Retro: The Making Of Resident Evil Gaiden
British developer M4 was hired by one of Japan’s most prominent games companies to further one of the world’s biggest intellectual properties, working alongside the renowned Shinji Mikami in the process. We track down and talk to the British team behind this underappreciated gem.
In recent years, Capcom has been under the spotlight as a Japanese company outsourcing development to the West. But while the world debates the success of these ventures, one of Capcom’s earlier forays into outsourcing produced a true gem: Resident Evil Gaiden on the Game Boy Color is an underappreciated classic, and it was all thanks to a little British company called M4.
The history of the team dates back further though, to another developer called BITS. Tim Hull, producer and designer on Gaiden, clarified things. “M4 was formed by myself and James Cox [Engine Programmer], at the end of 1995.”
“We had mostly worked on 8- and 16-bit licensed titles at BITS. Anything from Itchy & Scratchy to Sony’s first forays into games with film titles like Frankenstein and No Escape. Shahid Ahmad, our contracted musician at M4, was also at BITS.”
Despite the limitatons of the hardware, the visuals looked great at the time.
Gaiden’s lead programmer, Kieron Wheeler, was also ex-BITS, though he wasn’t always a coder. “I joined in 1995 having met both Tim and James while working at BITS as a 3D graphic artist,” he remembers.
“I had gotten more into coding games, working on odds and ends for others, and I was looking for a move that allowed more – M4 was my first full-time coding job. With James doing the tools and engine, I took on the application side and gameplay stuff for Gaiden.”
Artists Elliot Curtis and Stefan Barnett joined the company later. As Elliot explained: “I joined in 1998 when the GBC was just released. I had plenty of experience as an artist on GB and SNES but this was my first job as artist and designer.”
“Our first project, Tazmanian Devil, took a while because James built all the development tools. The tools were brilliant and we used them to create a string of GBC games, adding features to the editor as necessary.”
Stefan’s artistic experience was a little more unusual. “I joined as an artist in 2000. It was my first job in the games industry. I came from a varied art background and had worked as a traditional model-maker on the Pepperami adverts, in the theatre with sets and props, and also in children’s books.”
“I was thrown in at the deep end with Gaiden being my first project. I later became lead artist on the project, and as well as overseeing the overall quality of all the art aspects, I did all the sprite art, battle-mode character art, and all the animations.”
Interestingly, Gaiden actually started out as an entirely different Capcom game, as Elliot revealed when asked why Capcom chose M4. “As I recall, 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.”
No screenshots have ever appeared for this Dino Crisis demo, and we pressed Tim for images and details on why M4 made it. “Capcom had requested Virgin for a Dino Crisis demo, Virgin asked us to create it. It used the exploration mode and [similar] battle system as Gaiden would use.”
Note Barry Burton and his mean beard.
“It was playable. The dino sprites in exploration mode were large. I have entire backups of everything from M4, absolutely everything, but I’m in Brazil and the backups are in the UK.”
It would seem that Gaiden came about due to Capcom being not only impressed with M4’s demo, but also disappointed with their own overly ambitious, internal GBC development of Resident Evil, which was stopped soon after.
Elliot explained more, “I don’t know if there’s any juicy gossip about it. It just wasn’t very playable so Capcom cancelled it. Happens all the time. We had seen the first attempt at making RE on the GBC.”
“We all laughed”, Elliot continues, “it was the perfect example of how not to make a handheld game. You have to design a game differently for handhelds. It worked well for us I think because Capcom had a shoddy game to compare ours to!”
With M4 officially working on Capcom’s new survival-horror, Shinji Mikami, director on the original RE, came onboard as an advisor. Hiroki Kato, planner on the first RE, is also listed in Gaiden’s credits as planner and advisor, though none of the team can recall his input, not even Tim.
“No idea. Our Virgin intermediary would have had more knowledge of this.” Tim also elaborates on what influence Capcom had. “They gave us the basic storyline, we developed and embellished it. Capcom gave us a mission to create a game of ever increasing tension; we did the rest.”
“Throughout the process we made proposals and Capcom accepted,” Tim continues, “with some minor but compulsory changes. Like changing the colour of the battle mode windows or adding one or two pixels to a sprite, only to be removed later because they then looked too large.”
The biggest issues were the scale of the graphics, size of the maps and the combat control system. The GBC dictated most of what was possible though.”
Asking Stefan about what kind of assets Capcom provided revealed that the M4 team were mostly left to their own devices. “I remember seeing the crappy first attempt that got canned, but apart from that the art team just went for it.”
Escaping tight spaces requires speed and quickthinking.
He also describes Capcom’s relaxed attitude. “I don’t remember there being many restrictions. Speaking for myself, I was given quite a lot of free reign with the sprites and battle mode art. I’d had no prior animation experience, so I taught myself throughout the project. A nice way to learn on such a prominent title. I cant think of many places where you’d get to do that!”
In Stefan’s view, this fresh perspective from the team helped with creativity. “Bruce Silverstone who did the backgrounds, Mark Brown who did the cutscenes, and myself who did sprites and Battle mode, were all newcomers to the industry. There’s something to be said for letting creative people do what they do best!
