The Throwback Hero That Video Games Needed

Resident Evil 4 might not be an elevated story, but it sure is an entertaining one.

A close-up shot of the video-game character Leon Kennedy from the remake of "Resident Evil 4"

The “next-gen remake” is the latest and safest cash cow in video gaming. Take a hit title that came out a decade or more ago on a prior console, spiff it up with updated graphics, controls, and maybe even some new content, and sell it at full price to a nostalgic audience. Since its 2005 debut on the Nintendo GameCube, Capcom’s Resident Evil 4 has been lightly reconfigured for a dozen different devices. But the most recent edition is a soup-to-nuts revamp, meant to bring in a new generation while still satisfying longtime players like me who are just looking to relive the glory days.

I was introduced to Resident Evil 4 in college, and I’ve replayed it countless times over the years as it’s been “ported” to new consoles. When it was first released, the game marked a departure from the rest of the Resident Evil series, in which the player navigates the fictional Raccoon City during a viral zombie outbreak. The first Resident Evil pioneered the “survival horror” genre, asking players to conserve ammunition, solve puzzles, and withstand jump scares as enemies swarmed from every dark corner. The best-selling horror franchise spawned rival series such as Silent Hill and Left 4 Dead, but by 2005, the Resident Evil formula had grown creaky, having gained sequels and prequels for almost a decade to diminishing returns.

Resident Evil 4 aimed to loosen things up. Capcom added more dynamic action, simplified the disorienting, maze-like landscape of the earlier games, and changed the setting from Raccoon City to rural Spain. (Yes, you read that right: rural Spain.) The protagonist is Leon Kennedy, a rookie cop in Resident Evil 2 and now a steely government agent assigned to a special mission: rescue the president’s daughter, Ashley, who has been kidnapped and locked in a dungeon by mad cultists. And this, dear reader, is why I love Resident Evil 4 the most, and why I happily slapped my money down for this latest remake on the day it was released.

To put it simply: The game is very, very silly. Yes, it’s filled with gory violence, awesome weaponry, and a distressing atmosphere, but it’s basically about a zealous do-gooder hero rescuing a princess in a castle. Its depiction of contemporary Spain is laughable, rendering it as a community filled with medieval, dull-witted farmers; hooded cult members; and preening villains who seemed to have stumbled out of the Napoleonic Wars. The plot is a Super Mario adventure crossed with straight-to-video thriller nonsense, to immensely satisfying effect. Leon Kennedy brings much of the magic; he looks like he was transplanted from the set of a mid-2000s boy-band video, his blond, hairspray-slicked locks falling perfectly over his forehead as he takes aim at hordes of enemies. Midway through the game, Ashley becomes Leon’s chirpy companion, wearing impractical boots and constantly needing assistance.

My deep fear with the Resident Evil 4 remake was that a lot of this cartoonish nonsense would be scrubbed away. The trend, these days, is for video games to be serious, and lavish, “triple A” games that aim for the highest sales are the most serious of all. The Last of Us, recently adapted with fawning faithfulness by HBO, is a prime example of that category, featuring a dense script, motion-capture performances by great actors, and some meta ruminations on gaming’s violent themes and the bleakness of the horror genre. The original Resident Evil 4 arrived before any of that forced navel-gazing; I wondered if this latest remake would have to indulge it, in order to justify the high retail price and expansive budget.

Thankfully, all of the updates are instead focused on the technical side of things. The game nicely reflects the huge strides the industry has made in physics and artificial intelligence. Villains no longer stagger toward you brainlessly, but dodge and swarm with surprising grace. The game demands accuracy and rewards lateral thinking, encouraging you to not just mow down villains with your weapons but lure them into traps or even pit them against each other. The environment remains hilariously frozen in time, with Leon in his Kevlar vest navigating a world of wooden huts and stone citadels, but it’s illustrated beautifully, be it a fortress dimly lit by torches or a farm strewn with zombie corpses.

The dizzy heights of modern gaming do not bother me. I am a huge fan of extravagant works such as The Last of Us, Red Dead Redemption, and The Witcher, and I’m endlessly impressed with how games keep advancing their story lines to match their glitzy tech. But Resident Evil 4 does something that the high-concept blockbusters can’t always achieve: It lets me unplug my brain. I can just have fun for an hour. Not everything needs to be elevated; narrative foolishness mixed with pitch-perfect gunplay and heaps of gore will always be an easy way to get me to pick up a controller. I look forward to the next remake, likely to arrive a decade-plus from now, as long as it keeps Leon as airheaded as ever.