Cruise for a corpse

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Some games end up gathering dust on shop shelves because they’ve been saddled with overly artistic covers that make no effort to honestly reflect the entertainment within. Sometimes fresh digital offerings end up buried under long lists of a more popular game’s hat-based DLC. A rare few are even plain old terrible and deserve to languish in whatever bargain bin they’ve found themselves in.

And just one had the spectacularly bad luck of releasing in two out of three major territories within at the very most just a few weeks of the nigh-untouchable zenith of its entire genre.

That doomed title was Resident Evil Gaiden, a Game Boy Color game released months after the Game Boy Advance’s debut and at a time when general series fatigue was starting to show; consumers weary of spending money on Director’s Cuts, ports of ports, sequels that were too similar, and spin-offs that were too different. And the worst was yet to come: Gaiden had the misfortune of arriving in Japanese stores exactly one week before Chris and Jill ventured into Spencer’s GameCube mansion and reached North American shores just over a month after Resident Evil‘s spectacular remake did. Only in PAL territories did Gaiden launch clear of the GameCube’s version of Resident Evil, but even then fever-pitch interest in Capcom’s survival horror reboot meant magazines at the time were filled with page after page of enthusiastic previews and import coverage of the one zombie game everybody was impatiently waiting for rather than the one they could already play.

Two decades have passed since then and if anything gaming life has only got worse for Gaiden: As vague and rewriteable as the series’ continuity can be, studded as it is with the Gun Survivor games, Zero’s empty prequel, and the alternative views of established events found in Outbreak, Operation Raccoon City and Chronicles, Gaiden is the only one out of all them that not only didn’t happen but can never come to pass. As such there’s no value in viewing it as an interesting question mark to try and sorta-kinda fit in Resident Evil’s constantly shifting history for a bit of fun or an unresolved mystery left hanging in the air – it’s just a dead end that, officially speaking, never occurred in the first place. At least the good ideas didn’t go to waste: The concept of an infected ship adrift in a storm was used to great effect in Resident Evil: Dead Aim as well as Resident Evil: Revelations, and Barry’s return as the series’ big-hearted dad with a little orphan girl to protect was well worth the extended wait.

And this is all such a huge shame because Barry and Leon’s boating adventure tries so very hard to bring the full survival horror experience fans would expect to Nintendo’s AA-powered handheld: The title screen retains those familiar bold red letters emblazoned across the top, accompanied by a suitably ghoulish pixel portrait of a decaying face and clear vocal growl of “BIOHAZARD” (one word or warning here – the localised “RESIDENT EVIL” sample seems to sound much worse for whatever reason). Hearing actual human speech coming out of the Game Boy Color’s mono speaker is more than a cute little opening gimmick too – as you run through the Starlight’s destroyed halls and plush rooms you’ll hear groans and moans coming from zombies as they draw near, with different noises not only for male and female enemies but also specific sounds depending on whether they’re closing in for the kill or crumpled over in defeat. Equally atmosphere-improving are the multiple levels of light and darkness cast over player and zombie alike, leaving some corners languishing in shadow while other parts of the same room bask in the warm glow of their moth-attracting light fittings. It gives your surroundings a solidity they would otherwise lack, zombies appearing with their arms outstretched from dark recesses naturally making you wary of any unlit spaces whether you can see for sure if something’s waiting in them or not. As all this is going on the music is seamlessly ebbing and flowing between the quiet tension of the area’s standard theme and the more urgent tempo of the “danger” variant that only kicks in when an enemy’s close by – an enemy that will do their best to grab hold of Leon or Barry if they try to dash past, triggering the game’s first-person battle system.

