The door to safety is shut: exploring Resident Evil Zero’s place in the series

Resident Evil Zero first released back in 2002, the same year as the widely beloved Resident Evil remake. Both games were originally Nintendo Gamecube exclusives, but have subsequently been ported to a variety of modern platforms, with the specific version we’re looking at today forming half of the Origins Collection for PlayStation 4.

Resident Evil Zero was far from the first Resident Evil title — it was actually the sixth mainline release, counting the remake of the first Resident Evil for Gamecube. But canonically, it’s the beginning of the whole story, so that’s where we’re beginning our exploration of the series as a whole, since with all the myriad rereleases and remakes we’ve seen over the years, it’s as good a place as any to get underway — particularly as it’s a fairly representative example of what “classic era” Resident Evil was all about.

Resident Evil Zero

This part of Resident Evil’s history followed the mould set by Infogrames’ Alone in the Dark (as discussed last time) fairly closely: there was a strong emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving; the action unfolded from fixed camera angles; combat was something that offered a significant threat, making it often advisable to find ways of avoiding danger rather than plunging headlong into it.

In Resident Evil Zero, you initially take on the role of STARS agent Rebecca Chambers, who has just survived her helicopter crash-landing while it was taking her and her peers to investigate some serial murders in the mountains. In short order, Rebecca stumbles across a mysterious train — which, naturally, starts moving as soon as she’s inadvertently locked herself inside — and encounters convicted murderer Billy Coen, who has recently escaped from the prison transport that was taking him to be executed.

Before long, strange things start happening on the train; seemingly dead passengers start coming back to life as zombies, and there seem to be weird slimy eggs all over the place. Despite initially rather hesitant to work together, Rebecca and Billy surmise that their best likelihood of survival will come from teaming up, and as such they decide to work together in order to stop the train, figure out what is going on and, more than anything, ensure that they don’t die a horrible death.

Resident Evil Zero

What then transpires is textbook Resident Evil: you’re confined within a relatively limited set of locations that will gradually expand as you find ways to open doors, and in order to open those doors you’ll need to find numerous items and make use of them in the proper locations. During your explorations, you’ll encounter enemies — and given the confined environment of the train, you’ll usually need to deal with them rather than avoiding them.

For the most part, the initial section of the game features the series’ iconic shambling zombies, who are fairly straightforward to deal with — if as bullet-spongey as they always were in this era of Resident Evil as a whole. There is a single boss fight in which you battle against a giant scorpion in fairly confined quarters, but this is easily dealt with; on the whole, the initial train section of Resident Evil Zero is mostly about helping the player to understand how the game works — including its unique mechanics.

In contrast to the other early era Resident Evil games, which tended to feature two playable protagonists that you took control of either in completely separate playthroughs or at critical moments in the narrative, Resident Evil Zero was the first to feature what it referred to as a “zapping” system, which allowed you to switch control between Billy and Rebecca at any time. And you’ll need to use both of them in order to progress through the game.

Resident Evil Zero

Each character has their own unique abilities. Rebecca has a chemical mixing kit — this only really becomes relevant later in the game — while Billy has a lighter and is able to take a bit more of a beating from enemies. Billy, as a big strapping man, is also able to push heavier objects than Rebecca is, so for the most part the game tends to work best if you use Billy to scout and clear a path, then bring in Rebecca to solve puzzles as required.

The two-character dynamic is used in a number of ways. Firstly and most simply, having two characters means that you have twice the inventory space you would normally have in a Resident Evil game — though both characters will need to be present in the same location if they want to exchange or use one another’s items.

Secondly, the character you’re not controlling can be set to both follow you and attack enemies they spot if you desire; the former is useful if you know you’re going to need both characters to cooperate in a location, but the latter can be a liability with how limited ammunition is.

Resident Evil Zero

Thirdly, there are situations where one character will find themselves trapped in a location and they will need to work together with the other in order to get themselves out. This specific dynamic is introduced to the player through a sequence in Resident Evil Zero’s initial section where Rebecca finds herself falling through the roof of the train into a locked cabin; something is stuck in the keyhole so she is unable to let herself out.

Consequently, it’s up to Billy to explore the rest of the train in order to find something appropriately sharp and pointy to poke into the keyhole and clear it out — and to actually find a way of getting said sharp and pointy thing to Rebecca without being able to use the door.

This era of survival horror games clearly spun off from the adventure game genre that was particularly popular on 8- and 16-bit home computers — and puzzle sequences like this make that fact abundantly clear. The process to achieving anything is often convoluted, borderline nonsensical and deliberately cumbersome to execute — but when you successfully accomplish something relatively mundane like opening a door, there’s a delightful sense of achievement, just like there was in old text adventures when you figured out the exact combination of verbs, nouns and inventory items required to get things done.

Resident Evil Zero actually resembles the most old-school of adventure games in another significant way that the rest of this part of the series does not, too: it provides the ability for both Rebecca and Billy to drop items, then come back and pick them up later. This is how the game handles inventory management, and is in complete contrast to the other early Resident Evil games’ interconnected “item box” system.

Here, if you stumble across an item that is essential to solving a puzzle you’ve been scratching your head over but your inventory is full, you can simply drop something on the ground to make room for that key item. But what? Can you afford to drop your weapon? A healing item? It’s always an interesting decision to make — and you can always use dropped items to act as reminders to yourself, too, just like in the classic text adventures like Colossal Cave and Zork.

Resident Evil Zero

Thankfully, Resident Evil Zero doesn’t expect you to go truly old-school and scrawl your own notes on a notepad while you’re playing — the in-game map system is good enough to mark where you’ve left all the things you’ve dropped, plus any other items that you weren’t able to pick up at the time you discovered them. With this information, you can plan your actions accordingly without needing to carry around cumbersome items “just in case” they’re about to be useful — it’s also helpful if you find yourself interested in speedrunning the game.

Resident Evil Zero’s biggest criticism on its original Gamecube release was that Capcom hadn’t done anything about the series’ legendary “tank controls”, which were already starting to feel extremely archaic after several years of consoles with dual analogue sticks. Thankfully, the more recent ports of the game rectify this with the default control scheme being distinctly more modern direct-control analogue system — you push a direction, you go that direction.

More than the controls, what’s particularly interesting about Resident Evil Zero from a modern perspective, though, is how light it is on narrative sequences, especially when compared to today’s triple-A titles. This is a game that uses narrative sparingly in order to establish context, then places emphasis firmly on the gameplay, with dialogue sequences typically kept short and to the point.

Resident Evil Zero

The longer cutscenes tend to show up between major parts of Resident Evil Zero — clearing the train chapter provides both a glimpse at what is going on elsewhere as well as establishing Billy and Rebecca’s next challenge, for example — but once you’re into an “adventure” segment, your hands won’t be off the controller for more than a few seconds at a time at any point.

That’s actually rather refreshing after a number of years of games that forced you into trudging along behind a character who was talking to you, or kept you rooted to the spot while a conversation was unfolding, or provided an experience that felt like there were more cutscenes than actual “game”.

And that’s just one of many reasons that Resident Evil Zero is well worth revisiting today — especially if you’ve never encountered it before. To many fans, it’s not necessarily a particular high point of the series — though opinions vary wildly on that anyway. It certainly is an interesting one, though — so next time we’ll be looking into the things this game does in a little more detail.

Until then, stay safe, and always carry a big gun. Unless you really need that red key.

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Pete Davison
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