Being a huge fan of the Resident Evil series, I’ve feverishly consumed every morsel of flesh the franchise has had to offer, with the exception of a few outliers like the abysmal-looking Umbrella Corps, of course. However, one has always escaped me, the black sheep, Resident Evil Gaiden. Now is the time to right that wrong, for better or worse.
Released for the Game Boy Color of all things in 2001, Gaiden follows Barry Burton aboard the luxurious passenger ship, Starlight. He finds himself there chasing after Leon S. Kennedy, who got his dumb ass lost investigating a rumour that the ship contains a new kind of B.O.W. created by Umbrella. Then, suddenly zombies, you know how these things go by now.
Barry’s investigation of the ship brings up more than he originally thought it might, unfolding a fairly decent, if slightly predictable, mystery for the series. This brings in a few new characters to the fold and the story results in (slight spoilers, by the way) a canon-shattering ending, that I’m not entirely surprised has been entirely ret-conned from the series timeline.
The first thing that struck me about Resident Evil Gaiden is that it both feels a lot like a traditional Resident Evil game and yet defies convention dramatically in almost all aspects of the gameplay. You explore the zombie-infested pleasure cruise, with limited pocket space for carrying the needless amount of garbage on the ship, and try to survive against the horde.
Your luxurious surroundings inexplicably contain ammunition, weapons just shy of tactical nuclear devices, and health (which comes in more tiers here than normal) hidden around the place. Also, uniquely, a lot of the bodies laying around, whether dead, undead, or otherwise, are often carrying items, denoted by an icon and little chime when nearby.
There’s a whole load of locked doors, the keys that go to them, a slightly unreliable map, and only slight indications of where you need to go. As such, Resident Evil Gaiden contains all of the backtracking and exploration you have come to expect from the series, and it’s still just as gratifying here to find the key you’ve spent an age hunting down.
Combat is where things really change from the classic formula, shifting to a first person perspective where the attacks have to be nailed with perfect timing to land critical hits. With the enemies slowly approaching, you have to time the hits correctly to get them before they get you. Oh, and the more powerful the weapon the faster the cursor moves too.
This makes the battles strategic in a way that the original games weren’t, allowing switching over weapons on the fly (whilst zombies can still close in and attack), and with different weapons allowing attacks from different ranges. Once you nail the system though, this is possibly the most solidly made part of the whole game, and is immensely satisfying in practice.
You can also target enemies from a distance, the advantage being that when combat starts you have a little time to gather yourself. However, as the enemies are at a distance they’re harder to hit and the knife is completely useless. This forethought with combat is not seen in other titles in the series, for shame, relying on a more reactive approach instead of pro-active.
Impressively, M4 have managed to make a game on the Game Boy Color that actually looks like a Resident Evil title, albeit one through a markedly blurred filter. Both Barry and Leon look pretty close to the last times we saw them, the shuffling undead are varied in design and remarkably detailed for such restrictive hardware, and the game runs smoothly too.
The only downside to the visuals in Gaiden is the setting itself as, unlike the original games, there’s not enough visual cues between different areas to distinct them from one another, leading to easily getting lost and relying on the map. Also, there’s a lot of inconsistency across the areas with some looking pretty good and detailed (see below) and others looking bland.
As another downside, the sound here is pretty much a complete nightmare, which now I write this, I see that really this is quite thematically relevant. There are only a handful of songs that play throughout dependent on the scenario going on (combat, exploration, or story) and are generally grating and repetitive, as you would expect from limited Game Boy sound chip.
However, in an incredibly interesting twist, the song that plays during exploration actually dynamically changes as you wander around. It has slight variation between each area, but also more depth is added to each variation based on how many enemies are on the screen. It leads to a feeling of fluctuating tension that really adds to the overall experience.
Resident Evil Gaiden isn’t a great Resident Evil game, and but I cannot deny its merit as a good game in general. It’s an unusual title that quickly endears itself to you, and you begin to look past its issues and see that it has some fantastic ideas and mechanics. M4 made a pretty damn good Resident Evil spin-off on limited hardware, and it’s remarkable what they achieved.
It’s difficult to recommend to play, and I would advise most fans of the series to avoid for the canon-shattering ending alone, but I personally had a lot of fun with it. The limited inventory, claustrophobic environments, and rewardingly strategic combat made for a wonderful portable time sink. Bring back some of Gaiden’s ideas Capcom, you cowards.