There are some super-clever touches in here, my favourite being that all zombies will actually begin a fight from the distance they were standing when the encounter was triggered – meaning if you were able to target them from afar with a ranged weapon then they might not even be facing you at first and you’ll have plenty of time to pick them off, but if they initiated the attack with a grab then they’ll be as close as they can get right from the start and you’ll take far more damage as a result. Range matters a great deal in a fight: the infinite-use knife can only hit enemies when they’re close enough to bite, a crowbar-brandishing zombie can harm from mid-range, and enemies further away have narrower target and critical hit areas along the aiming slider, making them harder to hit (weapon type also has a huge impact on your likelihood to hit your target – the standard handgun’s reticle travels fairly slowly across the slider while the rocket launcher’s rapidly zooms back and forth, making those powerful shots more difficult to time correctly). Quantity is handled with the same attention to detail – if three zombies were on screen at the time the attack was initiated then you’ll have three zombies to fight all at once, so it’s a good idea to be aware of your surroundings before taking anything on. Enemies can even sneak up on you: The battle screen is wider than your field of view and zombies aren’t obliged to form an orderly queue if they want to eat your brains, so it’s sometimes necessary to scroll around (an arrow will pop up indicating the direction of any off-screen trouble) and pick off the most dangerous target rather than the one standing dead ahead. Much like the lighting and the music these acknowledgements of your environment help to build context, cohesion, and a clear line of cause and effect that smooths over the divide between the two very different styles of gameplay. Without fail every single sprite is ridiculously large and well animated, and it’s genuinely impressive to see them shuffle towards you on rotting feet before unleashing a painful blow. There’s even… well, you couldn’t ever really say a Game Boy Color game had gore but it makes a concerted effort to be as grisly as possible – blood spurts forth in big red plumes when you land a critical shotgun blast on an ex-corpse, dead bodies lie in the halls, and the stomach-tentacles of this game’s Tyrant-ish brute are an unsettling idea worthy of inclusion in any polygonal Resident Evil game – it’s a far cry from the days of Mortal Kombat‘s cleaned-up SNES port and RPGs scrubbed of their pentagrams.

For all those differences to Resident Evil’s traditional gunplay the battle system is still very much operating in the true spirit of survival horror: Everything takes more hits and comes far closer than you’d like before they finally go down and that’s not even guaranteed to be the end of it – there’s always a chance a downed zombie may not have neatly disintegrated like the rest of them but instead be found crawling around on the floor, still eager for another chomp at your flesh if you don’t get away from them in time. It’s incredible to have such depth and unpredictability in these walking horrors for the humble Game Boy Color to present enemies as unmistakably zombie as these are… although on the other hand it had better do a good job with them seeing as your only regular threats are two palette swaps of three different zombies (you also get to battle a zombie captain, once, for all of five seconds, along the way). There are no Hunters to decapitate players at low health, no spear-tongued Lickers drooling from above, no crows to peck people to death or any monster plants, moths, snakes, dogs or anything else to worry about – and that was the right call, because there’s no way tackling smaller and/or more agile adversaries would’ve been fair, never mind enjoyable, on the Game Boy Color’s already cramped screen. Gaiden does however have a few bosses, and here on the Starlight they are all minor variations on one tentacle’d Tyrant-ish monster that towers over every other sprite and when up close in battle virtually fills the entire screen. These epic clashes often rely on a unique twist to the established battle system, one where success is determined by your ability to push the monster back into the distance with ranged weapons and then keep it there rather than filling it full of holes until it collapses into an oozing heap. It’s a great idea on paper – trying to keep a relentless monster at bay is fantastic nightmare fodder – but in practise the game does almost nothing to ensure you have the ammunition to pull this off, resulting in some frustrating scavenger hunts for handfuls of bullets and frequent mood-skewering restarts.

On its own this would be an unwelcome slip-up, but it’s sadly one of too many avoidable irritations that drag this ocean-faring Resident Evil down to the bottom of the sea. Doors are one big problem: As a survival horror title Gaiden is obliged to block your way with locked doors, and your task is to scuttle off and find the matching key. Resident Evil has always taken great pains to obscure this IF>THEN behaviour, turning “[Object A] in [Slot A]” questing into cryptic artifacts and opulent crevices – it’s not a key, it’s a hidden medal found inside an old book with a vital clue in the title. It’s not a locked door, it’s a secret passage that can only be opened by solving puzzles elsewhere and recovering three themed stones. Gaiden makes no effort at all to reproduce these gothic elements or decorate its locations with the series’ infamous obtuseness – here a door is a door, a key is a key, and that’s the end of it. There are a few rare exceptions – you’ll need to use a rope to go down one hole (it’s a cutscene starter, not a creepy void space between the ship’s floors), and later you’ll use semtex to blow a door open… but the absent graphics and terse text sadly combine to make what could have been a dramatic event as utilitarian and key-door like as possible. 

