Resident Evil 2 is a strange sequel. Mechanically, it's almost identical to its predecessor. With limited ammunition, you fight sporadic but powerful enemies, while collecting pieces to complete often abstract puzzles. The structure is similar, too. The ornate, gothic police station substitutes for the original's haunted mansion, but eventually you descend into familiar-feeling catacombs and an underground laboratory. There are plentiful zombies, and the series staple of several absurd lock-and-key puzzles—you can certainly expect the latter in the imminent Resident Evil 7.
Resident Evil 2 could, however, have been much different. Its combination of old and new aesthetics makes its distinctive from its progenitor. But in a prior, subsequently cancelled incarnation, RE2 was almost unrecognizable beside the sequel that did ultimately come out.
The police station, rather than gloomy and wooden, was brightly lit and metropolitan, looking much more like a working office. Claire Redfield was Elza Walker, a motorcycle enthusiast simply passing through Raccoon City. And the story, it would seem, involved a group of survivors—including Ada Wong, cop Marvin and the doomed gunshop owner, Kendo—being led out of the city by Leon.
Supposedly thrown out by Capcom when it was close to completion, this alternate version of Resident Evil 2, dubbed Resident Evil 1.5 by fans, has been gradually restored by a team of hobbyists called Team IGAS. Now available in partially playable form (missing and irretrievable parts of the game mean it is prone to crashing) Resident Evil 1.5 demonstrates how the zombie-shooter series, or survival horror in general, might have been. Had it been released, this year's Resident Evil 7 might look very different.
"Some parts of 1.5 were still included in later builds of Resident Evil 2, possibly because Capcom never thought people would dig around their files," says one of the IGAS programmers, who asked to be credited as Gemini. "And a huge chunk of 1.5 backgrounds were in the Japanese demo of RE2, also called the Trial Edition. Other reconstructed pieces come from scans, interviews, sketches, and artworks. We did a big deal of research in terms of accuracy to the original assets."
"1.5 became a dream for the RE community when it was discovered that many of the game's original background renders were present in that Japanese Trial Edition," says another IGAS member, named Zork. "That dream was soon crushed by the fact that those were basically just background renders and no additional game data. So some talented artists were brought on board at IGAS to make textures for untextured characters, and attempts were made at inserting any data existing in other media and formats into the game to fill in the empty gaps. Stuff was pretty amateurish at first. Very 'if it fits, it sits'. Just cram stuff in and pray it didn't break anything."
After more than five years patching together Resident Evil 1.5's sporadic existing data, IGAS has developed a keen interpretation of what the game might have looked like. Its own textures and background renders represent an attempt not just to preserve an artifact of gaming history, but imagine how things might have been different. Playing the game in its current form, it's not always easy to see the lines—the team's research has resulted in likely the most comprehensive version of the abandoned Resident Evil game that we're likely to see. Exactly how it all differs from RE2 is best understood from the inside.
"The differences, in regards to the visuals, feel surface level to me," says Zork. "But once you look underneath, there are a lot of things that absolutely makes it feel more in line with the first Resident Evil."
"1.5 has branching narrative points, similar to RE1," continues Gemini. "Those make it a lot more replayable. You want to find all secrets, little cutscenes and variations. RE2 is way better. It feels like a polished jewel. But to be honest, I prefer the concept behind 1.5."
"RE1 and RE2 feel very isolated in the way you traverse between the different locations. 1.5 feels a bit more like a journey, if I can call it that." — Team IGAS's Zork
"The variety of locations is a big one to me," says Zork. "RE1 and RE2 feel very isolated in the way you traverse between the different locations. 1.5 feels a bit more like a journey, if I can call it that. You seem to cover more ground during the game's narrative, and in terms of how you explore the game world and Raccoon City. They cancelled it because of lack of confidence, I think. They probably felt they had a sequel on their hands, a good one too, but decided they wanted it to be more than just a sequel."
Hence Resident Evil 2 feeling, in hindsight, like a peculiar follow-up. The branching story of 1.5, and optional side characters, that may or may not die, are akin to the first Resident Evil, but with its sprawling and more plausible environments, it appears a much different game, and a truer successor, than RE2. On the contrary, Resident Evil 2 seems like a logical step, rather than ambitious leap forward. If people complained that Resident Evil 4 took the series in a more action-focused direction, the active and brightly lit 1.5 could have started that process much sooner. It has similarities to the original game, but its central ideas and aesthetic seem today like they'd have wrong-footed expectant fans back in 1998.
Essentially, the released Resident Evil 2 feels like the safer game. In spirit, the mansion is still present. The isolation, mentioned by Zork, is still felt. And Claire Redfield, as opposed to Elza Walker, ties the entire thing back to the original: The stage is set not just for a sequel, but an entire franchise, replete with familiar and reliable aspects.
"Lack of confidence" seems a likely explanation for 1.5's cancellation. The environments aren't as oppressive, the guns are more numerous (there are even grenades), and small iterations, like being able to access the combat knife using a separate button instead of having to equip it in place of a firearm, make Resident Evil 1.5 seem deviant. Too deviant, indeed, for Capcom, from what was expected from the survival horror genre in the '90s, thanks to the original Resident Eviland games like OverBlood, Hellnight and Parasite Eve.
It's pure speculation, but had Resident Evil arrived at the "action horror" hybrid before RE4, Resident Evil 7, or a game like it, which seems determined to reset the series back to its slower, more atmospheric roots, may also have come sooner. The abandonment of 1.5 seems like a shrewd decision: Rather than going bigger and risking alienating devotees, Resident Evil 2 took what was working about the original game, and did it better. But had the game been released, the RE series might have accelerated faster. Capcom's early experiments with action horror, in Dino Crisis, might have been focused instead on Raccoon City and the push back, via games like Amnesia and Outlast, may have started a few years earlier.
"The hardest part of our work is limiting ourselves. 1.5 has been romanticized. It's the Holy Grail, the Apple of Eden." — Zork.
Alternatively, people may not have responded. 1.5 might have been too loud, too big, too conventional and Resident Evil could have withered on the vine. The police station, as it stands in RE2, represents a more considered approach to a video game sequel. Familiar and negotiable, it nevertheless contains curios and peculiarities, myriad things players had not experienced before. It's a strange place for a sequel, because it is so measured and so limited. The dramatic creative ambitions one might acquire after scoring a hit have not been allowed to seep in.
"The hardest part of our work is limiting ourselves," concludes Zork, who alongside Gemini is still working on completing RE 1.5 as of January 2016. "1.5 has been romanticized. It's the Holy Grail, the Apple of Eden, et cetera. It's easy to get lost in all these dreams and visions of how this 'perfect game' could have been, and forget what it actually likely would've been and should have been. The idea of 1.5 has always been a thing for me. But I have a profound love for Resident Evil 2. It's a fantastic game."