Mad props to Ultra Powerful Pal of Gaming Hell, @_kimimi, who played Gaiden at the same time as us and is Twitter's resident Resident Evil expert.
She also checked this article for us and supplied a screenshot of the 'THAT'S NOT LEON' scene. So thanks.
... Ha! See that? I made a funny! Get it? Resident Resident Evil expert? Huh?
Oh, leave me alone.
Oh boy, we get to dip into the ol' Box of Unloved Sequels/Spin-offs!
And I'm not going to lie, I went into this one with absolutely zero expectations.
Resident Evil Gaiden is an odd one indeed. Not only is it a survival horror game on the Game Boy Color, it also couldn't have been unluckier- it was what we got after the ambitious-looking, HotGen-developed Resident Evil port for the GBC was cancelled, was released for a system that was pretty out-of-date at that point, and in Japan and America was released shortly after the amazing Resident Evil remake for the Gamecube (just a week later in Japan, and a few months later in America). The game couldn't have been unluckier if it tried, but British-based developer M-4 had a shot at it. Back when it was released, the only thing I ever heard about was that it was garbage, and it's a shame I passed it up the few times I saw it in a local game shop, as it's now a bit of a collector's item. It's still viewed dimly and carries a bit of a reputation amongst Resident Evil fans, but was never considered canon to the intricate and well-told RE story, so it's not like it even matters.
So... Is it really that bad?
A side-story set in a universe where Capcom realised that making Barry Burton being the main player character in a Resident Evil game would've been probably the best decision they ever made, Gaiden oddly predicts what Capcom would do with the next portable Resident Evil by being set on a ship. Leon Scott Kennedy has been chasing after an escaped B.O.W. on the cruise ship Starlight, but after not radioing in for a few hours, the anti-Umbrella organisation he works for hits the giant button marked "BARRY" and sends the greatest S.T.A.R.S. member in to find him, destroy the B.O.W. and escape while hopefully not sinking the ship. Needless to say, the entire ship is now crawling with zombies, and things get complicated when a survivor with weird powers, Lucia, is also found and seems to draw the B.O.W. to her like a moth to a night light. The story is typical Resident Evil nonsense with some terrible cutscene art, but it's silly in the way only a RE game can be. And c'mon, you play as Barry Burton! Man of Action! What's not to like?
To the game itself. If the prototype Resident Evil port was an attempt to faithfully reproduce the Resident Evil experience on a handhold, to a T, then Gaiden is instead an attempt at getting the basic feel of it, with mixed results. Much like its console bretheren, it's all about finding keys and items to advance to new rooms and areas, triggering cutscenes that advance what story there is along the way. The overhead exploration segments most closely resemble the console games, with a few changes to accommodate the smaller screen, such as a button prompt appearing when you can interact with doors/items. The most surprising change is that for the most part, the game tells you exactly where to go- your map fills up by itself and the next area you need to get to is marked in red. This means that, for the most part, the cryptic and mysterious atmosphere of the first Resident Evil is gone. That said, it's perfectly possible to get utterly stuck, as I did for at least an hour when I collected all the junk remaining on the ship far in advance of when I needed it except the one thing I did need. Overall, these overhead sections do the job, but feel a lot like busywork, as the room you need to go to is usually on the opposite end of the ship, because of course it is. While it can be argued that other RE games do this, it feels far more prevalent and obvious here, and there's no puzzles of any kind to break it up and keep things varied. The area designs themselves do evoke the cramped feel of RE1's tight corridors, but not necessarily because they're made that way, as we'll see in a second.
