Monthly Archives: July 2014

Game Boy Demakes: Resident Evil Gaiden

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Resident Evil Gaiden for the Game Boy Color was released all the way back in Summer ’02 (late ’01 if you were in Europe) and was actually outsourced by Japanese publisher Capcom to UK-based developer M4, although its development was presided over by Resident Evil producer Shinji Mikami and Code Veronica director Hiroki Kato (who is credited with writing the game).   It strikes me as a bit strange that the Japanese developer would outsource a handheld version of the series. The culture of handheld gaming has always seemed like it’s been quite a bit stronger in Japan than other territories (even before the DS and PSP dominated consoles last gen), and one would think that the Japanese company would target the handheld version of such a popular series primarily to its Japanese player base. It would be kind of like Microsoft outsourcing a PC port of Halo 4 to a company like Falcom. I guess it shows that the Capcom higher-ups may not have had much serious interest in bringing Resident Evil to the portable market (which at the time was really just Game Boy) and probably just treated it as an opportunity to make a quick buck off the lucrative Game Boy shovelware market.

Resident Evil Gaiden

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When dealing with downporting sophisticated 3D games to Game Boy platforms, there were two paths that could be followed. The first path is to try to make the 8-bit gameplay of the downport a reasonable facsimile of the original version. Metal Gear Solid is probably the best example of this approach. The GBC version of MGS actually replicates a huge portion of the gameplay aspects of the PSX progenitor, such as mapping enemies on the soliton radar, being able knock on walls to draw the attention of guards, hiding in boxes that you keep in your inventory, using a cigarette to detect laser tripwires, etc. Partly, this is more natural for MGS, as it is played from a top-down perspective that is easy to replicate with Game Boy graphics (the original Metal Gear ran on the 8-bit NES, of course). But for other games, like Resident Evil (or Daikatana which I covered earlier here), their camera and control setup requires a significant rethinking of how the gameplay actually works. Of course, a game like Resident Evil with its prerendered backgrounds and odd camera angles would need to be modified to something more suitable to an 8-bit device, for instance a sidescrolling or top-down (as is used in Gaiden) view. Of course it would, right?

Actually, before there was Resident Evil Gaiden, a company contracted by Capcom named HotGen (another UK-based studio) developed a faithful conversion of Resident Evil 1 for the GBC that included the odd camera angles, prerendered backgrounds (with way low resolutions of course), and familiar tank controls. You can see screenshots of that version below. The game was supposedly completed and submitted to Capcom in 2000, but Capcom decided that it wasn’t enjoyable to play (I wonder why?) and subsequently cancelled the release. However, from what I can gather, code of an unfinished version leaked on the internet. I haven’t played the leaked code, but interestingly enough, I’ve read from a few who have, and some actually disagree with Capcom’s judgment and described the game as surprisingly playable and fun.

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Resident Evil 1 for the GBC

Resident Evil 1 for the GBC

Regardless, Capcom tried to shrink down Resident Evil again a very short time later with Gaiden which was first released in Europe in December 2001. This time they tried to significantly rethink the Resident Evil gameplay to make it more suitable to the limited hardware they were dealing with, replacing the third person action with a more simplistic shooting gallery style system. The story takes place post-Raccoon City when Leon Kennedy and surviving S.T.A.R.S. members have gone underground and banded together to expose the truth behind Umbrella’s continuing B.O.W. research. Reports come in about an outbreak aboard a cruise liner and Leon Kennedy (whom the player primarily takes the role of) and Barry Burton are sent to investigate.

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You explore the zombie-infested cruise ship from a top down perspective as you uncover the true nature of the outbreak. Only certain areas of the ship are initially accessible to explore, but new areas are unlocked in true Resident Evil style by finding keys, performing very light inventory puzzles, and reaching story events. The most interesting departure from the Resident Evil formula comes in combat. To target zombies, Leon must go into a shooting stance which raises a reticle on the top-down screen. Moving the reticule over a zombie does not actually result in Leon firing at the zombie; rather it takes the player to a first person “shooting gallery” style screen. In this screen, the zombies are visible in front of Leon, and will slowly progress toward his position until they are in attack range, at which point they will begin inflicting damage. At the bottom of the screen is an oscillating reticle that moves from left to right. To successfully hit a zombie, Leon must fire when the moving reticule is right beneath the approaching creature, and he will gain extra damage if he fires when the reticule is in a sweet spot positioned beneath the middle of the monster. Zombies can also initiate the shooting gallery mode if they manage to grab Leon, but in this case, the zombie will start immediately in attack range.

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Ammo is limited in the game, and consequently accuracy is key. As is typical in Resident Evil of the time, when you enter an area with enemies, you will need to decide on whether it is possible to run past them without getting grabbed, or if it is necessary to expend precious ammo to clear them out of your way. Also, there is some strategy in choosing when to target the zombie from the top-down screen. Naturally, you will probably want to target them when they are as far away from Leon in top-down mode as they can get, because this means they will take longer to reach attack range. However, the farther away the zombie is, the smaller of a target it becomes and thus better timing is required to get a successful shot and not waste ammo.

