The Resident Evil series isn’t quite a Something For Everyone experience, but it’s seen enough changes to the formula and gameplay over the decades that there can be understandable wide-ranging opinions about which is best. Is it the original, with its fairly enclosed mansion setting and focus on exploration, puzzles, and a lack of ammunition? Maybe Resident Evil 4, with its balance of absurdity, action, and cinematic flair? Or maybe you look the most fondly upon the modern first-person adventures of Ethan Winters, and not just because you have a thing for hands.
All of those are excellent for their own reasons, and the franchise has plenty more to offer in the form of Code Veronica, the Revelations sub-series, and even the remake of Resident Evil 3 (it’s a fine way to spend an afternoon, especially at today’s prices). The pinnacle of the series, though, the ideal version of Resident Evil, was released back in January, 1998, just about 25 years ago. Resident Evil 2 was a literal and figurative gamechanger, and it remains a stellar example of vision and gameplay to this day. And that’s without even getting into its remake, but hey, we’ll do that, too.
Resident Evil 2 is very much the Aliens or Terminator 2 of the series: plenty of the horror and thrill of the original remains, but with the balance of it all adjusted to allow for far more action on the whole. The result is something that very much resembles the work that inspired it, but is clearly its own take—and a wildly successful one that you’ll find many people say exceeds the original. The sliders haven’t been shoved too far in one direction yet, as was the case with Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6, and that’s because the idea here was more of what made Resident Evil work, only bigger in every way: bigger location, bigger guns, bigger story, bigger mutated creatures trying to murder you in bigger ways. So, there’s still plenty of puzzle solving and backtracking and exploring, you still don’t have as much ammo or as many healing items as you’d want to feel comfortable, and you still have to make decisions about which zombies or mutated dogs or giant poisonous spiders you’re going to shoot dead or simply run away from with the conservation of health and bullets in mind. The series would eventually get to a point where ammo wasn’t scarce at all, with the expectation being that you’d clear every room of every foe to progress, but Resident Evil 2 was far from that moment, both in time and philosophically.
One of the excellent design decisions in Resident Evil 2 was in the choice of protagonists. Leon Kennedy might be a police officer and a crack shot, but he’s also a rookie on his first day on the job: he’s no special forces type like the original’s Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine, who, for whatever other unbelievable aspects exist in later entries, were easily sold to fans as future international anti-bioterrorism soldiers. Claire Redfield has no inherent skill or expertise outside of “being Chris Redfield’s sister.” She has a gun only because Leon gives her one before they split up. These are two people thrown into an unbelievable situation that they must come to terms with, which is far different than future escapades featuring either of them. Again, Code Veronica and Resident Evil 4 are both excellent, but each, by nature of the natural progression of time and events, feature hardened protagonists less prone to surprise and the kind of horror and tension that can arise from that. Leon Kennedy is on edge throughout Resident Evil 2, a fact that becomes more apparent when he’s briefly paired up with the steely Ada Wong: part of his outbursts are concern for her wellbeing, yes, but they’re also largely from a man who has very recently seen some shit and hasn’t figured out how to process any of it yet, other than knowing that he can’t just give up. Claire doesn’t even have Leon’s background to lean on, but she, too, has the will to live, and the desire to see her brother once more, which is what brought her to Raccoon City in the first place. She learns as she goes, as do you.
The other thing about the protagonists that separates them from those in the original game is what having two of them even means. In the original, there were some dialogue changes and such, sure, but you were still playing through the same story with either Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine. In Resident Evil 2, however, there is an A story and a B story, and either can be played with Leon or Claire. The two meet and split up before you take control, and their paths cross on occasion in the story. Some items taken in the A story will no longer be available in the B campaign, which means you need to think long-term about whether Leon really needs that submachine gun or extra item space, or if they would both be better in the hands of Claire in her quest to protect the young Sherry Birkin. Claire can also play the A story, with Leon taking the B, so there are two different games within the game here, and each is able to be experienced in two ways. There’s a lot of game here, basically, and it’s all fantastic, which is partially why Resident Evil 3 felt so short as a follow-up.
