Game Boy Demakes: Resident Evil Gaiden
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.