It’s interesting that such a beloved game as Resident Evil 4 should have as chaotic a development history as it does. RE4 as it’s known today is the end result of at least four different builds over a six year period. The culmination of Capcom’s efforts remains one of their greatest achivements, as RE4 is widely considered to be a landmark videogame for its advances in play control, narrative, and graphics.
When development of RE4 began in 1999, series director Shinji Mikami had handed control of the series to fellow Capcom veteran Hideki Kamiya. At the time, Resident Evil was arguably Capcom’s biggest and most successful franchise, so expectations were high for the impending PS2 sequel. Management’s orders were simple; RE4 needed to be cooler and edgier than anything that had ever come before. Kamiya and company set out to deliver exactly that, when suddenly they hit a snag.
The problem with Kamiya’s RE4 was that it became too cool and edgy to ever be considered a proper installment in the series. The game was packed with action and skewed heavily away from the survival horror elements that put Resident Evil on the map. Kamiya knew, however, that even though the game couldn’t work as RE4, it was good enough to be its own thing. A nip, tuck, and rebranding later, and suddenly the world was introduced to Devil May Cry. Not bad for a failed game build!
Birthing a new franchise was great, but Capcom still had to turn out a proper sequel to Resident Evil 3. At that point it was 2001 and many changes were coming to RE4. Rather than continue as a PS2 project, RE4 was now a GameCube exclusive and being helmed by a different director, Hiroshi Shibata. His team developed what some refer to as the “fog” version of RE4, which featured Leon S. Kennedy infiltrating Umbrella’s secret headquarters using a mysterious power in his hand to survive. Certain elements of the game became cemented at this time, particularly the use of Leon as the main protagonist. Shibata’s take was certainly visually impressive, but it lacked the spark needed to be what Capcom envisioned.
Another build, another restart, as 2003 brought with it more tweaks to RE4‘s development. The setting was altered again, this time placing Leon in the eerie halls of an abandoned house, plagued with spirits and otherworldy enemies to fend off. An iconic aspect of this build was a ghostly hook-handed man that chased Leon through the environment. While progress seemed to be being made on the title, it wasn’t enough to save this version of RE4. Hallucinations, the paranormal, and a haunting ambiance failed to impress Capcom, and their rising frustrations were about to yield the biggest shakeup yet.
Crunch time had come to RE4, with Mikami reinstated as director for the game as an emergency measure by management. For Mikami, it was a bittersweet return to the director’s chair, as Capcom wanted results-or else. There would be no more restarts once Mikami took over, as management wanted the game both finished and successful or it would be the last hurrah for Resident Evil. Mikami, perhaps in an effort to match the zeal of his bosses, shocked everyone when he dictated RE4 was to now be an action horror game.
Mikami’s first step in realizing this new direction was the implementation of a third-person camera system for movement and combat. Mikami had actually intended to utilize a control setup very similar to RE4‘s for the first Resident Evil game, but tech limitations on the PlayStation prevented that from ever happening. With the power of GameCube, though, Mikami was able to remove the infamous “tank” controls of the first three games. The added horsepower of the system also freed Mikami to fully-render the environment of the game. Previous Resident Evils (with the exception of Dreamcast’s Code: Veronica) had featured static, pre-rendered backdrops. While certainly impressive in their own right, the pre-rendered imagery was unnecessary on GameCube, and creating a fully 3D-environment opened up new design possibilities to the team.
As if implementing the new tone and controls for RE4 weren’t enough of a departure, Mikami would take things a step further by replacing zombies with the new “Ganado” enemies. To Mikami, the new third-person shooting elements meant that the traditional, shambling hordes of the dead weren’t going to remain viable; he had vision of intense thrills and action, so the enemies had to change. He wanted to challenge players with a smarter breed of foe, one who would move more quickly and deliberately in their attempts to kill Leon. Combat was also amplified with quick time events, or timed, precision button prompts that allowed for more elaborate fight scenes. Some games have shamelessly spammed the use of quick time events, but for RE4 they were refreshing and different. After six years of development, RE4 was finally coming together, but Mikami had no idea just how big of a hit he had on his hands.
When RE4 finally released to the public in 2005, fans weren’t quite sure what to expect of the title. Hype had built to a fever pitch and no one knew if Mikami’s new take would mesh with their memories of PlayStation’s Resident Evil trilogy. It didn’t take long, though, for players across the world to fall in love with this new direction. The controls were exceedingly sharp, allowing for more precision than anything before it. The graphics alone were stunning, but the brilliant character and monster design made them truly shine. Leon was intentionally made a more appealing leading man than he was in Resident Evil 2, endearing himself to fans and helping make the transition a bit easier for holdouts.
RE4 isn’t without it detractors, of course. Some complain that the heart of Resident Evil was lost by foregoing tension and dread for adrenaline and excitement. There’s no denying that RE4 empowered the player more than ever with its generous ammo and health drops. Gone were the days of clinging to a clip of ammunition for the most dire of circumstances, and with it went the sense of fear helplessness that was so instrumental to Resident Evil’s ascension. While I can appreciate that some fans might have felt betrayed seeing Resident Evil stray so far from what had come before, I truly believe that RE4 struck the perfect balance between action and survival horror that all subsequent sequels have struggled to recreate. RE4 was as scary as it was thrilling and remains the perfect evolution of the series.
RE4 is probably the most ported version of any Resident Evil game to date. Originally a GameCube exclusive, the title saw ports to PS2, Wii, PC, iOS, PSN, and XBox LIVE. There are actually two limited editions of RE4; the GameCube version was released in a special tin case while the PS2 version came in a steelbook. They’re both pretty awesome, but the GameCube one is harder to find. The Wii version of RE4 is particularly loved, as it introduced fluid and natural motion controls in addition to exclusive content from the PS2 edition. Second to the Wii version would have to be the HD remakes on the PS3 and 360’s digital marketplaces. The graphics have been lovingly updated and make the experience look better than ever. Regardless of how you play RE4, you owe it to yourself to experience this masterpiece of a game. The story is campy but engaging, and features some of the most memorable and intense boss fights in all of gaming. Whether a fan of the series or playing it for the first time, you will find very little to hate and so much to enjoy. Go play RE4 today!
Developed and published by Capcom, 2005.
Resident Evil 4 is available on the GameCube, PS2, PC, and Wii. An iOS version of the game is also available, along with HD remakes on PSN and XBox LIVE.