Resident Evil, as a series, would eventually become a parody of itself: maybe a little too over-the-top, definitely too much focus on the action side of things. That’s not to say the games in the middle of its existence were bad or unenjoyable games, though there’s plenty you can pick apart about something like Resident Evil 5 to understand why plenty of different-minded folks would be unhappy with it. Resident Evil 2 is free from all of that future baggage, though, as horror remains the focus: it got bigger and more cinematic because that was the next step up for the series and the people playing it, and rather than focusing so much on impressive-looking setpieces or quick-time events or massive explosions, the idea was how the development team could utilize the improved game engine and knowledge to make a game more terrifying than the one that came before. Simply coming at players with zombies and dogs and zombies that turn red so you know they’re stronger once again wasn’t going to be enough: Resident Evil 2 needed more visual, visceral horror. It needed the Licker.
The Licker is a nightmare, a further mutated zombie that has shed its skin, dropped to all fours, whose brain is exposed, and whose tongue is used as a ranged weapon which can pierce through someone’s skull. They’re sensitive to sounds, so avoiding them isn’t a matter of running away but instead creeping by slowly and soundlessly; obviously, firing a gun is out unless your goal is to put an end to the thing right then and there. You have to watch not just how quickly you step, but where, as hallways with Lickers in them often also include broken glass and debris, and stepping on any of that will attract their attention. Zombies slowly shambled toward you in the original Resident Evil: in Resident Evil 2, zombies come at you in larger groups, with you having to choose which you’re going to take down to clear a path through them and which you’ll run away from. The most frightening thing about them in the sequel is that it might take you too many shots to defeat the number of them you need to in order to advance—that you might not have the ammo you need to take down the next Licker you stumble across. Just the idea of a Licker is enough to cause anxiety during the rest of your adventure through Raccoon City’s police station, sewers, and secret underground laboratory full of further nightmares.
The Licker is also emblematic of the changes from the first game to the second: the focus is still on horror, but the horror had to be different, more frightening, more disgusting, more visceral. It takes more force to defeat a Licker than it did a standard zombie, more bullets, maybe more powerful guns, and the introduction of them—crawling down from the ceiling to stand right in front of Leon within the same hallway our not-quite-fearless protagonist just discovered a headless body in—was an excellent deployment of Resident Evil 2’s more cinematic design. And the Licker is just the earliest new foe introduced in the game: things maybe wouldn’t get more terrifying than that, reveal-wise, but they would get even stronger and faster, requiring even more force and ammo to defeat… and if you didn’t have the ammo, well, hopefully your previous save still had plenty.
The emphasis on sound in avoiding or defeating Lickers is also central to Resident Evil 2’s design as a whole. Sound plays a vital role in the game: the footsteps of Leon and Claire echo throughout mostly empty halls, the scratching and clawing and scraping and biting of zombies and the other mutated creatures lets you know that a room or hall isn’t safe, and over time, you’ll recognize just which unseen creatures are even making those noises—which of course works in favor of tension and horror when you hear a sound you don’t recognize. Even one of the early musical tracks in the game, which is mostly just a slow-playing piano and synth, plays on the tension all the sound (or lack of it) builds up over time: a huge crash comes across in the song, and you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a slamming door or a gun going off or something falling down elsewhere in the police station every time it happens, even if you should know better.
Sound is also vital in the 2019 remake, which came out on basically every modern platform. In fact, what makes the remake of Resident Evil 2 work so well is that it is, for the most part, the original game it’s based on. Plenty of changes have been made, but they were all made with the spirit and design of the original Playstation hit in mind, so they feel right at home in a way that makes you question what is new and what was always there, even if you’re familiar with the original. The camera is no longer set above and at an angle, with Claire and Leon moving among pre-rendered backgrounds. Instead, it’s set behind the characters in a third-person perspective, but an intentionally claustrophobic one. To make up for the fact you can now see so much that was once hidden due to the change in viewpoint, the remake emphasizes light—or the absence of it—in a way the original only played with a little bit. The remake isn’t Dead Space-dark or anything, but some brightly lit hallways from the 1998 release are now lacking power and working lights, which helps to maintain the tension of the original even from the new, more expansive, and more detailed perspective.
