Welcome back to the Resident Evil love/hate series! In this entry we’re looking at the truly bizarre and unique Resident Evil Gaiden, the oft-overlooked, non-canon Game Boy Color spin-off that started Resident Evil‘s obsession with cruise ships. Having sprung out of Capcom’s desire to port Dino Crisis and the original Resident Evil to handheld, developer M4 felt that a direct port wasn’t feasible and so a new game was developed to make the most of the handheld’s more limited capabilities. How did this stripped down concept play out though? Read on to find out…
Oh, and before we get further, I do want to note that I played this game on my Retroid Pocket 2+, not original hardware (and there were no ports either). I will address what I feel was the game experience “as intended”, but I do also want to acknowledge that the vast majority of people playing the game now are going to be doing so via emulation and therefore will have access to save states, rewind, cheats, etc. I did use the rewind and save state functions pretty frequently which made the game easier for me, without a doubt.
- Impressive Use of the Hardware – Considering that Resident Evil Gaiden is running on 8-bit hardware (which was already archaic when the game came out in 2002) and only has four buttons and a d-pad to work with, it is insane just how well they managed to translate the Resident Evil formula to Game Boy Color. While the graphics and combat aren’t great on their own, they’re incredible by the standards of the hardware and it’s clear that developers M4 were very skilled at their work. Combat, easily the most contentious aspect of the game, works really well within the hardware constraints and the way it has zombies attack you in first person mode is jaw-droppingly impressive. In fact, I’d be willing to say that this is probably the most technically-impressive 8-bit game I’ve ever played.
- Core Gameplay is Solid – Resident Evil Gaiden really nails the fundamentals, in particular the exploration of the early Resident Evil games. You’ll spend the majority of the game wandering around the Starlight, finding keys items which will allow you to unlock rooms to gather more key items, weapons and supplies to survive. Helpfully, all the key items give you hints about where they need to go, so you get into an enjoyable loop of “get a new item, head to place where the item is used, find use the item, find another item, repeat”. Gaiden also retains the ability to “feint” zombies to get around them and avoid combat, which is great for conserving health and ammo.
- Non-linear Progression – Resident Evil Gaiden will show you where your next destination is on its map, but you can actually collect items and unlock areas in a non-linear fashion (a fact which I discovered after forgetting that the map tells you where to go next…). It’s kind of cool that you can choose to unlock areas and get items to help progress sooner than expecting, cutting down on a lot of potential backtracking later on (seriously, I just blitzed through the latter part of the game because I already had all the key items I needed at that point).
- Combat – When you boil it down, combat in this game is just a reticle moving left and right with a limited window in which you can press a button to do damage. Like I have said, the presentation of this game’s combat is technically impressive and with the hardware limitations it was probably their best option. However, your feelings about this system are probably going to make-or-break your enjoyment of the game. It takes the very simple “ready and shoot” combat of the early Resident Evil games and instead replaces it with a system that demands twitch reflexes to not only succeed, but survive. That reticle moves pretty quickly and every shot you miss is a punishing mistake because ammo is a finite resource that you can’t afford to waste and the knife only works in close range. You can also wait for enemies to get close to make aiming easier, but this is also a problem because they will instantly attack you up close and there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. You also can’t just run away because attempting to do this will cause enemies to instantly start attacking you, which will always result in at least one hit. It’s a functional system all-in-all, but I dislike how it turns Resident Evil‘s combat into a game of precise reactions when you can’t afford to miss a single shot.
- Game Tells You Which Enemies Have Loot – Okay, so you don’t want to get into combat because it drains your resources. Well, Gaiden has a stop-gap solution where certain enemies can drop supplies when you kill them. The game will actually pop up an “!” in the corner to let you know when an enemy will drop items on death, which is handy but I feel like it isn’t a very elegant solution to item scarcity. I’d prefer if the game was less stingy with items in the first place, or make item drops more dynamic depending on the player’s inventory rather than just saying “Hey, shoot this zombie in particular!” since this system also lets you know when you don’t want to fight an enemy because it will be nothing but a resource drain.
- Multiple Characters Doesn’t Add Much – Resident Evil Gaiden allows you to switch between three characters on the fly (one of whom is Barry goddamn Burton!), which sounds cool but in practice all this adds is the ability to equip a weapon to a characters and then hot-swap to it in combat without having to dig through the inventory. Different characters don’t bring any unique skills or abilities, which is a bit of a missed opportunity.
