To many people today, Resident Evil is the game series where you walk around in first or third person, prepared to aim that reticle in the face of whatever thing pops out at you. But, as any RE fan will tell you, there was a time where tank controls, fixed camera angles, and a stingy ammo supplies was the name of the game.
Five games stuck to this formula before Resident Evil 4 finally stormed in and redefined the franchise. And many would say this was the kick in the ass the franchise needed, because the gameplay of the previous ones really hadn’t evolved much. The story and settings would change, but you were still playing tank controls, trying to sprint past something infected with some variation of the T-virus, and get to the next typewriter, or stash of herbs, or whatever.
Now, the argument of whether Resident Evil 4 brought an end to “true survival horror” for the franchise is a debate that’s deader than Jill Sandwich memes. Instead I want to focus on the last two games that stuck to the original RE formula: the 2002 remake of the original Resident Evil and Resident Evil Zero, both released on the Gamecube in the same year.
Because the Resident Evil (2002) and Resident Evil Zero were developed around the same time, for the same system, I thought it would be interesting to compare how they went in different directions with their mechanics, and see which one serves as the better final chapter in the “classic RE” series of releases.
Wait, what the hell are Resident Evil (2002) and Resident Evil Zero?
Resident Evil (2002) is a remake of the 1996 Playstation original Resident Evil. The plot involves Raccoon City Police Department S.T.A.R.S. Alpha team being trapped in a mutant-infested mansion after being sent to search for the Bravo team, which they lost contact with the night before. They soon discover that the pharmaceutical company known as Umbrella Corporation had been performing horrific experiments with a mutagen known as the T-virus, and a biohazard outbreak caused the staff to become zombified and monsters to run loose throughout the property.
Resident Evil Zero is a prequel that explores why the biohazard outbreak occurred, and what happened to S.TA.R.S. Bravo team member Rebecca Chambers, who also appears in Resident Evil (2002). She investigates a stopped train, and finds it has been attacked by overgrown mutant leeches and all the passengers are dead. Soon after that, she is forced to work with Billy Coen, an ex-marine who was being transported for execution for having killed 23 people. His transport crashed nearby. To survive the hordes of monsters, the two must learn to work together and investigate what happened.
Item Boxes vs. Dropped Items
Resident Evil’s inventory system is one of the things that truly forces the player to get strategic with navigating around whatever monster-infested hellhole you’re trapped in. Yet the constraints can be frustrating when the in-game boundaries are so obnoxiously logic-defying that you just want to grab Chris and shout in his face “YOU’RE GONNA COMBINE THOSE TWO ITEMS ANYWAY; WHO CARES IF YOU HAVE TO HOLD A SEVENTH ITEM FOR A SECOND?!”
That right there is the beauty of Resident Evil Zero’s new system. Items can be dropped almost anywhere! So, you can temporarily drop that key so you can pick up and load those shotgun shells into your shotgun, then pick up the key again. The map will even keep track of exactly where you left every single item. Thanks, map!
Buuuuuut then the downside is that you have all these items of your scattered around the game instead of being in the magic item void that any of the Item Boxes in the game can access. Even if it’s not essential, there’s a good chance you’ll look at that magnum ammo and think “well, I can’t use this now, and I don’t want to have it clog up my inventory… But damn do I not want to have to go all the way across the game world to get it at the end!”
Resident Evil (2002), on the other hand, can often leave you in a situation where you have a full inventory and no way to get rid of it without taking a long trip back to an Item Box (assuming you can survive the trip because all those keys and gems you’re carrying meant you couldn’t grab that herb you so desperately needed. So close, and yet so far).
Now, here’s the tough question: can we have the better of both worlds? Can we both let characters drop items AND have Item Boxes?
I’d say no.
Because the backtracking, like the tank controls and half of the other mechanics of classic RE, are those things that we love to hate. If the inventory system is made so that we never have to choose which item to get, and it’s all easy and accessible, we’d lose the sense of dread that makes RE what it is.
But which one is better? Resident Evil (2002) or Resident Evil Zero?
I personally think the Resident Evil (2002)’s Item Box system adds more tension. It makes the treks back to the Item Boxes feel all the more satisfying to complete, and more dreadful when you then have to leave behind your collection of weapons and gear to go out into the monster-infested hellhole beyond that Safe Room door.
But I won’t deny that sometimes I find myself more in the mood to do the more flexible Resident Evil Zero system. I certainly wouldn’t go nuts at someone over which one they prefer more.
Monsters and Bosses
Which of the two reigns supreme when it comes to the common monsters?
I’m going to stop you right here and say it straight: Resident Evil (2002).
Two words: CRIMSON. HEADS.
In so many video games, the basic zombie enemies are the most throwaway a game will have to offer. Even Resident Evil Zero is guilty of this, like when you enter a room so big and you KNOW there’ll be enemies in there, the game encourages you to hope it’ll be just some regular ol’ zombies instead of a real threat.
But Resident Evil (2002) flips that completely on its head.
Not only are the remake’s zombies stronger (and more effectively placed), but killing a zombie means you’re only inviting it to come back stronger, if you ever have to come back, unless you burn or decapitate it.
A first-timer playing Resident Evil (2002) who begins to witness the rise of the Crimson Heads will likely be hit by a wave of regret as they realize much of the “progress” they thought they’d made when they sacrificed some ammo to get rid of those couple o’ zombies they just HAD to put down only made things worse. Suddenly it’s not just a question of “can I afford the ammo to shoot down this zombie”, but also “can I afford to have this one come back stronger” as well.
