How the never released Resident Evil 1.5 survived 22 years to appear in Resident Evil 2 Remake

Tucked away in the upcoming Resident Evil 2 Remake Digital Deluxe version is an ‘Elza Walker costume’ for Claire Redfield. Elza is a character that never actually appeared the series; a nod to an unreleased first attempt to make a sequel - a version of Resident Evil 2 that was, according to then director Hideki Kamiya, 70% complete when it was cancelled in 1997. 

Now known as Resident Evil 1.5, what makes this aborted sequel so interesting is that Capcom continued using versions of it to demo and promote the game for nearly a year. As Hideki Kamiya explained once while looking back, “Resident Evil 2 was receiving attention as one of Capcom’s new big titles,” and the studio wanted to keep the excitement high after the surprise success of the first Resident Evil. It means that by the time the other version of Resident Evil 2 finally arrived, fans had spent months looking at a totally different game and many were, unsurprisingly, confused. 

The undead game

Over time that’s given 1.5 almost legendary status. Unlike other cancelled games it had been widely seen and played, even years after Resident Evil 2’s eventual release - while on a trip to Capcom to see Resident Evil 3, Game Informer reporters mentioned the lost game and, to their surprise, were shown a playable final build to try. Even the mildest of Resi fans have heard something about this other Resi, starring an experienced cop called Leon S Kennedy and motorbiking college student named Elza Walker fighting zombie apes and human spider hybrids. A game that never actually happened.

All of this would have passed into myth if a copy of the game hadn’t finally turned up nearly 15 years later. Those fading magazine shots and wobbly VHS videos that had fed a feverish forum fanbase for years were replaced by an actual playable version of the Resi 2 that never was. It let people see it for themselves, to play it, and even attempt to rebuild it. But before we get there, you have to go back and find out why Capcom scrapped an almost completed sequel to one of its biggest games barely three months before release. And then started over. 

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Check out our Resident Evil 2/Remake comparison to see how the game's changed

Originally Resident Evil 2 was scheduled for a May 1997 release date. This was a game that still starred Leon S Kennedy but not quite in the set up you remember. He was still a cop, but it wasn’t his first day. He was an experienced officer, trapped in the RPD station following the Raccoon City outbreak. At the same time Elza Walker would have been a completely new character, a college student and motorcycle racer returning to Raccoon City just as the zombie outbreak started. After Elza crashed her bike into the RPD building, the two characters would embark on separate stories, linked only by locations and a few shared characters, to escape the undead uprising.

There were some interesting ideas being tried out by the development team originally: characters had lower polygon counts, enabling more zombies to appear on screen. The monsters were to “change” over time, with “mutation” mentioned as a new ability by then producer Shinji Mikami. Similarly, the pre-rendered backgrounds that defined the original series could be altered according to story events. Leon and Elza’s outfits could also change to show damage as they were attacked, Or they could could equip different clothes and armour for extra protection or storage. 

There are more tonal changes too. Leon and Elza would never actually meet, but instead encounter the results of each other’s actions (Leon would find a police truck on fire and put it out for example, and Elza would find the extinguished truck later. In return Elza would defeat a mutated William Birkin that Leon would find later, and so on). Their two separate stories would intertwine the same locations, each with their own support characters, as well as some shared companions, but unlike the final Resident Evil 2, they’d never meet in person. 

Instead Leon would be joined by Marvin Branagh, the dying policeman of Resi 2 playing a more active role here, and Linda Wong, an Umbrella scientist ultimately renamed Ada to call back to a “Letter of a Researcher” note found in Resident Evil 1 that began, “Dear Ada…” Elza, on the other hand, would meet John, a civilian hiding in the RPD (who later went on to become the gun shop owner Robert Kendo in Resident Evil 2), Roy a cop who later turns into a zombie, and Sherry Birkin. Sherry, along with her pursuing, mutated father William, and Police Chief Irons were to be met by both Leon and Elza. In the 1.5 game Irons was a good guy who helped out, but was later reworked into a corrupt and murderous antagonist in 2.

Blood ties

Both Sherry and William Birkin neatly connect the cancelled 1.5 and 2 - just like in the eventually released RE2 William would chase his daughter through the game. In 1.5 William shows a significantly more basic mutation, although he still grows in response to damage. Sherry is one of the main ways of identifying early footage and screens - for most of 1.5’s development she wore a yellow outfit, later replaced by the blue and white of 2. The fact that both these character’s roles and purpose survived, and other characters carried over albeit in altered forms, shows how the team worked and reworked the 1.5 foundation, trying to save what they could but ultimately replacing most of it. 