And to go back to the sound design… as said, hearing the movement, whatever it was, of the various creatures was enough to raise the hairs on your neck and alarm you about what you couldn’t yet see. In Resident Evil 2’s remake, the sound will genuinely haunt you, and it’s because of the introduction of the Tyrant. While the hulking Tyrant was involved in the original game, he wasn’t nearly the focus he is in its remake: his presence helps make this a terrifying, demanding experience even for those who could clear the ‘98 classic on a single save, and it’s because he’s almost ever-present once he’s introduced. The Tyrant stomps around the police station, and you hear those footsteps, which allow you to know both directionally and in terms of distance how close you are to stumbling upon his enormous fists once again. You can’t defeat him; you can barely slow him down. The thing you must do the most of all is avoid him, and those footsteps let you know how possible that is at any given moment. They’re like a pulsing heartbeat in your temple that you know cannot mean anything good, especially since the Tyrant reacts to your own movements and sounds: he’s not just wandering around the halls until he bumps into you, but is hunting you. And you can’t just walk by him slowly and quietly like you can a Licker, either.
Decisions like this (as well as modern improvements in the story, its presentation, the cinematics, adjustments in difficulty and inventory, etc.) are what made the remake of Resident Evil 2 the straight-up best game in the series for me. It understood what made the original Playstation edition of the game (and its various impressive ports to the Nintendo 64 and Dreamcast) work. It understood the what, the why, the how, and so on, and rather than mess with any of that in a way that could have easily disrupted the balance and flow of it all, worked both on and on top of that foundation. The remake of Resident Evil 2 is still Resident Evil 2, just developed two decades later, with all that entails. It’s not a reimagining so much as what that same design philosophy from the late-’90s would have looked like if it had first been imagined in 2019 on its tech instead.
It’s amazing that Resident Evil 2 is as incredible as it is, for a number of reasons. There’s the fact a horror game from 1998 could hold up this well for this long, for one, and the remake merely requiring an amplification of the original’s design direction and philosophy to make it sing the way it did is wild, too. There’s also the fact that the game almost didn’t exist in the form we saw it in in the first place: Resident Evil 2 was well into development—60 to 80 percent complete—when what was there was completely scrapped and restarted by Hideki Kamiya’s team. It was initially drawn up by series creator Shinji Mikami as the final title in the series, but this idea didn’t survive the restart of the development process, either. The introduction of Claire as the sister of Chris Redfield came about after the restart, as did the more explicit connections to the events of the first game, and the hints about where the series would go from here: Claire learns that her brother isn’t in Raccoon City any longer, but has gone to Europe to seek more clues about Umbrella’s activities, which is where Code Veronica ended up taking both Claire and Resident Evil. The actions of Ada Wong show that there are a whole lot more layers to peel away there in both her personal and professional life, and the separate, concurrent story lines, both in-game and planned, showed that Resident Evil games could work when coalesced around similar time frames or events. There was a lot more to mine here, basically, with the series capable of expanding well beyond Mikami’s initial ideas for it. Maybe he didn’t agree at first, but considering he took back the helm for the concurrently occurring Resident Evil 3, and then went back for more Ada Wong and even more characters and backstories to peel layers from in Resident Evil 4, he certainly came around on the idea of the franchise existing as such.
All of this—adding in a characters you know from other games or related to those characters, making it clear things could be happening concurrently in the series from game to game or even within the same game, the actual differing paths for the selectable protagonists—still plays a significant role in how Capcom designs Resident Evil games. As great as the first one is, it feels like Resident Evil as we know it really took off from its sequel. Which is also where the series happens to be at its best, in its most ideal form, where everything—the horror, the action, the cinematics, the tension—hits just right.
Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.