RetroStation: Resident Evil 2 – looking back at a true legend of lights-off gaming
Why exactly has this storied survival horror managed to ape its own subject matter and exist so far beyond its natural life? Let’s spare the gratuitous verbiage concerning the evils of modern game design and how Resident Evil 2 is a beacon of all that’s lost, and boil this PlayStation 1 hero down to two distinct molecules of importance. One: it has atmosphere. A clinging, portentous atmosphere still capable of coaxing your brain into initiating its T-shirt-soddening sequence at the chime of the menu screen bell. Two: it’s brutally, hilariously unfair.
Resident Evil 2
Resident Evil 2’s scariest moment isn’t a moment. It’s every single time you move between one fixed camera angle and another, because there’s every possibility that a zombie is waiting just out of view to cruelly gnaw your hapless face off when you do find the courage to move. The only way to avoid it is to shoot into the unknown everywhere you go, but there aren’t enough bullets as it is. The injustice!
But it’s exactly this restrictive, clumsy design that makes Resi 2 such an adrenaline rush. In real life, after all, you won’t see them coming. Allow a microsecond’s lapse from your sleep-deprived, starving, traumatised nervous system and your succulent limbs are forfeit; cloth-wrapped Lunchables for the legions of pursuing undead. In videogames, of course, you see them coming a mile off. If you don’t, the camera wrestles itself out of your control to point them out, and from that point you have anywhere between five and 30 seconds to put your mortality-agnostic assailants out of their misery as they traipse resignedly down your line of sight.
There’s absolutely none of this contrived gunplay in Resi 2. Yes, zombs are every bit as willing to line up their skulls with your pistola, but they arrive on-screen just feet away from you, in ever-closing semi-circles of low-poly terror. Sometimes you turn a corner and one just starts eating you.
Allow a microsecond’s lapse from
your traumatised nervous system and
your succulent limbs are forfeit
Designers know better than to screw you over like that nowadays, and you know they know. You can second-guess every beat of the action – but you couldn’t in 1998. That makes both the survival and horror of Resi 2 weigh heavy and constantly on your mind even today. Coupled with its inimitable tone and (at the time) unrivalled cinematic production values, that permanently tense gameplay gives the title its unnatural lifespan.
If we could put our finger on exactly what made it so atmospheric, we’d make our own really atmospheric game and use the proceeds to ‘persuade’ director Shinji Mikami to return to his Resi roots. Make no mistake, though: it’s more than soppy nostalgia. It’s the masterfully executed feeling of being late on the scene, alienated and desperate to piece together what in brain-munching hell just happened. It’s the magic that happens when the minor-key cop show piano licks and pre-rendered gas stations combine. It’s the lugubrious mise-en-scène drawn in the still backgrounds. The art that outlives the 16-bit paintbrush.
Why Raccoon City PD’s staffers spent their days hiding jewels and rearranging bookcases instead of solving crimes we’ll never know, but Resi 2’s considerable puzzling element stamps on the brakes and lets you soak in that atmosphere. And two separate campaigns? Each with their own A and B storylines depending on which you completed first? That’s a big sell when you’re 14 and working all the paper rounds in the postcode to feed your fledgling gaming habit. Leon and Claire: we miss you like you’ll never know.