Before where it all began

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I thought that title was the best way to sum up Resident Evil 0, the 2002 GameCube release that finally fused all the tank-controlled trappings of Capcom’s survival horror trendsetter with the most notable gameplay systems from their earlier and oft-praised Famicom 1989 title Sweet Home, a balance the series had been trying to find for so long you can even see remnants of a partner system in prototypes of the original Resident Evil.

For a game who’s existence really only has meaning when played as an accompaniment to Chris and Jill’s first adventure it’s more than a little odd to see the intro text decide to open with a direct reference to Code Veronica’s Rockfort Island and then follow that up by name-checking Gun Survivor’s Sheena Island of all things before finally getting around to a brief mention of “the mansion incident”. It’s hard not to wonder if these B-side titles felt the need to stick together, and if Resident Evil 0 perhaps hoped that making the effort to legitimise these outliers would help cement its own shaky and shoehorned place in the series’ canon. Prequels like this need all the help they can get after all: They’ve got to contain enough new content to make them worth engaging with but not so much any new revelations would prevent them from slotting neatly… neat-ish… into the preexisting story that everybody excited for this new game is likely to already know and love. It doesn’t help that in Zero’s instance you also play as the B squad to STARS heroic (and more famous, and longer lived) Alpha Team. You’re playing as one of those other guys. You’ve taken over the role of the person most likely to say “Oh, it’s nothing” after seeing a shadow pass by in a horror movie. You’re the Star Trek redshirt on an away mission. Resident Evil 0 gave its starring role to the character introduced in the first game with an astounding display of ineffective incompetence, made all the worse by Chris’ unintentionally condescending and utterly hilarious “You must be from the Bravo Team” response.

As this is a prequel you already know who’s going to die and when, and you know Rebecca can’t learn too much during her new-before story because she arrives at the Spencer mansion just as flummoxed as everyone else – nothing can really go anywhere in Zero because where it has to end up was already set in stone years ago. Meeting Bravo Team leader Enrico Marini by the lifts in Resident Evil 2‘s secret end-game laboratory just makes him look like an idiot because he was physically that close to figuring out someone else’s Umbrella mystery… but still has to end up dead in a cave some distance away, unsure who the traitor in STARS was even though his travels in Resident Evil 0 imply he passed a million documents with “For the attention of: A. Wesker, UMBRELLA’S EVIL SCIENCE GUY” stamped across the top of them. And everyone else? They die. Or they survive this and then die one game later. There’s a definite tang of “None of this really matters” to Zero that it never quite escapes – you know nothing in here has any lasting effect on Resident Evil as a whole because by this game’s 2002 debut there had already been four mainline entries in the series, one legendary remake, three spinoffs, and more ports than I dare count – and none of them had even hinted at Rebecca’s first zombie adventure in any way bar from one note in one version of one game – an EX file in the N64 port of Resident Evil 2.

But even with all this baked-in trouble it starts off so well. The Ecliptic Express, Zero’s opening train, is a perfect little capsule of classic Resident Evil: It’s got a dangerous mystery vaguely illuminated by scattered notes and files, a grotesque scorpion monster that was apparently just hanging out on the roof until you showed up, multiple keycards, and an increasing collection of oddball items to be used with other equally unusual objects, all finished off with a tense do-or-die race against the clock and my own personal nemesis, maths. There’s no doubt this segment’s as authentically Resident Evil as it is breathtakingly gorgeous; the train an oblong of opulence when idle and when moving it transforms into something truly extraordinary: Bottles rock gently back and forth across animated tablecloths, lights streak past the rainswept windows as patterned curtains flutter in the passing air, ornate light fixtures and half-eaten corpses sway to the train’s rhythm – the level of detail’s nothing less than spellbinding, graphically similar enough to the soaked-in-shadows atmosphere of the first game’s remade background renders to feel like a true companion to Capcom’s unforgettable mansion while simultaneously surpassing it.

