Resident Evil 2: An Infectious Experience
I was around nine or ten when I played Resident Evil 2 for the first time. I had no knowledge of the series, but the name sounded cool, so I popped in disc one. Both my siblings gathered around. In terms of major life events, this is at the top (unless my wife is reading this).
A warning appeared on the screen. “This game contains scenes of explicit violence and gore.”
Before I knew it, a series of state of the art (at the time) cutscenes flashed on the screen. The montage ended with a grotesque eyeball staring into my soul. Starting a new game prompted the menacing utterance that still rings in my ears, “Resident Evil. Two.”
The screen faded to this creepy picture of a corpse with a permanently exposed eye and shredded lips. It set the tone for what was to come. More stills faded in and out while the narrator, with his soothing voice, recapped the events of the first Resident Evil. For one reason or another, this did not phase any of us, nor did it make us think we needed to play the first one.
With the recap out of the way, Resident Evil 2 kicked off with a slick FMV. The Resident Evil 2 intro is without a doubt one of my favorite video game intros. We would sometimes boot up the game just to watch one of the intros. To this day, my siblings and I quote it (and I still wonder, why did that guy bite him?).
The FMV introduces the two main characters of the game: Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield. The intro is slightly different depending on which disc you put in. I know what you’re thinking, “why would you put anything other than disc one in?” While I agree (Leon for life), you can put disc two in and play as Claire first.
Resident Evil 2 features a “zapping system” that ties both stories together. Depending on which disc you pick, you play through the first half of the campaign as that character, then you switch discs and play through the second half as the other character. At various points in the game, the two characters cross paths, and sometimes must make a choice about taking or leaving an item for the other character. Just don’t think too much about how doors unlocked while playing with one character are suddenly locked again when playing as the other, the key mysteriously finding its way back to its strange hiding place.
We picked to play through as Leon (who has since become a family favorite). Leon’s FMV opens with him driving into Raccoon City, a city that would become synonymous with the Resident Evil franchise.
Literally seconds into entering Raccoon City, Leon encounters a horde of zombies. Outside of the Michael Jackson Thriller music video, Resident Evil 2 was my first experience with zombies and it was love at first bite. Resident Evil 2 made my siblings and I zombie fans before their over-saturation. Oh God, am I zombie hipster? Oh God, did I just come up with a game where you have to escape a shambling crowd of plaid, beanies, thick-rimmed glasses, and a lack of originality?
Back to Resident Evil 2. As death was literally closing in on Leon, he meets Claire Redfield. Yes, her last name was entirely lost on us. The two made a break for it in a (stolen) police car. Their drive through the city revealed a city completely overrun with zombies, establishing the scale of the outbreak. Had we played the original Resident Evil first, featuring an outbreak confined to a small area, the scope of Resident Evil 2 would have been more impactful.
The zombie patiently waiting in the cruiser’s back seat made his presence known, causing Leon to crash (no jokes about Leon’s driving abilities). Luckily, the collision sent the zombie soaring through the rear windshield. Unluckily, this made them a prime target to be rammed by a maniac.
The two escape with their lives, but they’re separated by a raging inferno. The screen faded to black. A warning appeared to those who dared to play this game:
“They were parted by an unescapable destiny. This is just the beginning of their worst nightmare.”
It was time for me to take the wheel.
There stood Leon, surrounded by fire and zombies. I fumbled with the controller, my brother and sister shouting at me to do something. I maybe got a few shots off before the zombies overtook me. The screen faded to white and we witnessed a group of zombies maul Leon. Blood splattered the screen, turning into the reminder, “YOU DIED.”
It was a screen we became quite familiar with in those early days.
We tried several times. The controller got passed around a bit, but it inevitably came back to me. My siblings were content on spectating. It wasn’t like I was some master gamer, but for some reason, it didn’t feel right any other way. They seemed to enjoy backseat gaming and I kept (or tried to keep, according to Low_Score) cool during intense moments.
