Without a doubt, Resident Evil's 2002 GameCube remake stands as the ultimate expression of creator Shinji Mikami's original concept. And it's nothing short of a miracle that REmake will be coming to contemporary consoles (and the PC) in early 2015.
Even though the series has seen better days, Resident Evil can be credited with the creation of two distinct genres—though Capcom received more than a little inspiration from 1993's Alone in the Dark.
1995's Resident Evil gave the world "survival horror," an awkwardly translated phrase that nonetheless managed to spark a revolution and inspire dozens of imitators. Ten years later, Resident Evil 4 essentially created the template for the modern third-person shooter, and at a time when the series desperately needed reinvention.
We're just about a decade from Resident Evil's last transformation, and, once again, Capcom's flagship has been treading water for years. But without a visionary at the helm, it's hard to envision Resident Evil going anywhere but down.
Resident Evil is at its strongest when driven by a singular—at times, idiosyncratic—vision. The best games in the series exposed us to mechanics we'd never seen before, and even if these ideas made the games much more painful to play, Resident Evil remained confident in their execution. Mikami's style of design tends to pull the rug out from under players, forcing them to adapt to deadly surprises rarely telegraphed in advance.
Resident Evil 3: Nemesis built its central concept on breaking a rule established by the previous two games—that enemies could never follow you from room to room—and REmake slapped the faces of players who assumed they could clear the halls of the Spencer Mansion for safer travel in the future: Slain zombies eventually return to life, meaner and stronger than ever. And the totality of Resident Evil 4 exists as one of Capcom's most confident moves to date: instead of gradually easing players into a new take on the series, Mikami's team simply asked us to trust them as they walked us down an entirely unexpected path.
The current state of Resident Evil doesn't carry this same sense of confidence. True, it's much harder to be self-assured in the days of triple-A console game productions compared to what developers experienced just a decade ago. And this bit of reality definitely factors into Resident Evil 6's complete lack of creative vision: Its by-committee design simply adapted the bloated, pandering, and ugly Hollywood blockbuster formula to a different format, all while sprinkling in an unhealthy amount of things we did to death in countless other games of that generation.
RE6 came into being as a confused mess, seeking to appeal to everyone simply because it had to. Capcom initially planned for the game to find its way into the hands of seven million people, and you don't do that by throwing in ideas that could potentially alienate a fraction of your audience. The resulting product felt like the unfounded criticism about Resident Evil 4 finally had an application: this was the dumbing down of a series that once relied on genuinely unnerving environments and careful, studied action from the player. Once you reach the end of Chris' Call of Duty-inspired campaign, it's hard to remember if this was the series that once had a stronger connection to Roger Corman than Michael Bay.
It's important to note that some of Resident Evil's greatest moments came when its developers still had the freedom to experiment. With Resident Evil 2, Hideki Kamiya and his team were granted an opportunity that seems unthinkable today. Instead of merely coasting on the success of the first Resident Evil, Capcom restarted development and pushed this sequel a year into the future when the semi-final product failed to meet their expectations.
Resident Evil 4 met with even more false starts over its five-year development cycle, one of which leaked its way to the public. The game's original premise, which swapped psychological and supernatural elements for Resident Evil's traditional, visceral horror, made appearances as late as 2003 before getting the axe. It's nearly impossible to imagine this scenario ever happening again in our lifetimes, but Capcom's trust in their developers paid off, with Resident Evil 2 and 4 acting as two of the finest games in the series.
Out of all the Japanese studios to suffer brain drain, Capcom has definitely been hit the hardest. Their Miyamoto figure, Tokuro Fujiwara—Shinji Mikami's mentor—left the company in 1996, and the '00s saw Capcom lose their most notable personalities, like Hideki Kamiya, Keiji Inafune, and Mikami himself. The logistics of modern-day development on such huge projects makes it unlikely that another talent at the studio will rise through the ranks like their past superstars, and it's entirely possible the fleeing of so many talented designers has given Capcom trust issues about placing too much power in the hands of a single employee. Resident Evil works best when it specializes in the art of surprise, and, unfortunately, it's offered nothing but the expected after Resident Evil 4.
On the brighter side, the upcoming re-release of REmake could expose Resident Evil's audience—especially those too young or unborn to have played it in 2002—a taste of Resident Evil at its best: a devious creation that messes with your head at every possible opportunity. After a decade of being quarantined to Nintendo platforms, REmake remains an excellent reminder of the risks Resident Evil used to take—risks only made possible when a game's design is driven by talented designers instead of sales projections alone.