It's the combat that's the most different, and perhaps the most infamous part of the game- after engaging an enemy, whether it's by aiming your gun to start further away, or struggling with them, the game will switch to a first-person view with a rapidly-moving cursor. Each enemy has a bar underneath them, so hit Fire when the cursor's in their area to hit them, and nail it right in the middle for a critical hit. The combat system has a surprising amount of little quirks- enemies far away from you are harder to hit but less able to hit you, you can be attacked in groups, you can run away if you can't be bothered but will be attacked as you flee, and you can have up to two party members but if one dies you all die- but these little flourishes can't really hide the fact that it's essentially one of those power meters you see in golf games (and boy, would I rather be playing Neo Turf Masters right now).The other main annoyances are that you often die without realising it because your health drains fast, enemies can often engage you when you swear you're not touching them, and in a game with even stingier ammo drops than the norm, you will miss your shots, and you will miss often, which was rarer in the console games. You'd think that last one would increase the tension- it does in other games like this- but because of the frequency of zombie encounters, it becomes more irritating than tense. It doesn't help that the more powerful weapons are stupidly hard to aim as the bar moves way too fast.
The repetitive nature doesn't help either- there's only zombie enemies, few variations between them, and at the start each area is stuffed with zombies. At first I was fighting every zombie, mostly because trying to out-manoeuvre them was proving very difficult (this is why the maps feel so cramped, you have less room than you think) but slowly learned there's little point, as it's a losing prospect- you'll lose ammo and health even if you win. The trick instead is to only fight enemies that have a red exclamation mark, because they'll drop supplies. Frustratingly, this means that enemies drop key items too, so it's quite easy to get stuck, having to aimlessly wander the ship until you fight the right enemy. Which happened to me at least twice. However, you can't skip the rare boss encounters, which mostly take the form of 'pelt this dude with ammo until he backs off' and these will eat through your supplies, but none more so than the punishing boss rush near the end (no, seriously!) which had me, at one point, fending off a Tyrant with a combat knife. Didn't end well, I can tell you. Overall, the combat is dull and repetitive, and it speaks volumes that I started to groan whenever I saw zombies not because of tension or anything like that, but I just couldn't be arsed to fight them. On the plus side, beyond normal saves (save prompts will appear at certain points in the game) you can continue from the spot just before you died. This system did leave me in a position where it seemed almost impossible to proceed (a room with an instant boss encounter who was able to kill me seconds after starting) but this is rare (and I got out of it by switching character quickly).
So, at this point, the picture looks pretty bleak for Gaiden. The top-down exploration bits are dull and are mostly to-ing and fro-ing (no puzzles, by the way- like, at all), the combat is weird, not much fun and punishes you for daring to engage with enemies... And yet despite all this, I can't consider Gaiden a total write-off- I'd even recommend that you try it, with all the caveats listed above. For all its faults, it tries really, really hard. This feels less like a cash-in and more like a genuine attempt to eke a survival horror-esque experience out of underpowered hardware, with some interesting visual and audio tricks on display. For instance, zombies cries from the original games are present and correct in Crackle-O-Sound, and the game has fantastic use of lighting, getting a lot of atmosphere out of very little- your character's colour palette will change depending on whether they're under light or in shadows, and the game even uses this with zombies to frighten you as they sometimes hide in poorly-lit crevices. Even the battle system has some visual touches- engage enemies from far away and they'll be hunched over facing away from you when you start, slowly turning their attention to you, and the battle sprites themselves are the highlight, oddly reminiscent of Sweet Home for the Famicom. It's just... A bit of a chore to actually play. At least the length's just about right!
It's not a hidden gem by any stretch of the imagination- there are a lot of annoyances and flaws that dull the enjoyment, and I have the feeling that if I wasn't playing this game along with a Twitter friend and making incredibly stupid jokes I may not have got as much fun as I did out of it. However, a bit like Castlevania 64, it's earned a reputation for being an absolute mess that's not really deserved. It tries its best, bless it, but the effort doesn't quite get it into the realm of 'actually really decent'. Sadly, this also means that the one time Barry Burton got a starring role was wasted. Well, until Revelations 2, that is. In any case, it's a flawed game, but one done with effort, and maybe, just maybe, that makes it worth investigating for the curious (and patient).
For trying so very hard, Resident Evil Gaiden is awarded...
In a sentence, Resident Evil Gaiden is...
Better than Resident Evil 6.
And I got through that whole thing without a joke about the Resident Evil movies.
I saw the first one in the cinema for some reason. I did not do so for any of the others.
So when can we get Slammasters 3 with a tag-team of Haggar and Barry, Capcom?