Resident Evil: What’s in a Name?

“Everything you know about Resident Evil is about to change,” a crude magazine scan gently warns tweeny-bopper me. “Leon is back, but Umbrella, static cameras angles, and even zombies are long gone.” Barely one sentence into this preview of Resident Evil 4, and there’s a lump in my throat. I scroll down the page anxiously, aghast at the sight of Leon suplexing some random villager. My hand curls into a fist — this isn’t Resident Evil, not in the slightest. Capcom just killed the series forever.

Then Resident Evil 4 came out to a standing ovation from the gaming world that continues to this day.

Back then, Resident Evil was the maniacal Umbrella Corporation, security camera-like camera angles, and zombies eager to rip meat off the bone. To the fans like I was, anyway. Even now, it blows my mind that Resident Evil 4 was, on paper, a betrayal of everything that came before it — yet it didn’t matter. The game was just so wildly magnificent that even purists like me unanimously shrugged and went back to gleefully roundhouse-kicking swarms of pitchfork-wielding baddies.

So, what the fuck does it even mean to be a Resident Evil game, then? It’s hard to shape into a concrete thesis, mainly because the answer is so deeply personal, but I think it’s how Resident Evil is willing to toss what isn’t working in the bin.

Right before Resident Evil 4 came along, the existing formula was so running-on-fumes that you could practically feel the developer’s frustrations creeping into every shoddy new game mechanic. Resident Evil Zero, specifically, was rife with this. Yeah, it was kinda cool that you could drop items anywhere in that game. However, it came at the cost of tight, meticulous inventory management that had a sinister yet satisfying Marie Kondo-like vibe. Perhaps those shotgun shells will make all the difference the next time you get into a scrap with a zombie, or maybe you just lost a crucial item slot and can’t pick up that shiny new research lab key anymore. Choose wisely, ok? 

When Capcom decided to keep the classic inventory system but got rid of item boxes for storage while also letting you drop shit anywhere, it broke the entire flow of gameplay. Suddenly stuff like backtracking, which many folks utterly detest about classic Resident Evil, was accentuated tenfold — proof that if you crave significant change, it can’t be half-assed. At least when we’re talking about game design, that is. It’s why barely anyone aside from series diehards remember Resident Evil Zero while Resident Evil 4 is still beloved by so many.

And remarkably, history repeats itself.

Capcom, along with most of the industry, spent years chasing after Resident Evil 4′s coattails. Resident Evil 5, while fun in co-op, barely left a dent in everyone’s collective memory — mainly because it was just a retread of the previous entry. Then, Resident Evil 6 took all the actiony quick-time-event elements the series was known for (by that point) and dialed them well past 11 and into the realm of utter stupidity. 

Yeah, shitting on Resident Evil 6 is so old-hat that the horse’s corpse is a fine mulch now, but whatever. Resident Evil 6 still sucks. Like, a lot!

It made all the same “let’s change the formula but only a little” mistakes that Resident Evil Zero did, just in the other direction. Moving while shooting was a big bullet point during the promotion of the game, as many folks started to dislike that part of Resident Evil 4. Even though ya know, waiting for crucial opportunities to stop, aim, and fire at an angry crowd itching to swarm you is precisely what made that gameplay so thrilling, but whatever! Shut up and enjoy the sexy guitar riffs as Jake awkwardly hits on Sherry already. Tweaking encounters that way is why combat in Resident Evil 6 feels weird, like unfulfilling moshpit soup, just a sea of bodies bouncing around. Doing wrasstlin’ moves on zombies isn’t all that gratifying when the entire build-up to those moments is gone — all that remains with is a celebration of excess. It gets old, fast.

So Capcom tossed all that nonsense.

Resident Evil 7 is closer to Resident Evil 4 than any other entry in the series. They play nothing alike, of course, but much like how the 4th game came along as the classic formula was getting long in the tooth, Resident Evil 7 dared to hit the soft-reboot button much in the same way. Gone were the world-ending viral outbreaks, swarms of enemies, and over-the-top melee bullshit, supplanted with claustrophobic, small-town Louisiana bayous rife with puzzles and great level design. It plays a lot like a classic Resident Evil game, just with a first-person camera that makes the formula far more accessible than the old static cameras ever were. I can’t fully express to you how happy this game made me. Like a desperate breath of fresh air that the series desperately needed while simultaneously tipping its cap to the games I was enamored with as a kid.

However, a lot of fans hate it in the same way Little-Kyle hated that first glance of Resident Evil 4.

“[Resident Evil 7] was a failed marketing attempt by Capcom who wanted to sell a random generic game and try to pass it off as a Resident Evil game by slapping the name on it,” states RE2 Player, Definitely Not Mad Connoisseur, on the Steam forums. “And feeble-minded gamers bought into it.”

While Steam’s forums aren’t the place for meaningful discourse, this is hardly an isolated take. For example, r/residentevil is rife with it, and the sentiment is carrying on into anticipation for Resident Evil Village, as well. I never quite know what to make of this notion that the new games are less faithful to the series, especially when the likes of Resident Evil 6 came out somewhat recently. To me, Resident Evil 7 is a tight, thoroughly tense survival horror game with fantastic looping-level design, interesting puzzles, and boss fights that make your heart stop-dead — that is more “Resident Evil” than anything else. I’ve still yet to hear a compelling counter-argument regarding this, too. 

But hey, there was a time when I thought Resident Evil 4 was a betrayal simply because it didn’t have the walking dead lumbering around. I was just like the Resident Evil 7 naysayers, right down the catty you’re-not-a-true-fan attitude. Looking back on this franchise’s long, messy history, I don’t think there’s a single one-thing you can point at to prove what is or isn’t Resident Evil.

Maybe, Resident Evil’s miraculous ability to re-invent itself is the closest thing we have.

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