Earlier this week, Capcom announced Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD Edition, a high-definition, technically proficient, content-packed re-release of the 2005 classic on Steam. Despite being another version of one of the best games of all time, the announcement has been met with lukewarm reception and a significantly toned-down level of anticipation. But the lack of excitement is very well-justified. Capcom’s announcement of Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD Edition promises technical enhancements and all the gory creepiness that the 2005 original brought us, but its most notable feature is the message behind it: that Capcom simply doesn’t know how to approach the series anymore.
Resident Evil may have pioneered the genre that we’d know today as “survival horror” when it released on the Playstation long ago, but its struggles to stay relevant began during the sixth generation of consoles. While Resident Evil 2, Resident Evil: Code Veronica and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis were respectable entries in the franchise, the series was in a state of creative confusion when it appeared on the Playstation 2 and Gamecube (though a number of titles also appeared on the Sega Dreamcast). The Gamecube was the place to go if you were a fan of Resident Evil during the early 2000’s, with Resident Evil Zero being a Gamecube exclusive, along with the stellar remake of the original Resident Evil (and some ports of Resident Evil 2, Code Veronica, and Nemesis). The Playstation 2 got a number of spinoffs and experiments in the light-gun game Resident Evil: Dead Aim and the cooperative online Resident Evil game, Resident Evil: Outbreak. Though the series pressed forward, gamers’ opinions of the traditional Resident Evil gameplay became mixed. It remained a generally scary series, but its restrictive tank controls and awkward combat made the series feel dated. It was a time of confusion for the series. 1999’s teasing of the next (and supposedly final) Resident Evil game, Resident Evil 4, forwarded development into an action-oriented title which would eventually be known as Devil May Cry. The fourth installment was completely reworked and the game’s direction would be changed and altered for the next five years.
After teases, demos and many revisions, Resident Evil 4 was released on the Gamecube in early 2005. The game became universally praised for its improved combat system, spooky atmosphere and user-friendly controls. The graphics set the bar for what the Gamecube could do, from creepy illumination from candlelight to the grotesque designs for the game’s many enemies. Not even the prevalence of escorting Ashley around could sour the game’s appeal. With its completely overhauled interface, Resident Evil 4 was a faster, meaner and overall better Resident Evil experience.
This direction would eventually become the template for future games in the series. The “second-person” over-the-shoulder combat became the series’ defining gameplay innovation. That viewpoint would be implemented into Resident Evil 5, Resident Evil 6, and even new series like Gears of War and Dead Space. It would be a major influence on third-person shooters, which to some RE veterans, wasn’t the way to go. It was certainly user-friendly, but Resident Evil fans were skeptical at the game’s ease in action over the suspenseful omnisciently static cameras of the past. Resident Evil 5 was released in 2009, taking a number of cues from action series spawned by Resident Evil 4’s gameplay. However, there simply weren’t many “horror” moments in RE5. The introduction of cooperative gameplay only served to damage the fear that the series had brought from Day 1. Resident Evil 6 was an even worse offender with no survival horror elements and a fanboyish penchant for action sequences straight out of a Michael Bay film.
But the peak of this issue came with the announcement this week that Capcom would release an HD version of Resident Evil 4 on Steam called “Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD Edition.” The trailer promised HD graphics on PC (unlike the original PC port), a frame rate of 60 frames per second, and all of the bonus content seen in the PS2 port. If you’ve been keeping track of Resident Evil 4, you’ll realize that the game has been released a total of six times (seven if you include the terrible iOS port). Resident Evil 4 was released in 2005 on Gamecube, not even a decade ago, spawning later incarnations on Playstation 2, PC, Wii, Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network, each with incremental improvements to the already overly exposed formula. And now, Capcom is releasing Resident Evil 4 once again, this time digitally on Steam. The fact that Resident Evil 4 has been released so many times could be interpreted as an act of mass tribute to the game’s incredible quality, and to be fair, the game is just as phenomenal today as it was in 2005. The setpieces are superb, the action is buttery smooth, and the horror is omnipresent. It’s a fantastic experience. But why has the game been released so many times in just nine years?
Looking back at the terrible reception Resident Evil 5 and especially Resident Evil 6 received, it makes sense that Capcom is hesitant to focus on those titles. The only re-release Resident Evil 5 received was the Gold Edition on PS3 and 360 (with the PS3 supporting the Move controller) and the downloadable episodes. Resident Evil 6 has been met with even worse reception, and though it is still a generally new game, its support has dwindled to pathetic levels from developers and gamers alike. Resident Evil 4, on the other hand, was the genesis of a new Resident Evil that fixed all of the issues with its predecessors. It’s a modern classic and Capcom knows it; it stands head and shoulders above its successors. Gamers were confounded and generally annoyed with RE5 and RE6’s action-forward direction; they simply weren’t great games. With the release of Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD Edition, Capcom is stalling, putting up another version of a critically acclaimed title to distract gamers from the fact that the title’s successors were so incredibly flawed.
But while Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD Edition is the breaking point, the series has been showing its damage for years now. The outsourced Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City was a bland and frustrating team shooter that paled in comparison to its peers like Left 4 Dead, furthering the series’ infatuation with action sequences over horror. Other installments like the 3DS game Resident Evil: Revelations and the rail shooters in Resident Evil: Chronicles were okay, but were constantly overshadowed by the main series’ ineptitude in the modern age. The worst part is that survival horror was in a rebirth outside of the Resident Evil series. Indie developer Frictional Games created titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Penumbra: Overture, both of which discouraged action and combat and emphasized defenselessness and powerlessness, factors that defined survival horror long ago. New ways to approach horror were brewing in the indie scene, while the AAA series were continuing to lose their way.
Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD Edition is Capcom desperately trying to remind us of how amazing Resident Evil 4 is, and yes, it’s still a fantastic game from start to finish. But we all know that and have known that for years. It’s merely an effort to distract gamers from the problems that arose with Resident Evil 5 and 6, also serving to highlight Capcom’s constant struggle to keep the series relevant. The frequent spinoffs, outsources and supposed reinventions are preventing Capcom from re-obtaining their own black magic seen in the original Resident Evil, while other developers are embracing that black magic and even improving upon it. Capcom continues to stretch Resident Evil 4’s success beyond the notoriety of its sequential followers and all it’s doing is making Capcom look very, very desperate.
The Resident Evil series was in a troublesome position before Resident Evil 4 was released. Now, with Resident Evil 4: Ultimate HD Edition, Capcom is admitting that the series is struggling once again, only this time, it’s even worse than it was before.