Resident Evil 2 Is 25 Years Old, and It Still Won't Go Away

Resident Evil 2 Is 25 Years Old, and It Still Won't Go Away

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Josh Wise

What is it with Resident Evil 2? Why does it keep hanging around? The game is 25 years old this month, and the exploits of its heroes, Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield, are now the stuff of legend. But they started out as the stuff of B movies. She is looking for her older brother, Chris, who starred in the first game and has since gone AWOL. He is a rookie cop, freshly arrived in Raccoon City and finding the place distinctly unfresh. The streets are encrusted with the newly upright dead, whose afterlives are lived in obeisance to the rules laid down by George A. Romero: lunch on human flesh, groan all you like but no running, and misery loves company, so spread the good herd.

The plot entails evil corporations, secret agents, industrial espionage, viruses, crooked police chiefs, and mad scientists; like a sewage network, it is intricate, given to sudden surges of nastiness, and rife with the stink of corruption. But that isnʼt the only story that matters. The other story of Resident Evil 2 is that of its creation. Those who love the game have doubtless heard of “Resident Evil 1.5,” which centred on a woman named Elza Walker, who raced motorcycles and was clad in red-and-white leather. Late in the day, this version was scrapped, and development was restarted. This is something of a pattern for the series. Early forms of Resident Evil 4 were haunted by hook-wielding ghosts and possessed dolls; the trainbound frights of Resident Evil 0 were originally meant for the Nintendo 64, not the GameCube, and there is fascinating footage of that early miscarriage, with its bleary backdrops and crumpled gore.

In other words, the developer, Capcom, is unafraid to start over, or even to stop. The first Resident Evil was ported to the Game Boy Colour, where it looked as crisp as wet paint; and there was a tech demo of Resident Evil 2 for the Game Boy Advance, which crunched the blaze of those early street scenes onto a cartridge. Capcom shelved them both, deciding to look forward, not back, to platforms that could enhance its horrors, rather than squelch them into our pockets. Hence the lavish retread of the first outing, in 2002, and in 2019 the ground-up remake of Resident Evil 2, which sought to grind us down with the presence of a merciless pursuer. And yet, there remains about the original something untouched – something outside of these stories of restless studios and second attempts.

When I first played Resident Evil 2, I had no clue about Elza Walker. I didnʼt know that the director, Hideki Kamiya, had been granted a reprieve by Shinji Mikami (the producer and presiding genius of the genre, who also helmed the previous entry) for his failed attempt. I hadnʼt yet seen the live-action trailer, nor smiled in appreciative glee that it was directed by, yes, George A. Romero. The only thing I knew was that this Leon, the guy with the carroty crop of hair and the modelʼs pout, had picked a bad day to start a new job, and that this wasnʼt a game to be taken lightly. The thought of turning on the PlayStation and sitting down in the company of Resident Evil 2 was serious business. The notion of having fun didnʼt enter into it. This was the sort of thing that made you turn the volume down, the better to dampen its claim on your nerves. It was a game as much about not playing as playing – about those moments that give you pause, sometimes with the literal press of a button, in order to gather yourself.

I am thinking about the Licker – that wet and skinless creature, all claws and lashing tongue, that lurked in the corridors of the Raccoon City Police Department building – whose approach is foretold by a rasping hiss. About Marvin Branagh, the kindly cop whose torso bore an ugly wound, and who would soon begin to turn. And the journalist, Ben, who locked himself in a jail cell, before something burst free of his chest. Then there was that thing down in the sewers: a lump of writhing pink, shuffling around near the water pumps, with a giant eyeball on its flank and a flagrant disregard for proper waste-treatment protocol. These moments slip into my thoughts at a rate of roughly once a week.

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If Resident Evil 2 is the toughest of its series to shake, that is partly down to its geography. Pay attention to those zones: the police department, the sewers, the prison, the press, and the streets downtown. All the avenues of civic life have been fouled up, and the rot runs deep; the zombies arenʼt out to get us, they are us, and the systems that govern our lives are doomed to grow stymied and stagnant. Society flakes away and falls apart, even as it shambles on. (Think again about the implications of the series’ title.) Itʼs a grim and pessimistic vision – one taken up, most potently, by the Silent Hill games, whose characters often find themselves locked into vacant hospitals and schools, all in varying states of disarray, before ultimately being locked into themselves. If you want a more recent beneficiary of this strain of inward doubt, try The Last of Us, which brought the mould of human cynicism to full bloom.

This may be why, a quarter of a century on, Resident Evil 2 won’t go away. It has a strange power over us, because it worms its way toward deeper fears than its pulp surface lets on. Its predecessor was set in a mansion, in the midst of a forest, and it creaked with conservative chills; but when those horrors were rerooted to the city, something clicked and sparked. The weird grid of its obsessions seemed to speak to a deeper disorder. No wonder Mikami oversaw the restarting of development; it must have seemed as though Kamiya were drawing nearer to something vital. The game’s themes keep getting retold because they cut close to home, and it took a second stab to get there. More than any other horror game, Resident Evil 2 has stuck around because, whether you have played it since or not, its ideas have spread and festered. And they refuse to die.

Comments
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  • How old is XBA?
  • Best Resident Evil ever. Remake was good but I would love to get a HD Remaster. I would be thrilled with just a straight up port. People who complain about the controls are not thinking clearly. It’s the same exact controls as Resident Evil 4. It’s the camera that is different.
  • Was my first Resident Evil I played on the N64. Got me so into the series I bought a playstation, dreamcast, and gamecube just to play them. Played every single RE game, including those Japanese rail ones.
  • Yeah i'd love a port of the original game to, remake was fantastic but would love the original too.
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