Our journey through the staff of OnlySP’s 50 favourite games has entered its final stretch. Last week, we took a look at one of the most beloved open-world RPGs. This week’s game is of a very different scope, but no less loved…
#3. Resident Evil 4
Decades in, the Resident Evil series sits comfortably at the franchise high table—probably between Metal Gear and Doom. Many such series are forced to reinvent themselves periodically, and Resident Evil 4 is a shining example of just that.
Not for nothing has Resident Evil 4 made it to number 3 in OnlySP’s 50 Favourite Games; the game remains a remarkable step forward for action games, horror, and Capcom’s venerable series. However, as several Resident Evil sequels have demonstrated since, an excellent game of its own accord is not always the best thing for an ongoing franchise, nor an entire genre.
The Good and the Bad, by Mitchell Akhurst
Two weeks back, I gushed over the transition of Zelda to 3D with Ocarina of Time, and Resi4 marks a transformation almost as exciting. The first five main-series Resident Evil games made use of predetermined camera angles, playing as though seen through an array of security screens.
All of these early Resident Evil games except Code Veronica emphasised a static world of pre-rendered backgrounds, but even in Veronica surprise and suspense often rested upon not being able to see around the next corner. Despite a 3D view of the player’s surroundings, the experience of an early Resident Evil game remains much closer to the stagy blocking of a top-down or isometric title from the SNES era than say, the aforementioned Ocarina of Time.
Now, of course, Resi4 came too late to shock the system simply by putting its camera behind main character Leon. Plenty of games had explored the idea of an over the shoulder perspective by 2004, including the similarly groundbreaking Max Payne. Rather, the import is how the core Resident Evil mechanics, gimmicks and other advancements over the development of the series were meshed with the then-modern action gameplay.
Exhibit A: item scarcity and the tactical use thereof. Ammo conservation and a judicious use of health items both remain from Resi4‘s survival horror predecessors—made even more tense with the puzzle-like minigame of arranging inventory items within the limited space of Leon’s attache case. Similarly, using healing herbs is also more involved thanks to the addition of red and yellow herbs that can fully heal Leon or extend his maximum health respectfully.
This level of creative intricacy applies to every aspect of player choice over the course of what would otherwise be a relatively linear game. Exploration yields both harder challenges and greater rewards. Defeated enemies drop cash, and valuable treasures are hidden away for curious players to find. The Merchant sells new and different weapons for Leon to use, while also tuning his weapons with greater reload speed, more damage, and so on.
Exhibit B: combat. The enemies of Resi4, Los Ganados, are introduced from the start as being different from the standard zombies of other Resident Evil games, though no less scary. They duck and run, throw axes or call to one another, and gang up on the player with their pitchforks like the angry mob from an old Gothic novel.
Since this was before Gears of War‘s introduction of FPS-like aiming and chest high walls to hide behind, players in Resi4 are forced to choose between manoeuvring or aiming their weapon. Rather than seeming overly clunky, this dichotomy maintains the tense tactical approach that keeps players on their toes in earlier Resident Evil games. Enemies in Resi4 are not there to rush the player so much as intimidate them: the horrors of Plagas-infected humans (and truly monstrous transformations as detailed below) are meant to pressure the player into wasting ammo by not taking their time to aim, or conversely forgetting to move out of the way of some thrown explosive or deadly tentacle.
From a single hulking monstrosity to crowds of muttering villagers, the game presents combat challenges that constantly evolve, and after several play-throughs fans have discovered some truly outstanding ways to dodge attacks and conserve ammo. Want to take out a crowd? Shotgun once and stab them while they reel from the blast. Tired of unloading bullets into an enemy’s chest or head and only seeing occasional critical hits? Shoot them in the knee, run up, and kick them over a ledge while they stumble.
There are the requisite environmental kills, or special cinematic sequences like the mining cart gauntlet or hedge maze—but this level escalation has since been used for countless third-person shooters over the last two generations. The depth of interaction with enemies, on the other hand, still goes relatively unexplored even in games as recent as Uncharted 4.
