What a lovely position for the Switch to be in, hmm? The eShop is bulging with quality games – ported, brand new, indie, AAA – and every week there’s a fresh delivery. It says something that one of the very best video games of all time is slipping out on a Tuesday as a digital-only release. And Resident Evil 4 still is one of the best. We won’t waste time going into details everyone knows already – after all, this game has been re-released across multiple platforms since its 2005 GameCube debut (including Wii, which we’ll come back to in a moment) and the base game remains unchanged.
The sun-bleached, drained colours of rural Spain (or rather rural ‘unnamed European country’ where they speak a Mexican Spanish, of sorts) are as subdued as they ever were. The muted colour palette chosen for this third numbered sequel (fourth, if we count Zero) is incredibly restrained and contributes enormously to the oppressive environment Leon S. Kennedy encounters while tracking the President’s kidnapped daughter. Riddled with the Las Plagas parasite, the pallid villagers, cultists and henchmen are a refreshing change to the shambling zombies of previous entries. Resident Evil 4 always required a period of adjustment, and it still takes time to not go for that instinctual headshot, but these days that period is extended by other factors.
The game represented a big departure for the series; director Shinji Mikami took the B-movie shlock of the first three Biohazard games and injected A-grade action and production values, with an over-the-shoulder camera replacing the unsettling, fixed angles of the prior games and pushing the series in an action-orientated direction. Surviving a horrifying onslaught of gruesome enemies was still the goal, but the focus on meaty combat foreshadowed a new generation of cinematic third-person shooters, influencing action games for the following decade and sending the series down a path of diminishing returns that it’s only recently escaped from. This first venture, though, remains a treasure; a masterclass in pacing, escalation and restraint.
And, all told, Resident Evil 4 still works very well, particularly in portable mode on Switch. The foundation of the game that we first experienced on a 32” Sony Trinitron is alive and well, although after all the third-person action shooters we’ve played in the intervening years, for both new and returning players alike it takes a while to adjust to its way of doing things. Once ahead of its time, it now feels very much a relic of a different era, Quick Time Events, inventory management and all.
Beyond the ability to play the game on a portable with proper controls, there are no new features in this release. This is essentially the same HD game which we’ve been playing since 2011 when it released for the 360/PS3, including the Separate Ways epilogue and Mercenaries, plus online leaderboards and a small selection of unlockable achievements. More disappointingly, the pointer controls of the Wii version are absent and there are no gyro control options either. As with every other shooter nowadays that omits motion assisted-aiming, it's disorientating at first and the fact that Resident Evil 4 was designed around a single analogue stick doesn’t make the transition any easier. We had to constantly remind ourselves to just leave the right stick alone. Holding ‘ZL’ roots you to the spot and there’s no strafing, so we found it easier to switch to the control type II which puts aiming under your left thumb, GoldenEye 007-style, and not touch the right stick at all.
It’s an odd sensation because this scheme once felt like such a leap forward from the previous games, but now feels very much of that ‘tank’ control lineage. The right stick can still be used for limited camera movement, but it’s skittish and doesn’t prove useful. Ultimately, these old-school controls preserve tension and work with the game's careful design – something the pointer controls of the Wii version arguably broke by making dispatching Los Ganados a little too easy – but optional gyro-assisted aiming is a notable omission.
The fact is Resident Evil 4 was designed for a different age: a standard definition age. The whole experience was tailored meticulously around the restrictions of a 4:3 SD screen and a GameCube controller (which you can still use), and with that in mind, it still works beautifully. However, in HD with twin sticks and a huge 16:9 display, the original design is constantly at odds with the expanded technological palette.
The muddy brown textures once worked in conjunction with your buzzing CRT to construct an impressionist atmosphere, but HD brings Resident Evil 4’s ageing visuals into sharp focus. The worn leather (or was it moleskin?) of Leon’s jacket, for example, looked as such in standard definition; you didn’t think twice about it. Now the same up-rezzed asset becomes a spotty texture stretched over obvious polygons. The muted colours still work, but constant visual reminders of the game’s vintage draw attention to its artifice and prevent the atmosphere from getting under your skin; they put distance between you and a game that once wrapped itself around you like a blood-spattered, funky-smelling, fur-lined jacket.
In fact, it’s in the context of handheld mode that the Switch version works best. The visual experience scales down better to the smaller 720p screen and something about having it contained between your hands arguably better suits the constraints of the game’s design – it 'feels' more natural. The framerate is generally a smooth 60-ish FPS, although it can stutter in either mode, and not only in action-heavy situations. In terms of convenience, this version is certainly the easiest way to play Resident Evil 4.
Is it the 'best', though? Probably not. As odd as this may be, the Wii Edition is still arguably the pick of the bunch. Not only is the game’s art better suited to a sub-HD console, but a Wii remote and nunchuck was a good match for the original design, with optional pointer controls dovetailing nicely, too. The omission of (optional) gyro aiming here sticks out in a modern context, and feels hard to swallow, especially considering the price point of this release. We’d certainly welcome the option in a patch.
Fortunately, the mechanics beneath the surface still hold up remarkably well, even with all the caveats and slight disappointments this version throws up. Although QTEs and inventory management fell by the wayside to a certain extent, Resident Evil 4 uses both very effectively, combining them with all its other systems to deliver a meaty, visceral experience. It’s still a brilliant game, and anybody who’s never played it should add another point to the score below. Veterans, though, may find that while the ability to take the full Resident Evil 4 experience on-the-go is a boon, it can’t quite measure up to the game we played on our hulking great Trinitron back in 2005.
Resident Evil 4 is one of the best video games of all time, and if you’ve somehow managed to avoid it all these years, the Switch edition is a decent, convenient way to catch up – but the fact that the Wii Edition still has a legitimate claim as the 'definitive' version proves irksome. Handheld mode is the biggest draw here and that’s not only where the game’s ageing visuals work best, but also where its control scheme makes the most sense. The lack of optional gyro aiming is disappointing and high definition arguably works against it in many ways, highlighting cracks which simply didn’t show up fourteen years ago, but the genius of the underlying game still shines through and anybody who’s still got it sitting on their bucket list is in for a treat. It will likely take a Resident Evil 2-style remake in a few years if it's ever going to truly sing on HD hardware – and goodness knows the game deserves it – but if you haven’t played it in the last decade, the Switch version is a very solid one, even if it doesn’t feel as special as it once did. So, what’ll it be, stranger?