Much like the biological monstrosities that stalk the sterile labs and ornate halls of the games, Resident Evil refuses to die and continues to evolve. 

It all started with a small team at Capcom led by Shinji Mikami creating the original Resident Evil for the Playstation in 1996. It was a huge hit. The franchise went on to spawn many sequels, a parallel live action  movie franchise, animated films, multiple TV shows, books, board games, and much more. 

Resident Evil is Capcom’s best-selling franchise, with 131 million copies sold worldwide as of October 2022. It’s the best selling horror series in gaming. That’s no small thing. 

In addition to pioneering the modern survival horror formula, or at the very least bringing it to the mainstream, Resident Evil is also well known for its wild swings in quality and propensity towards experimentation from one entry to another. The series has appeared in many forms, from the original slow moving, puzzle-box style survival horror entries in the 90s and early 2000s, to the now ubiquitous over the shoulder third-person format with RE4, then to the bombastic and excessive middle entries of 5 and 6, and finally back around to high-concept horror with the recent first-person entries.

A podcast version of this article: Forgotten Code – Episode 002: Resident Evil Gaiden

For a franchise so familiar with experimentation, it’s no surprise that there’s a healthy catalog of spin-off titles in addition to the mainline entries. Of this multitude of curious one-offs though, none might be more curious than Resident Evil Gaiden, a Game Boy Color exclusive that almost no one seems to have heard of, and even fewer have played. 

This action-adventure/survival horror game was developed for the Game Boy Color by Capcom and M4 (mostly M4), all the way back in 2002. 

There isn’t a lot written about this strange footnote in an otherwise thoroughly well-documented series, and much of the research here is pulled from an excellent article and interview with the dev team by now defunct website 

Back From the Dead

The story of Resident Evil Gaiden begins with Capcom’s disappointment in their own internally developed port of Resident Evil to the Game Boy Color, and their decision to outsource production to a small British team called M4. M4 had impressed the Japanese studio with the beginnings of a port of a different horror franchise, Shinji Mikami’s less well known survival series, Dino Crisis. 

According to artist Elliot Curtis:

“We produced a very impressive demo for a GBC version of Dino Crisis. Resident Evil was already in development as an over-ambitious port from the PlayStation version. This was scrapped and Capcom asked us to do a bespoke game with our Dino Crisis engine.”

The higher-ups at Capcom were apparently quite impressed with the work done on this port, and though it was never released, there was enough there to get M4 the job. At some point it was decided it should no longer be a port, and instead a new game. Shinji Mikami, creator of the franchise, came on as an advisor. 

There isn’t a lot of information available about the actual development process, which says something about the expectations and marketing around the title. Remember, this was a tiny team, and a relatively inexperienced one, especially by today’s standards. Focus for Capcom and games  media was likely on the much flashier GameCube exclusive remake of the first game released the same year. RE Gaiden was developed quietly, out of the spotlight. And in the darkness there, the team was mostly left to their own devices, with occasional input from Mikami.

Ambition and Inexperience

According to the developers, the relative inexperience of the team was both a blessing and a curse.

“Because the art team were newcomers we had no preconceptions of how and what a game should be like,” said artist Stefan Barnett,”We weren’t bound by the creative tunnel vision that I’ve found with so many artists in subsequent companies I have worked for.”

This development dynamic rings true for other titles too, including classics like Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 a few years prior, where the inexperience of the team led to a high level of ambition and little regard for industry standards. While Rare’s boundary-pushing console FPS and Resident Evil Gaiden don’t have much in common on the surface, both have touches of playful mechanical experimentation and a borderline naive ambition that a more tightly controlled development process might have stymied. These wild swings aren’t always successful however, especially when they sink under the inescapable weight of hardware limitations.

As you might expect, cramming a Resident Evil title, a franchise famous for lush, pre-rendered backgrounds, boundary-pushing cinematics and of course, legendary voice acting, into a tiny Game Boy Color cartridge was a formidable challenge. 

