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1998's Resident Evil 2 changed my life, and the new remake is pretty good, too

How a bonus check, a soft drink anniversary and a well-timed TV commercial got me writing about technology and games.

Capcom

It's rare that a sequel surpasses the original. For every Bride of Frankenstein or The Godfather Part II, there are a thousand Ghostbusters 2 or The Matrix Reloaded examples. One such case from the interactive entertainment category is Resident Evil 2, a 1998 Japanese import for the original PlayStation console. With amazing (for the time) cinematic prerendered intro scenes, a mix of puzzles, exploration and action, and some genuine jump scares, it became a critical and commercial hit, despite predating our current era of zombie-filled apocalyptic chic by many years.

002-2

Trust me, this looked awesome in 1998. 

Capcom

I've been waiting for the just-released remake/re-imagining more so than any other 2019 video game for one very simple reason. It's not an exaggeration to say that I owe nearly my entire career (at least the post-1998 parts of it) to the original version of Resident Evil 2.

An Evil history

Way back in a crazy time we called the late '90s, I was not writing (or even thinking much) about technology. After stints as a commercial radio DJ and at a short-lived glossy lifestyle magazine, I ended up as a lowly assistant editor at a trade magazine (a very niche publication for a specific industry) called Beverage World

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That was about as exciting as it sounds, and I covered everything from truck bodies for beer delivery vehicles to advances in polyethylene terephthalate, the plastic used to make soda bottles. (Ask me about air permeability and volume-to-surface-area ratios sometime...)

In early in 1998, I found myself with a few hundred dollars in bonus money from working nights and weekends on a special issue of the magazine commemorating Pepsi's 100th anniversary. Almost simultaneously, I caught a TV commercial for a new video game called Resident Evil 2.

Note that this was not the now-famous live-action commercial directed by zombie film auteur George Romero (which never aired in the US), but a choppier pastiche of gameplay and footage of cheap-looking Halloween store zombies. Today it looks ridiculous. At the time, it was revelatory.

Aside from a few PC games on my ancient 1990s laptop, I hadn't played many video games since NHL '94 on the Sega Genesis, or owned a console since the original NES. But, throughout high school and college I had been a big fan of George Romero's socially conscious horror films of the '60s, '70s and '80s. This game seemed like an interactive version of one of those. It was something I never knew I wanted, but now had to have.

So I marched right over from NYC's East Village to the long-gone Gamestop store on Astor Place, plunked my money on the counter, and asked for a PlayStation and a copy of Resident Evil 2.

I was so impressed by both the game and the PlayStation hardware, that I wrote about it on my very early dial-up era personal website. Within six months, I had parlayed that article into an editorial job at now-defunct video game and pop culture website UGO.com. That was the beginning of my long professional relationship with video games and technology, which eventually led me here.

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Remade and remixed

Since then there have been more than a dozen other Resident Evil games, including a few updated versions of the 1996 original. I've played almost all of them, but none have had the impact of RE2, either as games or as life-altering experiences.

Sitting down to play the remake last week, I was struck by how familiar, yet very much different, it was. (To be fair, I probably haven't played the old version anytime this millennium.) The big story beats and set-pieces were there, largely as I remember them, but wrapped around what feels like an entirely new game that feels much more modern, at least in its controls and camera angles.

old-vs-new-re2

The original game is on the left, and the new version on the right. But you probably didn't need me to tell you that. 

Capcom / Photo illustration by Dan Ackerman

The main police department building in Raccoon City (boy, it just can't shake that name) is still more like a mysterious amusement park haunted mansion than a municipal building, with find-the-widget puzzles and lots of strange door locks and incongruous statues. 

It was bizarre in 1998, and feels exponentially more so now, compared with the grim hyper-realism found in so many of today's games. You almost want the characters to break the fourth wall and wink at the player as they repeatedly split up, walk blindly into dark hallways and otherwise act like they've never seen a horror movie or played a video game before.

The new RE2 stands on its own as a well-made, if idiosyncratic, piece of interactive entertainment (read our review here). It's also much more intense than the original version or, in fact, any of the other Resident Evil games I've played. Blood is spilled, necks are chomped, and helpless victims are literally ripped in two, all in gleeful, blood-spattered closeup, over and over again. Even as someone not squeamish about violence in entertainment, I found parts of it shocking. 

Of course, I kept playing, but with a few more lights on. 

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