Released in 1998, only two years after the groundbreaking Resident Evil, Resident Evil 2 helped further establish the survival horror genre by placing a heavy focus on story, exploration, atmosphere, sound design, and nail-biting tension. While it can be argued that the ’96 original is more popular, Resident Evil 2 is and always will be the better game. It also just so happened to introduce the world to some of the most iconic villains in video gaming history.
When there is no more room in hell, the Dead will walk the earth.
Resident Evil 2 is a game loaded with dread, and while that’s not to say the first game isn’t, the sequel takes everything that made the original good, then makes it even better. Whether you’re playing the version released on the first Playstation or the recent remake, Resident Evil 2 sets out to terrify, and it succeeds in spades. It’s a high-strung experience that pulls few punches, fears no genre taboo, and reaches for the throat with its B-movie schlock. Above all, Resident Evil 2 (both the original and remake) is an impressive game for how it tackles the survival horror genre, confidently embracing its terrifying tone and rarely letting up until the story’s conclusion.
Directed by Hideki Kamiya (Devil May Cry, Viewtiful Joe, and Bayonetta), the original Resident Evil 2 added a variety of creatures that were stronger, faster, and downright creepier than those found in RE1. As Leon would say, “those zombies aren’t the only things crawling around out there.” From the tongue-lashing Lickers to the unstoppable Tyrant, as well as the hideously mutated William Birkin, Resident Evil 2 birthed some of the greatest villains of any game to date. The dead are everywhere (and I do mean everywhere), roaming behind walls, slumped in corners, hidden in shadows, swimming below the sewage, and even falling through ceilings.
Resident Evil 2 is kind of like the Aliens to Resident Evil‘s Alien. With more enemies and a stronger focus on action, RE2 gave us the first appearance of the infamous Lickers — nasty slimy creatures with elongated tongues that crawl on ceilings while waiting to devour their prey in seconds. It also gave us a giant alligator (the best underwater monster since the original Jaws) which chases you below the city’s streets through a filthy, dimly lit, labyrinthine sewer system. It’s a set piece that seems lifted from a cheap creature-feature, with an unexpectedly snappy, comedic bite and culminating in a massive explosion that sends the alligator’s guts flying across the screen.
But while the Lickers and the gargantuan alligator are terrifying creatures in their own right, the scene stealer in Resident Evil 2 is perhaps the Tyrant (commonly referred to by Western fans as “Mr. X”). Depending on which version you play and which scenario, the player will eventually cross paths with Mr. X, a pervasive threat appearing as one massive, trenchcoat-wearing leviathan. His emotionless face and steady, unstoppable trot make him Resident Evil‘s worthy equal to Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.
What makes Mr. X particularly special in the PS1 version is how he will only appear in the second (B) scenario, adding a new layer of urgency for those patient enough to play through the campaign a second time around. Anyone who didn’t finish the B scenario missed out on plenty of the game’s highlights, including Mr. X unexpectedly smashing through brick walls and other pre-rendered backgrounds. Unlike other bosses, you can’t kill him no matter how many weapons you’re carrying, and unlike other enemies, he will actually follow you across the entire map.
Resident Evil 2, both the PS1 original and the 2019 remake, are also prime examples of Capcom’s top-notch sound design, and with the recent remake, audio director Kentaro Nakashima pretty much perfected the craft. While the creatures that walk amongst Resident Evil‘s protagonists are visually unsettling, the audio is what gets players biting on their fingernails and gripping their seats. With the remake, Nakashima was able to use a real-time Binaural System — the first-ever stereophonic sound technology of its kind. While some fans are disappointed that the remake switches things up by introducing the Tyrant early on during the first playthrough, the improved audio design that accompanies the monster makes the change well worth it. Very little music is heard during gameplay, which leaves plenty of room for loads of creepy sound effects, and hearing the Tyrant’s relentless footsteps, along with the moans of the undead and the offscreen sounds of doors opening and closing as you tiptoe around ominous environments, creates a true sense of dread.
Relying on sounds to put your audience at the edge of their seat is refreshing, given that many horror games rely solely on cinematic cutscenes to curate scares, and Resident Evil 2 understands how to create an unsettling atmosphere like nobody else. Of course, it also helps that Mr. X isn’t so easily avoided; he’ll keep stalking you across the entire police station, forcing you to multitask while attempting to solve various puzzles scattered throughout. There isn’t much you can do against Mr. X other than carefully listen for his footsteps while mapping out any viable escape routes.
Without the original Tyrant (the T-OO2 found in the Spencer Mansion) there could be no Mr. X, but Mr. X deserves praise for inspiring so many subsequent bosses in the franchise while also becoming a recurring enemy archetype in later entries, as well as the defining figure of Resident Evil 3: Nemesis. There are few video game monsters as unrelenting and terrifying as him.
While Mr. X may be the scene stealer, the most underrated baddie in the rogue’s gallery is arguably William Birkin — a man responsible for more death and suffering than any villain in the franchise. The Umbrella scientist, after all, created the G-virus which triggered the destruction of Raccoon City, and eventually the world.
Birkin may be a monster, but his story is both tragic and twisted. In searching for a cure for the T-virus, Birkin was betrayed by Umbrella, ambushed by mercenaries, and left for dead by Alpha Team leader “HUNK,” who arrived at the facility with a subordinate to obtain the virus. Alpha Team retrieved a duralumin case containing “T” and “G” samples, and the injured Birkin was left with no choice but to inject the lethal G-virus into himself. Unfortunately, the virus didn’t properly stabilize onto his body, and instead, he transformed into a ruthless abomination. His revenge was swift, and it came at the cost of spreading the virus to the citizens of Raccoon City.
His arc is the perfect mad scientist storyline for the series, serving as the catalyst for the events of the game, and ultimately the entire franchise. When we first encounter Birkin, he still retains some traces of his human appearance, but each time Birkin reappears, his body mutates further and further, each incarnation revealing a more grotesque version of the former scientist, and eventually turning him into a massive, shapeless blob with bulging eyes, huge tentacles, and multiple limbs sprouting across his body.
Berkin spends the majority of his time in search of his daughter, but while that may sound sweet, he isn’t looking for her out of paternal instinct. Instead, Berkin is planning on implanting his daughter with an embryo to produce offspring. If you were to ask me, William is hands down the star of the show, because no matter how monstrous he becomes, his humanity is never forgotten — thanks to his wife, Anette, and his daughter, Sherry, who both become victims in his twisted plot of revenge.
Resident Evil 2‘s fast-paced opening sequence set the stage for what would be a rollercoaster ride of action, gore, suspense, and pure B-movie horror. Both the original and remake didn’t reinvent the wheel, but both games tighten the spokes, leaving one hell of an impression, as well as a list of video game villains you soon won’t forget.
– Ricky D