- Slow Movement Speed – The Starlight is a pretty big place and navigating through it can take quite a while, which isn’t helped by the game’s leisurely movement speed. This gets especially annoying when, for example, the game will have you go from the fourth floor east side of the ship down to the first floor west side.
- Making this worse, I noticed that Resident Evil Gaiden had a lot of slowdown during gameplay, especially when several sprites were on-screen at once. This makes getting around take even longer and if you try to shoot at an enemy it can cause your ability to react take even longer. It’s possible that this was an emulation issue, but given how well my Retroid Pocket 2+ runs Game Boy games, let alone more demanding hardware, I have a hard time believing that.
- Artificial Restrictions on Non-linearity – As much as I love this game’s non-linear structure, there are some really annoying restrictions on it. The most egregious would be that you can get into rooms ahead of the “proper” time to do so, but key items won’t do anything and weapons will be unavailable until after a particular game state is reached. This is so annoying because it feels arbitrary, you know you’re in the right place for your item but the game just won’t let you use it. In regards to weapons as well, if you don’t follow the “proper” order then you’re probably going to miss some of the most powerful weapons because you won’t need to go back to those rooms later and there’s no indication that these weapons are going to become available there later (see: the shotgun in the original Resident Evil and Resident Evil 7, those games will tease you something you can get later rather than just hiding it away).
- Save System Isn’t Great – Rather than letting you save when you want, Gaiden has a checkpoint-based save system where you get to save after completing a certain story milestone. If you’re playing the “proper” way then this should give you a save after every 15-20 minutes of gameplay. Unfortunately, if you do as I did, you might spend an hour or more between save points (which could make a death devastating) and make it so that latter saves are coming up every 5-10 minutes. Now, as I’ve said in the intro, most players are going to be playing this in 2022 by emulator so this issue is significantly lessened, but it is worth mentioning considering how the game was originally experienced.
- Weapon Switching in Combat – Simply put, it sucks. If you’re in combat and you don’t have another character, or you forgot to give them a weapon, pray you don’t run out of ammo. Combat still goes on in real-time as you fumble through your inventory to try to find a weapon, often resulting in taking at least one hit, if not more. It’s an extremely clunky system and it can be especially devastating in boss fights.
- Menu Diving to Use Keys – Likely due to hardware restrictions, you can’t use a key to open a door without first diving into your menu and then trying to manually use it. The fact that most keys will tell you where they need to go lessens the guessing game, but there are times where multiple locked doors are in an area and you’re stuck trying them on all the doors. There are also times where a key item will be automatically used when the game lets it be used, but you don’t know this so you walk up to every computer and try to “use” the Data Disk to try to activate the computer, only for it to not work…
- Final Gauntlet is Brutal – I did pretty well at conserving ammo throughout Gaiden. I avoided combat whenever possible, I missed very few shots and made sure to make notes whenever I found powerful ammo that I wasn’t able to pickup yet. In fact, the only weapon I missed was the gas launcher… which was a crippling mistake because I dare say that the final gauntlet is damn-near impossible to complete without it. The final gauntlet sees you fighting a beefy parasite B.O.W. three times, and it takes at least ten shots to take down every time. Use all your rockets and grenades the first time you see it? Sucks to be you, you’re gonna die now. Oh and if you beat it and don’t immediately run it will fight you again and you’ll waste even MORE ammo. On top of that, there are swarms of bullet-sponge zombies between you and the exit and avoiding them all is simply impossible, meaning that you are going to waste tons of ammo just to escape… unless you get the gas launcher, which one-shots entire rooms of zombies and saves you that ammo that you need in order to survive the final battles. I got to the point where I was at the final battle but I just didn’t have the supplies I needed to beat the game… so I just put it down and Youtube’d the final cutscene.
Given its reputation I had assumed that Resident Evil Gaiden was going to be a shoddy experience akin to Survivor. I was shocked by just how much I enjoyed this game; don’t let the amount of “Hates” dissuade you, my “Loves” far outweighed them. It reminded me a lot of the MSX Metal Gear games and it plays like a perfect demake of the classic Resident Evil gameplay style. It’s also fairly short, taking me only four hours total, so I’d definitely recommend giving it a look.