Box art shamelessly stolen from GameFAQS.
Shoot-em-up box art was always pretty "metal" during the 1980's
and early 90's, but even this cool art pales in comparison to the
Japanese box, which parallels the original Gradius arcade flyers.
Scrolling shoot-em-up games are one of my favorite classic game genres. I already established this, in my review of Solar Striker, but because it's been a while since I posted that review, I wanted to make it abundantly clear. I'm not always very good at them, but I have fun trying. Though I occasionally go into fits of gamer rage because I die at the exact same spot 12 times in a row, it's the idea of inching your way through a furious gauntlet of incoming enemy waves, laser fire, and shrapnel, that fascinates me to this day. One of the shmups that defined the genre was Konami's arcade classic, Gradius, referred to as Nemesis, outside of Japan.
I'm not entirely sure what's happening here. Is the Moia head looking at
the dinosaur bones, satisfied from a meal, or wishing they still had meat
on them, so it could partake? Either way, it looks quite menacing in pixels.
Gradius was a break-through in a number of ways. It took the basic, side-scrolling shooter formula that Konami had previously pioneered with Scramble, and instead of the constant struggle for fuel, replaced that with an intricate upgrade system. If also made things far more detailed and interesting, with markedly improved graphics, catchy and memorable music, and an interesting concept of "shoot the core" with the bosses. This helped solidify the idea of end bosses having weak points, so that you couldn't just shoot them anywhere to deal damage. All of these elements were instrumental to the genre as it developed, and became mainstays, not only in the later Gradius games, but in shooter games on the whole.
The ACTUAL title screen looks far less menacing. But it still has the
awesome logo design, which remains a staple throughout the series.
Nemesis, Konami's first shmup entry into the Game Boy library, by way of their Ultra Games imprint, is a fine shooter that, while borrowing its namesake from the worldwide arcade and Japanese MSX releases, doesn't quite match the arcade game in terms of design. Nemesis on the Game Boy takes elements of the original arcade game's design, and implements them here, but there's original content as well, making for a bit of a mashup, of sorts. Rather than a straight arcade conversion, you get something that feels familiar, but with enough original material added so it also feels fresh and new. And compared to the previously mentioned Game Boy shmup outing, Nemesis is the Cadillac to Solar Striker's family station wagon.
Like Konami's other early Game Boy entries, they wisely choose to
include a level select, as well as giving players the option to change
the button config, toggle auto-fire, choose the difficulty level, and
grant themselves extra lives. This makes the game much more
suited for quick sessions on the handheld Game Boy hardware.
For the uninitiated, the major draw of the series is the power-up system. As you shoot down enemies, some of them will drop special icons that you pick up. The first one you obtain will light up the first entry on a small bar at the bottom of the screen, allowing you to increase the speed of your ship. If you elect to wait until you've collected more icons, each subsequent pickup will shift the selection on the bar over by 1 space, until you've reached the end, then it wraps back around. In slot 2, you can add missiles to your ship's arsenal. Slot 3 yields the "Double Shot", which upgrades your ship to not only shoot forward, but also a 2nd shot will fire upwards at a 45 degree angle. Slot 4 gives you a power laser shot that fires directly ahead. In slot 5, there's what's called an "Option" - this creates a small entity that follows your ship around and doubles your firepower. In most Gradius games, you can add up to 3 or 4 of them. Due to the obvious limitations of the Game Boy hardware, you can only add 2 in this game. In the 6th and final slot, you can add a force field to the front of your ship, which is capable of absorbing some damage so your craft doesn't explode from contact with a single volley. You can power up your speed multiple times, and your missiles twice, and in any order you like, so it's obvious to see that the way you approach the game can be entirely your own, and you can really experiment with the weapon load-out.
If you can get good enough to survive the initial onslaught of enemies,
it's pretty easy to get fully powered up during the first level of the game.
All this weaponry, and all these options (pun intended) available to you, don't necessarily mean you're going to walk through this game, however. Nemesis is quite the challenge, for a handheld title, and if you're going to beat the 5 main stages, you'll need to hone your skills, sharpen your reflexes, and memorize some enemy patterns, placements, and attack vectors, in order to survive. You'll also need to make sure you power up your ship as quickly as possible, as the waves of enemies are generally more than your tiny craft can handle with its default pea shooter and slow speed. Thankfully, in addition to the power-up icons, you'll occasionally be granted a smart bomb icon instead, which will destroy all low-level enemies on screen at once, along with any bullets. Be careful not to run into any scenery, however; the ground and other obstacles aren't just backgrounds - some of them are in the foreground with your ship and will destroy you in a single hit, even when you're equipped with the shield.
Like me, you'll probably be seeing this screen a lot at first.
A common strategy that I like to use for powering up goes as follows. First, increase the speed of your ship by 1, so you can more easily dodge enemies and incoming fire, as well as more quickly grab additional power-up icons. Second, activate your missiles, so you have additional fire to help ward off enemies. Third, get yourself an Option, so you can double that firepower. Fourth, grab the second option available to you. Fifth is a toss-up between powering up your forward fire with the laser, activating the double shot, or adding the force field. I usually opt for the laser or double shot, to more easily mow down enemies, then go for the shield later. Lastly, once you're fully powered up, keep collecting power-up icons for points, but keep track of where your power-up bar is at. If you can stop collecting after cycling through them once or twice, and leave it on the sixth entry, you can easily activate the force field again if you take too many hits and are left defenseless.
