The founder of literary criticism, Matthew Arnold, is credited with coining a method of gauging the quality of art by calling the best pieces ‘touchstones’. If a title is able to survive past a certain number of years, then it possesses whatever aesthetic quality makes “good” art, as opposed to something that is forgotten a few years after its release. Once you can establish which titles are touchstones, you then use them as comparisons to gauge the quality of new titles. Did a poem move you as much as the Iliad? Is the game scarier than System Shock 2? Is the villain as disturbing as Iago? Is the multiplayer as sharp as Goldeneye‘s was?
With more games being reissued and over 2 decades of video games to look back on, gamers are being allowed the same opportunities to establish a more precise gauge of quality beyond graphics or sound. You can compare these by the experience. Whatever it is that makes a touchstone game great will always be hard to define technically, but it is irrefutable that there is something there in those special games that others lack. Resident Evil 4 is just such a touchstone, and its re-issue on the Wii is a huge success because of that same strange element that makes some games into classics.
Resident Evil 4 is the best action game to yet be released on the Wii, and will probably be the first of many games to be made in this fashion. You control your character with the nunchuck joystick while the camera follows closely behind. The camera pans with you, making for a very unique solution to the original problem with the Wii and the first-person shooter: turning by aiming the remote gets really tedious. When you’re ready to start shooting you hold the trigger and press A to fire, aiming a red cursor that’s guided by the remote. To control the camera while your gun is out you just use the joystick. What this creates is a surprisingly entertaining ‘stand & shoot’ method of playing. Run around, find a good spot, and just start blasting. It solves the tedium of constantly guiding yourself by pointing while still taking advantage of the fantastic precision aiming that you can only do on a Wii.
At times, the game starts to feel a bit unbalanced simply because you’re making head shots more often than the designers probably intended. Fortunately, this does not ever get old. The designers also blissfully kept the need for exaggerated physical gestures to a minimum, allowing you to swing your knife with either the A button or by waving your arm. The inventory is, unfortunately, still controlled by the joystick rather than being able to point and drag. Since the remote makes it much easier to gesture at what specific item you the player are interested in, it relieves the need for the “stand close to the object and press A” interaction method that the game still uses. Why not just have an item become highlighted when I point with the remote? These are nitpicks, though, and more of something you should expect to see in new titles rather than imports.
So what exactly is it that makes Resident Evil 4 a touchstone for video games? Most Nintendo heroes have a habit of rarely speaking so that we can apply our own personal impressions to them. Resident Evil 4‘s third-person perspective as a storytelling method enables a more individualized cast of characters that are drawn out thanks to having a vocal protagonist. Rather than becoming Samus as in Metroid Prime and seeing through her eyes, we are riding over the protagonist’s shoulder in a more voyeur-like manner. The effect is that we are more audience members than partakers in the experience, allowing for the story to unfold in front of us rather than around us. When the hero does something cool, we think of it as him doing it while we, the players, only facilitate these moments with the controls.
Ada Wong hits him where it counts.
The plot is typical Invasion of the Body Snatchers stuff and does an excellent job of providing an excuse for gunning down hordes of zombies. A rich cast of mini-bosses including a half-angel marine and a Twin Peaks-esque midget help to keep things moving from showdown to showdown. The hero, Leon Kennedy, is typically competent and wise-cracking, yet there are enough scenes of him getting his ass kicked, allowing for a strange accessibility to his attitude. He makes for a good take on an old-fashioned kind of hero. You collect money, consume guns and upgrades, and spend the game helping to save the president’s daughter from the zombie cult. The best strength of the game lies not in the plot but in that variety of wild action moments it delivers. The brilliant opening ten minutes of the game where an entire village of zombies chases you across the rooftops. Chasing the freakish lake monster on the motor boat. Leon’s knife fights and slow motion acrobatics. It can get a bit awkward and almost unsportsmanlike to be the only person with a gun for miles in any direction, but the love of zombie killing should keep you playing.
These elements, when all brought together, make Resident Evil 4 a title that you can hold up future games to and ask, “Did it perform as well?”
It’s a bit odd to propose that digging up a years-old touchstone like Resident Evil 4 and issuing new controls would potentially herald a new genre for the Wii. The quality of the control scheme combined with what was already a proven title creates a compelling enough experience that it will undoubtedly be mimicked again. There are also plenty of possibilities outside the Resident Evil franchise. A more demanding precision with one’s aiming could reduce the need for endless hordes of opponents, a necessity of video games that often keeps them trapped in the strict subject matter of science fiction (endless robots or aliens) or war with guns (modern or World Wars). One could create a wild west shooter using the same setup as Resident Evil 4, focusing on shooting the gun out of an opponent’s hand and engaging the players in other ways. I’m sure many would line up for a Wii version of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series done in this manner. In the end, the game’s best quality may not be the great experience it delivers, but the great titles it paves the way for.