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When this game was released, it was mostly trashed by critics and gamers alike. Personally, I have a strange fondness for it, but I completely understand where its flaws lie. It is a difficult game for me to recommend, because, while it is a fun game, most people will get bored with it for entirely rational reasons. What’s wrong with it exactly? Well, pretty much all aspects of the game are just very simplistic, with the shooting gallery style combat being the worst. The only enemies you fight in this game are zombies and they are all dealt with in the same way. The exception to this is that there is a Mr. X style boss that follows you around, but fights with him are just as basic as the zombies, except his attacks are stronger, and he takes more damage. The puzzles in this game are all very rudimentary, and mostly just require you to find the right item to use on the right door/lock/barricade/obstacle to progress. In addition, there story is merely serviceable, not terrible just very (here’s that word again) simple.

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A little imagination could have gone a long way for this game. Perhaps they could of shook things up with additional enemy types that are fought differently. Perhaps you could have, say, lickers that jump to the ceiling and ambush Leon from above, making targeting them much harder than zombies. Perhaps it could have enemies with multiple critical points which are telegraphed with different animations. Perhaps the different enemies could be fought in different mini-game styles instead of just the shooting gallery view mode. I don’t know, but it seems like making the combat a little more varied would have gone a long way to spicing this game up. Also, the puzzles could have been made more interesting. Resident Evil has never had the most sophisticated puzzles to solve (it’s got nothing on Silent Hill), but Gaiden’s puzzles are shallow even by the standards of the rest of the series. I don’t know if the lack of variation is the fault of the developer or Capcom. But as I talked about above, I suspect Capcom had given up on making a quality Resident Evil for the GBC and were just looking for a quick-cash in release. The lack of variation would certainly be consistent with the developer having little time and money to complete the game.

So you might be wondering at this point why I profess to like this game. Well first off, it is a fun game I think, just perhaps not an impressive game. There’s nothing particularly offensive about the gameplay, even if it lacks variation. Some of it’s also just nostalgia. I had some fun times with this game, and I always look back upon all the old Resident Evil games fondly. For me, they are like strange symbols of my middle school and early high school years. But beyond that, I’ve always had an attraction to low-fi, low-tech horror games, including old classics like Sweet Home, Alone in the Dark, and Friday the 13th (“classic” might be a bit of a stretch with that one) as well as modern attempts such as Lone Survivor and The Last Door. Some people think it’s impossible to make scary games with primitive graphics, but I actually think such low-fi aesthetics allow for a level of abstraction that can drive the imagination to run wild with fantasized horrors. Resident Evil Gaiden sort of does a good job with that, there is definitely a pervasive creepy atmosphere to the ship. The limited ammo and healing items do succeed in creating some tension (as well as any of the PSX games I think), but I definitely wouldn’t call it a scary game. Really though, you might consider that just another area of wasted potential for this game. I guess in the end, my fondness of Resident Evil Gaiden could stem from the same place I appreciate games like Knights of the Old Republic II or Mirror’s Edge, those being other examples of games that could have been so much more. I like it for its potential, even if that potential goes largely unfulfilled.

So there it goes, as I’ve stated it’s really difficult for me to highly recommend Resident Evil Gaiden, as my own attachment to the game is the result of deeply personal reasons. However, Capcom has been a big supporter of Game Boy Virtual Console on 3DS, so I wouldn’t completely rule out a future rerelease for Gaiden. I doubt there is much love for this game by the publisher, but on the off chance it does get released on VC, I think Resident Evil fans would likely find enjoyment in it if they can snag it for a few bucks.

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Shovel Knight: Progressive Regression

Honestly, I’m kind of ambivalent toward of retro-obsessed gaming. And when I say “retro-obsessed gaming,” I’m not necessarily talking about games with pixel art aesthetics, as there are games that make use of pixel art but rely on fairly original gameplay design as opposed to being an evocation of a popular back-in-the-day title(s) (some examples that immediately come to mind of these fully modern pixellated games include Lone Survivor, Fez, FTL and Gunpoint). I’m really talking about games that are focused on being a throwback to the past, such as Volgarr the Viking, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or the recent remake of DuckTales. Some years ago when this phenomenon started, I was super excited for games like Mega Man 9 and Scott Pilgrim. Nowadays, when I find myself seeing games which promote themselves on retro-cred, I tend to just roll my eyes.

