The term “remake” is getting increasingly tricky to pin down in video games. What’s the difference between a “remake” and a “remaster”? How much do you have to change (or not change) from the original to become more than a “remaster”? And when does it just become an entirely new game? The developers at Capcom have the unenviable task of revisiting Resident Evil 4, considered not just one of the best survival horror games ever but one of the best games of all-time. The task is a mountain to climb, but they do have a guiding light.
“A lot of people really, really, really like the original Resident Evil 4,” said director Yasuhiro Anpo, who also directed the well-regarded Resident Evil 2 remake from a few years back, in an interview with Waypoint. “When the team was taking on the development for it, we had to create a game from a fan's perspective. Everyone had a lot of opinions.”
Resident Evil 4 is a big, weird game, but perhaps more than anything, it’s defined by its opening area, the village. The quiet, seemingly abandoned town quickly reveals itself to be anything but, and proves a perfect introduction to the game’s genre-redefining action by forcing players to spray bullets, run around a huge space, and manage an overwhelming number of enemies at once. This is not how Resident Evil games played before, and it was Resident Evil 4 firmly kicking you in the teeth and saying “yes, but this is how it works now.”
When the remake went into production, it’s no great shock to learn one of the first areas the team looked at and played around with was the iconic village. Of course the village had to be in the game! But how, exactly? The earliest prototypes for Resident Evil 4’s remake, according to the developers, more or less copied the same layout from the original. It didn’t work.
“That strategy was really good to have the players feel nostalgic,” said producer Yoshiaki Hirabayashi, who worked on cinematics for the original Resident Evil 4, “and to remember how they felt when they played the original game. However, when we played that area from a fresh perspective, it felt a bit lacking, like it was needing something new. What we then attempted to do was to balance the early prototype of pure nostalgia with new elements.”
Some changes, driven by a philosophy of “bringing [an] old game to users again” by “taking what was good of the original game, preserving it, and then arranging it in a way that aligns with modern games” were more obvious than others. In other interviews, the developers have talked about largely eliminating the game’s ancient-feeling QTE (Quick Time Event) sequences, where cinematic actions are executed by the player tapping by tapping a button.
Ground zero for QTE sequences in Resident Evil 4 is an iconic boss fight with Jack Krauser, a bruising soldier sporting a red beret who once worked alongside the main character, Leon Kennedy. The fight is designed around elaborate QTE events. If the team wanted to build a game that downplayed these, you had to reinvent this fight from the ground up, because the goal was to make it “more of an active fight” where “the users actually fight him themselves.”
I’ve reviewed some footage of the fight shared by Capcom, and the fight in the remake is definitely more “active,” with players having to actively dodge and parry attacks. Players don’t have access to anything but their knife, which in the remake has become a critical tool in the player’s arsenal. In previous Resident Evil games, the knife was an item of last resort, or a way to stab a zombie stuck on the floor a few times and save a few bullets. But in designing the new Krauser fight, the developers had to reinvent the knife, and in reinventing the knife, came up with a bunch of new ways to shake up the combat-heavy Resident Evil 4.
“The knife evolved into something that wasn't purely a last resort,” said Anpo.
That’s also clear in the footage, which featured fight sequences where Leon would use his knife to parry incoming enemy attacks. It’s a powerful counter, and makes the knife a regular part of Leon’s arsenal, not something buried in the inventory. And it works in concert with Resident Evil 4’s still-unique mixture of shooting and melee. It’s easy to forget, but Resident Evil 4 was loaded with hilarious-looking moves where Leon would execute a roundhouse kick to a stunned enemy or, alternatively, deliver them to the ground with a goddamn suplex.
I’m happy to report those hilarious-looking, wrestler-esque moves are alive in the remake, and the developers described their inclusion as two fold: a way to keep “the memory of what people had when playing the original game back then without distracting the main feel of it” and a tension release. It feels good as hell to slam a dude attacking you into the cement!
“An important element of [the game] is the tension and release and the catharsis,” said Hirabayashi. “The melee actions work in that way. They can counter enemies, and they can take them down in a very satisfying way that suits this catharsis that the game is built upon. We do view that their actions, the roundhouse kicks and the suplexes, suit the major theme that this game has.”
The developers could not remember if they tasked someone with motion capturing these moves, or if they were hand animated. They did promise a developer did not perform them.
The moves are undeniably goofy, but in truth, Resident Evil 4 is a goofy game! It may have started development as something much more grounded and scary, but the tonal mishmash is at the heart of what makes Resident Evil 4 so charming. It’s funny and bizarre and scary, and the pinballing between those tonal elements only escalates as the game continues on.
“The remake is based on the original game, which was heavily varied even back then,” said Anpo. “So when we were looking into creating the remake, we had this great manual, basically, of how to make the balance work out even for the remake.”
There is, perhaps, no better example of this than Ramón Salazar, a childlike antagonist who lives in a castle, looks like an old man despite being 20 years old, and is working with a cult.
“No thanks, bro!” quips Leon in the original game, a quote I promise is fully accurate.
(He does not say the same line in the remake.)
“Ramón is a very unique kind of character,” said Anpo. “We actually had to look into how he should end up and that also included visually how he should end up. The character of Ramón was one of those things that we had to look into how he fit in into the major balance of the game itself.”
By “how he fit into the major balance of the game itself,” Anpo probably means “what do we do with this weird little freak with a sailor hat in a game that’s releasing in 2023?” The hat, it turns out, was a point of contention among the staff as they discussed his updated look.
“In the original game, Ramón has a nice little hat that, I guess, we all remember,” said Hirabayashi, laying the groundwork for the great hat debate. “It's a very old style costume. The major concept that we wanted to change was having more of an aristocratic design, more realistic in the setting that he is in the castle. That included the costume and the hat he was wearing.”
Again, the hat. The developers had a problem with the hat. They thought a lot about the hat.
“When looking into remaking him, we realized that we had to drop the hat because it didn't really fit into the big structure,” said Hirabayashi. “And, also, you don't wear a hat indoors! His final design went through a lot of different discussions and different alterations.”
Those “different discussions” and “different alterations” did not, sadly, bring back his hat. The recent Resident Evil games almost always receive downloadable content and costume options, so perhaps, with enough fan demand, Ramón can get his “nice little hat” back.
Hat or no hat, it’s ultimately a reflection of the tightrope walk the developers at Capcom are walking with this update. It is not just a visual update, and it’s not just quality of life changes. It’s also not a fundamental reimagining of the original game. It exists somewhere in-between.
“One of the main concepts for making a remake in the Resident Evil series is bringing [an] old game to users again,” said Anpo.
In a few weeks, players will find out if they succeeded.
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