Resident Evil Gaiden
Game Boy Color
Capcom / M4
Genre: Action Horror
2002 (2001 in PAL region)
I missed out on the Game Boy Color for the most part so a lot of the games that were designed for the system are still mysteries to me. Somewhere between the Game Boy, the Super Nintendo, and the Super Game Boy, this little handheld slipped right under my nose while I moved from console to console. When I find games that would have snagged my attention back then in the current day, I immediately try to jump on them so that I can see exactly what I was missing.
Having loved Resident Evil since my friend described it to me on the original Playstation years ago, I spent hours with Chris and Jill on their flagship venture through the Spencer Mansion. Resident Evil 2 also became and continues to be a favorite of mine. I remember briefly seeing something about a Game Boy entry of the series in some magazine, but I couldn’t tell you which magazine it was or how deeply the article explained it. I never saw it on the store shelves so it slipped from my memory pretty easily, especially since it had come out in the PAL region before coming over to the US so I had no idea if I would even see it.
The next time I ran into Resident Evil Gaiden was on a random shelf at a Wal-Mart down the street from my house well after they had stopped selling GBC games. I didn’t pick it up then, either, but I was always curious about it. Part of the Resident Evil experience had to do with the scope and the narrative, both of which were things I hadn’t experienced on the Game Boy. Having the chance to play Resident Evil Gaiden recently, I finally got to see how I would feel about the ‘lost’ chapter of the series.
(Warning: As this is a sequel, there may be minor spoilers throughout this section for other Resident Evil games)
Falling some time after the events of Resident Evil 2, Leon Kennedy has joined with an organization who is attempting to put a stop to Umbrella, the corporation that orchestrated the decimation of Raccoon City through the risen carnivorous dead. His most recent assignment has sent him to the USS Starlight, a cruise liner that has been rumored to have had another outbreak like Raccoon City had seen. Since he has left for the ship, though, he has not been heard from.
Enter Barry Burton, former S.T.A.R.S. Alpha Team member and current member of the same organization that Leon has joined. With his new teammate’s disappearance, he has been sent to investigate the USS Starlight as well as the reports of a new B.O.W. (Biological Organic Weapon) that may have appeared. As he begins his investigation, he finds that the same manner of incident that he experienced in the Arklay Mountains is playing out aboard the massive craft. He also finds a young woman by the name of Lucia who was the last person to have seen Leon on the ship when he told her to hide and wait for him to return. There is more to the incident than there first appears to be, however, and the investigation becomes a fight for survival as Barry attempts to decipher the goings on aboard the Starlight and escape yet another hellish incident overrun by the undead.
Resident Evil Gaiden steps away from most of the conventions of the games in the series up to this point. Exploration involves two different game modes. The main method of exploration involves an overhead view of your character as you travel through the decks and halls of the USS Starlight. If you come across items that could be of interest or enemies nearby, a small exclamation point will arise with a chime. If it is an item- usually ammunition or healing herbs, per the previous entries- it is placed immediately into your near limitless inventory space. Most other items are puzzle elements, often in the form of keys to unlock doors to continue progressing through the ship. If a red exclamation point pings, though, it means an enemy is near which is when battle can break out.
This leads to the second method of gameplay. When Barry finds a zombie or another enemy, he has the ability to aim at them by pressing a button which brings up a reticle that must be manually moved. If the button is released while it is hovering over the enemy or if the zombie should make contact with the player, a new screen will appear during the altercation. Shifting to a first-person view, the enemies are in sight, slowly advancing as an indicator slides from left to right at the bottom of the screen. If the player presses the button to shoot in the highlighted areas, the zombies will be shot in the torso or, if lined up in the middle, the head. Stronger weapons find the indicator sliding faster- a handgun will be easier to handle than a rocket launcher- but after a few well-placed shots, the enemies go down and the view returns overhead. This is reminiscent to Resident Evil: Dead Aim, a later entry on the Playstation 2, though a bit scaled down. Thankfully, it’s pretty accurate so while it’s a strange mechanic compared to the other games, it’s on point.
There are a few other twists to the conventions of the series. Players no longer have to mix herbs to make them more powerful. Instead, you find five or so different colors of herbs that vary in their effectiveness. This, along with acquired ammunition automatically loading into its respective weapons, keeps things much simpler. You can also have up to three characters in your ‘party’, each of whom can be equipped with a weapon and can be switched between during combat with the press of a button. Another item that has been added to the game is armor which offers a buffer between your characters and the near-unavoidable damage from battles.
Between this, the party mechanic, and the limitless inventory, you could almost consider Resident Evil Gaiden the RPG of the series. The mechanics make this a strange horse in the stable, but it never becomes too complicated.
The Good, The Bad, and…
Despite how far under the radar this entry fell, Resident Evil Gaiden is actually a pretty solidly made game. It’s difficult to go on for too long about any one element since the game is pretty short. It does a great job of explaining itself and how it plays and the game actively encourages tactical combat, pointing out that sometimes it’s better to run than fight. Herbs are easily found to keep your characters healthy and while the item glimmers of the first few games are absent, exploration is pretty well rewarded when the signal sounds that an item is on the ground. Generally, the game is well paced and stays interesting along the way, as well. This is probably helped by the fact that backtracking doesn’t feel like as much of a burden as it did in the other entries since there is a lack of loading screens and the USS Starlight is much smaller than the Spencer Mansion and Raccoon City Police Department.
