Istill remember the first time I met Ramón Salazar in Resident Evil 4. Announcing himself with a maniacal cackle, the diminutive castellan appeared out of nowhere, flanked by a pair of monstrous monks, to demand that I (or, I suppose, our hero Leon Kennedy) turn myself in as a hostage, before swanning away into the darkness.
It’s not the sub-B-movie dialogue that makes this moment one of Resident Evil 4’s most memorable – this is Resi writing to the core, with one of Leon’s few contributions a complete non sequitur ‘No thanks, bro’ – but Salazar himself.
Clad in a frilly purple coat and tricorn, Salazar has the stature of a child and the face of an octogenarian – Hasbulla with a not-quite Spanish accent. Throw in the limited facial animations that Resi 4’s engine could handle and the effect is strangely doll-like, a leering hunk of porcelain hurling threats from a balcony.
By the last time you face him the castle’s keeper looks rather different – he has a lot more mandibles, for one – but between his introduction and then he’ll pop up every once in a while to cackle, spring a trap, and skip off (sometimes literally) to safety.
There’s a good argument that Salazar’s debut, early in Resident Evil 4’s second act, is its strangest moment, but there’s fierce competition.
There’s the time a friendly dog rescues you from El Gigante, a zombified troll that could have wandered off the set of The Lord of the Rings. How about the eerie, unnamed, ever-present merchant, whose casual, oft-repeated bark of ‘What’re ya buying?’ lingers long after the game ends? There’s even a second Salazar, a colossal statue of the not-so-colossal castellan that springs to life and crushes half the castle in pursuit of Leon.
Resident Evil games weren’t always like this, you see.
Sure, they’ve always been schlocky and silly – this is a franchise where doors are locked with card suit keys and police stations decorated with suits of armour – but before Resident Evil 4 there was a method : B-movie Americana through a Japanese lens, underpinned at all times by a few tried and tested ‘60s sci-fi tropes, the atomic panic swapped out for genetic manipulation.
In earlier entries, nods to the fantastical like haunted houses and the odd giant snake are merely a distraction from the high-tech, big pharma threat at the bottom of it all.
But from play to plot, the fourth game wanted to be different, and so it inverts that: the cod-medieval Spanish setting really is the heart of the story, and the corporate threat is latched on at the end, itself an ungainly parasite – much like the ancient ‘Las Plagas’ that takes over from Umbrella’s coterie of viruses.
As for the characters, they’ve always been outlandish, but archetypal: the gruff quasi-military police team, the corporate spies out for a quick buck, the scientists who were so busy wondering whether they could that… you get the idea.
‘Parasitically possessed diminutive Spanish lord’ doesn’t fit so neatly into any of those buckets, and neither Salazar nor most of the rest of Resident Evil 4’s cast suits the series’ tropey roots – with an obvious exception for the president’s daughter that needs rescuing.
Playing Resident Evil 4 has the feel of a fever dream – fitting, I suppose. Nothing ever quite seems real, and whenever I play the game I can’t help waiting for the penny to drop, for the illusion to be shattered and the game’s parasitic hallucinations revealed.
What’s strange is that as much as Resident Evil 4 has been held up as the franchise’s pinnacle, as much as it re-shaped the games’ play style for good, its experiments with tone and plot went largely ignored.
Capcom learnt all the wrong lessons from its success, doubling down on gunplay and quick-time events dressed up by corporate conflict, to bring us the jarringly racist, and then genuinely unplayable, fifth and sixth instalments. The franchise went into meltdown, only finding a modicum of acclaim with the Revelations spin-offs, which for the most part ditched 4’s influence and returned to the simple sci-fi horror of games gone by.
It took Resident Evil 7 to change that. Like Resi 4, it upended series convention by shifting viewpoint – over-the-shoulder action in 4, first-person in 7 – but more than that, 7 also shares 4’s contagious chaotic bent.
The mould-addled Baker family are as deranged as Salazar ever was – none more so than teenage Jigsaw wannabe Lucas – and the game shares its predecessor’s unpredictability. At any time you could come across anything from bug swarms to a birthday party, a beached ship to sentient clumps of fungus. Once again the old rules went out the window, and all bets were off.
7’s successor Village is, of course, Resi 4’s true-born heir. The remote European setting, incongruous merchant, and half-explained-at-best giant lake monster are ripped straight out of the noughties game.
Even Salazar recurs, of a sort – it’s hard to see the internet’s favourite pin-up, the statuesque Lady Dimitrescu, as anything other than the yin to Salazar’s yang, his utter opposite physically but with the same part to play in the plot.
It’s fitting then that Village is being so directly followed by a remake of Resident Evil 4, a chance to return to the game that provided such heavy inspiration and paved the way for Village’s descent into the surreal.
Village’s inexplicable – and genuinely shocking – closing stretch even feels like a chance to make up for its forebear’s final third. Dragging the player away from Spanish surrealism and into an all-too-familiar network of laboratories, grey corridors, and test chambers, Resi 4’s finale is by far its weakest act – with due apology to the Regenerators, an enemy unsettling enough to almost make up for it all.
It’s the part of Resident Evil 4 that feels the most like what came before, cultish fanatics and sneering little lords giving way to gruff goons and the slow rumble forwards of the over-arching Umbrella plot.
And then it happens. If you’ve played the game, you know what I mean. You’ve survived soldiers, battled bosses, and got the girl – all that’s left is to escape in one piece. But there’s no helicopter into the sunset for you, no underground railway or even a simple speed boat.
This is Resident Evil 4, and it has one last surprise waiting: an out-of-nowhere playable jet ski escape against the clock, a blockbuster move ripped right out of a very different sort of B-movie.
Resi 4 is messy, and brilliant, and bonkers – and no-one else ever did it quite the same.
Dominic Preston is the deputy editor of tech website TechAdvisor, and a regular contributor to NME’s video game section.