The Greatest Games: Resident Evil 4 (2005)

Resident Evil 4 (2005)
Developed by Capcom Production Studio 4

It’s always funny to reflect on those things which once seemed so very important in a juvenile mind. Only once I sat down to begin writing this did I remember Resident Evil 4 was the first M-rated game my mother allowed me to purchase. Of course, I had secretly played Grand Theft Auto while visiting friends, but there’s something powerful about receiving this permission, like my innocent cocoon was finally being shed. I wish I could remember the details of this battle; what caused her to cave?

I imagine there being some insistence on my part. The advertising made this game look cool, and reviews made it clear that this was the event game not just of 2005, which had only just begun, but perhaps of the entire generation. To not play this would have been doing myself a disservice. And believe me, dear reader, when I claim to have once been quite skilled at pestering.

It’s not that Resident Evil 4 did anything particularly new. There had been plenty of third-person shooters before, and Resident Evil had been a major franchise from its first release. Despite this, the classic Resident Evil formula was archaic almost by design. Tank controls were forced upon the player to make sense of the fixed camera angles. Yet this somehow worked, because the frustrating controls only added to the tension.

The most impressive element here is that Resident Evil 4 did little to actually change those controls. All it really did was change the camera angle. This seems like such a minor upgrade on paper. But in action, Resident Evil’s tank controls transformed from needlessly difficult to an impressively fluid system. The third-person shooter genre was reinvented overnight. Yet at its heart, Resident Evil 4 still relies on tank controls – it’s truly astounding how much a simple change in perspective can cause a total shift in perception.

While I have always loved Resident Evil 4, another element which never struck me until now is how it essentially formed the backbone of the Naughty Dog-style action game. Additionally, the team behind Gears of War directly cited RE4 as an influence, which itself inspired countless others. And while Half-Life 2 will get most of the credit, Resident Evil 4 had just as much influence on set piece-based game design. Half-Life 2 beat RE4 to the market by two months, but they both pulled off the same quality execution without each other’s influence.

But, clearly, I still think Resident Evil 4 stands a step above most of those it influenced. Controls have only gotten smoother with time, but like so many other classics, it’s really the individual moments that hold up. Modern takes on this formula have become increasingly serious – RE4 is in the same vein of Metal Gear Solid, the kind of nonsensical narrative which is simply a ton of fun in video game form.

Take the opening sequence. Leon is attacked while in a lone house, but that’s about all that happens for the opening few minutes. A few stray enemies are here and there, and Leon can help a dog who has become trapped. Eventually, he stumbles across the village square. Finally, all hell breaks loose.

Enemy after enemy spawn with no way to escape. There are plenty of places to hide, and with a pathetic handgun, the player is certainly going to explore for something better. But as soon as Leon sneaks inside one of the houses, a cutscene plays, introducing a man with a chainsaw who absolutely will kill Leon in a single attack. But in this same house, there are objects to block the doors and windows (until they are inevitably destroyed), along with a shotgun upstairs. The game gives exactly what you need, but only after triggering the threat in the first place. While many fans of the classic Resident Evils lament the lack of a true survival horror experience, this moment establishes a sense of dread which will linger over the entire experience.

And then, suddenly, this barrage will just end (mechanically, either through a certain amount of time or number of kills, but neither condition is made explicit). A church bell rings, and everyone wanders off as if they weren’t just attempting to murder someone. Most games want to build up to bigger challenges, but Resident Evil 4 throws the player straight into the deep end.

Resident Evil 4 is loaded with these killer moments. Leon must defend a cabin, battle a gigantic lake monster, do battle on a mine cart, run from a giant statue of a dwarf, protect the president’s daughter, don an infrared scope to fight regenerating enemies, get in a big quick time event knife fight but, like, before we were all annoyed by the idea. This is one of those games which throws out every stray idea, and it’s a masterpiece because the grand majority of those ideas work. Few games manage such a consistent wow factor. Even minor moments like talking with a merchant or bantering with the enemy leave an impact through the sheer hilarity of the script.

What Resident Evil 4 lacks in pure horror is made up for through stellar design. Alongside Half-Life 2, this was a key final step in pushing the video game industry into the modern era. Its influence can be seen everywhere, but the endless creativity of its design assures its status as an enduring classic – there’s a reason it has been released over and over and over and over again.

The Greatest Games: Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017)

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard (2017)
Developed by Capcom

The Resident Evil series has now gone through three distinct eras. The original games helped establish the survival horror genre, while Resident Evil 4 turned the series toward the third-person shooter genre. Neither of these eras were particularly scary. The earliest games might have gotten a few jumps here and there, but they were built more around the tension of navigating a contained location with esoteric puzzles. The horror was largely aesthetic.

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, on the other hand, took a ton of influence from contemporary indie hits and delivered one of the most terrifying video game experiences. The problem in earlier entries is that, no matter how scary the monster you faced, you were playing an armed officer. Here, you play a completely ordinary person who was simply searching for his wife after receiving an alarming video. Mix in some seemingly immortal enemies, and you get a recipe for hopelessness. Every moment is suspenseful, as you never know when the Bakers will show up.

The opening sets the stage so perfectly. Having the first encounter be Ethan’s own wife establishes something being very wrong – and things were already bad with the basic concept. There’s a moment during this fight where you will likely assume you made a great mistake, only for the moment to keep playing out. So many horror games have introduced grotesque scenes as punishment for failure. Having such a moment be a scripted event results in several forms of emotional whiplash, establishing this game will be just as terrifying as it first appeared.

Like the original, Resident Evil 7 does a perfect job of keeping itself contained to a small location. The Baker Mansion is intricate, filled with dozens of horrifying corridors. This location also avoids the typical video game mansion design, where there are rooms which seemingly serve no purpose beyond being a puzzle in a video game. This feels like a place people might actually live, which makes the nauseating design all the more effective. There’s more to this game, but the slow pacing really emphasizes every corner.

The Bakers themselves are among the more striking villains I have encountered. RE7 draws explicitly from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre in tone, and they are a perfect take on the redneck hillbilly trope. The game also doesn’t settle for that somewhat problematic design; there’s a sad, twisted tale beneath these events to make this more than just the story of a man escaping psycho killers. Every encounter set my heart racing, though it’s a strange effect of video games that they are least intimidating during their boss fights. Like the shark from Jaws, they operate better as a threat than a direct encounter. The common mooks known as Molded are equally terrifying, operating more in the Lovecraftian pulsing horror vein.

The game maintains a consistently stressful tone while also shaking things up every stage. Some of my favorite moments involve VHS tapes which Ethan finds, putting the player in control of previous victims. Their integration is ingenious, as Ethan learns key details to aid his own survival. The best of these places a character in a morbid escape room puzzle straight out of the Saw franchise (with two of the franchises featured in this list seemingly drawing from Saw, I guess that series was good for something after all).

The best things about Resident Evil’s constant reinvention is that each era has featured at least one all-time great video game. When these games change things up, they have purpose in doing so. There are times where Resident Evil 7 barely feels like part of the actual series, yet it feels like the fulfillment of what Resident Evil would have offered from the beginning if it only had the technology.