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No S.T.A.R.S.: How Resident Evil 3 neutered a Nemesis

When the Nemesis first attacked me in Resident Evil 3, I was terrified. It was 1999, and I’d already played Resident Evil 2, dabbled in other horror games, watched too many episodes of The X-Files late at night while bonding with my dad; I knew all about scary monsters. But the Nemesis was something else; he felt like a real, living threat. The way he stalked Jill Valentine around the maps of the game seemed, at the time, to be a serious and ever-present problem that could ruin my day at any moment. This looming quality that the Nemesis has, a feeling that he might be reaching beyond the boundaries of the rest of the game, is one reason the creature continues to occupy the collective minds of horror game enthusiasts over 20 years later.

Capcom’s remade version of the Nemesis—repackaged and gifted high-definition by the 2020 remake of Resident Evil 3—should have been a triumphant return for the beefy, tentacle-whipping gentleman. Instead, it left me wondering what the big deal was in the first place. Resident Evil 3 Remake was subjected to a fair amount of criticism on release, from the short length of the game, to the absence of large sections of the original game. But, after finishing the game and sitting with the experience, I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding of the Nemesis as a character and as a mechanic, which made it impossible for the Remake to match up to the original game.

What does the original Nemesis represent in the world of Resident Evil 3? I mean that in a mechanical, practical sense, not philosophically; in the broader narrative of Resident Evil he mostly represents the idea that Umbrella will waste as much money as possible trying to clean up the mess they made by spending too much money on the last thing.

In terms of mechanical purpose, Nemesis is there to trouble the player, to harass them and create a general sense of unease as they attempt to work on whatever the actual problem is in Raccoon City. Essentially, RE3: Nemesis is about what it would be like to play a Resident Evil game if the final boss was chasing you for six hours straight. It’s a nightmare. Collecting gems from around the city streets so you can open a door with a clock puzzle is manageable, doing that while a brick-house maniac with a rocket launcher chases you at full sprint is tense. Add to that Nemesis’s habit of pursuing you across different parts of the game’s locations—something almost no creature in any of the games could dream of doing—and you’re set up for an experience far more tense than the normal flow of static enemies and scripted boss fights. You’re being hunted.

New Nemesis, in comparison, exists in a cage. Resident Evil 3 Remake is a much more linear experience than its source material, guiding players on a strict roller-coaster of fire, explosions and zombie mayhem which makes the 1999 game look positively sedate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but the concept of a relentless hunter existing only to track down the player simply doesn’t function in that environment. While there is a point right after his first appearance where Nemesis stalks you through a dollhouse-scale section of the city, this quickly gives way to a series of scripted encounters.

Worse, all of the later encounters are boss fights with an increasingly gooey and shapeless Nemesis, transformed into lesser and larger versions of himself to keep up with the rapid pace of the rest of the game. At two distinct points in the game, Nemesis acquires a new weapon—flamethrower and rocket launcher, respectively—in what should be terrifying moments for players. But both times the experience is undercut by a design that favours forward momentum at all costs. When he shows up with the flamethrower, Jill simply has to run up a bunch of ladders until she reaches the rooftop boss fight. When the rocket launcher appears, it’s just a matter of dodging while yet again running along a single path as quickly as possible. By making the Nemesis a collection of events rather than an independent force, his appearances are predictable and inevitable. He isn’t hunting you anymore, he’s just another obstacle to deal with, like a locked door, or a zombie sleeping in a hallway.

Boss fights against the creature are fine, I suppose, as boss fights go. Hit the big monster as many times as you can with all of your resources until he goes down. Thematically, though, they do nothing but damage to the idea of an unstoppable foe. Setting him up in so many boss fights with so little time in-between necessarily frames the Nemesis as an enemy that can be bested. If there’s a boss fight, then you can kill him; and things that you can kill over and over again are not very scary.

Nemesis was an outrageous bullet sponge in the original as well, but with the caveat that almost every fight against him is a calculated choice made by the player. Very few encounters with the Nemesis in the 1999 game make combat mandatory, and most players are encouraged to run. There are rewards for besting him at various points, however the resource drain and the constant threat to your life is presented as a large risk. This is in the Remake to a smaller extent, but the opportunities are diminished, most are gone and replaced with compulsory boss fights, and the concept is eroded by making Nemesis not particularly tough to take down. Even Jill herself doesn’t seem particularly worried, with her new action-hero coat of paint, constantly yelling at the monster and showing more annoyance than concern. The scary ragdolling of Jill in the original, when Nemesis would pick her up and throw her around like a helpless kitten, is replaced with a sort of resigned indifference.

One of the ways that video games build tension, particularly in the horror genre, is by using the player’s agency against them. You have to walk through that door, you have to decide when to shoot and when to run away, you need to make all of these decisions that could well be wrong. If something horrific happens to the character, it’s because you made some or all of their decisions up to that point. Resident Evil 3: Nemesis understood that well, even putting hyper-dramatic story decision points before many Nemesis encounters, as if to point at him and say “this guy is going to kill you if you make one wrong move.” The remake doesn’t want you to make any decisions at all, frequently putting you on rails toward the next encounter, or gifting you with so many supplies that it’s clear they want you to succeed in all cases.

