Resident Evil (Unreleased, Game Boy Color)
In 1998, two brothers left their jobs as programmers at Acclaim to start up a new game development studio in South London called HotGen.
Fergus and Kevin McGovern wanted to make a big splash into the industry by undertaking a massive challenge: fit the best-selling Resident Evil from a PlayStation CD-ROM into a palm-sized 4 megabit Game Boy Color cartridge (link).
In an interview with IGNPocket, Fergus explained how his company, still in its infancy, earned Capcom’s trust.
“We showed them the technology, they got excited, we got the job! Equally important, they knew the principals at HotGen had 17 years track record in the industry and weren’t going to let them down.”
That track record dates all the way back to 1984 when Fergus co-founded Probe Software Ltd. (later renamed Probe Entertainment Ltd) (link). Probe largely developed ports of big titles, specializing in bringing arcade games like OutRun to the Commodore and Amiga home computers.
The company’s success prompted Acclaim Entertainment to acquire the studio in 1995 for a rumored $40 million (link). The McGovern brothers continued to work on console ports under Probe’s new name, Acclaim Studios London, Ltd. In one of their most popular ports, Mortal Kombat II for the SEGA Genesis, a special finishing move for Raiden called “Fergality” could be activated to transpose Fergus McGovern’s head onto the fallen opponent (link). Fergus had achieved overnight cult status among game fans.
Along with his brother, Kevin, Fergus stayed at Acclaim for three more years before leaving to form HotGen. (Acclaim would later declare bankruptcy in 2004 and close all of its studios.)
Together with a small development team, they labored all year long and through 1999 to make the Resident Evil Game Boy Color port as faithful to the 1996 original as possible, which meant transferring all of the pre-rendered backgrounds and every last line of hokey dialogue.
In May 1999, while previewing the upcoming E3 conference, The Times announced that Resident Evil would finally make an official appearance.
“The most unlikely Game Boy game on show will be a translation of the brutal Resident Evil.”
Originally planned to be sold in time for Christmas that year, Capcom delayed the game and tentatively moved its release date to the first quarter of 2000 (link).
By December, however, Resident Evil had suddenly gone AWOL from Capcom’s games schedule, along with another UK-developed Game Boy Color port, Street Fighter Alpha. The English-Japanese language communication barrier was cited as one of the reasons for both games’ setbacks (link).
IGNPocket interviewed Fergus about the status of the game in early January. Although clearly excited about Resident Evil’s progress, he recognized the obvious difficulties with porting a 32-bit CD game to an 8-bit handheld.
“All of the characters and enemies in Resident Evil Game Boy are software scaled, so given the limited amount of CPU bandwidth the Game Boy has available, it is very difficult to have extremely large enemies, and [even more difficult for] lots of enemies on screen at the same time. The speech was also a problem because the Game Boy is not suited to large amounts of speech, especially when it is critical to the game. The problem has been addressed by using a text window that appears at the bottom of the play area.”
“That said, we have still managed to keep all the locations and puzzle elements totally authentic, and all the locations use the same viewpoint and are identical to the PlayStation version.”
When asked about a retail date, Fergus had no solid answer, hoping February or the beginning of March.
“The game is just about complete and has been in QA for quite a while. We are just adding the finishing touches to make it absolutely perfect. It has been a long process to bring this game to the Game Boy but one that I am sure people will think is worth the wait” (link).
February passed without any further updates on the the status of the game. Finally, an IGN article appeared in March 22, 2000 entitled “Resident Evil Passes On,” officially declaring the cancellation of the game.
“We were not confident that the product would have made both consumers and Capcom happy,” a Capcom representative told IGN (link).
After Resident Evil, Capcom and HotGen parted ways for good. HotGen’s first official release would be UNO for the Game Boy Color (link). Game Boy Color conversions of PlayStation games like Star Wars: Jedi Power Battles and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 followed in the years to come.
The company would later move away from handheld and console gaming development to begin designing game software for Jakks Pacific Plug ‘N Plays, turning the TV games business into a 4 billion dollar marketplace. As of 2008, the company was made up of 45 people.
In 2010, Fergus made the decision to leave HotGen, citing his need for a break from the demands of the games industry. A millionaire many times over, he reduced his stake in the company to 15% before departing as a gift to those who remained behind (link).
Although eventually Capcom released a handheld port of Resident Evil for the Nintendo DS in 2006 (developing it in-house), the canning of the first portable outing still left a hole in some gamers’ hearts. Judging by the published screenshots that appeared in game magazines, the adaptation of the PlayStation classic to the Game Boy Color was nothing if not extraordinarily ambitious considering the hardware limitations of the system.
Jump forward in time to January 2012, and my eternal search for new prototype leads brought me to a gaming site called RetroCollect. Based in the U.K., the online collecting resource specializes in serving a European crowd of classic game fans.
On the forums there, a user hailing from England named N64rick (real name: Rick “Ricky” Bowker) started a thread in November 2011 about some games that he had acquired from a company that does house clearances near Leeds in West Yorkshire. The owner of a storage container had not paid his or her bill, so the items were sold off to Bowker.
