It may be hard to remember…
…but there was a time when Resident Evil was not a mega videogame franchise and multimillion dollar movie series. Both entities have had varying degrees of quality, although I think the movies have been more consistently awful. But there was a time when Resident Evil was just a small little horror title with big ambitions. The original game was groundbreaking despite its clunky controls, questionable voice acting and debatable originality. But it was the sequel, Resident Evil 2, that made me a hardcore fan.
Landing on the PlayStation in 1998 after a few much publicized delays, Resident Evil 2 was an instant hit. This was when games themselves, rather than just console releases, were starting to become major events; the fine art of pre-ordering and waiting in line for a new game was just coming into its own. The original concept for Resident Evil 2, affectionately known as Resident Evil 1.5, was scrapped entirely, and what would become the sequel to Capcom’s game that sent Survival Horror games into the stratosphere would be rebuilt from the ground up.
Resident Evil 2 came on two massive discs, each CD representing the entire story of a different main character. While there was no Jill Sandwich in sight, Chris Redfield remained a part of the story. Chris’s sister Claire comes to Raccoon City searching for her missing brother, who’s STARS team went missing after the events at the mansion in the original game. The other disc was dedicated to the story of Leon Kennedy, a rookie cop who picked the wrong time to start his new job in the City of the Dead. Their stories were on separate discs, but would interact with each other at certain points, making the replay value of Resident Evil 2 much greater. Leon and Claire would also have their own set of supporting characters that would be of help or harm to their respective causes. And, as always, choices you make early in the game can effect the outcome.
As I was replaying this classic on my PS Vita (thanks to PS1 Classics in the PlayStation store), I was rudely reminded as to how hard this game actually is. It is, in fact, a lot harder than I remember. Playing as Leon, it can take a good ten to fifteen minutes to reach the Police Station where your first opportunity to save is. This game is darker, the enemies are tougher, and the game is longer. It takes nearly everything that made the first one great and expanded upon it, which is the best thing a sequel can do without alienating its fans. The young game series was impressive enough that George A. Romero was tapped to direct overseas television ads for Resident Evil 2. Impressive, young grasshopper.
To date, Resident Evil 2 is my favorite horror game sequel, and my favorite of the franchise. While I loved the original game, having played it on both PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, it was Resident Evil 2 that really roped me in and consumed the bulk of my gaming hours. The massive game has better characters, better settings, and a bigger sense of dread and doom. Despite his appearance in later sequels, this incarnation of Leon Kennedy is my favorite; I think he has the best voice actor, eluding the eagerness and confusion of a young rookie thrust into an unbelievable situation. The care he has for Ada Wong demonstrates a sincerity that he has stripped from him in games like Resident Evil 4 due to how jaded he is, but it is great to see here. You can’t help but feel for him. The same goes for Claire, whose story of looking for Chris is even more poignant.
Some critics say that Resident Evil 2 is too similar to the original, but I don’t find that to be a problem at all because this is what made me fall in love with the franchise. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and Code: Veronica continued the tone, but the GameCube-exclusive Resident Evil 4 sent the series on an action-based spiral that it has yet to fully recover from. Resident Evil 4 was a well-reviewed game, but for a Survival Horror purist like me, it left me cold. And we shall not even mention Resident Evil 5 or 6, which seemingly continued to be hellbent on digging its own grave even deeper.
No, for me the apex of the franchise came early in the form of Resident Evil 2. I played it on the original PlayStation, and again in rereleases for the Nintendo 64 (which was technologically impressive in squeezing two CDs worth of content into a single cartridge), Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo GameCube. When I think of Resident Evil, I don’t think of Alice and those increasingly inane movies, nor do I think of those weird lightgun spin-offs on PS2 and Wii. I think of Leon and Claire in Raccoon City, and I get a sinister, yet nostalgic, smile on my face.