaries”), the first iteration was the highest review and is considered by many fans to be the best. It sold well enough at release, due to positive reviews and a massive marketing campaign, that you can still get a Complete in Box copy for around $20, so that’s probably your best bet. There was an inferior cartridge-based port for the Nintendo 64 (also $20 now), and then a re-release for the GameCube in 2003 that costs more ($40 complete) and, disappointingly, didn’t add anything to the game – unlike the amazing and superior Resident Evil remake for that console, this was a simple port. If you’re a collector or don’t mind spending a few bucks, the Sega Dreamcast version, released in 2000 for that unheralded system and typically selling for north of $50 now, is almost as good as the original; there’s just a bit of fidelity loss in the rendered backgrounds, but the sound effects are improved for the superior hardware. This game and the rest of the series are also available on the PSN virtual console if that’s your bag, so there’s no reason for a horror fan not to have played this one! Fans are currently salivating over the prospect of a recently announced remake, slated for a 2017 release on current consoles.
My own experience with Resident Evil 2 came well after its release; in the early 2000s, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of the Dreamcast title and played it virtually non-stop until I’d beaten both scenarios. I didn’t bother with the extra content, because it was frankly too challenging for me at the time! I did, however, tear through the GameFAQs Plot Analysis as written by my old favorite President Evil (Dan Birlew) and updated by Thomas Wilde over the years. Even in a game with a relatively simple plot compared to the layers-upon-layers approach of the Silent Hill series (which Birlew also wrote on), there’s a striking amount of background activity going on, and the plot and characters are a lot more interesting than a typical player can tell at first glance.
Resident Evil 2 has an impressive legacy, as it upgraded the RE name from a breakout success to a bonafide hit franchise that’s still going strong – even if the last couple entries in the main series have been lackluster. Resident Evil 3 paid homage to the game with its wrap-around structure, taking place in some overlapping locations before and after the events of this one, and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City and Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles both had players returning to the R.C.P.D. for further adventures.
Every major character from this game has returned as a playable character later in the series, making it clear that Capcom holds RE2 in high regard, just like its players do. If you’re looking for an accessible, genre-defining horror experience that you won’t soon forget, it’s hard to do much better than Resident Evil 2!
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!