I used to think it was Resident Evil 5 that sent the series into a downturn. But had I played Zero, back when it first released in 2002, I'd have known better than to lay blame at the feet of Kenichi Ueda. Even brushed down and spit-shined, this is a drab, unenthusiastic game, a perfect summation of where not just Resident Evil, but a lot of big series, have gone wrong over the past fifteen years.
The villain in Resident Evil: Code Veronica is a cross-dressing English schoolboy who wears a guardsman's jacket, carries a hunting rifle and lives in a haunted house filled with dolls. He's colourful, daffy and absurd, emblematic of just how much life Resident Evil once had.
Then you look at Zero, or even Resident Evil: Remake, which accompanied it on the GameCube, and it's so still and sombre. The enemies are all giant animals – a giant scorpion, giant millipede, giant bat, giant frog – and they all inhabit dour locations, grey and brown secret labs that feel like leftovers from the better Resident Evils.
The first hour, aboard a moving train, is fantastic, and if the writers had found some way of spreading an eight-hour game across such a small environment they might have been on to something. But Zero promptly segues into familiar ground (at times literally, if you remember Resident Evil 2) and there's no vim or brio to liven up the clichés. The glowering tone, and unfathomable fascination with lore that characterise today's Resident Evil games both began here.
Zero is the worst for it but each of the GameCube releases is as dry as a bone – that Lisa Trevor subplot from Remake the perfect example of sober "world-building" encroaching on creative flair. Whenever Wesker, Birkin or Marcus show up to explain the origins of the Umbrella corporation, backed by stock, orchestral tones, Resident Evil Zero loses both me and the kitsch ambience that once made this series such a laugh.
The character switching and inventory management is excruciating. The game gains nothing – no thicker atmosphere, no greater sense of "survival", no memorable moments of team work or decision-making – and loses all momentum and vibrancy as a result of these inexplicable mechanics.
Who found this interesting? Who played Resident Evil Zero and thought it anything but contrived and perennial? This isn't a petty gripe. It's not that I'm adverse to backtracking, absence of action or any of the other things that stereotypically give petulant critics cause to complain.
I just found myself, time and time again in Resident Evil Zero, laughing at how pedantic and fussy it was, how you couldn't pick up this item if you didn't give your partner that item, how you couldn't swap items unless you were close enough together, how he can't mix herbs and she can't push boxes, and everything has to be just so. I felt like I was addressing the prissy manager of a menswear department: "No sir, we do NOT stock that cravat in periwinkle blue."
Resident Evil 5 was clumsy and stupid, and after the huge success of Resident Evil 4, it drew a lot of attention, and a lot of flak in kind. But its overwrought plotting and tedious, juggling ball mechanics are all from Resident Evil Zero – Zero's a prequel in the basic, narrative sense, but it in fact marks the beginning of the end, the start of when Resident Evil devolved into a big, bored franchise.
Resident Evil Zero is a joyless game. Every section feels like a tedious lateral thinking puzzle – "the farmer has a fox, a chicken and some grain, but can only carry one at a time" – and the locations and creatures are half-heartedly designed. If you haven't played it, it provides valuable insight into where Resident Evil, and perhaps games at large, went wrong over the past decade or so. Other than that, it feels like work.