The original story saw both heroes fight through the police station, battling zombies and T-virus infected gorilla bioweapons that escaped from Umbrella vans. From there the action moved into the sewers, with giant spiders to deal with, and eventually a factory and Umbrella Lab facility. What little plot we know of involves the characters leaving the station and moving through the sewers to find a police group that had been sent to investigate the factory. On arriving the unit is discovered slaughtered and, after an attack by a mutated William Birkin, everything moves to the Umbrella Labs. This is, at least in Leon’s story, motivated by a need to create a vaccine for an infected Marvin.

However, as the 1.5 version approached its May 1997 release date no one at Capcom appeared happy with it. Individual parts worked, but it wasn’t coming together. In a 1998 interview for a tips guide Shinji Mikami stated, “no one element was specifically boring, just everything as a whole,” adding in another interview, “it was no fun.” The police station was a particular target: based on the modern, normal building found in 1976’s Assault on Precinct 13, it appeared clean and boring after the first game’s mansion. “We saw that the second floor, third floor and basement all had the same look,” explained Mikami. It was redesigned using photos of “Western style buildings” in Kyoto, Osaka and Nagoya according to Kamiya, that the team snuck in to take, getting caught and told off along the way. 

“I thought they had good material, just put [it] in the pan and cook it, even if it taste a little bad, we can fix it. Then, when I taste it, I was shocked by bad, BAD taste [...] something drastic making this bad taste. I had to tell them to start all over again”

Shinji Mikami, in a 1998 interview

Even the idea to use more enemies wasn’t working: “we focused on making zombies with as few polygons as possible in order to show many of them on screen at one time. But those zombies weren’t scary at all, even when there were many of them,” explained Mikiami. The team also disliked the fact that, aside from the zombies and Umbrella, there was no link to the previous game. 

Unsure what to do, or how to fix it, Capcom brought in Noboro Sugimura, then a professional script writer, as a consultant for help. His advice? Start again. That lead to the first delay, announced in February 1997, pushing the release back from May to August 1997 as the devs started to pull apart what they had. The changes immediately started to create a more recognisable Resident Evil 2 - instead of Leon starting in the police station and fighting his way out, Sugimura suggested he should start on the streets and fight his way in, creating a greater sense of both the outside danger, and safety within. The RPD was reworked into a preposterously repurposed gothic art museum, and Elza became Claire Redfield, Chris’ younger sister and firm anchor to the original story. 

While this was happening, Capcom continued to use various builds of 1.5 to promote the game. As the new ideas were taking shape, it sent out various versions of old stuff for demos and tradeshows, or used it for videos and screens. The last public sighting of the 1.5 is widely regarded to be the 1997 Tokyo Game Show in April. However, a Japanese magazine called Hyper PlayStation Remix was still putting new, previously unseen, footage of the game on its cover disc as late as December 1997. 

Along the way, however, Capcom also did several things that only confused fans and added to the legend of 1.5. At 1997’s E3, a promotional video for the game used footage from two different builds of 1.5 and 2, leading some to believe a third hybrid version existed for a while. While in August 1998 the Japanese version of the resident Evil Director's Cut featured clips from a ‘Resident Evil 2’ that appeared to mostly be the final released game - featuring the art museum police station and Claire Redfield - but also showed Leon fighting a cut Spider Hybrid, and a burning factory location. It’s worth noting that the Director’s Cut was released to fill the gap created by the sequel’s delay, with Mikami saying in a 1997 interview. “I thought re-release the original Resident Evil, include my apologies to the users for the late release of Resident Evil 2”.

Whatever this game was going to be, once Resident Evil 2 came out in February of 1998 Resi 1.5 should have slowly faded from memory. Except it didn’t. Instead it ignited a hunt that lasted well over 15 years for what was seen by some as the ‘true’ Resident Evil 2, and by others as just a collectable curio they had to find.