The contents of the storage container included all of the things that gaming dreams are made of:
- Nintendo 64 development system
- Atari Jaguar development system
- Internal Nintendo portfolio of documents detailing marketing proposals from Millward Brown International for a quality/quantity product test on the Game Boy Color
- Wipeout 64 Nintendo 64 prototype flash cart
- Super Mario Land Game Boy EPROM dev cart
- Bionic Commando Game Boy EPROM prototype cart
- Pong Game Boy Color 4M prototype flash cart
- An unknown Game Boy Color 4M prototype flash cart with “Res Evil” written on the back
The entire lot, in addition to piles of retail games and systems, ended up costing Bowker a mere 100 GBP (roughly $150).
Who used to own this treasure trove? A clue to the former owner’s identity might be on the back of one of the regular non-prototype Nintendo 64 carts:
The Games Ltd. is Nintendo’s official English distributor. Could the original owner of the storage container have been a former employee there?
Even though Bowker’s thread reached four pages, discussion abruptly stopped by the end of November. The prototypes stayed unplayed in Bowker’s game room, as they were in storage–collecting dust.
Immediately my preservation senses started tingling.
There was something about that “Res Evil” cart. S.T.A.R.S. member Barry Burton’s famous words turned over in my head, “What is this?! What is it?!”
I knew that there was only a slim chance of the cartridge being the long-lost original portable Resident Evil. I instead assumed that the game was more likely the 2001 Game Boy Color title Resident Evil Gaiden, an altogether new survival horror game that takes place on a cruise ship. That game was developed by another English company called M4.
The first rule of prototypes: Don’t assume anything. (Actually, that’s the second rule. The real first rule of prototypes is not to talk about prototypes. They are, after all, technically stolen property, loaned to the gaming press but never returned, or taken as “souvenirs” by grabby ex-employees of game studios.)
To verify the title, I asked Bowker if he could take some pictures of the game running. He did, and much to my surprise, the photos confirmed that he had in his hands the cancelled port after all.
In my efforts to explain to Bowker what he possessed (he told me he knew nothing about the near-mythical status of the game and was not a follower of the series), I tried my best to educate him with information, a dissertation on everything from the different types of flash memory found on prototypes to the overly-complicated business of buying, selling, and pricing betas on a system-by-system basis. When given the chance, I also never hesitate to get up on my soapbox about having a dream of a Shining City of Game Preservation upon a Hill. Leaving my degree as a professor of prototypes aside, I appealed directly to the fans who had been denied this game since 1999. I pressed that gamers had waited long enough to play Resident Evil.
Rather serendipitously, a donation drive to release a ROM image of another copy of Resident Evil on the Game Boy Color was underway at the same time on a forum called ASSEMbler Games. The anonymous owner of this other cart set the goal at $2,000.
After Bowker found out about the fundraiser, he decided to contribute his build. The drive now promised to release both copies of the game at no additional cost.
With this new development, things were looking up for the drive’s success, which had a deadline of only one month remaining.
Media coverage of the fundraiser started to spread as a result, although not all of the press was positive.
Jordan Mallory, Contributing Editor of Joystiq, commented that “ransoming unreleased Resident Evil GBC prototype ROMs” for $2,000 struck him as something more akin to “extortion” than a charitable fundraiser run in good faith.
“Unless this collector destroys these cartridges after the ROMs are posted, the $2,000 entry fee is nothing but pure profit, since the cartridges can still be sold afterwards,” Mallory wrote. “Don’t get us wrong, we love the idea of preserving the gaming industry’s wackier moments. What we don’t love is the idea of someone coercing a substantial amount of money from a dedicated fan base by ransoming the distribution of a product that they have no right to distribute” (link).
The debate went as far as appearing on even Capcom’s official forums, where a member there asked the company if it had any involvement in the proceedings.
Capcom Corporate Officer/Senior Vice-President Christian Svensson responded by saying, “We are not involved and nor do we support this” (link).
Despite the controversy, the donation drive ultimately succeeded well before the cut-off date, and on February 4th, 2011, binary files of both copies became public on the Internet.
Bowker’s copy shows Resident Evil at an early stage of development, before the save/load options and Jill Valentine’s scenario had yet been implemented. Chris Redfield starts out with a Beretta, a shotgun, and unlimited ammo.
The anonymous owner’s copy shows a much more complete picture, as roughly 90% of the game is present, including both character scenarios. The game cannot be completed, though.
Resident Evil fans worldwide were thrilled to be able to encounter the Arklay Mountains outbreak for the first time in 8-bits with 56 simultaneous on-screen colors; many expressed admiration for the artistic achievement of the pixel-perfect environments and how close the game stayed true to the original.
These screenshots attest to the handheld port’s thoroughness.
Bowker’s Earlier Build (Click to enlarge):
Anonymous Collector’s Later Build (Click to enlarge):
Praise should go to HotGen for its impressive work on this title. It was an incredible, some might say ludicrous, task to take on, and gamers now have the chance to see all of the company’s efforts in action.
Resident Evil on the Game Boy Color has risen from the grave. It just goes to show that you can’t keep a good zombie down.
No, really. In this game, even after you kill them, they won’t fall down. They just kind of kneel there, silently. (Flashbacks of a Catholic school education…)
After some 13 lengthy years, the Spencer Mansion is once again having an open house, and you’re all invited. Enter if you dare!