In a series filled with silly, in-your-face frights, Mr. X is a cleverly implemented and even subtle horror that’s one of the Resident Evil franchise’s greatest achievements.
Mr. X is the best thing Resident Evil, as a franchise, has ever done.
I say this knowing, of course, that most people are going to disagree with me. In fact, I’d daresay that longtime fans of the franchise have come to a general consensus that the series’ biggest, baddest baddie is Resident Evil 3‘s Nemesis. And trust me when I say that I absolutely get why. Nemesis is easily one of the best executed villains in horror gaming. He’s nearly unstoppable and, while he does show up at certain set moments in the game, he can also appear at random. With Nemesis around you can never let your guard down.
The thing is, I’d be lying if I were to say that Nemesis ever actually scared me. He’s certainly intimidating and his appearance always resulted in my running for the proverbial hills, but he never managed to trigger the sort of deep to my bones terror that Resident Evil 2‘s Mr. X did. Part of this I know stems from my own personal tastes and fears.
To force a Terminator 2 reference, I’ve always been more of a T-1000 sort of guy. There’s something about a silent, merciless, unstoppable killer strolling slowly toward me that instills a special sort of hopeless fear in me. This fear is definitely amplified by the fact his primary weapons are his fists. With few exceptions, almost every other monster in the pre-Resident Evil 4 franchise killed you via some variation of biting, stabbing, slashing or dismemberment. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of being turned into bitty bloody bits is something that scares me. There’s just something so primal though about a foe that beats you to death. Up until his final appearance, Mr. X is a straight up bruiser who will pummel you into submission just to finish you off with a head stomp. It’s an element of his character that makes him more interesting and unique to me.
Nemesis, comparatively, feels more to me like the creation of a boardroom looking at its past products and actively trying to up the ante. “Okay guys,” someone says. “So we have this trench coated unstoppable monster that hunts you and shows up at unexpected moments. We’re making Resident Evil 3 and we want to make our next bad guy even more awesome. What would you think about doing the same thing but this time he can talk and he has tentacles and a rocket launcher?” As cool as Nemesis might be, I can’t be the only who thinks he’s also a bit too silly to take seriously as a threatening antagonist.
Setting aside stylistic differences though, there are other reasons for why I think Mr. X is, overall, the franchise’s most effective producer of scares. Simply put, Resident Evil 2 just does a better job of turning him into an inescapable force of nature. Your first encounter with him, for instance, takes place in a long hallway early in the game where the only way out is past Mr. X. Can you get around him? Yes. Doing so, however, means running past him in a corridor barely wide enough for two people to stand in side-by-side, putting you well within range of his mighty fists.
In another sequence later on, you’re running down another narrow hall (there’s a lot of these in Resident Evil 2) where you pass a security camera. At first glance, it looks like little more than decoration. When activate the camera however, it reveals that Mr. X is marching down that same corridor and will probably be on top of you in the space of fifteen seconds. You can’t escape him, you have to fight him and if you’re not prepared (as I wasn’t the first time I played this scene), he’ll pummel your sorry ass straight into oblivion. It’s something of a stark distinction from Nemesis who you can actually escape somewhat easily if you the make right choices or, in some cases, just keep running long enough.
The completely linear and scripted nature of Resident Evil 2 also allows for scares that can’t happen in a game where allowances have to be made for an enemy who can show up at any time. As I mentioned in my review, Resident Evil 2 is split into four separate games; two “A” campaigns and two side story “B” campaigns. Both the A and B stories use largely the same environments but follow events from different perspectives. If you play the A campaign as Leon, for instance, the B campaign follows what Claire was doing at roughly the same time. What this essentially means is that you’ll run through a lot of familiar areas that you’ll likely have pre-formed expectations for.
There are several areas in the A campaign where nothing happens. Once you clear out the zombies it basically becomes a safe zone, something you that you tend to internalize once you’ve beaten the game a few times. This ends up working against you after you unlock the B scenario because Mr. X’s appearances are often scripted to occur in those places. At one memorable point, you enter a room and solve a puzzle. In the A game you complete it, pick up an item and leave. In the B campaign, meanwhile, Mr. X crashes right through the wall you’re standing against and starts wailing on you. Then, after you beat him and exit into the hallway outside, he smashes through the wall one more time for another round of “scare the living hell out of Stew.”
Granted, these are jump scares and so they do have their limits. While Mr. X never fails to spook me, I’m sure there are a lot of gamers who found him to be less frightening on repeat performances. Even so, jump scares are often harder to put together than people give credit for and his are the most clever and masterful in the entire series. They brilliantly use the architecture of the game’s environments to their advantage and are far more unnerving, in my opinion, than Nemesis charging in from off-screen and growling “Staaaaaaarrrsss.”
In the end, it might just come down to my liking horror that’s executed with a bit more subtlety. It’s this preference that eventually led me to lose interest in Resident Evil. Beginning as early as Resident Evil 3, Capcom just seemed to become more interested in making things gaudy instead of grim and the evolution of that trend is what I blame most for the series’ current (arguable) state of implosion. In the end, you can only make things so ridiculous.
Next week I take on Star Wars: X-Wing. Because why the hell wouldn’t I?! Feel free to PM me with comments and review suggestions in the mean time.