Little Rough, Don’t You Think

Resident Evil 4, like the zombies the series is known for, just won’t die. Since its original release in January of 2005 for the Nintendo GameCube, it’s been updated, ported, rereleased, enhanced, and so on, for several systems and platforms. By now, the original RE4 sleeve for the GCN is downright funny, because of the “Only For” triangle in the upper left reserved for GameCube exclusives.

An exercise in what could have been.
An exercise in what could have been.

That small triangle belies a great deal of shit going down behind the scenes. In what was supposed to be a desperately needed third-party show of support for the GCN, Capcom announced five games that would ostensibly be GCN-exclusive. RE4 was one of them—the other four were Viewtiful Joe, P.N.03, Killer7, and Dead Phoenix. Read this IGN article and try not to get overwhelmed by the dramatic irony. Of those five, one was canceled, two were ported to the PS2 at later dates, and one saw a simultaneous GCN/PS2 release. Only P.N.03 stayed GCN-exclusive, and it wasn’t even that good.

“Only For” turned out to be an empty promise from Capcom. Take a look at every port and rerelease of RE4 since its initial release on the GCN:

  • PlayStation 2. October 25, 2005. Though not as good as the original in some ways, most notably the conversion of all cutscenes to movie files, the PS2 port featured a lot of then-exclusive content. This included “Separate Ways,” a short Ada Wong-focused side-story, as well as another set of costumes for Leon and Ashley, and another weapon, unlocked when beating the game on the hardest difficulty.
  • PC. March 1, 2007. We don’t talk about this one.
  • Wii. May 31, 2007. We talk about this one. Featuring motion controls as well as the PS2 content, the Wii port was, at that point, the best iteration of RE4 since the original. Since it came out before MotionPlus, however, the aiming could get a bit tricky.
  • iOS. July 27, 2009 on iPhone and April 3, 2010 on iPad. Though a mobile version of RE4 had been released in 2008, it was only in Japan and it was only for one phone. That version eventually made it to iOS, with a few changes. Nowhere near the full game, it omits some cutscenes, weapons, boss fights, and many other things.
  • Xbox Live/PlayStation Network. September 8, 2011. The big additions here were HD textures, making these ports the prettiest by default. No hard copies were available in North America—they were only available via download.
  • Steam. February 27, 2014. Known as the “Ultimate HD Edition,” the main draw of this version is the ability to run at 60fps, if your computer can handle it. For the record, mine can (barely) and it is pretty great. Those who pre-ordered it (at twenty bucks) received the RE4 OST and an artbook that’s half art.

Counting the XBL/PSN release as one, that’s still six ports across nearly ten years since the game’s original release. That’s unfathomable and unmatchable. And here’s the thing: none of these were remakes. Remasters, sure, but none of them rebuilt RE4 from the ground up, which is something fathomable a few years down the road as people get comfortable with the eighth generation of video game consoles.

Does RE4 deserve this unprecedented lifespan? Yeah. It does. Though by no means the first game to do a lot of the things that it did—quick-time events, over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, limited inventory space, and so on—it popularized and in some cases standardized them. Shenmue is credited for the first modern use of QTEs but RE4, due to reaching a wider audience, made QTEs something unavoidable in gaming.

Quick, press L+R to compliment his biceps!
Quick, press L+R to compliment his biceps!

RE4 also doomed its own series. Resident Evil 4 alienated some fans of the previous games by swinging the pendulum from “survival horror” to “action.” There are a few scary bits in RE4, but they pace the game instead of defining it. The over-the-shoulder camera also removes many opportunities for horror elements by allowing the player to be in control of what is in front of them at all time. The first Resident Evil games thrived on using fixed cameras to raise dramatic tension by dictating what the player sees throughout the game.

It also set an unattainable standard. Resident Evil 5 and Resident Evil 6 aren’t ever going to get the treatment RE4 did. Neither of them deserve it. RE5 was overhyped and blatantly, horrifically racist and RE6 was a fucking godforsaken train wreck. In the interest of full disclosure, I finished RE5 (and hated every single minute of it) but I only lasted an hour into RE6. Maybe it got better. But it’s generally not a good sign if the first hour of a game is a godforsaken fucking train wreck.

