In the annals of video game history, there are few titles that have made more of an impact on the modern gaming landscape than Resident Evil 4.
It’s actually rather unusual for the fourth title (or twelfth, if you’re counting actual games) in any series to become its most influential, let alone one born from such a dramatic about-face from its own origins. But that’s Resident Evil 4. And with a remake just weeks away from release, what better time to look back on the power held by the original?
Released in 1996, the first Resident Evil served to popularise many of the survival horror tropes that had become staples of the genre since titles such as 1992’s Alone In The Dark. Static camera angles, awkward tank controls, limited offensive weaponry and a judicious amount of inventory management all compounded to create a tense, frantic horror experience. After the success of both Resident Evil and its sequel in 1998, developer Capcom followed up with multiple sequels (and at least one spin-off) in rapid succession.
By 2002, the franchise had become something of a money pit for Capcom. Despite releasing both a well-received remake of the first game as well as a brand new title in Resident Evil Zero, sales were hampered by an exclusivity deal with Nintendo meaning these titles would release exclusively for GameCube – a system which, by the end of its life, had sold fewer consoles than even the previous generation’s Nintendo 64. Lacking any Xbox or PlayStation 2 release, the remake only managed to sell an underwhelming 1.35 million units – with Zero faring even worse with 1.25 million. The survival horror franchise’s decline in popularity was evident, and so it faced a choice to either grow, evolve, maybe even mutate, or simply fade away.
Hideki Kamiya’s ‘stylish action’ project
Enter Hideki Kamiya. Kamiya, who had impressed both Capcom and franchise producer Shinji Mikami with his work as director of Resident Evil 2, was the first to tackle developing a sequel for the next generation of PlayStation console. With a good amount of creative freedom at his disposal and a distaste for all things horror, Kamiya actually set about creating something that he considered to be more stylish and action-oriented. When an in-progress side project was retitled to Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, Kamiya’s ‘stylish action’ project was given the title Resident Evil 4. Eventually, however, it was decided that Kamiya’s title was straying too far from the essence of Resident Evil and his work was retooled into its own franchise, Devil May Cry.
With Kamiya working away on Devil May Cry, it would fall to Hiroshi Shibata, a background artist on Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, to reinvent the fledgling franchise with its fourth entry. And so, at a “GameCube New Game Announcement Meeting” held at the end of 2002, Capcom announced that its exclusivity deal with Nintendo would result in five brand new titles, dubbed the “Capcom Five”, being released for the GameCube. While most of these titles were brand new IPs, amongst them was, of course, the upcoming Resident Evil 4.
The different permutations of Resident Evil 4
The title would actually go through many different permutations before finding its final form. The initial 2002 demo, known as the “fog” demo, featured the return of Leon S. Kennedy from the second game, now infected with the ‘Progenitor Virus’ and making his way around an airship. By E3 2003, this version would be scrapped for a version that featured Leon being stalked around the Spencer Castle by a man carrying a large chained hook as well as a series of supernatural enemies and obstacles. Eventually, both of these forms would be scrapped and Shinji Mikami himself would take over as director to work on what would become the version of Resident Evil 4 we know today.
Despite the stop-start development history, Resident Evil 4 would be met with incredible critical acclaim on its release in 2005 with IGN calling it “the best survival horror game ever made” and the GameCube version receiving a Metacritic score of a whopping 96 out of 100. The final version would keep Leon S. Kennedy as the protagonist, this time tasking him with rescuing the U.S. President’s daughter from a village in Spain where the parasite Las Plagas has taken hold of the townsfolk. The opening hour to the game is suitably atmospheric for a horror title as Leon wanders through the village and its outskirts, and the Las Plagas virus and infected villagers more than borrow some influence from John Carpenter’s 1982 classic The Thing.
A deliberate new take on Resident Evil
Despite the atmospheric opening, fans of standard Resident Evil schlock will still find much to love – particularly later on, when Leon meets pint-sized Napoleon wannabe Salazar – even if the story does jump the mutated, Las Plagas-infected shark fairly regularly (at one point, Leon gets chased by a giant statue of Salazar). Even Shinji Mikami himself has decried the game’s sub-par story, hoping the upcoming remake will do it better. Thankfully, to keep things interesting, the entire game isn’t set solely in a small Spanish village and Leon’s job will take him on to water, through a mine and a very grand old castle – which may well borrow a lot of ideas from the unreleased versions of the game.
