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Leon S. Kennedy considers his knife in the Resident Evil  4 remake Image: Capcom

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Resident Evil 4 changed video games forever — 2023 is undeniable proof

An HBO tentpole and a sci-fi horror remake have Capcom’s 2005 game to thank

Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

In 1996, the original Resident Evil arrived on PlayStation — tank controls, fixed camera angles, campy one-liners, and all. It was a stark repudiation of game design modes, deemphasizing action and platforming in favor of puzzles, scarcity, and jump scares. Although it wasn’t the first to do so (it had several progenitors), it was certainly the most popular. But even then, it was clear that the developers at Capcom were toying with ideas too ambitious for the hardware of the time to express. They refined their survival-horror philosophy over the next nine years, updating a control scheme here, softening a jagged pixel there, until 2005, when they released Resident Evil 4 on Nintendo GameCube. And just last week, Capcom opened a window back to that moment, when the series, and video games as a whole, irrevocably changed.

I imagine that the prospect of remaking Resident Evil 4 gave Capcom pause. As opposed to the first three numbered games in the series, which featured clunky control schemes and many counterintuitive puzzles before their remakes (which range from phenomenal to aggressively fine), Resident Evil 4 did not need an update. It’s available on most modern platforms, it controls better than many new releases, and, aside from an uneven third act, its pacing is immaculate. That its remake manages to improve on many aspects that didn’t really need improving is its crowning achievement. (That third act is still weak, though.)

Resident Evil 4 remake Leon being a badass (for once). Image: Capcom via Polygon

Playing through Capcom’s reinterpretation today, it’s easy to take its fluid gameplay loop for granted: Exploring, scavenging, crafting, item management, and third-person combat all feed gracefully into one another along the course of the game, which encourages some backtracking, but it is largely a linear adventure through semi-open areas and sandboxes. In 2005, this structure flew in the face of earlier Resident Evils, which mainly took place in Metroidvania-esque confined settings — a mansion, a police station, or the back alleys of a Midwestern city.

That gameplay loop is at the heart of Resident Evil 4’s pristine pacing. When you’re not fighting hordes of zombie-like enemies in white-knuckle brawls, you’re scouring areas for crucial items. You might then encounter a puzzle, or a jump scare, or a miniboss, or engage in a few minutes of meditative inventory management, before moving on. The moments between battles are calm enough to help you catch your breath, but involved enough to keep you in that ever-elusive flow state.

Good pacing, the old adage goes, is at its best when you don’t notice it. But as with most design touchstones, people slowly began to notice Resident Evil 4’s good pacing. Bill Gardner noticed it while working as the lead level designer on BioShock. Cliff Bleszinski drew from it when creating Gears of War. Cory Barlog studied it when directing God of War’s massive 2018 overhaul.

Dead Space Isaac aiming at a new Phantom Necromorph Leaper in the Hangar. Image: Motive Studio/Electronic Arts via Polygon

The game’s intricacies weren’t lost on the developers at EA Redwood Shores, either. In 2005, they were in the ideation stages for a potential System Shock 3, but played Capcom’s survival-horror game and decided to make “Resident Evil 4 in space.” Their version would lean into sci-fi horror, taking tonal cues from Alien, Event Horizon, and Sunshine. It would feature an everyman engineer whose primary combat skills relied on his proficiency with welding tools. It would focus on scavenging, crafting, light puzzle solving, and close-quarters combat with zombie-like enemies, and 15 years after its initial release, it would get its own remake, just two months before that of Resident Evil 4.

Dead Space, with its tight over-the-shoulder perspective and obsession with laser sights, is perhaps Resident Evil 4’s most obvious pupil. Rebranded as Visceral Games, its creators even took after Capcom in their sequels: Dead Space 2 and 3, like Resident Evil 5 and 6, denoted a gradual evolution from survival-horror to survival-action. Creeping dread made way for intense adrenaline rushes. The Dead Space sequels worked (Resident Evil’s did not, ushering in yet another franchise reinvention with Resident Evil 7: Biohazard), but by the time Dead Space 3 was released, it was a third-person shooter with only a veneer of horror and gore.

Just a few months after the Dead Space trilogy concluded, developer Naughty Dog released The Last of Us, yet another third-person survival-horror game that owed its existence to Resident Evil 4. With its flow from environmental puzzles to scavenging to inventory management to intense close-quarters combat, much of which is spent traveling with a younger, more vulnerable companion, it’s not a stretch to call it Resident Evil 4 reimagined as a Cormac McCarthyan road trip. It’s clear that game director Bruce Straley and creative director Neil Druckmann drank from the same well as the designers at Visceral Games.

Joel and Ellie walk through a heavily forested area in The Last of Us Part I Image: Naughty Dog/Sony Interactive Entertainment

In yet another temporal coincidence (or maybe as a result of whatever alignment in the collective subconscious gave us Dead Space and Resident Evil 4 remakes within two months of each other) The Last of Us reappeared in the zeitgeist in January with its long-awaited HBO adaptation. In many ways a one-to-one retelling of the 2013 video game’s story (aside from several changes of location and an episode’s worth of backstory for a previously minor character), The Last of Us follows Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) westward across America, a pseudo father/daughter relationship building throughout a Picaresque series of depressing encounters.

In returning to The Last of Us Part 1, Resident Evil 4, and Dead Space in such quick succession in 2023, I’m struck with a newfound appreciation for their particular kind of survival horror. The Resident Evil 4 remake, like so many games in recent years, hints that its creators have convened at the altar of The Sopranos, with narrative tweaks to the story of Leon S. Kennedy, Luis Sera, and Ada Wong emphasizing the question of whether humans can ever really change. It’s an idea heavily explored in Dead Space, The Last of Us, God of War, and its sequel, Ragnarök, too.

Why? Because it works: The structure of these games invites and emphasizes incidental, revealing dialogue, often between a caretaker and their ward, during lengthy sections of meticulous scavenging or environmental puzzles. The sudden moments of terror are all the more potent for the contemplative, almost meditative sequences that act as bookends.

Leon S. Kennedy stands next to Ashley in the Resident Evil 4 remake Image: Capcom

For all of its good qualities, The Last of Us on HBO doesn’t stick the landing nearly as well as its video game source material, specifically because we didn’t spend hours on end observing these characters during the in-between moments — the ones its showrunners, perhaps understandably, left lying on the cutting room floor. The adaptation’s ending is a stark reminder that video games can work wonders with those very moments.

The story of Resident Evil is one of constant reinvention, as if the series, like the infected humans populating its narrow corridors, has always been mutating beneath its very skin, eager to become something else entirely. Resident Evil 4 did just that in 2005. And although Capcom butchered the formula with Resident Evil 5 and 6, other studios ran with it: Visceral Games, Naughty Dog, and even Sony Santa Monica set out, in part, to rebottle the lightning of Resident Evil 4.

That the 2005 game has returned with a glossy new sheen, shortly after Dead Space and The Last of Us reemerged, is more than a little bit surreal. In his review of the remake, and in considering both the success and the diminishing returns of Capcom’s recent first-person Resident Evil entries, Michael McWhertor wondered, “Where do they go from here?” In playing Resident Evil 4 again, and seeing the products of its influence circle back into the limelight in 2023, I’m struck by the same question. But I’m also left wondering: Who will Resident Evil influence next?