One of 1998’s biggest and highly anticipated titles was Capcom’s Resident Evil 2, the sequel to the surprise hit original that would eventually become one of the companies’ most important franchises, spawning numerous sequels and spin-offs, merchandise, even several live-action and CGI animated feature length films. For someone who only owned a Nintendo 64 though and got their news from Nintendo Power, this phenomenon passed me by completely, that is, until the fall of 1999.
While PlayStation fans were looking forward to Resident Evil 3: Nemesis and new Sega Dreamcast owners were drooling over screens of the upcoming Resident Evil CODE: Veronica, the Nintendo 64 faithful were left anticipating a port of a game that was almost two years old by the time it came out. Released in late 1999, Resident Evil 2 on the Nintendo 64 is one of the most impressive pieces of software to ever grace the system, so much so that it feels like some type of sorcery that it exists at all.
Developed by Angel Studios, who would eventually become Rockstar San Diego and make some game called Bed Head Exception or something, Resident Evil 2 on the Nintendo 64 compressed a game that stretched across two CD’s on the PlayStation into one gigantic cart. Whereas most PlayStation to N64 ports would find some way to save on memory – Spider-Man (2000) replaced its cut-scenes with comic book style still images and cut out the voice work for example – about 98% of Resident Evil 2 made it intact with only two cut-scenes: one at the start of the second scenario when you go to the helipad and another that used recycled audio in the Leon A scenario in the dialogue with Annette Birkin were edited to fit everything. The sound was not as great, and the FMV quality was poor, but the entire Resident Evil 2 experience was there.
For me, Resident Evil 2 was the gateway game to other consoles as it was the most PlayStation-y game on the Nintendo 64, both in terms of its maturity and violence and the inclusion of fully voiced cut-scenes. N64 games prior to Resident Evil 2 featured voice, 1998’s Turok 2: Seeds of Evil for example, but they didn’t have those impressive cut-scenes that companies would use to make their games look so incredible in TV ads. Those who lived in 1997 knew the pain of seeing TV commercials for Final Fantasy VII and wondering if they made a mistake sticking with Nintendo. For the sake of continuity, it makes more sense to not break up a game with FMV’s and do all cinematics in-game – something that made the original Metal Gear Solid stand out – but that’s not how people saw it back then. Games would even boast about the minutes of FMV on the back of their packaging.
Prior to the franchises’ arrival on the Nintendo 64, I had heard about Resident Evil, but I didn’t know what it was, gambling on a rental based on the knowledge that people adored this series and because I loved Capcom’s games on other Nintendo consoles. I knew nothing about its fixed camera angels or its divisive tank controls so I was just going in expecting a great game, which is exactly what I got, but not without some adjustment.
One thing I didn’t have to get acclimated to was Resident Evil’s tank controls, because one of the concessions added by Angel was a new option where if you pushed up on the control stick, that’s where your character went. It was still awkward switching angels and having to calibrate your movement, but much easier than learning tank controls, though I would have to learn them for future installments but I never found them as challenging as what people make them out to be.
I didn’t come at Resident Evil 2 thinking about it as a horror game, but as an evolution of the point-and-click adventure games I played like Maniac Mansion on the NES. There were zombies and other monsters lurking in the halls, but like it was in Maniac Mansion, I was trapped in a creepy location, this time the Raccoon City police department, looking for items to solve puzzles and unlock doors which got me further into the game. This posed a problem at around the mid-point though as there’s a puzzle in the clock tower where after its conclusion, you’re asked to jump a shaft, and using adventure game logic, I chose not to because I expected my character to fall into the mouth of a hungry enemy. It was maybe the second or third time around that I realized this was a shortcut that stopped you from having to trek through most of the police station to get back to the cells past the parking garage.
That wasn’t to say that Resident Evil 2 didn’t frighten me, because it certainly did. The RPD is such a great setting for a game that you want to explore every corner of, but at the same time, you don’t because of the moans and clicks you can hear around the corner. There’s background music playing in Resident Evil 2, but the silence at times can be deafening playing as one of the few sole-survivors in a building overrun with the victims of a horrible outbreak and escaped biohazard experiments.
What makes the frights so effective in Resident Evil 2 aside from the sound design is how the game is paced in way that you’re lured into a false sense of security. Early on you have to pass a hallway on way to the second floor which you have to double back through once you get a key. On the first pass, everything is fine, and you assume it will be that way again but then “BANG” and suddenly zombies are reaching through the windows trying to grab you. Another favorite part of mine occurs in an interrogation room where the camera places itself squarely on the two-way mirror and you prepare yourself for something that never comes until, like earlier, it does on the way back after you grab an item on a shelf. It’s moments like those that have made Resident Evil 2 stick with me close to two decades after I ventured through the RPD for the first time.
