Nostalgia is a tricky emotion to navigate, given how it makes the things we loved so many years ago blossom into legends of the recent past. Or to put it another way: the masterpiece we remember might have been mediocre all along. Sometimes it’s better to live in the bliss of our memories and avoid replaying that dusty classic, lest it dump a heavy load of reality on the lovefest.
The trick that a modern re-release must perform, then, is to be like the game we remember rather than the game that actually was, and Resident Evil HD does so admirably. The downside of a successful transition is that it’s easy to say that this remake of a remake looks just like 2002’s GameCube version. In reality, of course, the newer game benefits from new background textures and some attractive light bloom, not to mention its widescreen aspect ratio. That it looks like your memories of a 13-year-old reality, and not the reality itself, is a victory.
Your other memories of 2002’s remake, however, should be far more reliable. Resident Evil HD reveals the same mystery, surrounds you with the same areas, and requires you to solve the same puzzles, a slight disappointment given how the remake recontextualized the story and expanded the gameplay. Yet if any lesson is to be gained from Resident Evil 6, it’s that you needn’t mess with a good thing, and Resident Evil, even purely within a modern context, is an engrossing adventure that benefits from tense exploration and clever environmental puzzles. Much has been made of the series’ scares: that moment at which zombified dogs leap through the hallway windows and viciously attack you is one of video gaming’s most iconic moments, after all. Yet Resident Evil’s finest asset is how it invigorates exploration by making every room you unlock an enigma. Behind every door are glimpses at the mansion’s history, hints of experiments gone wrong, and bizarre contraptions coated with an occult veneer. Solving a puzzle is to wipe away some of the fog that obscures your understanding.
Don’t get me wrong: the frights remain, though I suspect that you won’t leap out of your seats as often as you’d expect, whether or not you’ve played Resident Evil before. These kinds of horror-story jump scares are a matter of routine in modern games and cinema, though the game still makes the most of them. I yelped when those dogs crashed through the glass, even though I knew they were coming. The fear didn’t come just from the loud shattering and throaty snarls, but from knowing that I was defenseless for several crucial seconds once a set of jaws sunk into my forearm. And while the dogs get all the attention, the sharks swimming around an aquatic arena are even more terrifying given their extreme mobility. You can feel the tension as you quickly wade through the water, hoping to avoid the creatures snapping at your heels.
Resident Evil, even purely within a modern context, is an engrossing adventure that benefits from tense exploration and clever environmental puzzles.
If you’re a total newcomer to Resident Evil, some background is in order. You play as either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, members of a special ops force called S.T.A.R.S. (The acronym stands for Special Tactics And Rescue Service.) You spend most of the game exploring a mansion in which you’ve become trapped while investigating the disappearances of other S.T.A.R.S. members, though it is soon clear that the fate you should most worry about is your own. Escape is your primary goal, but doing so means collecting and inspecting jewels and other doodads, and then figuring out where to put or how to combine those doodads. There is also the matter of those undead freaks roaming about, some of which are apt to return, stronger than ever, if you aren’t careful enough to torch their corpses or land a blood-spattering headshot.
You don’t freely control the camera during your endeavors. Every viewing angle enhances the claustrophobia while allowing Capcom to carefully place props and lights for maximum effect. Some of the most dangerous places are also given the most limited screen space: you hear the growl of a living corpse behind you, but all you see is the dingy carpet, the peeling wallpaper, and the door that leads to safety. You could move further into the room, but that also means moving closer to the source of the growls–and it takes a moment to aim your weapon, be it the pistol you start with or the more powerful firearms you find later. That specific camera angle has just activated the most primal of choices: to fight or to flee.
Elsewhere, the camera simply enhances the atmosphere. A hallway shot emphasizes the lushness of the mansion’s drapes with a nearby lamp, yet cracked plates still keep you unsettled. The beauty of a waterfall is undercut by the squawking crows that descend upon you in the same scene; it’s the handsomeness and hostility of nature at once. Resident Evil was created with a clear eye for shot composition, so you would be justified in calling the game “cinematic.” The fixed camera can be a source of frustration, however. You are fleeing an enemy and the angle changes, barring your view and requiring a quick control adjustment. You must hurry to solve a puzzle before the sliding walls crush you between them, but the quick camera moves create confusion. With great tension sometimes come mild aggravation, whether you opt for the original controls or the updated scheme, which aligns the game with its modern counterparts.
Of course, that’s the Resident Evil conundrum: mechanics that keep you nervous and cautious can also lead to a sense of wasted time. There’s that limited inventory, which has you juggling items from your stash to your inventory and vice versa, and trudging back to the closest safe room when you don’t happen to have the item you need on hand, or don’t have any room for that healing herb you just found and so desperately need. There are those room transitions that feature door-opening animations each time. (Walk for three seconds, wait for three-second door animation, walk for another three seconds, wait for another three-second animation: it’s a jerky rhythm that stops being charming and becomes tedious over time.)
All the same, there’s a beautiful simplicity to Resident Evil HD that serves as a reminder that the best mysteries don’t need convoluted stories to be enthralling. Later Resident Evil games would add more viruses and unnecessary subplots, but the original allows that menacing mansion to do most of the talking. In this series, less is more. There is backstory to uncover, but the focus is on the here and now. Your motives are clear and your monstrous enemies are plain, and the scant cutscenes always serve a purpose. (The infrequency of cutscenes is just as well, given the high compression of those old audio files, not to mention the general awkwardness of the voice acting and dialogue.) It is you, the mansion, and your imagination. As it happens, that trio makes for a fine adventure, without the need for more monsters, more outbreaks, and more guns.