These compromises forced severe limitations on both the art and gameplay. This was quickly evident, and in an effort to unchain development from this restrictive silicon prison, there was a push by the M4 team to release the port on the more…well…advanced hardware of the new Game Boy Advance instead. 

According to Tim Hull, producer and designer on RE Gaiden, 

“We pressed Capcom to allow us to create it on GBA instead, but they weren’t interested at the time. We even did some beautiful GBA demo graphics – it looked fantastic!”

Wish we could have seen that. There was impressive work done on a Game Boy Advance port of Resident Evil 2 by a different studio, Raylight, that was also never completed. Though it is obviously a compromise when compared to the original version, it’s an interesting insight into what was potentially possible with the power of this newer portable hardware. 

It’s fun to think about what could have been. 

The migration of development to the GBA was not approved, and the Game Boy Color port was finished and released in PAL territories in late 2001 and in Japan and North America in early 2002.

Unfair Comparisons

Critical reception was mixed, with many unimpressed by the radically different format, the lack of scares and the underwhelming sound design. This seems…a little unfair, but given the hardware was long in the tooth even on release, Resident Evil Gaiden simply didn’t compare favorably to its contemporaries. Remember, this was the same year as the incredible GameCube remake of the original, and that game still looks excellent even now. 

Not a fair comparison obviously, but one that’s hard to ignore.

Another interesting point of comparison is a different port of a legacy survival horror series to the Game Boy Color: Alone in the Dark, which was released in 2001.

This portable version of the series reboot attempted to replicate the Resident Evil formula of using static images with characters moving over them, playing with perspective to simulate movement through environments. Though it’s an interesting attempt at utilizing this perspective trick on the limited hardware, it doesn’t work, and looks muddy and unpleasant.

So perhaps it’s for the best RE Gaiden went in a different direction, even though it too fell short in many ways. 

Gamespot’s review of Resident Evil Gaiden said, 

“Unfortunately, the lack of real puzzles, combined with the repetitive nature of the battles, makes Resident Evil Gaiden a very tedious journey. Most of the time, you’re just wandering from one level of the ship to another searching for keys.”

Can’t argue with that. Though this review does overlook some of the more experimental aspects of the game that deserve recognition, this sentiment seems mostly in line with the general consensus at the time. 

Some reviewers praised the story, which is a bit…surprising. That GameSpot review described the story as, 

“A clever whodunit that keeps you guessing as to the true identity of the villain.”

Grading on a curve for GameBoy Color games it could be seen as ambitious, and the nicely composed cutscenes that move the story along are entertaining, even now.

The Story of a Story

Resident Evil is a series famous for many things, and one is its convoluted and borderline incomprehensible story, awkwardly tied together across decades of spin offs with the most tenuous of threads. With everything from singing leech wizards to wicked witches and werewolves, Resident Evil really goes places. It’s a lot of things, but it’s never boring.

RE Gaiden’s story adds little to the insane lore of the franchise and actively detracts from it in some ways, which is likely why it’s not considered canon. It’s right there in the name after all…Gaiden loosely translates to “side story” in Japanese. 

Hiroki Kato, Director of Resident Evil: Code Veronica is credited as writing the story…which makes sense. Code Veronica really leaned into the more bizarre elements of RE lore that jump-started the franchise’s awkward middle era, and it’s not a huge surprise to find his fingerprints on this.

The game takes place on a massive cruise ship called the Starlight. This time around the star is Barry Burton, back from the mansion incident that kicked off the franchise, and on a mission to track down everyone’s favorite snarky Raccoon City survivor, Leon S. Kennedy. You’ll take control of both of them at different points as they search for a young woman named Lucia aboard the cavernous, zombie-infested ship.

There’s a bioweapon made of amoebas that stalks you throughout, and it can mimic humans, which adds some fun “I’m the real one! No, I am!” mystery to the story. Think a poor man’s Nemesis from RE3, which was clearly the mechanical inspiration.  