“Because the art team were newcomers we had no preconceptions of how and what a game should be like,” Stefan continues ,”We weren’t bound by the creative tunnel vision that I’ve found with so many artists in subsequent companies I have worked for.”
Elliot mostly agrees regarding their creative freedom, “I think we had a decent amount of license on everything apart from the story, which was something would have loved to tinker with!” The battle system, of course, had existed since the Dino Crisis demo, and required only refinement, which led to the slider-bar mechanic.
When asked if M4 had experimented with other styles of combat, such as top-down, Tim reveals a source of inspiration, “The Battle mode was influenced by a personal favourite of mine: Dungeon Master for the Atari ST. We didn’t experiment with any other modes. We conceived of the game as over-head exploration with first-person combat from the outset.”
“Perhaps that’s one reason Capcom chose us. Mikami was particularly impressed with the first-person combat. Once we’d created the first-person demo, the control system for hitting the enemies wasn’t too easy though.”
“If I remember right, it was Mikami who wanted the slider bar added. I baulked at the idea at first, but after implementation I could see the reason why: it makes the combat far more tense.”
Don’t move from behind that pillar!
Elliot agrees that the combat had impressed Capcom. “The first-person bits really make the game and looked amazing from the beginning. I agree with Tim – it would have been a deal-breaker, because it does set the game apart and make it something special.”
“The design for the game’s combat was fairly clear from the outset,” explains Kieron. “We just had to make it work. It took a lot of tweaking but we got there. It was a lot of fun and adds urgency and tension to an otherwise fairly relaxed (albeit not easy) game.”
“It also added depth in that it allowed different kinds of hits from the zombies on the player, and vice versa, and different characteristics of the weapons in terms of damage, accuracy, hit effects, splash damage, and so on. Plus, of course, the all-important head shot!”
The final game, even a decade later, is still impressive and well worth playing. The press were unfairly critical of Gaiden though, condemning the graphics in comparison to earlier RE games, despite it being on 8-bit hardware. Ignore this incompetence of the media though, and you’ll find a remarkably thrilling little game with a strong emphasis on survival.
Gaiden is a perfect deconstruction of something technically more advanced. Ammunition is limited – more so than in any other RE title – giving proceedings an air of desperation as you scramble from pantry to gantry clutching a pistol long since emptied; it’s like Die Hard on a boat with zombies.
Considering the authentic RE feeling Gaiden conveys, it’s perhaps surprising not everyone had played RE. “Tim and James lent me a PlayStation after I was offered the job,” admits Stefan. “I was told to go home and play RE for a week before starting! I wasn’t a huge fan – it was a bit slow. I much preferred our version!”
Kieron meanwhile was more of a PC gamer, “I didn’t have a console so hadn’t played any RE games until then. At that time I was mostly into things like Civilization and Shogun: Total War.”
For Tim, the authenticity was a result of working so closely with series originator Mikami. “The strengths of the RE series that you enjoy, especially where it relates to survival-horror, were very much driven by Mikami’s personal direction. The RE titles that lack this notion of increasing desperation probably had less involvement from Mikami and suffered as a consequence.”
“We were lucky enough to have Mikami’s attention. There were times when we were perplexed at his decisions, but his purist approach and our dedication to fulfilling the brief really did give the game its fear factor.”
As for the negative press, Tim felt it was due to the hardware restrictions. As it turned out, Gaiden was almost a GBA title. “If I was an RE fan and I wanted to play it on the move, I’d have expected it on GBA. 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!”
“However, the money men (publishers) at both Virgin and Capcom could not find a way to move in that direction,” Tim explains ,”GBA was only considered very late into development, so costs for re-drawing all the graphics and extending the scope of the title would have put strain on the publishers’ margins.”
“Nintendo gave next to no margin on those cartridges as it was, so for a publisher it becomes a loss-leader. In the end Capcom were disappointed that the title had not been developed for GBA. This is where development and politics between publishers like Virgin Interactive collide.”
“Ah, bloody cartridges!” adds Elliot. “Every project we did was compromised because of the price of cartridges. As developers we wanted RE to be a GBA title. We weren’t interested in sales or margins. We just wanted to make the game as good as possible.”
After Gaiden’s release M4 had a shot at a GBA title with Mission: Impossible, which in some ways resembles Gaiden and hints at what could have been. Despite good intentions, however, M4 closed in 2002, leaving three titles unpublished.
Elliot expands on these, “Bounty Hunter (PC) really was stunning. As for Stuntpigs (Next Gen) – it was the best game never made. Space Cadets (GBA) was actually completed, but it was different ,and generally publishers don’t like to risk money on original stuff, especially when there’s cartridges to pay for.”
Kieron agrees: “Stuntpigs had frantic gameplay, some dark humour and loads of destruction. Way ahead of its time and beyond the scope of publishers to realise. Shame!” Although the team disbanded it’s clear they had a lot of talent – Gaiden is testament to this – and it’s a shame M4 was never given a fair shot.
Tim reflected on the closure, “We finally threw in the towel because we couldn’t sell our original titles to publishers and that was the whole reason for starting our own business in the first place. I then got on my motorcycle and started going around the world making my little films about indigenous games.
Sadly no original M4 titles made it to the shelves. Space Cadets and Stuntpigs are still held by us in a dormant company though. Who knows; maybe one day they will rise.”