Retrospective; Resident Evil Gaiden

Playing Resident Evil Gaiden again is an odd experience.

It’s a mixture of many things; when you look at what the power we hold in our hands now, it’s quite strange to feel in 2001, the 8-bit Game Boy Color was still the dominant force in the handheld market. And doubly strange to think that Capcom gave the go-ahead to the now-defunct British developer M4 to make a survival horror game for the Game Boy Color.

Let’s also remember that Capcom initially were trying to port the original Resident Evil to the Game Boy Color too, in all it’s pseudo-3D glory. The initial shots were grainy, devoid of texture and a little on the simple side, but it was inspiring in a way that they felt that there was the chance of scaling down a 32-bit survival horror into an 8-bit cartridge. Obviously, we didn’t get it. Which seemed at the time to be one of the main gripes about Gaiden – it wasn’t the game that people expected.

Also remember that Gaiden was very swiftly, soundly and brutally washed out of the Resident Evil timeline – this is a non-canon game now. A sort of “What if?” scenario. A curio, if you will.

Visually, the game is… well. It’s a Game Boy Color, top-down sort of RPG-lite with a pseudo-3D battle system. Engaging in enemies brings up a frontal viewpoint that requires you time your shots to be in line with the zombies that are in your view; time it right, and you get a headshot for extra damage. Time it so-so, and you’ll just hit them. Time it badly, and you miss. It’s deceptively simple.

The plot is typical fare for the Resident Evil saga, and is where we see Capcoms decade-long love affair with mysterious ghost ships begin, because if at first you don’t succeed, try and try and try again. Leon has gone missing on a routine Biohazard pick-up on a deserted ocean liner, and Barry Burton – series favourite – is called in to track down the Bio-Organic Weapon and locate Leon. On the way, he meets a mad captain, a strange little girl and Leon – or, as the ending alludes to, maybe not…

It’s quite a lovely little escapade too. Despite the low-resolution top-down approach, it’s still not the worst looking Game Boy Color game. It’s befitting, the dialogue is the usual camp but pacey twist-and-turn sort of thing that you’d expect and the 8-bit sound, whilst it can grate a little, is suitably cheesy and daft all the way.

After forgetting the game mostly, I did find it a bit of a pain to navigate around – the game isn’t always as obvious as you’d like, doesn’t always tell you where to get keys (or which zombies drop them), and you often end up short on certain types of ammo with the random drop system. Killing zombies for no guaranteed result in that scenario can be tricky. It’s also got a save system which, whilst not the series worst, is a royal pain in the arse anyway and should have been thought about, especially for a handheld designed to be played on the move.

But all these years on, I have to say – I still quite like Gaiden, and taking away the daft ending which would otherwise ruin the timeline (hence it being unceremoniously disowned by Capcom) it’s not the worst thing you could play. It’s nice to see Barry doing a round, albeit in a choppy and inconsistent manner when you switch characters a fair bit, and it’s nice to see Capcom want to attempt this sort of thing.

But so much has moved on, and I guess it’s really down to personal taste. I love a bit of retro, and for me Gaiden is deliciously so; it’s an oddity, an unloved child, the unwanted offspring of an illegitimate affair on a platform that was really not designed for horror. Gaiden sort of works. And in other ways, it sort of doesn’t. Finding items without the trademark sparkly lure is frustrating as you check every box, every shadow, every dead body. But equally, it encourages exploration beyond any other game in the series; where each new room holds untold mysterious delights and deathtraps. The combat system is pacey and well-designed; but the occasional flash and blip betrays that even the Game Boy Color wasn’t really up to the task, and random crashes were not unheard of. It’s camp and cheesy, but the music is a bit too much so at times.

But it’s still unashamedly Resident Evil. It feels sort of right, a kind of guilty pleasure. We’re really not SUPPOSED to like it. It’s been covered up. It’s been pasted over. Buried in the back yard. Capcom don’t want us to ask questions about it. For them, it’s gone – and they deny its existence.

But that is a real shame. Because Capcom are known for the games that never made it – Resident Evil 1.5, the two previewed variations of Resident Evil 4 that never came to fruition – one showing Leon skulking around a mysterious mansion with a very Silent Hill vibe; the other, walking around a futuristic laboratory that is mysteriously empty save a malicious AI. There’s also talk that Capcom have ditched many other attempts at Resident Evil; Outbreak File 3 never happened. The conclusion to the saga of Sherry Birkin was misplaced.

That Gaiden exists at all is somewhat of a mixed blessing; it’s a dark corner that Capcom seem to be embarrassed about. But equally, if you take it as a far-out, non-canon addition to the series, it’s not without numerous charms and whimsical attitude.

Gaiden is that unusual installment that just is what it is. Sure, it was never going to win awards – but as an indulgence, it’s a treat. One that Capcom shouldn’t be ashamed of – if anything, they should embrace it and all its flaws.

Because it’s so much better than Resident Evil 5… sorry Capcom. But it’s true.

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