Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Another Resident Evil 4 article.
Look, I’m sorry. Resident Evil 7 is out in a week and if the demo is anything to go by, I won’t be able to play it. I’ve weakened my heart from years of Red Bull and KFC abuse and besides, I’m just not great with scary games. I scare far too easily for a man of my shape and size. I remember coming home late one night and my flatmate jumping out at me as I opened the door. It scared the shit out of me. I threw my arms up while making an odd gargling noise, like an asthmatic Chewbacca being kicked in the jimmies, a sound so utterly odd and inhuman in its origin that my flatmate screamed right back at me.
I moved out a month later.
I can’t join in with the Resident Evil 7 celebrations, so I’m revisiting Resident Evil 4–the Lord of All Games, the King of Horror, the Best Thing Either Of Us Will Ever Play In Our Pointless Lives. It’s my favourite game of all time. I’ve completed it on GameCube, PS2, PS3, and I’ve now got it on Xbox One as well. The thought of playing it makes me throb with excitement, even as the graphics age and I feel a slight tinge of embarrassment to be playing it while my friends list is full of Overwatch, Battlefield, and Destiny players.
(Okay, maybe not Destiny.)
To make this interesting, I’ve decided to write this in list form. And by ‘interesting’, I mean I’m writing this in a way that you’ll be bothered to read it. I’m not going to go on about the ludonarrative dissonance or pontificate about the religious symbolism of the churches or discuss dynamic gender issues not being representative of our current society or whatever it is proper games journos do these days besides reading The Guardian and shopping for cheap suits at Moss Bros.
I only really want to talk about the best bits in Resident Evil 4.
Mostly, if I’m being honest, I just want to talk about the merchant.
THE FIRST HOUSE
A lot of people forget that Resident Evil 4 first existed as an exclusive for GameCube, a strange purple box of a thing with a handle on its back and a controller with jelly-bean sweets for buttons.
There were some ‘mature’ games about like Killer7 and No More Heroes. But these were the exception rather than the rule. Here are some other games that came out in Japan around the same time as Resident Evil 4: Donkey Kong Jungle Beat, Mario Party 6, Mario Power Tennis. You get the idea.
And now suddenly, here was Resident Evil 4, a GameCube exclusive that stormed into Nintendo’s neon-coloured Mario Land with size 13 Doc Martens, a loaded handgun and killer one-liners.
The opening minute of Resident Evil 4 goes like this: you walk into someone’s house, you ask the owner if he’s seen the girl in your picture, he gets a bit miffed (presumably because someone has just marched into his house with a gun), you shoot him in the head, you walk around his house stealing all the money from the drawers, you run upstairs, you jump out the top floor window.
Yes! What an intro! What a rush! What a game! Most games open with “press A twice to double jump” tedium. This was a white-knuckle rollercoaster ride straight into the heart of Resident Evil 4’s action. Which brings us to…
THE FIRST VILLAGE
Did you pay any attention to the Best Of 2016 lists? Most of them said Doom or Overwatch were the best games of last year. Both are correct answers. But, of course, there had to be some rampant twattery as well, which meant some lists had The Witcher 3’s Blood and Wine DLC as the best game of the year. DLC. As game of the year. DLC. Game of the year. It’s like saying the Jason Bourne Blu-Ray commentary was Film of the Year. Stupid.
And when the twattery floodgates open, everyone else follows, which means some sites went even further and put Rainbow Bloody Bastard 6 as their game of 2016, even though it came out in 2015. If we’re playing by those rules, you know what the best game of 2016 really is? Resident Evil 4. Actually, not even Resident Evil 4. Just the first village. It’s also game of the year for 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020, and would win all further years if the world had any chance of surviving Trump’s nuclear holocaust beyond 2020, so just end the awards now. It’s over.
Resident Evil 4’s opening village – game of the year.
All it is, in dry gameplay terms, is a survival arena. It’s a little sandbox full of things you can play around with. You can run into houses and shove cabinets up against the doors, which then rattle under the angry fists of the villagers trying to kill you. You can climb up ladders and kick them over when the villagers give chase. You can climb up the bell tower and throw fire grenades down below, jumping 30 feet to the bottom without so much as a wince, let alone a cracked ankle. You can shit yourself in fear when you hear a chainsaw start-up for the first time – it’s fine, we all did – and you can EVEN SHOOT A COW.
The first time you play through the village, it’s thrilling because you have no idea it’s a survival arena. You just need to hang on until the villagers are called elsewhere but you don’t know that. So you keep shooting, villagers keep coming, there’s no obvious way to escape. Everywhere is sealed off and you’re trapped. Panic sets in. Where do I go? What do I do? I’m running out of ammo. Shit. Shit!
Even now, in a world of constant WhatsApp notifications from that group you keep meaning to mute, that first village holds a vice-like grip on your attention.
If you’ve never played Resident Evil 4 before, and you don’t like the idea of paying more than five pounds for an old game, it’s worth that fiver just for the first house and the first village alone. You’ll get more gameplay in those opening 15 minutes than most games manage in their open-world sprawl of collectibles, cutscenes, co-op, clutter, and crap.
I’ve waited until the third entry to talk about The Merchant (is it capitalised? He deserves to be capitalised) and I’m not holding off any longer.