Maybe my distaste is just a matter of the novelty wearing off, but more likely I think it’s because this genre has become saturated with games which are more focused on obsessing over the old games the creator loved than actually creating a fun underlying game. Perhaps the worst example of this behavior I can think of is Retro City Rampage, the gaming equivalent of those awful reference humor movies that were hugely popular like 8 years ago. It is a game which makes hundreds of references to older games, such as Frogger and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as ‘80s pop culture, but in the preoccupation with making so many references, the developer failed to create a game that was actually fun to play. And the references aren’t even particularly well-done, since it was never realized that references aren’t funny in and of themselves. There’s no subtlety or cleverness to the whole act, and it is neither funny nor amusing, but simply the game going “HEY, REMEMBER THIS? REMEMBER IT??? YOU’RE COOL ENOUGH TO KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT AREN’T YOU?” The bad habit of lamely throwing out references just for the sake of throwing out references or trying to prove the developer’s gaming repute crops up in a lot of small developer titles, but that entire trend basically became crystallized in Retro City Rampage. On the other hand, one of my favorite games I’ve played this year was Volgarr the Viking, a throwback game which tries to capture the spirit of old sidescrolling action games like Rastan and Legendary Axe. (I’ve written more about this game here.) The team behind Volgarr successfully captured the essence of those games to make something enjoyable to play, while managing to avoid becoming fixated on nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. My time with Volgarr has led me to believe that these throwback games aren’t just a novelty, but rather a legitimate approach to game design when handled competently.

This brings us to Shovel Knight. I initially wrote this game off because every time it was previewed before release, it seemed the developers were really tripping over themselves to name drop as many classic NES games as they could. But after its recent release, I heard some positive buzz from other players, so I decided to give it a go and hope for a Volgarr and not an RCR. Fortunately, I ended up having a blast with the game and in my mind it’s sort of the template of how throwback gaming should be handled.

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Some background first, Shovel Knight was Kickstarted last year by freshman developer group Yacht Club Games and follows the sidescrolling action-platforming adventure of the eponymous Shovel Knight, whose quest takes him up against the eight rogue knights of the Order of No Quarter and their leader, the Enchantress. The game is sort of built in the template of Mega Man. The Order of No Quarter is composed of knights whose names all follow a convention of being titled “_____” Knight, where the blank is filled in with some sort of theme for that character which is reflected in the level they are fought. (Also notice that there are eight of them.) The levels also have a definite Mega Man feel to them, since each level has its own special gimmicks and features derived from the particular theme. Consequently, the level design has a sort of Mega Man “toughness,” since each level tests the player with its own unique challenges that must be mastered to progress. The other major game I see in Shovel Knight’s genetics is Zelda II. The game has an overworld map for selecting levels that reminds me a lot of Zelda II, complete with towns and side areas to visit in addition to the main Order of No Quarter stages. Shovel Knight can also bounce off of enemies using a downward strike similar to a move Link utilizes in Zelda II.

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Yet despite the fact that you can clearly see the influences of Mega Man and Zelda in Shovel Knight, it manages to feel like an original game, not just a hollow mimic of some old beloved NES title. This is because, although it stitches together a handful of borrowed ideas from the classics, it differentiates itself in every other way. I’ll illustrate a few examples here: The levels are designed like Mega Man, but Shovel Knight is a melee-oriented character which alters the flow of gameplay. Like Mega Man, Shovel Knight can acquire new powers, called relics, but these are collected not from defeated bosses, but rather a hidden merchant in each level from which the knight can buy the relic. This makes rooting around for hidden rooms all the more important in Shovel Knight as well as collecting treasure for upgrades. (There are a ton of secrets in this game, which I like a lot, and it really goes toward capturing the NES spirit.) Also, the robot masters in Mega Man are all essentially just Mega Man with a different gun, while the members of the Order of No Quarter come in various sizes and with moves that are radically different from what Shovel Knight can pull off. (It’s kind of like the difference between Mega Man X bosses and original series robot masters.) These are just some examples of the ways in which Shovel Knight forges its own identity.

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This is why Shovel Knight succeeds where so many are falling flat right now. Shovel Knight has influences, not references. It’s clear that the Order of No Quarter are creative descendants of the robot masters, the developer just lets that fact lie without needing to beat the player over the head with mentions and jokes about it. I never found a single bit of reference humor in the game, which means it’s either not there or it’s incredibly subtle. Shovel Knight honors its NES roots by utilizing ideas that were loved from those games, but it creates its own identity by uniting those borrowed ideas with its own original designs. It’s offering the spirit of its roots, not wearing the dead skin of them. Most importantly though, when synthesizing these ideas together, the developers of Shovel Knight actually paid attention to whether their game was fun or not, rather than simply relying on nostalgia to hook players. If you’ve never played any Mega Man or Zelda II, I really doubt you’d be held back from enjoying Shovel Knight on its own merits.

I think some developers feel that nostalgia is worthwhile on its own, but it’s really not. RCR, which offers nothing but nostalgia, was received terribly; while Shovel Knight has achieved fairly high acclaim. The problem is that I think a lot of gamers feelthey want nostalgia, and therefore it is a fairly good aspect to base a promotional campaign around. Before RCR’s release, a ton of gamers, myself included, were excited by videos showing pixelated graphics and missions calling back to TMNT, Metal Gear, and so on. But when the game was finally released, the realization hit that it was all style and no substance. The failure of RCR and other games marketed heavily on such nostalgia (DuckTales quickly comes to mind) has unfortunately resulted in a lot of cynicism toward this approach to game design. But as games like Shovel Knight and Volgarr the Viking prove, such an approach can actually result in games that are both a lot of fun and also really unique when handled by those who put creating a great game first, rather than trying to create shallow imitations of past glories.

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