If this had all been part of a determined effort to recognise that maybe handheld players don’t have time for art gallery puzzles with muddy clues like “Give me the peace of death, and I’ll give you the joy of life” then at least it would have had a misguided point but instead doors in Gaiden will maddeningly come up with a helpful little icon informing you they’re locked… and nothing else. Do you need a card? Do you need a crowbar? A key? Which key? This is “fixed” in a roundabout way by the items you find as these do say where they need to be used but it never quite gels together the way finding a key with a sword design on it does with locked doors engraved with the same image just above the keyhole – you never have the opportunity to build up a little mental list of clues and mysteries on hold, you’re simply told “No” until you find that elusive “Yes”. Items and other interactive points receive the same “No, not now” treatment, forbidding you from picking up or interacting with things you will obviously have to use later for no other reason than because the game says so (this even extends to ammunition for guns you haven’t acquired yet), even though this time around Barry and Leon can carry as much of everything as they like and there is absolutely no sense in leaving something behind. All this does is create avoidable backtracking that’s exacerbated to eye-wateringly levels by some late events when the ship’s on fire, rescue can’t reach you, and colleagues are in mortal danger – times the game should’ve been a focused rush of will-I-make-it adrenaline yet instead you’re made to run back and forth across the entire length of the Starlight and go up and down its little maze of stairs and lifts when a “Barry rushed back to the boiler room” would’ve done a much better job of keeping the pace up.

The Starlight cruise ship is only good as a practical example of just how much more there is to creating an effective puzzle-adventure-horror setting than a fetch-and-carry gauntlet of hidden cards and keys and locked doors that may as well have “COME BACK LATER” daubed on them in bright red paint. The game lacks any sense of dread or discovery – you don’t so much tentatively uncover the truth behind a disaster you were too late to stop so much as bounce around from room to room to room flipping switches only when you’re told to do so, two supposedly competent men spectacularly screwing things up until everything’s on fire and all the things they were sent to investigate go completely unresolved. It’s not tantalising sequel bait or a promise of further adventures to come, it’s just a slight story that somehow still manages to spend too long going nowhere.

 

But for all its faults when Gaiden’s good it really does shine, and for all its other stumbles it does have an honest stab at making them work on hardware that at least on a technical level wasn’t trying to aim much higher than “Colour versions of Game Boy games” and “Maybe we’ll port a NES title if you’re lucky” – the sincerity of this effort is crystal clear in every lazily swinging door and dimly-lit upturned room, in vocal zombies lurking in dark corners, in single-use event art and subtle animations easily missed at the side of expansive battle backgrounds. No spinoff is less relevant to Resident Evil than Gaiden, but very few try as hard to make things work – and come so close you could almost believe they were going to pull it off at times – as this one does.

4 thoughts on “Cruise for a corpse

  1. I reached an unwinnable situation in the very fight you described, where you have to use heavy ordnance to push the B.O.W. away from you. I’d used up nearly all the ammo for my stronger weapons in the course of exploring the ship. If it had been any ordinary battle, I could have theoretically pulled out a win with just the handgun and knife, but in this case it was actually impossible due to the gimmick. And this is close to the end of the game, I think. Still, the game’s design is surprisingly clever for the most part, so I do want to try it again at some point.

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    1. Argh, how frustrating! It really should have been “Push all the way back for a quick win, otherwise survive for [X] amount of time” :/

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  2. I was lucky enough to go into this game knowing to spare special ammo in advance. Also played it on an emulator and used save states a bit more liberal than the game’s sporadic “do you want to save right now, right here, one time only” messages allow for re-dos xD

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    1. I do appreciate the soft save that lets you restart from wherever you died, but yeah the proper save slot save system needed just a bit of work D:

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