What actually exists of 1.5 outside of Capcom is debatable but there are, depending on the sources, anywhere up to 5-7 versions that existed at some point. Although the larger the number the less credible the proof. Plus some of this count refers to variations of the same code, or changes only seen in promo material. The main two 1.5 builds that collectors quickly homed in on are what was referred to as the 40%, or November build (referring to when it was made in 1996) and the 80% or ‘Final’ build (despite both Mikami and Kamiya claiming the game was 65-70% complete at best). 

Adding to the mess were also Biohazard Beta 1 and Beta 2 demos of the newer Resident Evil 2 released at two stages of its development - different enough to cause confusion to an untrained eye. These also contained 1.5 backgrounds and assets hidden in their code that would become red herrings later when people tried to rebuild the lost game.

In the years that followed many early sightings turned out to be fake - with so much previous information available it was easy for people to pretend they were playing it then, when pressed for info by collectors, go quiet. In the late 90s, with low internet speeds and messages swapped on fledgling forums, any version of 1.5 that did exist did so on disc, in the hands of secretive collectors who didn’t share. The perception was that a few lucky elites had the game and refused to let others experience it. There was talk of ‘friend copies’ occasionally being handed out and, occasionally, something new would slip out, only for everything to close up the instant anyone noticed.

It meant that by the early to mid 2000’s the Resi 1.5 scene was a toxic mess of sniping, attacks and counter claims if anyone so much as hinted at having a copy of the game. There were dead ends, threats and hoaxes, and offers to buy builds for thousands of dollars (even weird ideas to inundate Capcom with letters to force them to release it). Screens and videos would appear and either be discredited, or the person posting it would be hounded off the internet. With its value directly linked to its unavailability (“the prototype being a ‘Status Symbol’", one forum poster said), no one was just going to just give it away. In 2001 “a playable version of Resident Evil 1.5” was listed on eBay for $1025, the auction ended dubiously and it’s unclear if any sale was ever made. 

In fact it's best to skip over most of this period of Resident Evil 1.5’s history as it’s full of unreliable narrators and trolling. Instead, let’s jump to late 2011 when a legitimate copy of the game finally surfaced. Where from isn’t clear, there’s talk of an estate auction of a deceased Capcom employee, or a collector with an archived disk ISO on a hard drive. Whatever the source, the balance was changing: with the existence of 1.5 code the financial value of the disc was starting to look shakey - “it's only a matter of time before it's released into the wild,” one post would later say in 2012

The rumour is that a version of the 40% build of Resi 1.5 was bought for $9000 around the end of 2011 by a group that pooled their finances, from a seller aware their code could be worthless at anytime. A group called Team IGAS, (short for ‘I’ve got a shotgun,’ a Resi in-joke) formed around that build. Rather than release it though they planned to rebuild and recreate the lost game, something that immediately split a volatile fan base. Some people believed that only the ‘pure’ 40% build counted, others called the restoration attempt, with its additions and changes, no matter how carefully researched, a ‘Frankenstein’ version. There were even some bizarre theories that IGAS were somehow hiding original game content. 

Ultimately it didn’t matter, as barely months into this restoration a build apparently leaked as a recent addition to Team IGAS allegedly attempted to sell it online. By 2013 a build was made available by the team for free that could be played on basic emulators (there’s no links there, just the statements). That gave us what’s referred to as the Magic Zombie Door (or MZD) build of the game, a hodgepodge of original code and reworked assets that attempt to create a playable interpretation of Capcom’s intent. It included changes like Japanese language translation and the use of custom and repurposed assets to replace and recreate missing characters and rooms. The ‘Pure Vanilla Build’ (or PVB) version appeared soon after, apparently in response. That appears to be the unadulterated original code. It’s in Japanese, several models are unfinished, various rooms are disconnected, or connected in nonsensical ways, making it largely unplayable without using the debug menu to move between areas.

It seems almost crazy that fan interest in what was essentially a rough, unreleased draft of a game saw it pursued and investigated for 15 years. And it’s even crazier that it payed off: it’s now out there in a form that anyone can play it if they know where to look. And that exposure still hasn’t dampened interest. One early thread about the game started in April 2012 and was last updated in July 2018 where progress on recreating the game is described as “ticking along”. Even the MZD build of the game, originally released back in 2013, was updated in June 2018 with a new patch. For a 22-year-old, unfinished game that never actually came out, that’s not bad going and explains why, all this time later, a character that was never in the series gets a DLC skin in the Resi 2 Remake.