Resident Evil 2: get back to the roots of evil
Twenty years ago, Resident Evil 2 was already laying the groundwork for a more action-orientated focus for Capcom’s franchise.
For a few days now, several generations of gamers – with little concern for grey hair and dentures – have had their first taste of Resident Evil 2 thanks to Capcom’s latest remake, following in the footsteps of its predecessor in 2002. Beneath the visual overhaul and modern bells and whistles lies a title that, at the turn of the millennium, sowed the seeds of long-term change in the identity of the franchise.
In 1996, we knew how to take risks, my friends, and we weren’t afraid to try new things. Bowl cuts and Day-Glo get-up? Go on, let’s go crazy! Eurodance and boy bands? Sure, why not! Let’s have them! It’s unsurprising, then, that nobody bat an eyelid when a major Japanese company placed a rookie at the controls of the gravy train; on the contrary, it was probably considered tame at the time. It was 1996. Resident Evil had recently hit the shelves and, even though it ripped off Alone in the Dark unabashedly, it built upon the nascent survival horror formula enough to set a new benchmark. Capcom, it seems, doesn’t do half-measures. Shinji Mikami, the director of Resident Evil, was verging on rock star status. And yet... The Japanese publisher decided to promote him to producer on Resident Evil 2. More responsibility, yes, but less influence over the game itself. In his stead, Capcom took a gamble on a spruce young gentleman who had joined the company as a planner in 1994, something of a jack-of-all-trades: his name was Hideki Kamiya and he was about to change the face of the saga.
Fear of the Dark
Kamiya’s appointment as head of development on Resident Evil 2 triggered a first shift in the evolution of the franchise. While the basic grammar of the game stuck close to that of its forerunner – fixed camera angles, screen-by-screen progression, tank controls, combat sequences interspersed with more reflective moments – certain nuances distinguishing Kamiya’s vision from Mikami’s in the original had already started to show. For Shinji Mikami, above all , fear is something to be suggested and rarely made explicit. During the development of the first Resident Evil, aided in fact by the technical limitations of the era (the means to render dozens of zombies in game weren’t available in 1995), he continued along the path forged by Alone in the Dark: using all available avenues, he wanted the player to be terrified by what they couldn’t see, to sense an intangible threat. Consequently, he manipulated camera angles so as to lend more weight to what was off screen. The atmosphere was finely tuned, the musical score expertly interwoven with silence to unsettle the player. With scares purposely layered long minutes apart, he made ammunition scarce to ramp up the anxiety of the next encounter. Mikami’s brand of fear builds progressively, behind the scenes, by way of staging that could almost be described as intimism. Naturally, Resident Evil 2 inherited some of these characteristics. Yet the distinct style of Hideki Kamiya was already starting to reveal itself. Acclaimed for his future work on Devil May Cry and Bayonetta, he favoured a more vivid, visual approach to survival horror, going to even greater extremes and flirting with the action game genre.
Mikami's Second Bite
The dual directorship would have a substantial impact on the development of Resident Evil 2. Unaccustomed to taking the helm, Shinji Mikami started out by involving himself somewhat intently in the creative process, leaving the teams at loggerheads between his direction and that of Kamiya. As a result of this, he chose to step back in order to help them bring an initial iteration to fruition. The game would unfold like its older sibling in Raccoon City, hit by a second epidemic, and two new characters would be introduced: Leon S. Kennedy, the rookie cop, and Elza Walker, a student back in town to visit her family. What’s that? You’ve completed 32 runs of Resident Evil 2 but still don’t remember her? Well, that’s understandable, seeing as she didn’t make it into the release version. At the end of 1996, when the first prototype – preserved evermore as Resident Evil 1.5 for posterity – was 70% complete, Shinji Mikami abruptly decided to abandon it. The story wasn’t strong enough. The environments were sterile, far removed from the handsome setting of the first instalment. Worst of all, the game simply wasn’t fun. Ultimately, it just hadn’t come together and the team went back to the drawing board, now with the help of writer Noboru Sugimura, who would later pen the story of Onimusha. He took charge of reconciling the team’s ideas in favour of a more cohesive script. Elza was to be replaced by Claire Redfield, the sister of Chris, hero of the original Resident Evil, in order to tie the two games more closely together. It was then that Kamiya conceived one of the defining features of his title, which he called Zapping. Resident Evil 2 would present the same story from two different perspectives, those of both protagonists. Their paths would also cross at several points during the adventure. This proved to be ground-breaking for the era.
A twisted formula
Twenty years on from its release, despite having sold millions of copies, Resident Evil 2 is rarely put forward as a major step in the evolution of the series. Nonetheless, it earnt Hideki Kamiya his stripes. Spurred on by the sequel’s commercial success, the bigwigs at Capcom entrusted him with a new team. Along with several others, he was tasked with developing a proposal and proof of concept for a future title in the franchise. Intended to be set aboard a cruise liner, his project missed the boat with PlayStation and ended up being set aside. It was only a matter of time, however, before Kamiya definitively stamped his trademark on the series. With a different prototype having been chosen for Resident Evil 3, Kamiya was reassigned: he was to develop the first Resident Evil for 128-bit consoles. Even though he eventually handed over the reins of its development, Kamiya would set a radical new course for the franchise. In 2004, Resident Evil 4 put us back in the skin of Leon Kennedy, yet the game’s DNA had mutated to resemble a third-person shooter. It was more dramatic, more intense and more chaotic. In so doing, it set a new standard for the series and genre alike in the form of its over-the-shoulder camera. It was Hideki Kamiya who created the blueprint for the modern incarnation of Resident Evil, both for better (Resident Evil 4, obviously) and for worse (Resident Evil 5 and 6, lest we forget). Overwrought, twisted beyond recognition and unbalanced to the point of no longer inspiring fear, this template has nevertheless been dusted off for the remake of Resident Evil 2, having remained on ice for the seventh entry in the series. There were high expectations around this: people wanted something modern, something smooth but above all a terrifying experience. A few weeks after the release of the remake, it’s hard to tell this mission is not complete.
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