Resident Evil Gaiden (16)

We recently asked you Nintendo Life readers to rate your favourite Game Boy Color games, and as we're preparing to publish the Top 50 results, we're taking a look back at a handful of our favourite GBC games. Here, Kerry defends the Resident Evil game that NL readers voted the worst in the series...

A long time ago we were promised a mostly-authentic port of the survival horror classic Resident Evil for the Game Boy Color — tension-ratcheting camera angles and all — only to end up with Barry “You were almost a Jill sandwich!” Burton on a boat. Resident Evil Gaiden was seen (and still is) as something of a black sheep to fans of the series and the wider survival horror genre alike. And as if to add insult to injury, this story never happened — not in an official way that goes beyond the fun and fuzzily fitted-in alternative events and politely ignored embellishments present in the series’ many side games. This is the one game in the entire series that’s definitively ended up in the canonical bin.

So the truth is this game’s awful, unwanted, and (canonically speaking) didn’t actually happen, right? Wrong.

The truth is the game never had a chance.

Gaiden released in Europe in December 2001 after years of Capcom teasing another game that, at least in concept, everyone was excited for: the mythical 'Resident Evil GB'. Porting one of the biggest blockbusters of its generation to the only handheld that mattered should have been like turning on the money-hose and aiming it directly at Capcom’s bank account. And it would have been, if it had worked. To quote the Capcom representative who broke the sad news of its eventual cancellation: "We were not confident that the product would have made both consumers and Capcom happy".

Which brings us back to Gaiden: It doesn’t matter that it was a different pitch at a different time by a different team, the unlucky game was only ever going to be viewed as a make-do consolation prize after all the wild ambition shown by a game that was deemed not good enough to be worth finishing. That alone would have been a big enough problem for Gaiden but the worst was still to come — Gaiden debuted in the US and Japan not long after Resident Evil’s now-legendary GameCube remake redefined the entire genre, and appeared on shop shelves in Europe at a time when every magazine was filled with page after page of excitable previews on Capcom’s pre-rendered masterpiece.

Some Resident Evil sequels are… let’s say “divisive”. Some are very good. Some are incredible. But they would all struggle to steal the spotlight away from Mikami’s original shadow-soaked Spencer Mansion, and to expect Gaiden to perform well under those circumstances is at best unrealistic and unfair.

So, it’s not the Game Boy Resident Evil game everyone was excited for, and it released around the same time as one of the undisputed high points not only for the series but the survival horror genre as a whole.

None of that makes Gaiden a bad game, though, just an unlucky one.

The location is as Resident Evil as it gets: The luxury ocean liner Starlight is a self-contained inescapable nightmare, a stark contrast between the destroyed opulence of a grand hall above and the harsh metal and inherent danger of the machinery working away below giving your primary location plenty of variety (and locked doors) while still feeling like different parts of one cohesive whole. And if the story had been followed up, it would have taken the entire series in an interesting new direction: setting Barry up as the series’ designated dad of all mysterious young girls with unknown powers almost fifteen years before Resident Evil: Revelations 2 did, and — most shockingly of all — killing Leon off and secretly replacing him with a shapeshifting green-blooded bioweapon.

And if the story had been followed up, it would have taken the entire series in an interesting new direction: setting Barry up as the series’ designated dad and — most shockingly of all — killing Leon off and secretly replacing him with a shapeshifting green-blooded bioweapon.

Ridiculous? No more so than Leon suplexing Ganado in Resident Evil 4 or the giant vampire lady and her insect-based children in Village. Gaiden makes a real effort to sell the mood, too, with big events often accompanied by full screen cutscene art and every pixelled room decorated with upturned tables, broken floorboards, and shattered mirrors. Remarkably for the hardware, even the sound contributes to the unsettling atmosphere, and as you run around gathering keycards and weapons the ominous music will seamlessly shift between a more passive and active tones depending on how close you are to danger, and zombies give out impressively clear sampled groans when they’re about to lunge for one of our two playable heroes out of the shadows.

Equal care and effort was lavished on the battle system, which reinterprets the panicked misfires and intimidating hordes found in earlier titles into all new first-person action sequences years before “Resident Evil in first-person” was considered an inventive and daring direction for the series. These real-time battles even accurately reflect the circumstances Barry and Leon encountered them in — pick a fight with two close-up male zombies while one female zombie is further away on the screen and that’s exactly what’ll show up in battle, Gaiden’s stunning spritework even taking the time to show any zombies caught unawares slowly turning to face you before they shamble forward until their constantly animated corpse almost fills the entire window.

There’s real tactical play at work behind these best-in-class graphics, too, as distance plays a huge part in how effective your weapons are — and how dangerous those mutated monsters are too. A shotgun isn’t going to do a great deal to an enemy right at the back of the room, and that knife you’re currently brandishing in an attempt to conserve ammo isn’t going to hit anything at all until the zombie’s already close enough to tear out a chunk of flesh with its teeth.

Is Resident Evil Gaiden flawed? Of course it is. The rather strange save system neither reflects the nail biting “Should I play it safe or should I push on?” decisions found in the limited ink ribbons of old and isn’t convenient for on-the-go gaming, either. Being able to look at — but not take — ammo for weapons you haven’t found yet makes you feel like you’re on the receiving end of some programmer’s bad mood. The endlessly respawning enemies frequently threaten to upset the already delicate balance between survival and frustration.

But even so, the strength of the criticism often levelled at the game is rarely proportional to Gaiden’s actual issues, and all the good in there — and there is good in there — is too quickly brushed aside in favour of a cheap jab at a game that not only made a real creative effort to bring survival horror to hardware unsuited to the task but also released in hostile conditions that were completely out of the developer’s control. In reality, Gaiden’s got some clever ideas marred by occasionally iffy execution, which makes it no different from the vast majority of other games in existence.

Would you give this GBC game a go if Capcom reanimated it somehow? Did you play it at the time? Let us know in the comments below!

And don't forget you can rate your favourite Game Boy Color games and help us build our reader-ranked Top 50 GBC games, to be revealed soon. And if you want to lust over some lovely colour variants of the GBC hardware, feel free to let us know your favourite Game Boy Color hue, too.