Exhibit C: the John Carpenter effect. As the sixth entry in a series already inspired by American horror classics, it was only a matter of time before a Resident Evil game nailed the joy of 1980s monster movies, like the kind that Sam Raimi or John Carpenter became known for. The monsters of Resi4 are truly outstanding, and too good to just spoil in a simple write-up, but they are as varied as The Thing-like creatures that sprout extra appendages, genetically spliced bodyguards that straight up copy the hunting tactics of Alien‘s xenomorph, and of course, plenty of butt-ugly, goopy bosses.
Who should face such freaks of un-nature? What about a badass who is not really badass, a man whose idea of a good one-liner is “Where’s everyone going … bingo?”. The Leon of Resi4 has evolved from Resident Evil 2‘s greenhorn cop into a somewhat-competent but no-less-ridiculous Kurt Russell: self-serious one moment, shouting incoherent insults at tiny European aristocrats the next.
Combining the always-excellent creature design of the series with ironic/retro camp was a stroke of genius for Resi4, and its sequels could have stood to pay the same attention to their own respective tones. Unfortunately, Resident Evil 5 took the wrong lessons from its predecessor. The game is more or less a shorter and even more action-heavy copy of Resi4, showing little of the creative evolution that had made it so critically and commercially successful.
Worse, though, was that after Resi4 survival horror games in general became obsessed with chasing its special brand of action-horror—instead of exploring new avenues that opened up because of Resi4′s success. When Capcom’s own Resident Evil 6 hit, the game felt like three alternative versions of Resi4, each of them with a third of its finesse.
One could argue it has taken more than ten years for action-horror to finally escape Resi4‘s shadow. The Dead Space series’s slip into meaninglessness, combined with Capcom finally recapturing their magic in Resident Evil 7 and the Resident Evil 2 remake, shows that there can certainly be a future for the genre—but also reinforces how Resi4, very nearly irreparably, broke the mold.
The Remarkable Transforming Game, by Ben Newman
Is there a game as fluid and adaptable as Resident Evil 4? While one reason for Resident Evil 4’s longevity is its timeless mechanics and game flow, the game has stayed alive in the consciousness of many thanks to its adaptability to be played on pretty much any platform. Resident Evil 4 is video game evergreen, unperturbed by time.
Debuting on the GameCube, the title has now made its way to 11 consoles across three generations, including most recently the Switch. Believe it or not, the game was even ported to Zeebo in 2009, along with a later release on mobile devices. What does the game’s array of ports mean for its legacy, and just when will Capcom stop porting it to the most recent hardware?
Despite making its way onto recent consoles, the stand-out Resident Evil 4 port is the Wii version. The game dropped onto the system at a time when it was desperately starved for software, and the port arguably kicked off the game’s immortality.
The biggest compliment I can give to the Wii port of Resident Evil 4 is that it feels like it was originally made for the system. The port still stands as a gold standard in motion controls, with the VR gameplay of Resident Evil 7 taking heavy notes from the version. By interweaving motion controls into a game so entertaining, Capcom and Nintendo were able to create an experience that matched blockbuster action with nervy immersion.
With the PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One ports, Resident Evil 4 entered its third generation of consoles. Each news of a port comes with a slew of fans half-bemoaning the fact that they have to buy yet another version of their beloved game, but the fact they keep returning for more speaks volumes for Resident Evil 4’s determined timelessness.
Ports are a dime-a-dozen these days, especially with the recent remaster renaissance. While some may see Resident Evil 4’s determination not to die out as a cash grab, the fact that Capcom can keep churning out well-optimised ports with little negative reaction summarises why the title is, and will remain as, one of the all-time greats.
Next week we tackle #2, another game series that broke itself here and there through sheer creative force, though it is now more so than the Resident Evil series. For further updates, you can always follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and join in with the OnlySP Discord.