Resident Evil 2‘s availability on Tiger’s “Still better than Tapwave’s Zodiac ” Game.com isn’t the huge surprise it may initially appear to be: Tiger already had a long history of acquiring big game licenses and releasing their own portable reinterpretation (everything from the reasonably doable Altered Beast and Gauntlet to the wild ambition of LCD Panzer Dragoon and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night), so really this zombie riddled de-make is nothing more than the continuation of an existing trend. However unlike Tiger’s better known dedicated handheld LCD titles the Game.com was a curious amalgam of tech, games coming on swappable cartridges and used with hardware boasting a full touch screen (stylus included) as well as internet connectivity all the way back in 1997 – around a year before the Game Boy Color’s debut. It should have been impressive. Heck is was impressive. Unfortunately at the time nobody really knew what to do with these features; working out what the heck games do with a touch screen was still a significant teething problem even for Nintendo’s mighty DS years later (and only really used as a mouse replacement on PDA ports of PC games before that), and even full-fat computer-accessed internet was something you’d connect to via a phone line plugged into a modem to sign someone’s anime guestbook. It was a system that could do a lot of things, the problem was only a small number of those features were of any use to a brave developer trying to make a good game.
This unusual combination of forward-thinking hampered by the battery powered restrictions of Nineties portable technology surfaces often in this port of Resident Evil 2: The sound samples are nothing short of incredible – that unmistakable title call, authentic zombie moans coming from somewhere off screen, steps, and gunshots are all unbelievably clear and pulled directly from the original game. The pixel art’s frequently an astonishing compromise between Resident Evil’s iconic fixed camera angle system and the Game.com’s monochrome 200×160 pixel display, rendering the basketball court, Kendo’s Gun Shop (minus Robert Kendo himself), and the distinctive statue right at the front of the RPD’s main hall instantly recognisable if not entirely true to the source material. The port even makes a valiant if only occasionally convincing attempt to recreate the depth found in the PlayStation game’s visual framing – the into-the-screen angle of the bus interior at the beginning is one standout moment – making a real effort to use perspective shots as often as possible. There are three levels of depth to step between in every screen (the lack of in-betweens is understandable, but it does make lining Leon – Claire and all other human characters have been completely removed, by the way – up with some doors a bit awkward) and the lack of diagonals makes quickly lining up a life-saving shot against an incoming dog, spider (it’s true, Resident Evil remakes can have spiders!), Licker, or gigantic sewer alligator a lot easier than it could have been, saving players from a nasty bite.
And so thanks to all of the above this tiny cartridge makes an excellent first impression – one that sadly begins to fade as early as the main hall of the police station.
It only takes a minute to realise this isn’t going to be the usual run through the RPD when you move forward to check the marble statue standing in the main hall and find yourself immediately picking up the spade key, no unicorn medal left under Chris’ diary in the STARS office necessary. I assumed at first this may have been a well-meant attempt to save portable players a there and back again trip but it soon becomes apparent Leon’s path out of the city hasn’t been delicately trimmed with a scalpel, it’s been violently attacked with a chainsaw. So many puzzles have either been simplified to the point of “Look, just take the key already” or outright removed, a move that doesn’t make things easier or more straightforward but instead robs the setting of its delectable undercurrent of sinister secrecy and planned malice. A lot of this is down to engine limitations: it’s just so much easier for everyone involved if objects are left lying in the foreground instead of behind or on top of things, but by outright removing so many uncomfortable dashes through monster-filled territory or triumphs over an obtuse riddle many rooms are nothing more than empty wastes of time. It’s deeply impressive they took the time and effort to show the crashed helicopter sprite shoved through a wall – it’s found in one location and a completely unique (as well as large) object. But because you never see the helicopter crash, or why the helicopter crashed, and it’s just sitting there, very much not on fire – a lump of monochrome metal in one wall. There’s no valve handle to find, no water to release to extinguish the blaze and grant access to the room beyond, which in turn means there’s no expression of an out-of-control wider danger turning Raccoon City into a walking grave, and more immediately players will find the outside helipad area a pointless expanse of health-sapping space.
None of this is helped by the silence of what little remains: Objects and areas you can interact with give no indication you can do so unless you’re already carrying the correct object and happen to press the right button while standing in the right spot, causing massive problems for anyone not already intimately familiar with the game. Let’s use an early and extremely straightforward riddle as an example: The jarringly gruesome painting of a bound and naked human hiding at the back of the operations room of the police station. In any other version of the game an idle investigation will let you know the painting’s titled “A sacrifice to the hell fire” and also that there’s a fire just begging to be lit underneath – but in the Game.com release there’s no indication this is something you can interact with at all. The same can frustratingly be said for many other areas, places that inexplicably bother to draw detailed machinery or ornate features, then never have these visual flourishes do or say anything.
In fact beyond “LEON S KENNEDY, ROOKIE COP“, players will have no clue who or what anything is, or why they should care: Without Ada’s sassy mystery, Leon and Claire’s cooperation, Sherry’s fear of an infection by her father you’re just unlocking doors, shooting whatever’s on the other side, and then finding the key or keycard that allows you to unlock another door and repeat the whole process all over again. No Chief “She was dead when I got here, honest” Irons behind his desk. No multiple battles with William Birkin mutating himself into eyeball-covered oblivion. No unarmed journalists sensibly locking themselves in a cell to avoid getting eaten alive. No betrayal, intrigue, or fear. Now clearly this little cartridge was never going to recreate the original in its entirety and to lambast it for failing to meet the high standards of a double CD survival horror classic would be unfair. Having said that whatever they did include, in whatever form they decided to present it, did need to echo the game it came from in spirit if not in raw moment-to-moment content, and as the Game.com port throws ammo around like confetti and removes all of the macabre mystery it fails on all fronts. There’s no denying what’s here is still a minor miracle – most developers would rather run a marathon wearing shoes made of Lego than try to get Resident Evil 2 running on such a strange dead-before-it-lived handheld – but, as a game, what’s here doesn’t work. The only people able to make sense of the labyrinthine layouts and unusual items will be fans of Resident Evil 2 familiar enough to know where everything should be and what is should do before they’ve even gone anywhere near it – and those are exactly the sort of people to look forward to events that never happen, to really feel every missing run-in with Mr X, to wonder why Marvin’s vanished without a trace. Newcomers are less likely to know what’s been removed so they’ll more than likely be left wandering around the RPD forever, picking up items with no apparent use or fruitlessly mashing the interact button against every flat surface just in case whatever’s currently in their inventory works with whatever they’re walking in to. Short of an extreme Famicom-style reimagining – which no publisher would have greenlit, and no consumer would have bought (who wants to play an overhead-viewed survival horror game with dinky little sprites anyway?) – this was never going to be anything other than the wrong game for a charmingly overly ambitious format.