It’s impossible to play everything. Even the most die-hard gaming fanatics have to skip over some releases. Its why the retro gaming community has latched onto the term ‘hidden gem’. A game that was great or even ahead of its time, but just didn’t get the attention it deserved for whatever reason. However, I was surprised to discover that one of the most overlooked survival horror games happens to be from the most famous series in the genre. That game is Resident Evil Gaiden.
2001 A Zombie Odyssey
Welcome to 2001, quite possibly one of the busiest years in gaming. In the world of consoles, we would see Nintendo introduce their beloved box with a handle, the Gamecube. With Sony releasing the PS2 late in the year 2000, we were just now starting to see it hit its stride with games like Metal Gear Solid 2, Grand Theft Auto 3, Silent Hill 2, Final Fantasy X, and Devil May Cry. If that wasn’t enough for you already then Microsoft decided to enter the ring with their first ever home console the Xbox, which would change the world of gaming forever with the launch title Halo: Combat Evolved.
Needless to say, not many people were paying attention to handheld games. Even if they were, they were probably focused on the newly released GameBoy Advance. So when Resident Evil Gaiden came out this same year on the outdated GameBoy Color, not a lot of people took notice.
Resident Evil wasn’t always intended to fail on handhelds. In fact, it was set up to be quite the opposite. Capcom originally had planned to bring a full port of the first Resident Evil to the GameBoy Color in 1999. Capcom enlisted the help of the now-defunct M4 studios to work alongside series legends Shinji Mikami and Hiroki Kato on the ambitious port.
Which may have proved itself too ambitious, because the team eventually scrapped the idea and headed back to the drawing board. With the release date now pushed back much further than ever intended, the team urged Capcom to let them reprogram the game for the upcoming GameBoy Advance. They insisted that this would have allowed them more freedom and a better graphical engine to create a truly portable version of Resident Evil.
Capcom had already expended all of its funding for the game and insisted that the team do the best they could with what they had. This led Shinji Mikami and Hiroki Kato to go back to the drawing board and create an all-new story and create what would now become the GameBoy Color exclusive Resident Evil Gaiden.
CarnEvil Cruise Lines
Resident Evil Gaiden stands out from the rest of the franchise in many ways. For one, the story is not considered canon in the lineage of the series. Instead, the game stands on its own as sort of a ‘what if’ adventure that stars Leon Kennedy and Barry Burton.
The game opens with Barry Burton receiving a mission briefing before boarding a cruise ship that is believed to be carrying a new biochemical weapon. Barry is sent in to recover Leon Kennedy who went missing while on duty aboard the ship. When Barry arrives, he soon learns that all of the passengers have been turned to zombies. It’s up to him to brave the many corridors of the old cruise ship and find Leon so they can put an end to Umbrella’s bioterrorism once and for all.
Gameplay is vastly different from the third-person tank controls that the Resident Evil games had become known for at this point. Limited to the 8-bit graphics of the GameBoy Color, the game utilizes a top-down perspective. As zombies approach you can pull out your weapon and aim the reticle. Upon pulling the trigger the game takes a dramatic turn.
Battles take place in a first-person perspective. As zombies slowly approach you a small bar runs back and forth across the bottom of the screen. The gunshots fire wherever the bar is when you pull the trigger. Which means you have to time your shots just right in order to conserve ammo and hit the zombies. Landing a shot dead center gets you a headshot which inflicts much more damage.
Along the way, you will gain access to more weapons which change the size of the bar and increase your accuracy. Of course, you’ll also have access to knives so that you can save your ammo for more challenging opponents. Be careful though, because knives can only be used at a close range and do little damage.
Just like all of the Resident Evil games, resources are scarce and enemies are abundant. You will be exploring multiple levels of the cruise ship doing light puzzle solving and finding keys to locked doors. So you will come in contact with plenty of the undead. It’s always wise to make sure you choose your battles wisely.
Rotting Flesh That’s Still Fresh
Upon its release, Resident Evil Gaiden was panned by critics. Many faulted it for its graphical limitations. Others claimed that its gameplay was dull and lacked the action that the rest of the series had become known for. With its release coming so late into the life of the GameBoy Color, it went mostly unnoticed and performed pretty poorly.
As a result, Capcom has pretty much ignored the game’s existence. Which is an absolute shame because despite the way critics felt about the game back in the day it holds up incredibly well. Resident Evil Gaiden was a game that was incredibly ahead of its time. Despite the limitations of the GameBoy Color hardware, the developers really managed to find a way to cram survival horror onto the handheld platform.
There is absolutely no other experience like Resident Evil Gaiden on the GameBoy Color. The atmosphere is creepy and it’s, hands down, the most violent game on the system. There weren’t a lot of mature adult-oriented experiences on the GameBoy Color and Resident Evil Gaiden really went for it. The first person gameplay displays some beautiful pixel art that is surprisingly gory for a handheld Nintendo console.
You can tell that the developers knew it would be hard to scare the player given the games graphical limitations. So they created an unsettling atmosphere with one of the best chiptune soundtracks on the handheld. The music is eerie and minimalistic in a way that mimics much of John Carpenter’s classic horror scores. Capcom also managed to keep the gameplay tense with the sparse item drops and the multitudes of enemies always keeping you close to death.
The story, while not considered official canon, is very gripping and has plenty of twists that make it one of the more surprising narratives in the series. Die-hard Resident Evil fans will definitely get a kick out of seeing Leon and Barry’s interactions and by the games climax its hard not to have a smile on your face after experiencing this ridiculous ‘what if’ scenario.
With all of the obstacles that Resident Evil Gaiden had going against it, it’s incredible that it holds up so well. It’s by no means among the top games in the series, but it is most definitely the best survival horror experience on the GameBoy series of handhelds. Its a game that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten and hopefully the survival horror community will keep it alive and give it the second life it deserves.