One series that I have had a rough love hate relationship with is Capcom’s Resident Evil. For a long time I’ve wanted desperately for it to be great, while being regularly disappointed. There are titles in the series that are truly excellent, genre defining horror games, and in comparison to those the far more ridiculous and ill conceived entries are all the more painful.
I was introduced to the series at its peak, in 2002 when Capcom released the Nintendo exclusive Resident Evil Zero. This game was originally slated for the N64, but eventually the decision was made to make the game a showcase for the GameCube’s power. As a bonus, the first RE title received a full remake with new assets, a reworked script, and all new story content. Both this remake and Zero are impressive titles that make for excellent survival horror experiences.
After going through these, I became very interested in the franchise, but that’s when the penny dropped. As great as the GC games were, this series comes from a very campy place. Although they were fun titles for their time, the original Resident Evil games have not held up well. Resident Evil on PlayStation and Saturn is a laughable experience marked by dated graphics, terrible acting, a B-movie plot, and clunky design. The sequels made improvements and refined the experience as they went on, but none were as well designed as Zero and the REmake, and the REmake was the first entry whose story could be taken seriously.
As a teenager, this difference in quality colored my view of older RE games. Outside of the novelty of the early titles and spin-offs, I looked down on them as inferior. Although I got to experience what may be the best sequel in the series, Resident Evil 4, the later games were so badly written and the gameplay changes were so unfun that I gained a new appreciation for the older ones. Goofy as they are, the gameplay is the same as it was with the best of them. It’s a tense and thrilling game of resource management where your mastery of the puzzles and combat determines the true difficulty.
One of the spin-off games has recently landed on my radar and after finally giving it a try, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the production value and ease of play. That title is Resident Evil Gaiden for the GameBoy Color.
I distinctly remember entering a GameStop in 2004, back when they still carried old GameBoy games, and saw a copy for sale at about $35, and I scoffed at the high price for what I assumed couldn’t possibly be a worthwhile title. Considering the high prices the game commands these days, some listings as high as $700, I’m sorry I missed out at the time.
Recently though, the flea market scene came through for me, and I was able to pick up a copy for a pretty reasonable cost, and have finally had the chance to play Resident Evil Gaiden.
Some time after the T-Virus outbreak and fall of Racoon City, an underground non-government organization was formed to counter the threat posed by the broken remains of the Umbrella Corporation, the research and data of which have been used to carrying out chemical and biological terrorist attacks. The NGO is made up of former members of S.T.A.R.S. and ex-Umbrella scientists. After a raid of an Umbrella facility, intel is discovered that they are transporting a new Bio-Organic Weapon on a leisure cruise liner called the Starlight. Officer Leon Kennedy is sent to the Starlight to find the B.O.W., however after the uneventful departure, contact with Leon is lost while the ship is at sea.
The NGO calls in Barry Burton, one of the survivors from the original T-Virus outbreak at the Spencer Mansion, and he is tasked with boarding the Starlight to find Leon, and eliminate the B.O.W. The ship is discovered derelict and anchored in the Atlantic ocean. After landing on the deck, a tropical storm arrives, forcing Barry’s chopper to bug out back to base until the storm passes. Now, seemingly alone on the abandoned ship, Barry enters the main cabin to carry out his mission.
Eventually it is revealed that the B.O.W. can shapeshift into other people, raising the question of who you can trust. In sections of the game you play as Leon, which helps keep that tension going. Barry discovers a little girl, Lucina, who has a psychic link with the monster. Despite Leon’s protests, Barry is suspicious of the girl. While the storm is keeping the cavalry at bay, the Ship is being attacked by a submarine, The sub is from Umbrella, looking to destroy any evidence of their operation.
After meeting back up Barry turns on Leon and hands the girl over to Umbrella. This is revealed to be a ploy by Barry to force the scientists on the sub to operate on her as she is the host for the B.O.W. parasite. Although she is saved, the beast escapes and kills everyone. Barry and Lucina make it back to the Starlight to find Leon, after killing a copy of him, they find Leon and make their way off the ship and defeat the final creature to escape on the sub. The ship explodes and our heroes escape. Leon arranges a rendezvous point with HQ, however the last shot of the game reveals that this Leon is another clone, and the real Leon died on board.
