Just recently I did something that I thought as pretty cool… and I don’t say that lightly, I rarely find anything I do ‘cool’. But this was really a little bit cool, and if you follow me on Twitter you may already know what I’m going to talk about. Oh yes, I’m talking about the ‘Zapstrasse!’. A little while ago I had an idea of how you could fool a Playstation G-Con (or G-Con 2 for PS2 in this case) style light gun in to thinking it’s looking at a CRT TV and make it playable on a modern flatscreen. Unlike many of my other random ideas, I followed through on this one and built a proof-of-concept prototype to see if the idea worked. And it kinda does. I mean there are problems and the current version isn’t super stable, but yeah, the idea worked.
… But I’ve already given the technical rundown of that if you’re interested.
No, this is about the next bit, the bit that made me want to do this in the first place, the bit where I got to put it to the test on a game that I haven’t played through since it was a new release. I used the ‘Zapstrasse!’ to go back and play one of the often forgotten Resident Evil Games; Resident Evil: Dead Aim.
Full disclosure; I have a soft-spot for Dead Aim. I kind of always have, but hopefully by the time this article is over you’ll at least understand why, even if you don’t agree with me. Unfortunately, as with so many of my retro ramblings, context is really important to understanding why I feel the way I do, so pull up a tall glass of your favourite beverage and take a big gulp of whatever chair you’re currently sitting in and join me as I tell the tale of…
… Resident Evil: Gun Survivor.
Yes, Dead Aim is the third Resident Evil game in the ‘Gun Survivor’ sub-series of games, or 4th game if you include Dino Stalker. A series of games with a fairly bumpy record overall, but I want to just pick on the original ‘Gun Survivor’ for a second*. Gun Survivor is a game that I reaaalllyyy wanted to be good from the moment I saw those first grainy screenshots plastered over some games magazine in the late 90’s. The concept seemed so perfect; put the player in to a first person Resident Evil experience where they get to blast zombies with a light gun. And in its defence ‘Gun Survivor’ had big ideas if nothing else. It was the first first-person Resident Evil game, the first fully 3D Resident Evil Game (edging out Code:Veronica), and as far as I can tell the first (or at least one of a very small number) light gun game to give full movement control to the player. Generally Light Gun games up until this point were on-rails affairs where the player is driven through the game and enemies pop-out to take a blasting. Heck, Capcom even went back to this formula with the generally more successful later ‘Chronicles’ sub-series on the Wii. By comparison, Gun Survivor allowed the player to navigate the map themselves, free to level the gun and blast away when our T-Virus riddled friends made an appearance.
I could undoubtedly ramble on about ‘Gun Survivor’ for pages, but the short version is that it turned out to be an unremarkable, and generally badly received, game for three main reasons. Firstly, it looked terrible. Even by PS1 standards the 3D world was ugly and the enemy models were lifted straight from the earlier games meaning the low-poly count that was designed to viewed from a fixed distant camera was now right in the player’s face. Secondly, the controls were horrible. The G-Con45 had only two action buttons and the trigger meaning to walk forward you needed to pull the trigger with the gun pointed off-screen with A & B buttons turning the player. With my off-brand gun this was near impossible as both buttons were on the same side of the device; the whole thing made tank-controls feel like a well-oiled system. Finally, it just didn’t feel like a Resident Evil game. The map was almost entirely linear with no gradual exploration or backtracking and there were no puzzles to speak of.
Moving on a couple of games and Dead Aim marked a massive improvement to the formula mainly because it did something to tackle each of these big three problems. First up the PS2 graphics, whilst maybe not the peak of what the system could offer, do at least still look fairly solid under modern eyes. Admittedly the environments have that ‘slightly too clean’ feel about them, but a healthy dose of dynamic lighting from our protagonist’s flashlight keeps the whole thing convincingly atmospheric.
Secondly the controls are a breath of fresh air compared to the festering stench of the original control scheme. The G-Con2 features a handy rear mounted d-pad sitting conveniently under that player’s thumb and making movement much more straightforward. The game also evolved to be played in a combination of third and first person; moving around and exploring is in a function chase-cam format, but a quick tap of the trigger and the view drops rapidly in to first person to allow the player to level their light-gun and start blasting away at the screen. On top of this developers really did seem to think about the practicalities of playing in this way and added onscreen indicators (when in first person) to show where off-screen enemies were attacking from; a quick directional tap in first person and the player pivots to face the next enemy in that direction. Likewise players can back up, walk forward, and even strafe in first person as well as third giving a nice fluid overall movement system. Finally the added quick 180 spin in third person, slimmed-down easy-to-use inventory, and onscreen text showing if a door is locked as you approach (rather than needing to do the survival-horror-everywhere-button-tap) all serve to make this a genuinely playable game with the lightgun.