Constant environmental changes keep this tightly controlled space from being more than just a pretty picture: Over the course of this opening segment we go from stillness to movement, then from movement to major damage as the gigantic scorpion, Stinger, cuts their way through the roof of the bar and by doing so turns what was moments ago a long and empty area into a claustrophobic boss battle, then finally the Rebecca-high deposits of slime-covered leech eggs burst into life, unblocking previously impassable corridors. The back and forth along the narrow carriages feels more like meaningful layering than common backtracking, each return to an old and easily accessible area with a new item in hand offering fresh riddles to solve and new locations to explore, whether that’s clambering up ladders so Rebecca and Billy can edge along the top of the train as the wind and rain lash at their faces, getting knocked through roughly-torn holes in the roof, or crawling through cramped underfloor passages that must have their hatches prised open with special tools. The small floor space within the Ecliptic Express also allows the partner system the chance to shine at its brightest: No matter how far away one of your bioweapon-fighting duo is from some two-person puzzling it only ever takes seconds to move them to where they need to be and there’s an obvious benefit in having armed backup in those small passages overrun with the undead, especially as there always seems to be a newly-undead zombie dragging themselves out of the plush seats running down both sides of the train and bearing down on Rebecca and Billy in that tight space. On the Ecliptic Express Resident Evil 0 is full of promise and slick-coated leeches, their small size, elastic nature, and tendency to completely overwhelm their targets going a long way to making this new threat seem especially unpleasant – it doesn’t take much to imagine these toothed horrors pushing their way up noses or crawling down gasping throats. Leech Marcus singing in the rain in his flowing robe is… OK I have no idea what they were thinking of with that one but at least his appearances are infrequent and downright weird, and more than made up for by the almost-fatal first close encounter with the congealed-together bipedal leech “Mimicry Marcus” in the slightly on fire dining carriage – it’s new, dangerous, and unpredictable – as are the animated eggs piled high in corners, the writhing forms encased within reeking of future problems.

And there’s no doubt the game does have plenty of problems in its future, and unfortunately glistening leech eggs are just one of them. Rebecca is simply not treated well by her own game – her early insistence at shooting and/or arresting Billy doesn’t make her look like a rookie out on a first case, but an idiot. So does her inexplicable “Zombies and monsters?” line in response to a mutilated Bravo Team Edward’s warning before he expires – she’s literally been surrounded by zombies before this and had to run straight past at least one to reach him, yet her text and expression makes her sound either confused, doubtful, or surprised. “Zombies? Here?” says the woman who just saw a zombie. And whether she turns and runs from that first “leech man” encounter or blows them to bits with an unlockable rocket launcher it’s always Billy who has to come to her rescue, incapable as she apparently is of dealing with them alone. Billy doesn’t fare a great deal better either: The game spends a lot of time – several early cutscenes in fact – establishing how awful and dangerous a mass-murderer he apparently was and how Rebecca mustn’t trust him no matter what, and yet a lot of the Japanese GameCube advertising – and the cover of the game – paired the two of them together, using a contrasting double page spread of the two of them to show off the character swapping system accompanied by the taglines “Rebecca Chamber’s loneliness” and “Billy Coen’s despair” – there was never any doubt that he was the other playable survivor and Capcom’s PR team made no attempt to hide it. In fact it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to find previews on the incomplete N64 prototype talking about playable Billy – it was never meant to be a secret, so why waste everyone’s time with such a flimsy and pointless misdirection that’s so thoroughly undone simply by being broadly aware of the game’s existence?

Zero’s full of bizarre self-defeating decisions like that. Why is Billy the only character in the whole series incapable of munching on a red and green herb at the same time? The answer’s a simple one: If only Rebecca can mix herbs together – a skill so simple even Chris Redfield picked it up on his own – then it gives her a unique talent to match Billy’s equally unique strength. However in practise it only ends up undermining her status as one of Resident Evil’s few survivors; she should be special enough in her own right without needing to be given her own little made-up thing to do. And if they’re giving her this because of her talents then why doesn’t she, Bravo Team’s designated medic, make any attempt to apply basic pressure to Edward’s wounds or ever spend time musing over the biological practicalities of reanimated corpses? Why is she ultimately just a cute sassy girl with a gun?

That’s all small fry though when compared to one of Zero’s biggest features: The ability to drop items anywhere you like after all the previous games forced you to go and drop tiny keys and other minor knickknacks in magical storage chests just so you could make room for shotguns and even more tiny keys. This was supposed to be intuitive. This was supposed to be better. This was supposed to be what fans wanted.

It was not.

As it turns out scattering items large and small all over the place is a fuzzy chore that makes everything far more difficult and tedious than it should be, a fact that is not helped by the way Resident Evil 0 introduces a huge degree of uncertainty and mistrust so early on to item dropping by crashing the Ecliptic Express and leaving every last item you didn’t personally handle completely inaccessible. That herb you sensibly noted the position of and left for when you really needed it? Gone forever. Those bullets you didn’t have room to pick up? Too bad. “Don’t worry about your limited inventory space – leave things behind! Drop items wherever you like!” says Zero – and then it strips you with little warning of access to things that might have later saved your life…