The Merchant is one of those unifying powers in gaming. I know who he is. You know who he is. Everyone knows who he is. If someone says that they play games or they’re a gamer, all you have to do is murmur “what’re ya booyin’?” to see their dead eyes burst to life, as they blurt out “what’re ya sellin’?” in excited response. This is then followed by a high-five, beers all round, and a drunken rant about how games aren’t what they used to be, aren’t pre-orders rubbish, maybe eight pounds is too much for a Mario mobile game, ahhh screw it no it’s not, who wants another beer.
The answer you don’t want: “Pardon? What am I buying? What?”
The Merchant is brilliant because he is Pure Videogame. He is absolutely the most videogame creation ever made. Nothing about The Merchant makes sense in a way that nothing about most videogames really make sense. He’s a teleporting weapon salesman that looks part playground paedo, part rum-soaked pirate. He carries around a purple flame so you know where to find him – you, his only customer, the only one he needs to sustain his business and keep HMRC off his back – and he excitedly opens his trenchcoat when he sees you, showing roughly three pockets storing dozens of weapons.
Even in Resident Evil 4, a game where the dialogue seems to be been inspired by poorly translated American cop shows and a well-worn Commando VHS, The Merchant’s dialogue stands out as special.
“Ahhhh I’ll buy it… at a HIGH price!”
“Ahhhh, an awesome choice stranger, it’s a rapid-fire 3-round capability! Although it uses up ammo rather quickly!”
“Not only will you need cash, you’ll need GUTS to buy that weapon!”
Picture how more likely you’d be to hand over cash if you were in, say, Foot Locker and one of those pretend referees came over and said “hehe, got a selection of GOOD things on sale, stranger.”
What’s brilliant is when you think about when you stop to think about any element of Resident Evil 4–and I mean really stop to think about it, like how this idea went from a developer’s whiskey-addled brain at 3am to the tiny disc spinning away inside your GameCube–is how little sense it actually makes.
Look at it from another angle. Games publishers are men in suits who spend their working days having meetings about meetings, sending emails using the red ‘Important!’ flag in Outlook no-one else bothers with, and showing pictures of their new car to the receptionist.
What men in suits don’t particularly want to do with their working day is have conversations about little dwarf pirate men called Salazar.
And yet, at some point, that’s exactly what has happened.
Picture the scene. At Capcom HQ, token Man In Suit would have asked for an update on the concept of the game. They know the hero is Leon, they know the game starts in a village, they know the rough storyline. There would have been a meeting where they asked Capcom who the main antagonist is.
“It’s this guy,” one of the developers would have replied, unfurling a drawing of some strange little dwarf-manchild wearing a pirate hat. “He’s called Salazar.”
There’d be a pause.
“Wait. Him? That’s him? That’s the bad guy?”
You’d then picture the Man In Suit leaning back in his chair, looking slightly puzzled but perhaps unsurprised at this point, sucking in air. Man In Suit remembers the meeting where the same developer asked if it was okay to put a line in about the President’s daughter packing ballistics and a teleporting weapon salesman who powers the entire economy of this fictional country. Who are these fucking jokers, he’s thinking by now. I didn’t spend three years at uni getting my business degree to put up with this shit.
“Why is Salazar… okay. Never mind. Have you got any other ideas?”
One final pause.
“Ahhh you know what? Fuck it, do what you want,” he’d say, striding out of the room while throwing on his blazer in one swift move, as he reminds himself to check Nintendo’s corporate site later to see if they have any jobs going.
IT’S UNASHAMEDLY A VIDEO GAME
Here’s something I didn’t know until a recent playthrough: flash grenades kill crows. Dead crows leave behind coins. Coins can be used to buy more flash grenades from the magical teleporting merchant.
Here’s another thing that I did know but is still worth mentioning: you can unlock a mafia outfit for Leon and a suit of armour for Ashley. As in actually unlock them, not get them for free by pre-ordering Resident Evil 4 from GAME Hemel Hempstead on a Tuesday.
Videogames are the fucking best.
YOU CAN DIE IN APPROXIMATELY 50,000 DIFFERENT WAYS (ROUGH GUESS, WIKIPEDIA DIDN’T HAVE THE EXACT NUMBER, SORRY) AND EACH ONE HAS ITS OWN DEATH ANIMATION MAKING RESIDENT EVIL 4 ONE OF THE FEW GAMES WHERE DYING IS ACTUALLY QUITE FUN IN A WEIRD SORT OF WAY.
LOOK, PLEASE, JUST PLAY IT
Resident Evil 4 is a game that Capcom hasn’t bettered since. Will Resident Evil 7 be better? It’ll be different, so it’s almost a redundant question. Resident Evil 7 is swerving back into horror territory, while Resident Evil 4 was Capcom swerving into action territory.
It was likely a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that won’t ever be recaptured by Capcom. It came at the right place at the right time, with the right talent in the right places. Gaming has lurched towards serious and sombre since then, focusing on gritty realism over 80s action movie fantasy, and a game like Resident Evil 4 nowadays would likely be seen as odd.
But as a game? As a moment? As a high-point for the series and even Capcom itself? Resident Evil 4 will never be beat.
After all, it is game of the year. Remember?