There's a good reason why the Resident Evil series changed with the release of Resident Evil 4: the games prior to that were hugely atmospheric, featured some incredible moments and will go down in video game history, but my god, were they clunky. The term "tank controls" is a bit of a relic these days, with the advent of dual analogue sticks and more complex control setups, but back in the early days of 3D gaming, characters moved about with all the grace of a Sherman trying to squeeze between a Nissan Micra and a Fiat Punto down at the local Tesco. Resident Evil Zero, now on the Wii as part of the Archives series, originally hit the GameCube back in 2002, and for all its survival horror charm, its age is most definitely a problem.
As the slightly odd name suggests, Zero is the prequel to original survival horror classic Resident Evil, so takes place before events at the infamous mansion. It begins as STARS Bravo team finds a train, mysteriously stationary in the middle of the forest outside Racoon City. Fresh-faced biochemistry expert Rebecca Chambers becomes separated from the other Bravo squad members, and she begins to investigate the train on her own. From here on it's traditional Resident Evil fare, with Rebecca taking out zombies (yes, back then they were still zombies and not "infected") with a range of guns and other weapons, solving puzzles and moving back and forth between the same locations.
All very unoriginal then, but Capcom did introduce a brand-new mechanic that it returned to with Resident Evil 5. Zero features two playable characters that work through the game together, with the player able to switch between them at will, and issue basic commands to whoever is computer controlled. This second character is ex-con Billy Coen, who just so happens to have been a Marine in a former life. It's quite basic co-op gameplay, but Zero uses it in the majority of its puzzles. The fiddling around between characters and making sure you're getting the right items to the person who needs them can be annoying, but it's good old-fashioned gameplay.
As Resident Evil 5 proved last year, AI buddies aren't always as helpful as you'd like them to be, and Zero is a few steps behind that of occasionally annoying female compatriot Sheva Alomar. You'll need to switch between the two here fairly regularly in order to make the most of their respective talents (Rebecca can combine herbs while Billy is stronger and can take more damage), but whoever you don't have control of will cause problems, especially during combat. Your partner will frequently waste the good ammo when it really isn't necessary - perhaps done in protest of the tiny inventory system you have, offering a measly six slots that simply isn't enough - or eat up herbs in an attempt to stay alive.
There were moans and groans when Resident Evil 5 didn't let you move and shoot, but compared to Zero's archaic control scheme 5's might as well be science fiction, it's that far ahead of its predecessor. Even the simple task of positioning yourself in front of a door or object is a potentially stressful exercise, and at times you'll walk through a door when you intended to inspect a glistening object sat on a table. Not a problem you might think, but this is old-school Resi, so opening doors initiates a painfully slow loading screen that you have to sit through.
Seeing as you are completely rooted to the spot when you've got a weapon drawn, it's a relief to have use of an awfully generous auto-aiming system. As long as your weapon is pointing somewhere in the rough direction of an enemy, pulling the trigger will fill the undead nasty with lead. You can aim up and down too, so shotgun headshots are possible, while aiming down will let you finish off any wrigglers.
Boss encounters are a real highlight, which the game doesn't bombard you with, making them more exciting as a result. There's an awkwardness about fighting some of them, such is your restricted moment, which will cause more than a few expletive-filled outbursts, but it's all par for the course with the classic survival horror template. Thankfully the massive enemies are brilliant creations, and stand up well against modern Wii monsters. The game as a whole, in part thanks to its pre-rendered backgrounds, has held up very well indeed from a graphical point of view. The clunky way your character refuses to move beyond certain points and the awkward way they interact with invisible environment barriers shows the game's dated roots, but Zero has atmosphere dripping from every dank corner.
Little has been done to make this feel like a Wii game, which is perhaps more disappointing than it is surprising. There's no pointer usage at all, so if you have the option you're better off using a Classic Controller or a GameCube pad, like the game was originally designed to use. There's also no widescreen support, which is again expected, but a shame given that widescreen TVs are most definitely the norm these days.
It's somewhat frustrating that a few tweaks weren't made to make Zero more accessible to new gamers, gamers who won't accept the game's flaws just because that's "how it was back then". Take the ribbon and typewriter save system. These days checkpoints and auto saves are the norm, but in Zero you can only save if you have a ribbon in your inventory and you're next to a typewriter. This throws up situations where upwards of 20 minutes of gameplay can be wasted upon death, with you being forced to return to the last save. It was normal a few generations ago, but now it feels unfair and a complete waste of time.
Resident Evil Zero is a well designed survival horror game that offers more scares than Resident Evil 4 and 5 combined, but its dated gameplay will turn away many. Unless you can remember a time when tank controls and strict save points were the norm, Zero will be a harsh lesson in old-school gaming. With more forgiving, modern releases on the shelves, that's a lesson few newcomers will want to take.