For being a sequel, Resident Evil 2 is also a game that similarly serves as a good introduction to the series as a whole. There are plot threads that won’t have that same meaning to you if you didn’t play the first game – like Ada Wong who was only hinted at in a file in the original Resident Evil – but series newcomers can piece together what’s going on fairly easily: there was an incident at a mansion related to a shady pharmaceutical company named Umbrella who developed an experimental bio-weapon that got out and now you as one of two hapless survivors have to piece together what happened in the aftermath. All of this is communicated in the opening, and files exclusive to the N64 game helped to flesh out some other details that the PlayStation original didn’t have because it didn’t need them.
What made Resident Evil 2 stand out against other games from the Nintendo 64’s library was its sense of mystery, something that’s true for the best games in the Resident Evil series. You knew that there’s a virus that turns people into zombies, but how did it get out? Who survived? What characters can be trusted? These are mysteries you’ll fight your fears to solve because you’ll get so engrossed into the lore and backstory created for this series from the files you pick up to the few human beings you interact with. For me, what helped this game further cement my love for the Resident Evil series is that it felt like the first time I had played a video game franchise that had serialized fiction.
Having played video games since I was five with my first console being the NES, I was no stranger to sequels, but not like how Resident Evil did them. One of my favorite all-time series was another of Capcom’s, Mega Man, and I looked forward to new installments, but it was more so because of the mechanics and colorful characters over story. Titles on the Nintendo 64 for the most part had the simplest of plots: collect stars and save the princess; collect puzzle-pieces and save your sister, and even when they dabbled in something greater like in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it was engaging to a point but I was mostly there for the world and dungeon design and besides, Link has never had much of a personality and that’s the point as he’s meant to be a character you project yourself onto.
Resident Evil on the other hand, was like other entertainment mediums I loved like movies and comics where events from previous games mattered. Resident Evil’s continuity didn’t reset between games and events from one game would carry over to the next. Characters that you thought perished would come back to life and you wanted to get your hands on new entries to learn the fate of your favorite characters and fit in that extra piece of the puzzle that was the Umbrella Corporation. My early desire to get a Sega Dreamcast was because it was, for a time, the only way to play the continuation of Claire Redfield’s story and is that Wesker I see?! How did he come back?!! Will we ever see the person pulling the strings behind the Umbrella Corporation? I didn’t just want to play Resident Evil video games, I found myself reading novels and comics to learn about events between and during games. For the longest time the novelization of Resident Evil CODE: Veronica was a way into that game’s story when I couldn’t afford either a Sega Dreamcast or a PlayStation 2.
Then there’s the A and B scenarios, something else in Resident Evil 2 that blew my teenage mind. At the start of the game, you’re given the choice to play as two characters: Rookie policer officer Leon S. Kennedy, and Claire Redfield, the sister of Resident Evil’s Chris Redfield. Once you complete your game with one character, you’re then given a B scenario where you play as the other that takes place at the same time. In Leon A for example, you’ll venture into the S.T.A.R.S office and Claire will come in after you pick up an item. In Claire’s B scenario, you’ll enter into the office and find Leon. You also have to be mindful at points of certain items as if you get greedy and take all of them during one character’s journey, you may leave the other woefully underprepared for companion quest.
Scenario B not only allowed you to see events from different perspectives, but both characters went to parts of the police station that the other didn’t and interacted with characters specific to them. Leon runs into the mysterious Ada Wong who states she’s in town searching for her boyfriend and Claire becomes a surrogate mother to a young girl named Sherry Birkin who is more important than what her age lets on. Once you did the A and B scenarios one way, you then got to do them again in a reverse order to get even more story. You have to be on your toes at all times to, as you might know the layout of the RPD back-to-front, but zombies and other enemies will be moved around so you have to prepare yourself for each scenario.
In early 2019, Capcom will finally release the highly anticipated remake of Resident Evil 2, and unlike it was in 1998, I’ll be there on day one to pick it up. If there’s one video game memory I would love to relive for the first time, it would be that first journey through the RPD I took at the end of 1999, and if this reimagining is anything like the incredible remake of the original Resident Evil that first came out on the GameCube in 2002, I might just get my wish. Capcom was reluctant to release software on the Nintendo 64, and I’ll be forever grateful to them and the wizards at Angel Studios for making the impossible happen with the port of Resident Evil 2 for the N64, a game that started my love of a series I’m still invested in to this very day.