Sadly, the brilliance of the Crimson Head system isn’t really captured anywhere other than the first time in the main mansion, as upon returning later, the Hunters will have replaced the vast majority of them, and any other areas provide enough kerosene that you can safely burn any potential Crimson Heads. But the Crimson Head definitely gets plenty of time in the spotlight to seal its legacy as one of the highlights of Resident Evil (2002).
Resident Evil Zero, by contrast, doesn’t really have to offer a particularly strong candidate for scariest enemy.
Part of this has to do with placement: the new monsters in Resident Evil Zero struggle to have a strong presence, since many of them fail to make a strong enough impression when and where they appear. Too rarely will you walk into a room and wonder if it seems like the sort of place a specific enemy type would be hiding in.
Of its four completely new enemy types, Resident Evil Zero struggles both gameplay-wise and in scare-factor.
Plague Crawlers are big and slow, and are only really scary in one encounter where they burst out of some tubes.
Eliminators lose much of their scare potential due to the lack of effective ambush situations, and the strategy against them isn’t that much different from fighting Hunters.
Lurkers have decent potential, but you only encounter them up to three times all the way at the end, so by the time you realize they’re a presence in the game, you hardly have any time to appreciate them.
All that leaves are the Mimicry Marcus, which serve as the most challenging common enemy but are often frustrating if you don’t know that their weakness is the Molotov cocktails. Once you figure out all you need to do is rush in and start tossing at them even before they transform, they stop being much of a threat.
Solo vs. Partner Zapping
Resident Evil Zero’s partner-swapping system (not that kind) is one the features advertised on the back of the game case, and is one of the biggest selling points of the game.
So how does it impact the game?
Well, first, let’s talk upsides. Billy Coen and Rebecca Chambers actually do make a far more interesting duo than Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield.
Both Jill and Chris are pretty generic protagonists, who always have each other’s back, and always save the day, and all that lovely stuff. There’s also far fewer cutscenes and dialogue in Resident Evil (2002) as compared to Resident Evil Zero, and the ones we do get are mostly exposition, or something about the characters you aren’t playing as.
The fact that Billy and Rebecca have something unique to their relationship (Rebecca is the rookie cop, being forced to make an uneasy alliance with Billy, a death row convict) actually makes seeing them work through and survive their ordeal satisfying and interesting. There’s development to be had with characters like that, unlike Jill and Chris whose development doesn’t move part being generic teammates of S.T.A.R.S. and not much else. It’s no Metal Gear Solid, but this character dynamic allows for the game to have a bit more of an active plot arc.
By the end, Billy and Rebecca have actually changed how they see each other, which is not really something you can say about Jill and Chris.
Second upside is that inventory management between the two characters adds an interesting level of depth. I personally enjoyed letting my AI use the handgun to soften up enemies from afar, while I blasted them back with a shotgun if they ever got too close. It also makes it more challenging when you have to decide who you’re going to use healing items on, based on who you think needs it more or who you intend to put in harm’s way more often.
Unfortunately, there are two major downsides to this system.
The first is that it certainly isn’t as scary when you have two armed characters to back each other up. One of the key ingredients of the RE experience is entering a room and having to figure out where the enemies might be without running right into one as you try to figure out the camera angles. However, if you enter a room, and your AI partner is set to engage in combat, they’ll usually tip you off to enemy locations by automatically raising their weapon and firing at them. They’ll also immediately lower their weapon the instant the last fatal shot has been fired, which also removes the suspense of whether or not an enemy is truly dead.
The game does try to account for this by forcing Rebecca and Billy apart on several occasions, so you, as a player, can’t get too used to this support.
The second problem is the restrictions having two characters puts on gameplay.
Many of the new features from Resident Evil (2002), such as the Crimson Heads, defensive weapons, and random enemy encounters involving them bursting through windows or closet doors, are suspiciously absent in Resident Evil Zero. I imagine much of this has to do with the difficulty of incorporating these into a game where a player has two characters to worry about.
While Resident Evil Zero does have enemy spawns occur in one room triggered by events in another, these are not nearly as common, nor as theatrically evoked, because enemies are meant to be able to attack your partner if they are left in a dangerous room alone. However, this can be almost entirely avoided if you only leave partners alone in safe places, such as most rooms with typewriters.
In my own playthrough, I never once was notified that my partner was under attack, and only once did they have to gun down a zombie when I wasn’t there, which they did unscathed. However, if Crimson Heads were reanimating every few minutes, and you weren’t even able to respond because it was happening offscreen, the game would probably turn out a disastrous, stressful, unplayable mess.
This makes Resident Evil Zero feel less like a progression in the series, and more like a rearrangement: it sacrifices as much as it adds.
So which is better?
It’s a bit of a coin toss, if you ask me, though it’s one that probably favours the 2002 remake of the original Resident Evil.
Though the technical gameplay aspects feel more subjective, the horror elements of Resident Evil (2002) just feel more in-sync. The pieces fit together tighter to create a terrifying gauntlet of suspense and unsettling atmosphere.
There’s no shortage of further comparisons one can make, though, and if the masses demanded it, I could return to dig a few feet deeper into this topic. But for now, I’m looking at the one that showed the world how a remake is done right as the stronger closing act of the classic RE generation.
Resident Evil Zero is still a damn good game, and I’m glad it was made, but I don’t find it hard to believe that it failed to pull the franchise out of decline when Capcom decided RE4 was the way, going forward.