Resident Evil Zero is where monster movies go to die

2002’s Resident Evil for the GameCube was a luxurious, Gothic remake of the 1996 PlayStation original. It came out a year after Fatal Frame and Silent Hill 2, slotting perfectly into their bleak new visions of horror: unrelentingly dark, art-directed to the nines, and tense as shit.

Resident Evil is creepy despite its ludicrous premise: you poke around a huge, dark mansion while fending off zombies and various oversized snakes, spiders, and sharks. Central to the game’s success is its atmosphere: the vivid, lush pre-rendered backgrounds buzz with animated touches, like flies around a lamp or lightning flashing through a window. The sound design is all thudding doors, lonely footsteps, moaning corpses, and funereal synthesizers.

Unrelentingly dark, art-directed to the nines, and tense as shit

My point is that this is the most luxe survival horror game, a remake justified by the sheer love lavished on every detail. Its immediate follow-up, coming not eight months later, was Resident Evil Zero. You can, as with Resident Evil before it, now download this game in a nice shiny HD version on your console of choice.

Zero functions as a retread of a remake. It retains the bespoke nature of the backgrounds—an overturned, lolling bottle of wine, amber pools of lamplight—and bolts on a hugely obnoxious, fiddly partner-management/inventory system. You play as small lady Rebecca Chambers—who’s essentially a palette-swap of the original Resident Evil’s Jill Valentine—and swole jackass Billy Coen, and have to switch between them to complete such taxing puzzles as “put the ice pick on the dumbwaiter and send it to me, buddy” and “play that piano to open the secret passage so I can come back, thanks.”

Sidebar: the first line of dialogue from Billy Coen, again one of this game’s two protagonists, is “So, you seem to know me. Been fantasizing about me?” Billy has sick fucking tribal tats and a cool haircut. He also carries a dope lighter, and can push heavy-ass objects. Rebecca is small, has anime-big eyes, and … carries a chemistry set. Good looking out, nerd.

Resident Evil 0

Luckily, this thing is still gorgeous. Unlike the Silent Hill games, which thrive on murky, abstract haze, the art direction here benefits from clarity. The baroque Ecliptic Express train is a wonder of design and detail, despite not being scary in the slightest. In fact, it’s patently stupid: the game opens with another cool dude, wearing a white dress with a wide V-neckline, attacking the train with leeches. Another thing: there is a giant scorpion in the dining car. He comes through the ceiling. Later you have to find a gold snake ring and a silver snake ring to open the conductor’s briefcase. Inside his briefcase, sitting neatly at the very bottom, is a keycard. Nothing else is inside, because this is a Survival Horror Game, and they don’t have to make sense.

Resident Evil Zero is kind of like a retirement home for rejected monsters, actually: the first three bosses are, in order, giant scorpion, giant centipede, and giant bat. Granted, the first Resident Evil was loaded with Super-Size enemies too, like giant snake, big shark, oversized plant, and large spider, but it also had a lot of other stuff going for it. It was a weird mash-up of zombie movies and macho action cinema, all squashed into one indelible setting: the Spencer Mansion.

Resident Evil Zero is kind of like a retirement home for rejected monsters

The game was always dumb, of course. It went to great lengths to justify its being set in a mansion full of abstruse puzzles—they didn’t want anyone to find the secret lab, obviously!—and makes you save using typewriter ribbons. But they absolutely nailed that mansion. It was foreboding and maze-like, following its own bizarre internal logic. Nothing in Resident Evil Zero has that kind of consistency. It’s a pretty mess barely worth the aesthetic lavished upon it. If you feel at home putting the scimitar onto the mantlepiece to open the third floor alcove, reading the words “This door is locked from the other side,” or kicking downed enemies to make sure they’re dead, you already know you’ll want to replay this.

Everyone else? Don’t leave the mansion.