This is one of the more formidable enemies. It takes a lot of damage,
and the 3 pods it shoots out are impervious, so you have to dodge them.
Graphically, Nemesis is an impressive game. Konami had excellent command of the Game Boy hardware early on, and after several years of programming for Nintendo's Famicom and NES hardware, were naturally adept at bringing this kind of 8-bit action to the small screen. Some developers had a hard time adjusting for the scale of the small screen, but Konami's early efforts always seemed to strike that nice balance between good graphics, and proper scale and playability. Your ship is large enough to see some detail, and look nice, but small enough so that it doesn't feel claustrophobic amongst the enemies, incoming fire, and stage layout and obstacles. The enemies are mostly recognizable from other Gradius games, outside of a handful of original creations for this title, and are all well rendered. Backgrounds are minimal, which works well, because it cuts down on the motion blur on the hardware. Instead, most of the areas are given excellent graphics to show off the terrain and obstacles, and they all look really nice. Animation is limited, but there are a couple spots that have what appears to be parallax scrolling, which was quite a feat on the system.
When you destroy a boss, it disappears in this really cool, satisfying "warp"
effect, where the sprite splits off into different lines, and the images diverge
in different directions. It's hard to explain, but it looks great on the hardware.
In the audio department, Nemesis is the usual Konami par excellence. Konami really knew how to get the most from 4 channels of sound, and they do a great job here, not only providing music that sounds good, and is fitting to the game, but is also catchy and interesting. The first stage music recalls the original Gradius theme, and you also get some music later that is lifted from this game's forbear, but the other tunes on offer here are original compositions from 4 different composers: Shinya Sakamoto, Yuji Takenouchi, Tomoya Tomita, and the incomparable Michiru Yamane, who is much more well known for her work on the Castlevania series of games, most notably, the excellent soundtrack for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Sound effects are also generally good, with some interesting use of the Game Boy's noise channel for certain effects, which also utilizing one of the dedicated sound channels for a lot of the weapon and enemy explosion noises, without interrupting the music from the other 2 channels. Overall, this is prime sound design, and a soundtrack that stands as one of the best on the system.
This bad boy starts off as 4 smaller balls, then merges into a single giant
ball of destruction, then splits off again into 4 smaller balls. If you're fast
enough, you can destroy all 4 smaller balls before it has a chance to
reform into the larger ball a second time, saving yourself some headache.
Nemesis, like its arcade forefather, also doesn't stop after the 5 levels you see in the initial configuration screen. Instead, while completing those 5 levels will get you a credit roll and congratulatory screen, that's not technically the end of the game. As soon as the credits are done, you're thrust back to the first stage again, with all your current arsenal intact, to face off with the enemy again, but this time, the stages are harder, enemies are faster and shoot more bullets at you, and the whole thing is more frantic. Stages 1-5 are now labeled as 6-10, and as is the Gradius tradition, in order to say you've truly beaten the game, you need to complete it on the second loop. However, after the second time through, the game doesn't end, you just get another credit roll, and then it's back to Stage 1 again to keep going. For savvy players and score chasers, this will be a welcome feature, though one has to wonder if Konami considered this as necessary, given the pick-up-and-play nature of the Game Boy, which lent itself to shorter play sessions.
The stage 4 boss has a simple pattern, but don't let that fool you. It can
dish out a large number of bullets, and it's easy to get caught in the crossfire.
With all the good here, is there anything that brings this game down? Not much. As with many Game Boy titles, motion blur is a factor, but that's a hardware limitation. Konami does their best to mitigate this with limited animation in the sprites, and it helps keep the flicker to a minimum, but it's still there in spots. One of the later stages uses an awful lot of the darker shade for its foreground obstacle graphics, and while it looks nice and detailed, it could have used a touch more variety in the shading. Occasionally the sound effects get to be slightly cacophonous, due to the sheer amount of enemies you'll be taking out, and while it doesn't drown out the music, it detracts from the overall presentation, if only slightly. These gripes, however noticeable, are all relatively minor.
Congratulations! An end sequence with no Engrish!
At the end of the day, this is one of the finest examples of the horizontal scrolling shoot-em-up to be released for a handheld game system. Only this game's sequel, Gradius: Interstellar Assault, the Japan-only Sagaia entry in the Darius series, and perhaps the colorful Gates of Zendocon on the Atari Lynx can possibly rival this title's sheer excellence and presentation. It has the looks, it has the sound, and it has the tight gameplay that fans had come to expect from Konami by this point, and they delivered the goods. It may seem inexplicable that such an action-oriented, twitch shoot-em-up could be released on Nintendo's monochrome handheld, but Konami did it, and this game stands as one of the best examples of the genre from 1990, and quite possibly, one of the best on the console itself. Thankfully, because the game sold well, it's also very common, and inexpensive to pick up. You should be able to score a copy for $6 - $8 or less. It's worth every penny, especially if you're a fan of the genre. Highly recommended.