The plot this time around is very much a traditional Resident Evil story but with less melodrama and a dash of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Most of the series plot is pretty convoluted, involving shady conspiracies, government corruption, and hackneyed plot twists. The story in Gaiden is no Shakespearean tragedy, in fact it’s one of the more direct plots in the series, but it still has twists that keep your interest. If not for the ending, the game might have been perfectly compatible with the series canon, but as it stands It has been cut from continuity.
In the end it’s a pretty direct mystery with little flair. One sorely missed feature is the series tradition of found documents. In just about every game in the series you’ll find letters, memos, reports, and journals that expand upon the events of the game. These do a great job of fleshing out the game’s world and making the situation a little more emotionally resonant. Here, all the documents you find are tutorials or notices on where things are with no flavor text. Since the main story is interesting, the absence of these documents doesn’t really hurt the game, but things do feel a little bare bones this time.
Being on the GameBoy, Gaiden was virtually incapable of being like a traditional Resident Evil. Capcom had taken a stab at recreating the original game on the GameBoy Color with all the fixed camera angles and 3D combat, and although they managed to make a working build, it was unwieldy to play and complex to program, and the project was scrapped.
The closest thing to a main Resident Evil game on the GameBoy at this point was the GBC release of Alone In The Dark: The New Nightmare by Infogrames. This game managed to maintain the 3D exploration of the console version by using heavily compressed backdrops and scaling tricks to simulate the original gameplay. However, combat was still an issue and so they opted for a random battle system. While you’re exploring you’ll be taken to an overhead shooting stage to fight some bad guys. Unfortunately this isn’t a very well designed system. Battles being random, you’re liable to run through all your equipment without seeing it coming.
Resident Evil Gaiden chooses to use a new combat and exploration set up. The principal game uses an overhead angle for the exploration. As you explore the Starlight, your map is filled out, however your target destination is always highlighted in red. Most of the puzzles are focused on gaining access to the next target.
Unfortunately, the puzzles are not that deep, or require that much critical thinking. In most situations you’ll find a key to a room with a key to another room, with a key to the target room. If you’re running along as the game intends, it can feel like busy work, but if you take a risk and explore areas you are not required to be in, you can get keys early as well as extra items and weapons, moving things along at a faster pace.
Combat in this game is unique, though it is also a point of contention. All throughout the ship are zombies of various ferocity and defense. Rather than fight, you’re are heavily encouraged to avoid or run from them, as ammo and healing items are scarce, just like any other RE. However sometimes you can’t avoid a fight, whether the bad guy is just too close to where you need to be and you put them in your sights, or a zombie makes a lucky grab at you..
Fighting shifts to a first person perspective. You have a panoramic view of your enemies as they approach you. To fight you have to equip a weapon and contend with a simple, but challenging mini game. Along the bottom of the screen a small target icon moves from left to right. The bar it moves along has different markings for where the enemies are. To attack simply use your weapon when the icon and the markings align. The white space under an enemy is a regular hit, but if you can line up the icon in the middle it’s a critical hit.
Basically everything boils down to a quick time event. The farther away a zombie is, the smaller your window of opportunity, however the closer they are, the more likely you are to get chomped. Different weapons also move the bar at differing speeds. Weak items like the pistol or the knife move at a simple pace, but the Stronger guns, like the assault rifle or rocket launcher, zip back and forth making it much easier to miss.
At various points in the game you’ll have more than one person with you, Leon, Lucia, or both. With more people comes pros and cons. The plus side is the extra health. Every character has three health bars. Green is full health, yellow is medium health, and red is low health. Whoever is selected to attack is in front and will then take the hits. If Barry is running red, switch to Leon to take the hits, or any other variation. Leon and Barry can take more damage, while Lucia can heal more with weaker items. Each character can also wear body armor found throughout the game to make the conflicts a little easier.
