The survival-horror genre has enjoyed a striking return to favour recently: last year saw its originator, Shinji Mikami, return to the fray with The Evil Within, plus Alien: Isolation featuring heavily on best games of the year lists, while the likes of Silent Hills, Until Dawn, Dying Light and Dead Island 2 are lined up for 2015 releases. In the meantime, we can indulge in an intriguing archaeological experiment, by playing the game that defined the genre (and established Mikami’s reputation) in 1996, in the form of Resident Evil Remake HD, available as a £15.99 download for various modern consoles. So, does it stand the test of time?
Dispassionately, you would have to say that in many aspects it doesn’t – initially, it feels almost laughably clunky compared to games from the last decade and, while the graphics have palpably been upgraded from those of the 2002 GameCube remake (on which Remake HD is based), they still fail to achieve the standards expected from next-gen consoles. But is it really fair to apply 21st-century criteria to a game that is pushing 20 years old?
It’s worth stifling any initial disappointment, as Resident Evil Remake HD soon reminds you why it made such a stir all those years ago. And it provides a striking illustration of how radically the nature of Resident Evil games has changed in the intervening period. Originally, Resident Evil wasn’t really an action game: zombies generally come at you in ones and twos, rather than hordes, and while you get plenty of weaponry (such familiar Resident Evil staples as the handgun, shotgun and grenade launcher), you can’t aim with any precision. You can only save by approaching a typewriter with an ink ribbon in your inventory. You spend an inordinate amount of time shuffling your very limited inventory slots around, as you can’t even discard items – a process that involves shuttling back and forth to the save rooms, with their object-storing chests.
Instead of the head-shooting that characterises all Resident Evil games after the fourth iteration, the vast majority of the gameplay involves collecting and combining items with which to solve puzzles that, in turn, yield keys allowing you to access previously locked doors in the super-creepy Spencer Mansion or, occasionally, trigger boss-battles. The puzzles vary from ridiculously basic to fantastically abstruse, but are all highly memorable. Dealing with zombies hangs very much on what weapons you have, and whether you have any ammo for them; if you’re playing as Jill Valentine, running past them is often the best ploy, and when you get them on the floor, it’s vital (and satisfying) to burn them with the lighter and fuel canteen – a mechanic that Mikami returned to in last year’s The Evil Within. Chris Redfield, at least, is more proficient with guns. It makes sense to ease yourself in as Jill, then play as Chris when you’ve completed the game for the first time; the two characters plus unlockable, mega-hardcore difficulty levels produce replay value that shames many a modern game.
Another aspect in which Resident Evil Remake HD emphatically stands the test of time is its atmosphere. One suspects that if the graphics weren’t so dark and murky, it would lose a large chunk of its creepiness, and the music ratchets up the tension brilliantly. However, we would argue that Capcom has been too reverent towards the original in one respect: every time you walk through a door, you get an interminable – and utterly superfluous given modern console technology – animation of a door opening. Sorry, but retaining the door-animations is just nostalgia for the sake of it. And it constantly reminds you just how central navigation and map-reading was to games in the mid-90s; younger players who have known only sat-navs will have to acquire an entirely new skill in order to complete it (which just might prove handy in real life).
Resident Evil Remake HD is far from an essential purchase, but at least Capcom has restricted it to the status of a download game (with a price-tag to match), and if you buy it in the first two months of release for the PS3, you’ll be able to download the PS4 version for free. It will, though, provide thrills and chills for those who played it the first time around, and it constitutes an amazing archaeological artefact for those who have enjoyed recent Resident Evil games (or, indeed, The Evil Within). At the very least, while it is flawed, it is also thoroughly absorbing to play, and often genuinely scary. If you’re interested in what games used to be like 20 years ago, you’ll find it utterly fascinating.