Now I know, and I’m sure you do too, that Zero doesn’t pull this trick very often at all – but it does pull this trick sometimes – and on your first run through you’ll have no idea of what’s safe to drop where and when, which only makes pushing ahead feel like you’re getting further and further away from all the things you’re clairvoyantly supposed to know you’re going to need to bring along before you get anywhere near where you’re supposed to use them. You soon end up longing for the good old days, when hearing that tune meant the wonderful box in the corner would enable you to pick up that weird thing you stored two hours ago on the opposite side of the map and probably use it in an elaborate puzzle nearby. Item boxes needed to go to accommodate the character swapping system –  there wouldn’t be much point in having to worry about switching between partners to collect things or shuttle items up and down dumbwaiters if the alternative would be to dump everything in a special box and carry on – but that’s also the problem, all the way back in 1996 Resident Evil already had a superior and far more player-friendly – if less realistic – solution to item management. Dropping things wherever and hoping you’ll be able to make it back to pick them up is not a conscious strategic decision unless you already know exactly what’s coming up, and all this fiddling about passing things over to the other character is neither entertaining or scary. Yes people tolerated all of this in the excellent Sweet Home, but by the time Zero was on sale that was thirteen years and four Nintendo consoles ago.

I can’t end this section o’ criticism without mention of the game’s hookshot, a double-item-slot-filling nightmare unique to Zero (I wonder why?) that you only have to use once on the train, which is exactly as many times as using the hookshot is vaguely tolerable. The whole point of this cumbersome tool is to split Rebecca and Billy up so you can then spend the next five minutes/half an hour swapping necessary doodads via tiny interconnected lifts, and these sequences sadly can’t be avoided. To make matters worse when this happens you end up with a person on their own holding the hookshot and you have no idea when the two will reunite, so this character can only have four inventory slots free – but it’s reasonable to assume two of those will be taken up by a weapon and some ammo… maybe a herb too, just to be sure? So, assuming they’re carrying absolutely nothing else, they’ll have at most a mere two item slots available to use – this is where we put the bulky hookshot down for a bit, right? …In the game that has already sprang at least one nasty “Maybe you can’t ever go there again” surprise on you and will at the very least make you come back wherever here is to pick it up again later, when you still might not have two items slots free or know when and where it’s safe to leave things behind?

Still for all the more irritating freeform choices there are at least some honest ones along the way: There’s an extra short reaction movie clip for Rebecca at the very beginning of the Ecliptic Express if you immediately kill all three zombies in the first encounter (sadly this still doesn’t change her ridiculous “Zombies and monsters?” reaction to Edward), unique FMVs depending on whether Billy or Rebecca jam the power cables together on the top of the train, and if you decide Rebecca is going to be the one who heads to the back of the train at the opening section’s climax instead of Billy she gets another short cutscene expressing her horror at zombified STARS member Edward, while if you pick Billy he can just gun him down (or run straight past) without comment. In this self-contained pocket of survival horror you really do believe the game is dynamically reacting to your own decisions and behaviour, and in the smallness of the train these alternatives – however brief – are obvious and come relatively thick and fast.

It sounds strange to say it but Zero’s train section’s is almost too good at capturing the entirety of all that is great and (im)pure about classic Resident Evil: finishing this area leaves you feeling satisfied – and done. There’s a clear cut between the Express and the training facility that makes it easy to put down there and then, especially as carrying on only leads you to what can charitably be called an “homage” to the unfurling puzzle-box masterpiece that is the original’s Spencer mansion – made all the more obvious and unnecessary by Zero’s release just months after Resident Evil’s GameCube remake. The more recent modern reimaginings of Resident Evil 2 and 3 make me glad for Zero’s existence – it’s now a fact that this game, warts and all, is as close as we’ll ever get to more old-style Resident Evil and for that and for getting to wander through this gorgeous gory train ride I’ll be forever grateful to it – but strip it of those incredible animated backgrounds and its often strained links to the rest of the series and it trips far more often than a game with this pedigree should, and at times it even feels dangerously close to mimicking the series’ better entries without really understanding why they work so well in the first place – the same problem that’s seen in Alone in the Dark: A New Nightmare, Deep Fear, and Countdown Vampires. Zero’s existence does at least prove a very good point – sometimes cool ideas are dropped at the prototyping stage because they don’t work – and we should be careful what we wish for…

2 thoughts on “Before where it all began

  1. You know, I give the designers at Umbrella a real thumbs up. They never just put down a concrete rectangle of a lab. They have the drama and flair in their veins to build medieval castles or victorian mansions around them and the motherfucking orient express for their employees monorail, probably being willing to give the whole financial department head to get these things greenlit in the first place.

    Honestly tho, I think the first areas in many Resident Evils are the best. I like the mansion the most in REmake. Same for the PD in R2make. And of course the train in Zero. The big difference is that in 1 and 2 those make up at least half if not more of the game time, while in 0 it is only the prologue, making it way more obvious nothing of the caliber happens again.

    Tho I guess after the train you are looking at the inventory screen, puzzling around the items for 3/4 of the time anyways.

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  2. Biohazard 0 had the same writer as Code: Veronica and Gun Survivor, the late Noboru Sugimiura, who was also responsible for rewriting Biohazard 2, which is why the opening text crawl mentions both of those games.

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