Remembering… Resident Evil 2
Nearly a decade before Frank West introduced gamers to the joys of body-slamming zombies, Capcom was the only company that regularly featured the living-impaired as its central enemies. These were the days when five zombies constituted a horde, and none of them could move faster than a wounded gait. This was the era of Resident Evil. In 1998, Capcom released Resident Evil 2 on the PlayStation, which quickly became one of the must-have titles of its generation.
The story picks up shortly after the gruesome discoveries at the Arklay mansion. Stories of the undead are shrugged off as rumors, and things continue in usual fashion in Raccoon City. Shortly thereafter the town is overrun by zombies and it falls to rookie cop Leon Kennedy and Chris Redfield’s younger sister Claire to survive the outbreak and uncover the conspiracy perpetuated by the evil Umbrella Corporation.
Despite the sense of escalation with the city overrun and in flames, the bulk of the story takes place in the police department and later the now-cliche underground research facility. The game was actually two discs long, depending on which character the player chose first, and once the scenario was completed gamers could pop in the other disc and see what the other protagonist was up to, totaling up to four scenarios with differing story elements and weapons.
One of the main differences between scenarios dealt with relationships. Leon found himself becoming infatuated with the cold, unfeeling freelance spy Ada Wong while Claire became the older sister/surrogate mother to Sherry, daughter of William Birkin: the man behind the outbreak and main antagonist of the game, after injecting the G-virus into his bloodstream. Over the course of the game these relationships become reciprocated and there are even a few segments where Sherry and Ada become playable.
Zombies in video games today are as threatening as paper cuts. We carve through them by the dozens without batting an eyelash. In Resident Evil 2, if you were smart you steered clear of them as often as possible. Combat was the last resort, and even then you had to use ammo judiciously. The targeting was always a toss-up, with one shot kills being a rarity and having nothing to do with skill, only luck.
The constantly-shifting perspective didn’t help either. The background was 2D while all characters and objects were 3D. Players had to constantly reorient themselves to the new perspectives as each area had the camera placed in a “cinematic” angle that was usually obscuring. The story was a b-movie epic with cheesy voice-acting based on how hubris, greed, and apathy each played a part in Raccoon City’s downfall. This was back when Capcom wrote and recorded bad dialogue because it was actually thought of as good rather than playing if off now as being intentionally bad. It’s a joy to go back and watch cutscenes play out seriously without one iota of obnoxious irony or intentional kitsch ruining the fun. It seems so primitive today, but back then cutscenes were nice CG treats that played between gameplay segments rather than the long-winded, overblown productions they are now.
But zombies and bad dialogue weren’t the only threats. Resident Evil 2 had a bevy of grotesques lurking around every corner as well. One of the most memorable creatures, the Licker, made its debut in the game and was a constant source of grief to Leon and Claire—even removing their heads from their shoulders in one quick lunge. William Birkin showed up in increasingly monstrous forms throughout the game to menace Leon in particular and eventually became a bloated mass of teeth and mutated flesh, taking up an entire train. Claire didn’t get off the hook either as the enigmatic Mr. X—sort of a precursor to Nemesis from Resident Evil 3—silently stalked her throughout the game.
And keep in mind bullets are scarce, so it’s best to save up all that ammo for the big baddies. A small inventory made the managing of guns, ammo, health items, and puzzle pieces difficult. Any time Leon or Claire needed to lighten their load or swap something out they had to find a room with an item box, the only place they can store items for later usage. All of this otherwise unneeded difficulty added to the already tense atmosphere. You could easily find yourself low on ammo, in critical condition without health items, surrounded by monsters and you still have to solve the stupid puzzle by finding the three (or whatever arbitrary number it was) funky-shaped pieces to make a key and move on.
After Resident Evil 4 revolutionized the series, some players might ask why anybody loved a game with cheesy dialogue, annoying camera angles, and slow combat. Resident Evil 2 was what really launched the series into mainstream success, and inspired a slew of imitators (even Capcom ripped itself off with the Dino Crisis series, which can be described accurately as ‘Resident Evil with dinosaurs’). For its time, Resident Evil 2 represented the pinnacle of its genre and showed that gory, M-rated horror games could be huge successes.