There’s a desperation in the way RE3 Remake pushes the action focus of the original game into overdrive, harkening back to the edgy marketing of the 1990s and early 2000s. Remember Resident Evil? Well this isn’t your mum’s survival horror, it’s got explosions, and swearing, and everyone is running all the time, and more explosions. Please take us seriously. It wants to be an action game so badly, in fact, that it forgets how you make action meaningful in the first place. Remake opens with a few scenes in Jill’s apartment, just like the original, but these are rapidly interrupted when Nemesis smashes through a wall with a plastic bag on his head, throwing Jill through several walls and floors. The building catches on fire, you have to run away in a scripted sequence, and it’s all trying very, very hard to set up a big, frightening enemy. But there is no setup, there’s only a bombastic wall smash and a lot of fire. The action is all meaningless because there’s no tension or investment from the audience. We just got here, now everything is broken. This sort of in-media-res storytelling would be fine, except the story never slows down to do that foundational work later. In fact, it actively chooses to forget some important points it did manage to set up in that opening, like the attempted exposing of Umbrella, and Jill’s PTSD from the events of the first game.

This strange tendency to Go Fast and Break Everything extends, unfortunately, to the Nemesis’ physical and mechanical design. In the original, Nemesis remained as a seven-foot-tall, leather-clad mutant man for the majority of the game, and even when he transformed it was into something that was still clearly humanoid (albeit with a six fold increase in back tentacles). This recognisable and oddly familiar form was a big factor not just in making him an iconic enemy, but in making his presence unsettling. It’s impossible to avoid thinking about the human hands behind the creation of the bioweapon, the once-human shell that was used to build the monster in the first place, the distinctly human villains making specifically nasty decisions in the name of money and power. Unlike a zombie, or a licker, or a slightly bigger shark, someone made the Nemesis, had the perfect outfit designed for him, thought about what sort of weapons would be able to be fired by his mutated fingers. The ominous thudding of his enormous boots is an awful, humanising reminder of his approach.

You’re being hunted by something very explicitly designed to murder you, and it was sent here to do that. That’s far more troubling than just some monster. It has intent. When it mutters S.T.A.R.S. under its breath, it’s because Nemesis is thinking about you.

In the Remake, Nemesis spends about a minute with a bag on his head, then about an hour in his first “dressed” form. Before you can really get used to him being around, he mutates into a giant angry dog; and before you can get used to that, he mutates again into a slightly larger dog with bigger tentacles. By the end of the game, he’s a pile of pulsating goo, and then he gets blown up. Where Nemesis’ face and silhouette became a nightmarish reminder of your awful situation in the original, in Remake we never get a chance to care about any version of him one way or another. In the same way giving a human face to the enemy helps an audience connect, taking an enemy’s face away instantly distances us from them. We can’t relate, so we can’t care either. Nemesis’ degeneration at the end of the original Resident Evil 3 was cathartic, a subtle realisation that this thing chasing us wasn’t actually a person, that it could be destroyed after all. Remake’s Nemesis is a constantly melting rabid dog, dangerous but forgettable.

Ultimately, what purpose does the Nemesis serve? In the Remake, I’m genuinely not sure. Aside from being a scary enemy for Jill Valentine to overcome, he seems to just exist as a recurring boss. Original Nemesis provides an impetus for fear while exploring; an instant tension builder for every scene he isn’t in, and a big scare when he does show up. He permeates every aspect of how the player conducts themselves in the game. But the Remake version can’t do that, because there really isn’t much exploration, and once he becomes Clifford the Big Meaty Dog he no longer represents anything tangible during normal play. He just won’t fit, for a start.

Outside of redesigning the entire game to have more of a focus on exploration and looping through familiar areas (giving Nemesis a reason to show up and disrupt that loop), it’s strange that they didn’t use him to build on the existing themes brought up in the opening. Nemesis’ ability to infect people and zombies with a stronger version of the virus seems to dovetail very nicely into Jill’s hallucinatory fears about turning into a zombie herself. In the original and the remake, Jill is infected by Nemesis partway through the game; you can easily imagine a version of Resident Evil 3 where each encounter with Nemesis has the chance to increase that infection, where Jill’s anxiety and fear begins to overcome her to the point where it affects her ability to function. If something like that were included, avoiding the monster has meaning and benefits, every encounter has stakes for the player and the character.

As I said, Resident Evil 3 Remake got what is commonly referred to as a Mixed Response. But I don’t think the key problems with the game have anything to do with its length or specific mechanics; it seems more like the development team were so focused on being a sufficiently different follow-up to Resident Evil 2’s remake that they sidestepped actually making this game about anything. The action focus is a response to RE2 being more slow and designed around backtracking, the aggressive and bombastic characters are the antithesis of the softer Resident Evil 2 cast, and the Nemesis is the twisted result of a promise not to make something too much like RE2’s Mr. X. It’s a shame that this game wasn’t viewed as more of an update to the classic 1999 game, instead of as a companion to RE2 Remake. If it had been the former, we might have seen a little more respect paid to the Nemesis concept, and the important role it plays in shaping the story and mechanics around it.