The story is mostly self-contained and doesn’t reference other titles much, which was probably the right move. If you care about RE lore it’s mildly amusing, if you don’t, it’s borderline incomprehensible. 

Either way, riveting it is not.

Gameplay, Reanimated

Gameplay is an even greater departure for the series. Gone are the lush pre-rendered backgrounds and tank controls, replaced with the top down perspective that so many ports from this era used. As you explore the sparsely detailed ship screen by screen, respawning zombies attack you almost constantly. Sometimes you can avoid them, though not reliably, and there’s much less in the way of defensive and offensive vocabulary than in previous entries.

When you do get attacked though, things get interesting. It’s all in first person, apparently inspired by the 1987 RPG Dungeon Master. Combat consists of a reticle sliding back and forth, and to damage enemies, you have to time a button press to hit the center of the slider. If timed correctly, you’ll get a shot off, if you hit the center, it counts as a critical hit, like a headshot. 

These are some of the best looking portions of the game, with attractive pixel art, neat animations, and some nice background details. The combat is jarring at first and wears out its welcome by the end, but it’s a neat mechanic and I struggle to think of a better way to pull it off given the limitations of the hardware.

Resident Evil Gaiden Review

Resident Evil Gaiden is difficult to recommend, even to fans of the series. There’s not much here you couldn’t get from watching someone else play it, and it’s likely unplayable to anyone who can’t compromise on the rough visuals and even worse sound design. Still, even though there’s no denying the roughness of the package, there are some genuinely ambitious ideas here.

The only thing scary about the game is the grueling lack of save points and unreliable aggro mechanics for zombies, where sometimes you’ll easily juke around them, and other times they’ll seem to grab you from halfway across the room.

The combat is the real standout of this game. It does a decent job of capturing the tension and desperation of trying to take down the undead, approximating the recoil and inaccuracy you’d likely encounter when firing a gun in a high stress situation. 

In some ways it’s closer to the over the shoulder games that started with RE4 than the previous entries, where accuracy is a significant part of the challenge, and being overwhelmed to the point you begin to make mistakes is part of the experience. 

The compelling artwork and animation in the combat sections makes me wish the whole thing was done in this first-person style. I’m sure that would have been more work for the small team, but it’s more compelling than the top down segments, and could have lent itself nicely to a more point and click adventure style game, with puzzles and a more interactive environment.

Laborious Gameplay

Though the combat does stand out, and some of the pixel art is quite nice, especially in the cutscenes, the gameplay is overall quite unpleasant. There are no puzzles to speak of, which is a pretty key component of Resident Evil. Items are not indicated on screen in any way, which forces you to pixel hunt through the massive space, and respawning enemies make this onerous. The map is all but useless, and the level design is a tedious mess.

Another serious problem is the sound design. Though there’s some fun compressed voices, including the ominous RESIDENT EVIL at the title screen, the music and sound effects are pretty rough. It’s ear piercing, repetitive, and so unpleasant I opted not to include any of it here. 

That’s too bad, especially for a series well known for its incredible save room themes, which you’ll be hearing here instead of the tinny music from Gaiden. There’s plenty of quality music on the GBC despite the limited range of instrumentation, see Link’s Awakening for example, so hardware is not an excuse.

An Ambitious Effort

All said, I can’t recommend playing this game, not even to die hard RE fans (which I consider myself.) It’s too mechanically unpleasant. The only real draw here is some of the art and the amusing cutscenes, both of which can be experienced by watching a playthrough.

Resident Evil Gaiden is an interesting footnote in the history of this tentpole gaming franchise, and is one of the most experimental entries in a series known for experimentation. It’s a noble effort by a small team that had some very good ideas, and though the end result isn’t successful, it’s a great insight into the power of ambition, minimal corporate oversight, and hardware limitations forcing adaptation in some truly unique ways.

It’s far from perfect…but at least it’s not Resident Evil 6.

A contributor to the Forgotten Code collective.

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