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Nemesis (Game Boy) artwork

Nemesis (Game Boy) review

"A simplistic Gradius for the road."

The early days of handheld systems provided a lot of games that are a bit tricky to review. On one hand, the many cartridges released for portable hardware did allow people to play stuff while on the road, so they were successful in realizing their primary goal. On the other hand, it must be said that those experiences didn't necessarily live up to their console inspirations.

Look at Nemesis for the GameBoy for just one example. It was released in 1990 and is a perfectly respectable, if short, addition to the Gradius series. Taken solely on its own merits, a person could easily come to the conclusion that it was a success simply because it provides a quality Gradius experience that gamers can play regardless of where they're at.

You'll have all the basics. Your ship will start out with a tiny burst of fire only good for blasting enemy forces directly in front of it. However, power-ups will drop constantly, allowing you to quickly add various weaponry to your assault. There will be a bar at the bottom of the screen and every power-up you collect grants you the ability to "buy" a new ability from it. Collect one and you'll be able to give your ship a speed boost. Skip out on that and grab another icon and you'll be able to add a missile to your onslaught. Farther down the line are the choice between a more spread out fire or a laser, the ability to collect a couple helper ships to further add to your arsenal and a fairly durable shield protecting against frontal attacks.

You'll have a lot of the same foes. The boss of the first level is the typical Gradius big core ship where you have to blast through the shields protecting said core, so that you can then inflict damage on it. Right before that encounter, you'll be stuck on a screen with a pair of rock-spewing mountains — another staple of this series. The third stage is absolutely cluttered with Moai heads that are both durable and deadly because they are not shy about emitting deadly rings on a regular basis.

And for better or worse, you'll have the same gameplay features. Things are a lot easier when you have a fully powered-up ship, with only a few things being capable of truly challenging a reasonably skilled player when they've dumped a ton of icons into buying all the goodies they possibly can. And you'll hope and pray you never lose that stuff. Even one death can be utterly devastating, as you'll be starting the next life with all your additional firepower gone until you've collected sufficient power-ups once again.

However, there is one neat new addition to the formula. By going to the options screen, you can customize your experience to a certain level, as you can do things such as determine how many lives you'll be able to burn through before your game's over, as well as select which stage you wish to start with and which of two difficulty levels you wish to challenge. I have no complaints about any of this. If you're getting trashed repeatedly by the tricky moving walls in the final stage, there's no need to have to go through the entire game to get back to that point. Nope, you can give yourself a few dozen lives and start from the beginning of that level, ready to engage in a battle of attrition where you make it through…or else!

For all intents and purposes, Nemesis delivers the Gradius experience on a smaller screen. As a person who has enjoyed a number of games in that series' extended family, which includes the light-hearted Parodius series, as well as NES classic Life Force, I respected that.

However, I struggled to be excited about what I was playing. Perhaps due to the overall limitations of the GameBoy, this game is pretty short and nondescript. There are only five stages that tend to be sparsely decorated, so you'll be playing a game that doesn't excel in either aesthetics or its amount of content. Even if this is a scaled-down Gradius game on a small hand-held system, it's hard to not notice details such as how, at the time of its release, the series had provided many games, including Gradius III in both arcades and the Super Nintendo.

And the sad truth is that as a pure game, with console limitations not being taken into consideration, the only prior Gradius game I'd favorably compare this one to would be the original. Whether you're talking about Life Force, the Famicom's Gradius II or the SNES' Gradius III, you'll be playing through a diverse assortment of levels that assist in providing the sensation you're experiencing one of the greatest series in shooter history — even if the latter is a bit plagued by slow-down. You just don't have that here. The monochrome palette possessed by the GameBoy ensures that, even if each stage technically looks different, they'll all seem pretty similar.

Which isn't a deal-breaker — just a word of caution that Nemesis is more a throwback to the earliest days of Gradius than something that attempted to build upon the foundation laid by the prior games. If you would go through the entire series in chronological order, this one would feel like a sizable step back from the past few offerings. As an entry allowing fans to play on the road, it's definitely a success, as it hits enough of the notes and feels like a legit entry into the series, as opposed to a lazily-done port. It's hard to be too critical simply because of that, but when looked at from the perspective of it being one game in a large series, well, it's nowhere near the best or most ambitious. Nemesis is a Gradius game that just sort of exists, but in doing so, it filled a void, meaning that its existence does serve a purpose.

overdrive's avatar
Community review by overdrive (April 15, 2022)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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dagoss posted April 19, 2022:

I think a more appropriate comparison for Nemesis isn't other games in the Gradius series but rather Solar Striker, R&D1's contemporaneous shooter. Despite being designed by people intimately familiar with the GB's hardware, Solar Striker makes a lot of compromises to maintain its consistent frame rate and to be playable on the monochrome screen. Nemesis, despite being released a month later feels leaps and bounds better.

I really like Nemesis having upfront difficulty and lives settings. It's such a small thing, but it makes the game way better for hand held play. As you say, the rest of the series (including the Parodious on GB--Penguins FTW) are objectively better, but I think Nemesis fairs better when kept in the context of its release.
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overdrive posted May 04, 2022:

I can see that point. Well, to a degree, as I never played Solar Striker. If I can ever get it finished, I did play and am reviewing the latter GB Gradius game (Gradius: The Interstellar Assault) and, whoa, that game was very impressive by small-screen standards. Levels had legit connections and stuff and they did new things with old boss concepts. Like, the Big Core boss was there, but this time, it was combined with the rock-spewing volcano to add an additional attack to its arsenal besides its lasers.

Overall, it was definitely tougher than Nemesis, but in my eyes, it felt like a legitimate game that stands on its own merits, as opposed to my view of Nemesis as a game made to give a portable system as Gradius of its own. But that's probably the difference between being released early in the GameBoy's life, as compared to after a couple years. I mean, I can still recall the huge gap in quality between the first GB Super Mario game and Six Golden Coins. The first felt like a quickly-made cash-in; the second felt like a truly legit installment in the series.

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