From the very start, though, it’s apparent that this is deliberately a brand-new take on Resident Evil. Rather than featuring pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles like the games before it, it’s entirely 3D and the player now views the action over Leon’s shoulder, with the ability to make precise shots by aiming with the second stick. The gameplay has also been given more depth, with one opening sequence featuring the chainsaw-wielding Dr Salvador being beaten either by fighting him head-on with some of the more powerful weaponry or, if the player is caught too much off-guard, avoided entirely until the in-game timer has completed. There’s adaptive difficulty, too, meaning the game will get easier if it recognises you’re struggling.
Along with this is a myriad of other changes. Resident Evil 4 gives players access to a wider range of weapons along with the ability to upgrade them in bespoke areas, as well as being able to buy and sell items. The inventory management system received something of a make-over, too, with limited space still available but with a more user-oriented direction in how to fill it. If an enemy gets too close, Leon can roundhouse kick or suplex them (it somehow feels out of place and yet entirely fitting). These are features that wouldn’t have worked in earlier titles and it’s clear that Capcom took the franchise’s decline to heart and wanted to create something that would appeal to both fans of the series as well as brand new players.
Resident Evil 4 trades fear for power fantasy
These changes, however, put Resident Evil 4 in an odd position as both saviour and iconoclast for the genre. The franchise was suddenly incredibly successful again, yet not without sacrificing some of the tropes that originally made Resident Evil what it was. While some of the original staples of survival horror, such as fixed camera angles or tank controls, have been heavily criticised in the past, they were effective in creating a sense of tension and helplessness, as was the limited weaponry and ammunition. Resident Evil 4 strips these elements entirely and refocuses the genre towards the action end of the spectrum, trading in fear for power fantasy. Naturally, a lot of the horror dissipates when you can just roundhouse-kick a zombie in the face.
Nevertheless, Resident Evil 4 would go on to impact the entire industry. While some titles did use an over-the-shoulder mechanic before 2005, it became the de facto standard for action titles after Resident Evil 4’s release. It’s inspired the likes of everything from Gears of War right through to The Last of Us and its sequel. Titles such as Dead Space would mirror the same, while attempting to blend a bit more horror in with the power fantasy (even though its sequels would progressively lean more towards action). Such a strong impact on the industry led Capcom to keep much of the style of Resident Evil 4 for subsequent entries in the franchise as well the remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 – though thankfully said remakes would do a fantastic job of reinstating the survival horror.
A long-lasting influence
Somewhat ironically, the upcoming Pieces Interactive-developed remake of Alone In The Dark – erstwhile staple of the survival horror genre – appears to have borrowed from Resident Evil 4, at least in its shirking of fixed camera angles, looking a bit more like Murdered: Soul Suspect than anything else (perhaps it’s the fedora). Even rival horror franchise Silent Hill is not immune to the impact Resident Evil 4 has had on the landscape, with 2008’s Silent Hill: Homecoming taking on a more action-oriented, over-the-shoulder approach including blocking and dodge rolls. Bloober Team’s upcoming remake of Silent Hill 2 also potentially features a similar camera system for the action sequences. There is an argument that for all this influence, Resident Evil 4 has homogenised the landscape to the point where something new must come to break things up.
It’s possible that some at Capcom felt the same way, as 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard would attempt to reinvent the franchise yet again as a first-person experience. However, this must have been something of a fleeting whim as that game’s follow-up, Village, seems directly inspired by the locale of Resident Evil 4 and features some supernatural elements that quite possibly may have been inspired by some of the unreleased demos of 4. It would also eventually receive a third-person mode itself, completing the cycle.
Nevertheless, you can’t argue on Resident Evil 4’s sense of fun. For the GameCube, it would sell 1.6 million copies – an improvement over prior titles. But Capcom would also shirk their exclusivity deal with Nintendo and release the title on PlayStation 2 later in 2005, a port which would go on to sell 2.3 million copies. It would also receive ports for iOS, Android, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii and a very barebones PC port by none other than Ubisoft back in the day. If you didn’t have any of those consoles and the only option available to you was the Latin America-only Zeebo console: good news, it received a port for that too.
For those looking to play it before the upcoming remake, it has subsequently been re-released on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and yet again on PC in a much more complete form, as well as in VR if you happen to have the tech. While it has technically been surpassed by The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for most ports now, being one of the most ported and re-released titles ever is still no small feat. It is an odd choice for a remake, given that it does already have so many ports and the fact that Resident Evil CODE: Veronica is arguably much more in need of updating. It remains to be seen how Capcom will toe the line between the established, genuinely-scary horror of the remakes of Resident Evil 2 and 3 and the cheesy silliness of 4. But if it can pull it off, no doubt the company will have another massive success on its hands.