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Monday, March 8, 2021

The Hit and Miss Saga of the ‘Resident Evil’ Light Gun Shooter Spinoffs [Resident Evil at 25]

Is a gaming franchise truly a franchise if it doesn’t feature spinoffs? A quick glance in the rearview mirror of gaming history is enough to show you that successful games are likely to spawn offshoots, spinoffs, and other oddities. They can benefit the source material by enriching the lore, or by introducing new mechanics that may find their way into the main series. Or they could just be grossly misguided attempts to jump onto a bandwagon (yes, I’m talking to you Umbrella Corps).

With Resident Evil, Capcom has spent a lot of time in spinoff territory over the last 25 years. While there have certainly been some bright spots, it’s also produced what are arguably the worst games in the franchise’s history. Lessons have been learned, unlearned, and learned again over the years, which has led to some…interesting departures from the norm.

It did at least take a few years for the spinoff train to start chugging along properly. There’s obviously debate about the whole Code: Veronica/Resident Evil 3 shenanigans which led to the sort-of-spinoff getting labeled as a numbered sequel and the true continuation of the series seen as the Resi runt of the litter for the rest of time, but it was four years into the life of the series when the first real departure arrived in the form of a light gun game for the original PlayStation.

Resident Evil Survivor (2000)

Resident Evil Survivor was, and still is, an unpleasant game, Resident Evil or not. A slow-paced light gun game was never going to connect to the extent Capcom probably hoped for, and the fact it had fiddly, limited controls even by Resident Evil game standards, didn’t do it any favors either.

Amusingly (unless you had to play it) the US version didn’t even support the light gun it was meant to be played with, making a bad game utterly excruciating. It did at least expand on the story of the previous games, with a post-Racoon City bombing tale outside the now-atomized city. It wasn’t a particularly good story though. 

Needless to say, Capcom had to try a few things out before anything actually stuck in the future, and that meant more Gun Survivor games.

Resident Evil Survivor 2 -Code: Veronica (2001)

They at least got better at making them. 2001 sequel, and champion of bad naming conventions, Resident Evil Survivor 2 – Code: Veronica (a retelling of the events during the Code: Veronica story) had the power of an actual arcade version, the PlayStation 2, and a better light gun to help it escape the same misguided fate as its predecessor, but you’d still be hard-pressed to find too many people looking back at it with the kind of nostalgic warmth reserved for the mainline games up to that point. 

It did at least give us another shot of the Nemesis. That tentacle-shooting bondage fan and star of Resident Evil 3 returned due to some preposterously silly plot manipulation to hunt the player after a certain amount of time had elapsed.

After a brief flirtation with a Dino Crisis-flavored sequel (you remember Dino Crisis, right?) the final Gun Survivor title was 2003’s Dead Aim. This was arguably the best of the lot, and was one of the first of what would turn out to be several Resident Evil games to feature a ship full of undead (Resi’s default location selections are basically mansion, ruined city, boat, island, rural village, underground facility). It finally felt like the fusion of light gun game and survival horror was almost coming together.

For the first time, there was something genuinely different about the series beyond the light gun thing. The general character movement was from a more comfortable third-person perspective, whereas the shooting remained in first-person. The introduction of cocky new protagonist Steven Doo…Bruce McGivern also helped, as did the predictably daft ‘Under Siege, but with the T-Virus’ plot. This took the lore of Resident Evil to new places. Sure, these places were often as desirable to visit as the infested ocean liner Bruce finds himself on, but it was at least new. Plus it ends with a pretty cool underwater lab, which is definitely a bit better than a plain old underground lab.

As a game, it was pleasant enough; the mixture of light gun play and traditional Resi game worked a lot better this time around, and was no longer the weak point. It captured the gory melodrama of the early games, but, perhaps understandably, not so much the puzzlebox aspect of them. Unfortunately, the light gun game was steadily going out of fashion, and it seemed like that’s the last we’d see of this kind of Resi spinoff.

Then the Nintendo Wii happened, and suddenly there was a more accessible way of bringing the point and shoot style back. In 2007, Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles succeeded where its Survivor cousins had not by stripping things back to a more traditional on-rails kind of light gun shooter (not to mention the far less cumbersome control scheme of the Wiimote controller). Oh, and it probably did it a few favors that it was an absolute nostalgia fest narrated by one of the franchise’s most iconic baddies, Albert Wesker.

Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (2007)

Not only did it give you the chance to revisit locales from Resident Evil 0, Resident Evil Remake, and Resident Evil 2, you could play as the likes of Wesker, Ada Wong, Billy Coen, Rebecca Chambers, and Carlos Oliviera too. 

The best part of The Umbrella Chronicles is the way it fills in the gaps between established events. You get to find out what Rebecca was doing between Resident Evil 0 and Resident Evil, Wesker’s rebirth after being left a bloody mess by the Tyrant at the end of the first game, as well as his clandestine actions before and during it.

The shooting was simple, but worked well, and was bolstered by the fresh perspective on well-known stories. It was, and still is, the best approach to a Resident Evil light gun game. Yes, it was far less of a challenge for Resi purists, but it still offered something for that audience, as well as the colossal casual audience the Wii had amassed.

Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles (2009)

It did well enough to earn a sequel. Two years later, The Darkside Chronicles arrived, bringing another retelling of classic Resi games. This time, it focused on the Leon and Claire side of things, with stories old and new from the likes of Resident Evil 2, Code: Veronica, and before Resident Evil 4.

Again, the most fascinating aspect was the new details between established stories. Leon and eventual nemesis Jack Krauser’s earlier relationship is explored, and it honestly adds something to that intense knife fight between the two in Resident Evil 4.

So after a rough start, the Resident Evil on-rails/lightgun offshoot genre bowed out on a relative high with this duo of Nintendo Wii titles. Beyond the PS3 ports of these titles a few years later, it remains the last we saw of this kind of Resi spinoff. Capcom has hung up its Guncon/Wiimote/Move controller for the last time. No more tickets for this gun show.

‘Goodbye, Guncon. We’ll always have Dead Aim…and Point Blank’

The Resident Evil franchise is filled with tales of misguided experimentation and redemption, both in narrative terms, and in development decisions. This particular experiment finally gained success in much the same way the mainline series was revitalized. By going back to basics.


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