The original Resident Evil is a strange creature. Despite being tinkered with various times and receiving a substantial facelift, the core game seems unnaturally resistant to modification and remains resolutely of its time. It’s somewhat fitting that the fundamental mechanics refuse to be fiddled with, and each re-release reanimates the same beautifully shambling corpse for another round. Resident Evil, affectionately known as 'REmake' in its GameCube guise, is essentially the same wonderful ‘paint-over’ we saw seventeen (count ‘em) years ago, and although it’s still the most attractive and accessible interpretation of the original game, there’ll be some players for whom it remains an impenetrable, archaic beast.
Back in 1996, the original Resident Evil wowed (and terrified) players with stunningly detailed environments and gruesome, stalking enemies that kept coming back unless you played smart. The game’s fixed camera angles turned you into a voyeur, but one with agency over the horrors unfolding in the Spencer Mansion.
Within six short years, a GameCube remake gave the rapidly-ageing title a remarkable facelift, adding a layer of drama and A-grade production to its unashamedly B-movie overtones, bringing it in line with the tone of the series as it had evolved in the sequels. The base experience is more-or-less identical and follows the exploits of Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine (depending on who you select) as they search for the remnants of S.T.A.R.S. Bravo team in the Arklay Mountains. Alpha team finds a mysterious mansion with links to the Umbrella Corporation and end up in a fight for their lives against all manner of zombies and other infected beasties lurking in the house and its grounds.
Compared to the original, Capcom and director Shinji Mikami turned up the production values to 11. Out went the bargain basement FMV segments, exchanged for some slickly-rendered CG movies. The backgrounds were totally recreated with new, moody lighting and the script got an overhaul, too, replacing the most embarrassing lines and performances with something a little classier. It was still ‘B-movie’, but with a budget.
Weighing in at 14.4GB – the largest of the Resident Evil trio hitting eShop this week – this game is a straight port of the HD version which first released in 2015, including achievements, online leaderboards and a movie gallery. As we’ve seen with Resident Evil 4, though, Capcom seems forever destined to run up against historical technical restrictions when it comes to modernising the series.
The GameCube REmake was produced for a 4:3 aspect ratio, and all of those beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds were drawn to that specification. When it came to updating the game for widescreen and high definition, Capcom’s answer was to crop the top and bottom of the 4:3 image and program in some vertical scrolling.
It’s not an ideal solution, but short of rebuilding the entire game from scratch again and changing the composition of shots, it’s a fairly elegant compromise. Players have the option to play in the original 4:3 mode should they chose, but this is just one example of aged design baked into the fundamentals of the game.
Likewise, we have ‘tank’ controls here. While veterans have long since acclimatised to them, the series’ classic controls have historically been a barrier to entry for many players in a post-analogue stick world. Rotating Chris or Jill left and right and pushing up to run regardless of the direction you’re facing feels clunky after the intuitive joy of movement in Super Mario 64. This version adds in ‘normal’ analogue controls (so pulling the stick towards you will make the character run towards the camera) and you can switch between the two styles simply by moving your thumb from the D-buttons to the stick. It’s a great help initially, but non-tank input introduces new problems.
Say the camera is positioned at the start of a corridor; you push up and watch Chris’ back as he moves away. Cut to the opposite end of the corridor with Chris now walking towards the camera, but you’re still pushing up. He’ll continue in the same direction until you let go of the stick, at which point it resets to the new perspective, meaning you have to pull back on the stick to continue in the same direction.
That’s all fine in long corridors, but when the geography of the mansion gets more complicated and your view shifts more frequently, it’s easy to find yourself flailing back-and-forth between views, with zombies descending on you. There’s some comedy to the frustration and panic, and the analogue controls let you avoid incoming threats more adeptly than the original tank inputs, but it’s a perfect example of how the game stubbornly refuses modernisation. That’s not to say there’s no room for reinterpretation – just look at the recent Resident Evil 2 remake – but you might feel like you’re fighting ‘the game’ as much as you’re fighting the undead.
The tension the controls build is arguably part of the experience, providing a continual feeling that you won’t be able to deal with the next menacing threat; that you’re operating at the very edge of your abilities. Key-slot puzzles that might otherwise be elementary turn epic as you traipse around the mansion with limited inventory slots and limited faith in your skills, searching for a crest or clue you’ve overlooked. If you’re a horror fiend, you’ll love every dreadful minute, but those who are easily startled or who are investigating the series for the first time would probably be better off starting with the fourth entry.
The expectations of series veterans are cleverly subverted at certain points. Preparing yourself for a jump scare you remember from the original (or, perhaps, the Nintendo DS version), you might find that nothing happens, and just when you relax Capcom throws a curveball to keep you on your toes. The game still looks pretty phenomenal on Switch, with handheld mode again helping to soften and blend all the elements of the image. Character animation is noticeably simpler than you might expect these days, but considering the comical incongruities the controls introduce, those quirks must be accepted as part-and-parcel of the experience. On the whole, Resident Evil is still an extremely effective exercise in survival horror.
It’s got its foibles, though, and they form the very fabric of the game. Its mechanics have aged terribly in many respects, but the aged and obtuse bits can't be extricated without making it a completely different thing. Those systems are integral - like the verb menu of a classic adventure game - and can't simply be stripped out or streamlined. The way games treat inventory management, movement and aiming has evolved dramatically over the years, and while the old ways aren’t necessarily ‘bad’, they are certainly unfashionable right now. Give it a decade, though and perhaps they’ll be back in vogue.
Resident Evil is still a classic of the genre - you just have to embrace tank controls, embrace the archaic inventory system, embrace 4:3 as the optimal aspect ratio. It looks great on the small screen, and although touchscreen support might have taken some of the sting out of inventory management, we probably shouldn’t have expected it given the developer’s track record. The portability of the Switch version gives the game the best possible opportunity to win you over in a modern context, but ultimately, Resident Evil simply is what it is. As long as you're not approaching it wishing it was something different, it'll get under your skin in a way few of the survival horror games that followed its example ever managed.
In many ways, the first Resident Evil is – and can only ever be – a product of its time. Even when tuned and honed and buffed to perfection, it has its own idiosyncratic personality and ways; change them and you change the game. Cumbersome and horrifying in equal measure, it refuses to let you have your brains and eat them, so while series veterans will know what to expect, new players should prepare themselves for a schooling in game mechanics which have largely fallen out of fashion. Context is essential, then, but the Switch port shows this classic at its absolute best and there’s arguably no better way to sample the original Resident Evil formula in 2019, provided you’ve got the stomach for it.