Finally, it feels like a Resident Evil title. The map is gradually unlocked through exploration, finding keys, and flipping switches. Ok, so there aren’t any serious puzzles to speak of outside the usual finding slightly obscure item to do a task, however it does feel creepy at times with the hallways strewn with zombies that could reanimate at any moment. It also ticks the light gun boxes with hard to track enemies and some frantic boss battles so overall probably finds a good balance between these two genres.
Yes, Resident Evil: Dead Aim is mechanically exactly what I originally hoped Gun Survivor would be; a Resident Evil game where the player gets to blast enemies with a light gun. But even if it’s the best incarnation of the concept, it doesn’t necessarily follow that Dead Aim is a good Resident Evil game (no matter how fond of it I am personally), something that I did grudgingly appreciate during this revisit.
The plot manages to be convoluted yet forgettable, suffering from the general lack of relevance that many spin-off games have, and strangely told through cut-scenes where the spoken dialogue and subtitles don’t match:
The player takes the reigns of U.S. spy Bruce McGivern (just a little too close to MacGuffin in my opinion); a man with a kind of bland form of edgy personality. He’s been sent to Umbrella’s Cruise ship… yes, Umbrella has a luxury cruise ship… to investigate the theft of T-Virus samples by generic Umbrella bad guy, Morpheus Duvall. It transpires that Duvall had a falling out with his employer and stole the T-Virus to blackmail various countries (although we only find out about the U.S and China) by threatening to launch virus-laden missiles at those countries. Oh, that’s right. Duvall managed to build an underwater missile base below an Umbrella waste disposal facility in the middle of the ocean without anyone at the company noticing. Shortly after arriving on the ship, Duvall confronts Bruce, but he is conveniently saved by Fongling, a Chinese spy sent to do pretty much the same job, who injures Duvall with a grenade. To save his own life, Duvall ends up injecting himself with a combination T/G virus to become a tyrant-esque baddy. From then on Bruce and Fongling form a kind of grudging alliance which blossoms in to a sort of romance (because of course it does!). The rest plays out exactly as you might expect; they fight their way to the missile base, through an Umbrella facility, before a showdown with Duvall.
I guess the best thing you could say about the plot is that it fits the standard Resident Evil template. The cruise ship makes a fairly solid signature location to explore during the first half of the game; albeit one that’s been done several times in the franchise. The biggest problem being that everything is so generic and repetitive. Many of the corridors and cabins look identical and even the more unique onboard locations lack that Resident Evil flare for detail and depth that shines out in their best offerings. Things take a further dive once the player leaves the ship; first making their way through a sewer section and then service tunnels, both of which feel like padding. Finally the lab section is a slight improvement in terms of providing a little more visual and exploration variety but it’s a very short stretch before the final boss. There is an attempt to mix things up a bit by giving the player control of Fongling for certain sections, but around the time the tunnels appear this too feels like padding effectively forcing the player to navigate each of these sections twice.
And yet the game is surprisingly short. My revisit only took an evening from start to finish including getting all the various cables setup and tidied away (Full disclosure: I was playing on easy because the ‘Zapstrasse!’s limitations mean reliable headshots aren’t an option). There is a sense, particularly in certain areas of the ship and the lab, that a grander experience was originally planned. It’s total speculation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a small team and limited budget (especially considering the limited success of the other games in this sub-series) were to blame. As a whole the game gives off a mild ‘tech-demo’ sort of vibe; as though the team spent so long polishing the gameplay that smooshing it into the shape of a coherent game was an afterthought. Which is kind of a downbeat note to finish on, after all, like I said at the start, I do have a soft-spot for this game. It did what the gun-survivor series set out to do; give players a Resident Evil light gun game. Sure, if you want an on-rails light gun shooter with Resi-enemies go and play the chronicles game, but for the pacing and gameplay of a Resident Evil title, combined with being able to blast away at the screen with a hunk of gun-shaped-plastic, this is the only way to go.
*Anyone reading in North America, stick with me because you got ‘Survivor’ which didn’t have light gun compatibility for some unfathomable reason).