The biggest problem with having a bigger party has to do with escaping a fight. If you are overwhelmed or don’t want to use any items or ammo, you can flee any non-boss fight. If you hit the start button a new mark will appear. Hit it with the right timing and you’ll run, but when you have more people, each of them will have to run individually, and while trying, the enemies get way faster and there’s no way to back out of running once you start. The other issue with a big party is that if even one of you die, it’s game over. As different and gimmicky as it may be, I think that Capcom made some smart moves with the gameplay. It carries over the tension and thrill of the encounters in the main series and managing your items and equipment is just as stressful.
On the subject of stress, one last element of the Resident Evil series is touched on in this game, though handled in a new way. In the main series, at least 1 through Code: Veronica, saving your game is another resource to manage. You would use ink ribbons with typewriters you find through out whatever death trap you were stuck in, and there were only so many ribbons in the game before you were stuck not being able to save at all. The trick is to go as long as you can without saving, but you want to be careful, as death means being tossed back to your last save. If that’s behind a ton of work, then it hits you hard.
Gaiden scraps the ink ribbon system, taking the ability to save out of your control entirely. Instead the game saves at designated points in the story, normally after a major cutscene or boss. This can be stressful, especially if you have something else to do in real life, but it succeeds in creating tension. On the plus side, death is not as bad as it is in other titles. If Barry or anyone with him dies in combat it’s a game over and you’ll be given the option to either load a saved game, or continue from the last room you entered. There’s no real penalty for continuing. It just puts you back to the start of a room or your last save as though nothing happened, which is a huge relief if you’re having a hard time and the last save point was a while back. On the whole, this system makes the game feel a bit more linear, but it is also smaller than your run of the mill Resi game, so I think it works out.
The Graphics in this title are some of the strongest on the GameBoy Color. From the highly detailed enemy sprites in combat and the character portraits in the cutscenes, to the smooth animation and lighting changes in the environments. Although it is unlike any other game in the series, Capcom pulled all the stops and delivered an impressive title. The wrecked ship was a new environment for the series and reinforces the isolation as well as any mansion. Each area also has a different combat scene.
On the other end of the spectrum, the music is unusual. Composed by Shahid Ahmad, the soundtrack acts as a supplement to the gameplay. It behaves like the radio in the Silent Hill games, it grows in intensity the closer to enemies you are. There are a few tracks that have a variety of styles.
In theory, this is an effective little tool to rack up the tension, but if you’re doing well in the game, and taking out the zombies when you encounter them, then for the majority of the game you’ll only hear the low level music, which is usually just a short series of beeps looped over and over. When they’re at their full level, the music sounds pretty good, and there are a couple of good tracks, but the general lack of either greater variety, or some quiet time, make the soundtrack a little less than stellar.
Resident Evil 0, REmake, and Resident Evil 4 brought a new credibility to a series that was heading in a very ridiculous direction, and although the series flew right back off the cliffs of insanity afterwards, there was a time when you could consider the series a genuine horror classic. Resident Evil Gaiden came to be right before this time of change, but as an experiment to bring the tension of the series to a new audience, it was an admirable sign of the quality to come.
Many of the ideas explored in Gaiden were later reincorporated and expanded upon in the 3DS title Resident Evil: Revelations. That game also concerns an RE alumni exploring a wrecked ship fighting the undead, and there’s some betrayal and twists, but Revelations’ story is a much stupider affair. I may return to that game for a full review, but rather than reveal anything about the series as a whole, the game just creates a new scenario and reveals some things about that one with a bunch of people we’ve never met before… but hey! It’s on a boat, so they took one of the cool ideas from Gaiden.
Other concepts reappeared in Revelations 2, such as Barry showing up as a lead and finding a psychic little girl. Outside of these small nods in the Revelations games, Gaiden is a title that’s gone unrecognized, even among RE fans. In recent years, Resident Evil has bounced back with the more serious, though still crazy seventh entry, and by now almost all the spin-off titles have fallen into obscurity. Most of them were gimmicky and unremarkable, but if you’ve got a GameBoy Color, and happen across this game in the wild, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you’ve found.