A few of the issues that crop up can be game breaking, though, if you aren’t aware of them. If you’re expecting ink ribbons and typewriters, you’ll sadly be left wanting. The game forces save points at particular beats in the story, popping up at what feels like random but are actually pertinent moments. They’re usually not too much of an inconvenience to restart from if you die, but it feels off to have no control over whether you can save or not. This does couple poorly, though, with the fact that ammunition is a rare commodity. That doesn’t sound like it matters much since rationing bullets is a staple in the Resident Evil games, but if you aren’t careful, you’ll be stuck two hours into the game with no ammo and an inability to finish the game as a result. This is probably another place to say it again: running is a viable and necessary option. Considering that my first attempt to play through resulted in a frustrating need for a fresh start, this falls pretty squarely into the ‘ugly’ and ‘bad’ section.
The sound in this game bounces between attempts at haunting and minimal to driving and action-packed. What’s strange about this is that it flips between these at what feels like random intervals, sometimes while running down the same abandoned hallway. Battle screens are accompanied by some fitting music and even the cutscenes have some appropriate if not tinny and underwhelming background accompaniment.
Looking at the game is fairly underwhelming in that a number of the more detailed graphics like cutscenes and character portraits aren’t fantastic with the exception of the battle screens and zombies therein. The environments and character models in the overhead view are minimal but actually fun to look at. The Game Boy’s screen also makes the game feel just a bit too dark, muddying what is a distinctively ‘okay’ looking game.
In all honesty, I went into Resident Evil Gaiden expecting very little. After researching a bit, I found that it had Shinji Mikami, the father of Resident Evil, helping with its development, which shows in the story and the direction it takes. If you can get past the drastic change in interface and a couple of misguided mechanics, the experience is well worth jumping into. On any other system, this would have been a classic piece in the series. Due to the limitations of availability, development, and the Game Boy Color itself, however, the game is just underwhelming enough to justify it’s underrecognized status. Fortunately, since there has been no effort to revive this title, finding a cartridge doesn’t appear to be terribly expensive so if you have a Game Boy Color and you’re a Resident Evil fan, seeking this game out could be well worth the time.
Plot Discussion and Therefore Spoilers
As an opening note, if you’re interested in the plot of this game, I’ll be discussing one major plot point here, at least. If you’re worried about ruining the overall cosmology of the Resident Evil series, however, this title isn’t necessarily considered ‘canon’ in the grand scheme of the series- a point I’ll discuss toward the end of this section- so feel free to use your best judgment going forward.
The meat of the plot of the game centers around the new B.O.W. and the mystery of the young girl, Lucia. It doesn’t take long for the group to figure out that there is a B.O.W. on board (which is deemed a Tyrant, an almost catch-all term for ‘super zombies’ in the Resident Evil lore). After an attack leads to Lucia being kidnapped and spirited away from the group, the suspicion falls toward her being the actual B.O.W. the group came to find. Given that most of these creatures have been solely set on tearing our protagonists apart, this makes for one of the more interesting plot mysteries and twists in the series, let alone in the game.
There is a lot more to the story of Lucia than that, however, and it’s a shame that the series didn’t end up doing more with her. Due to the revelation that she has an organism growing inside of her thanks to the Umbrella Corporation, she appears to be able to sense the B.O.W. and any other mutations when they are nearby. This is also subtly utilized in the game’s mechanics, wherein the warning signal that an enemy is nearby appears to go off more when she’s in the party. The reason she is kept safe by the Tyrant is that the company needs the organism that she will produce. At the heart of the situation, it mirrors the trials of Sherry Birkin in Resident Evil 2, though it’s a bit vaguer as to the means and what the final result would be. Sadly, while she is cured and offered to be adopted by Barry after all is said and done, we never hear from her again. Given the direction the series took, she would have fit right in with a number of characters. One can only assume that due to the lack of Gaiden’s popularity, there’s not exactly a demand to see her return.
One other issue is the very last minute of the game which is most likely the reason the series has forgotten about this title. Once the Starlight has gone beneath the waves and the group is safe on their liferaft, Leon calls in for rescue. The typical sentiment of “we’re going home” plays out, but the final part of the cutscene takes an unnerving turn. With a close-up on Leon’s neck, the player gets to see what the characters do not- a scratch that is oozing with lime green liquid. As a plot point, it is distinguished that the B.O.W. has two defining characteristics: it can take the shape of others and its blood is green instead of red. This is actually used in a rare resourceful moment on Lucia’s part when two of her appear on the deck, confusing Barry and Leon into the classic “which one do we shoot” scenario. Upon cutting her hand and bleeding red, the men know which Lucia to kill. Earlier in the game, as well, Barry and Lucia come across Leon looking a bit out of sorts, only to resolve this when Lucia notes that she doesn’t think that’s the real Leon, opening into a boss fight. At points, there is a paranoia akin to The Thing where anyone could be the B.O.W. The honor only ever squarely falls on our party, though.
The real issue is that the ending provides proof that the “Leon” on the life raft is actually the B.O.W. which, as would be expected, raises a lot of questions that will never be answered. Where’s the real Leon? Was he ever actually on the ship? Clearly, Barry survived, as we see him in future iterations. What happened to Lucia, though? If this is to work into the canon of the series, most likely Barry took care of the B.O.W. and while he and Lucia made it back to safety, she was put into protective custody or some other organization’s watch. Given that she isn’t mentioned again when Barry appears in Resident Evil Revelations 2, this can make some logical sense and adding in the fact that Mikami helped direct Resident Evil Gaiden, it’s hard to deny that the game should probably be placed into the mythos of the overall series, despite being mostly forgotten.