Both tried to do the things RE4 did but failed, due to a combination of too much ambition and not enough foresight or Shinji Mikami. You don’t just make another Resident Evil 4, unless you make another Resident Evil 4. Just do the math: there have been three times as many RE4 ports/rereleases as there have been new entries in the main series (with RE7 likely to be announced at E3 this year).

What makes RE4 so good and so replayable, and what keeps it from being in the discussion of best video games ever? Note that by saying this, I am implying RE4 should not be in the discussion of best video games ever, because it should not. As great as it is, there are some very strong reasons it should not be in that discussion.

Let’s get the great stuff out of the way. We’ll focus on the initial GameCube version, which when compared to later ports is only missing HD textures, 60fps speed, and “Separate Ways” along with all its spoils. I played the GCN version religiously in my early teen years and I recently finished a replay of the whole kit and caboodle on Steam.

A lot of people criticized RE4 for its short length but I loved it for that. Due to that brevity, it became the first game I consciously speedrunned (speedran?). A close friend and I had a rivalry over who could beat it the fastest. He’d clock in at half an hour shorter than me and I’d blaze through it and clock in at half an hour shorter than him. Eventually, I got it under three hours, thanks to the infinite-ammo weapons given as rewards for doing things outside the main game.

I still have this saved from those rivalry days. I got it under three hours the next playthrough.
I still have this saved from those rivalry days. I got it under three hours the next playthrough.

Of course, RE4 is as long as you want it to be. The game rewards you for exploring and, even in the GCN version, there are a pair of minigames that offer a lot the main game can’t offer, namely the ability to play as different characters. “Assignment Ada” is short but rewards you with the Chicago Typewriter and “The Mercenaries” offers five playable characters, four levels, and an incentive to get five stars on each level with each character: the .50 caliber Handcannon. A shooting gallery game accessible during the main campaign rewards the player with money and collectible bottle caps of each character.

The gameplay was also incredible for its time. One of the main billing points of RE4 was that shooting enemies in different places affected them differently. It wasn’t quite so simple as weak points, either. Most bosses had weak points, but your run-of-the-mill grunts reacted differently to different shots. Shoot them in the legs while they’re running to force them to stumble and fall. Shoot them in the hand to make them drop whatever weapon they’re holding. Shoot them in the head to stagger them and set them up for a roundhouse kick. Or just load them up with bullets. It’s your call.

RE4 is also really fucking funny. As a young teen, I thought the plot, the characters, the dialogue, and everything else were all badass. Replaying it almost ten years later revealed something shocking: none of it is badass. Instead, the entire game is a vehicle for Leon Scott Kennedy to be a sarcastic asshole, which might be better than the whole thing being badass. Recall that Leon’s first game, Resident Evil 2, featured Raccoon City getting sprung on him on his first day as a police officer. So yeah, he has a reason to say shit like:

  • “Where’s everyone going? Bingo?”
  • “You’re right hand comes off?” (Note: This typo was present in every iteration of the game up until the Steam port, when a weekly update finally fixed it)
  • “Hasta luego!”
  • “Saddler, you’re small time!”
  • “Better try a new trick, ‘cause that one’s getting old!”
  • “No thanks, bro!”
  • “Can’t remember the name, huh? A senior moment perhaps?”
  • “You know you’re kinda cute without those glasses. Gimme your number when I get back?”
  • “Rain or shine, you’re going down!”
  • [LEON KENNEDY SAYING NO TO ASHLEY SAYING “WHEN WE GET BACK TO MY PLACE HOW ABOUT SOME OVERTIME”]

The events of RE2 turned Leon into a walking action movie one-liner. He even has the ridiculous ability to avoid death, as long as the player can nail down the QTEs. In RE4 alone, he backflips through a field of lasers, uses a grappling hook to attach to a stone wall and avoid getting impaled by spikes, exclusively uses harpoons to defeat a giant lake monster, outruns several boulders, and rides a jetski out of an exploding island.