That opening set piece was the definition of intense. It established a different kind of horror: an overwhelming sense of desperation and hopelessness. While the corridors of the Spencer Mansion filled you with fear of the unknown lurking around every corner, the streets of Raccoon City left you feeling exposed to roaming packs of monsters.
Those early Resident Evil 2 memories are among my most cherished gaming recollections. Night after night, we’d gather around the PlayStation—solving puzzles in the outlandish Raccoon Police Department, battling increasingly terrifying creatures, and chasing down a girl who’s just not that into you.
While all that was loads of fun, I think my favorite part was the group dynamic. The three of us experienced every triumph or failure. We’d jump in unison at random zombie attacks. Puzzle-solving was a group activity. Our sister would read aloud the files while I took a much-needed break from the near-death encounters.
I’m willing to bet our Resident Evil 2 experiences are not unique. Time and again, I hear stories of people recounting their time with Resident Evil 2, and almost all the stories begin with, “me and a group of friends…”
Whether it was the horror aspect, or the cinematic quality of Resident Evil 2, playing with a group felt good. Everyone was equally engaged. It’s a tradition that carried on. Every Resident Evil game followed the mold set by our first experience. It became the standard for the series, as well as games outside the franchise. My sister and I played dozens of horror games together (Low_Score can be a bit of baby with scary games). Resident Evil 2 gave me an undying love for horror games.
We played the game on and off for years until we moved on completely. It wasn’t until recently that talk of revisiting our old favorite became more frequent. As adults with varying levels of relationships and work schedules, it’s difficult to coordinate a road trip back to Raccoon City, but by god did we make it happen.
There was no question who would control, nor was there any question which character we’d start with (sorry Claire, we’re a Leon family through and through). I fired up Leon’s scenario A and everyone grabbed a seat.
Playing in modern times, it looks every bit of 1998, not that that’s a bad thing. The opening FMV and various cutscenes still looked nice, but the in-game graphics were rough around the edges to say the least.
What did hold up, and I appreciated more this time around, was the pre-rendered backgrounds. The streets of Raccoon City had a level of detail that would not have been possible otherwise. Graffiti covers buildings, storefronts have colorful signs, and scraps of papers litter the roads. The blood smeared on the walls and the shards of glass scattered across the floor tell stories about what happened as the city went to Hell. Everything all comes together to build a dreadful and destructive atmosphere.
The controls took some getting used to. Modern games spoil us with camera control and multi-axis movement, and the tank controls of Resident Evil 2 no longer came naturally. However, after refamiliarizing myself to them (and a decent amount of beer), traversing the environments became manageable.
Older and wiser, I took a different approach when replaying Resident Evil 2. I ran from enemies whenever possible, conserving ammo for unavoidable encounters. I raced through the opening sequence without wasting a single bullet (don’t worry, I died a lot).
To be honest, I thought we’d play for a little bit, then do something else. I never imagined that after so many years, I’d find new things to love about this game (namely a campaign that doesn’t hold your hand). What I anticipated being a short play session turned into a late-night endeavor into the world of the damned.
My audience was as engaged as ever. We all knew how things would play out, but there was something about doing it as a group. It’s fun to share the scares and the laughs. It’s easy to overlook flaws in the game when you’re having a blast with friends and family.
In case it wasn’t totally clear, I really love Resident Evil 2, and the Resident Evil franchise, a lot. The game had a huge impact on my life. It brought me into a series that I’m still invested in 20 years later. It made me a lifelong fan of horror in general. I cannot tell you how many horror games I picked up in hopes of scratching that Resident Evil itch(y, tasty).
Resident Evil 2 holds up. The presentation isn’t perfect and the story is questionable at times, but I frequently catch myself longing to go back to war with the evil Umbrella Corporation, a battle fought for most of my life.
But it’s not something I can do without my Alpha team. Yes, I realize I’m ending this Resident Evil 2 article with a reference to Resident Evil. Instead of telling me what an idiot I am for that, tell me about your first experience with Resident Evil 2 in the comments!