Leon I think you forgot something
Leon I think you forgot something

Leon isn’t the only jokester in the game. Luis Sera is the token comic relief guy with a dark past who ends up dying, but he provides us with some great lines, including the infamous “I see the President has equipped his daughter with nice ballistics” line (“How rude!”) and:

Even some of the antagonists are funny. Ramon Salazar is a 20-year-old with the height of a 10-year-old and the face of a 60-year-old. Leon throws a fucking knife at him and impales his hand on a wall and he fucking cries. It’s great.

Moving right along to some of the things that make RE4 not so great, let’s take a look at the three whole women who appear in RE4. Two have major roles that each fulfill tropes as old as time—Ada Wong as the femme fatale and Ashley Graham as the damsel in distress. The third, Ingrid Hunnigan, provides support via radio via Leon for the first third of the game and is blocked out for the rest, reappearing at the very end to get hit on by Leon.

The general consensus on Ashley is not good. Though the voicework done by Carolyn Lawrence (Sandy Cheeks, Cindy Vortex, Orel Puppington) is actually really good, the game has the unfortunate habit of playing her cries for help far too often. Combined with the primitive partner AI that plagued the next two Resident Evil games, many people dismissed her completely as a hopeless case.

That stuff notwithstanding, Ashley is almost … progressive. Chapter 3-4, where you control Ashley in order to try to reunite with Leon, used to be one of my least favorite parts of the game. Now I really appreciate it. For a brief moment, Ashley has agency; though she is unable to use weapons in the traditional sense, she can use her surroundings to defeat the few enemies she encounters on her own. The puzzles she has to solve, simple as they may be, are still puzzles. When not held back by AI, Ashley Graham is very capable.

Of course, the writing of the game does Ashley few favors. As funny as it is, I’m willing to admit it’s not a good thing at all that two soundclips and an animation exist for when the camera is pointed up Ashley’s skirt. Her “overtime” line at the end is also funny, but it is just as ham-fisted. No romantic tension existed between Ashley and Leon at all during the game so there was no need to create any at the very end.

The romantic tension existed between Leon and Ada, a returning character from RE2. Ada is hard to judge; like most femme fatales, she wavers between saving the hero’s life (three times, by my count) and following her own agenda (taking the sample at the end of the game). In “Separate Ways,” the ostensibly-canon sidestory introduced in the PS2 port, we learn just how much influence she had on the events of RE4. Though she rarely deviates from her trope, which holds her back a lot, her independence is hard to ignore, save for the very end when Leon (of course) rescues her from Saddler.

Resident Evil has brought us some strong women with agency, like Jill Valentine (ignoring RE5), Claire Redfield, Rebecca Chambers, and Ada. They sell themselves short whenever bad AI and bad writing happens to characters like Ashley and bad everything happens to characters like Sheva Alomar. Given the series’ previous track record with women, it’s hard to overlook that RE4 features only three, one of whom is inconsequential for two thirds of the game, one of whom is playable only outside the main game, and the other playable for one part of one chapter. It also speaks volumes that RE4 was Ashley’s last game while Hunnigan appeared in RE6.

The aforementioned campiness also holds RE4 back from having any lasting effect, storywise. The plot is paper-thin with regards to previous entries in the series, though it allows for some great moments. The climactic stealing of the sample by Ada at the end of the game is pretty much never mentioned again in later RE games. Out of the characters introduced in RE4, all die except two (Ashley and Hunnigan).

When we talk greatest games ever, we talk games with great gameplay and great stories (Mass Effect, Chrono Trigger) or games that are so fun they don’t need stories (Super Mario _______, Tetris). Resident Evil 4 falls into neither of these categories. It’s still worth your time, though. Like Space Jam¸ it’s not perfect but it’s also hard to get sick of it. Resident Evil 4 is literally just Space Jam in video game form. In spite of those flaws, don’t be surprised when Resident Evil 4: 50-Year Anniversary Special Brain-Download Edition comes out for the PlayStation Think in 2055.

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