"Great Gradius gameplay on the GameBoy. And awesome alliteration. "
What a difference a year or two can make. While I got some enjoyment out of GameBoy Gradius game Nemesis, I wasn't overly impressed with it, feeling it was one of those games that connected all the dots, but was more an attempt to "play the hits" on a portable system than something that actually stood on its own merits.
But that was 1990. A little later — 1991 in Japan, 1992 elsewhere — Konami brought their flagship shooter series back to the GameBoy, this time with Gradius: The Interstellar Assault. And, whoa! Even if it's on a tiny monochrome screen, this game is impressive!
Interstellar Assault wastes no time in getting a player's attention. It's opening stage is massive and if not for how it's notably easier (but definitely not easy) than much of what follows, it would feel climactic. Upon starting a new game, you'll find your ship being chased by a massive spacecraft capable of sucking asteroids towards it to give you obstacles to dodge. You'll evade that monstrosity when you fly through a network of tunnels that leads to a cavernous region littered with ruins in the background. After some flying, shooting and power-up collecting, that setting will change into one of those intestinal alien womb places culminating with a grotesque boss that would perfectly fit into an R-Type game.
Beat that creature and you'll find your triumph to be short-lived. A pair of pods ensnare your ship and abduct it into a massive vessel, removing all your goodies, whether they be missiles, lasers, a pair of helper buddy ships adding to your firepower or all of the above. Starting from scratch, you'll go through a short level and fight another tricky boss — this one capable of supplementing its spread-fire cannons and electrical bursts with a tractor beam capable of dragging you to your demise.
Come out on top again and you'll escape that contraption and find yourself going through three more stages, each more frenetic than the last. If there's one thing that Interstellar Assault taught me over and over again, it's that no matter how many power-ups you've affixed to your ship, you are never safe. Enemies will come at you with speed and ferocity throughout the game, there are a number of environmental hazards and, unless you know exactly where to be and when to be there, you sure can't count on any of the bosses to give you a reprieve.
The great thing about The Interstellar Assault is that my cynical brain never even entertained the idea that it was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Gradius by releasing a paint-by-numbers game for players on the go. While, like Nemesis, there only are five stages, the ones here are more challenging and often look quite nice. Touches like those ruins in the background of the first stage are a nice touch, while the way the game plays out, it actually feels like some sort of coherent story is being told. There even is a nice sort of symmetry in how things play out. As I said, the game starts with you attempting to evade a massive ship. As for the end, after beating what you might think was the final boss, you'll have a brief "escape the self-destructing ship" segment followed by you chasing down the true final boss through space as it desperately tries to shake you by releasing exploding mines before eventually resigning itself to making a last stand.
The game also gives a few old dogs a new trick or two. The third level ends with something any Gradius fan will immediately recognize — a confrontation with one of the series' multitude of Big Core ships. We all know the drill in these fights: dodge its attacks while blasting away at the shields protecting Big Core's core until you can send shot ofter shot into that vulnerable area and destroy it. However, this Big Core is melded to another series staple, as affixed to it are a couple of those rock-spitting volcanoes that frequently provide obstacles in these games. Now, instead of simply having to worry about the ship's many lasers, you'll also have to regularly dodge rocks. It might not be reinventing the wheel, but it is nice to see new life breathed into an old adversary.
There also are a few nice touches, such as having some degree of customization as far as your weaponry goes. For example, instead of simply having missiles that drop from your ship and cover the bottom of the screen, you can split their fire and easily eliminate foes on the top, as well. On the flip side, you could also point to the omission of a number of Gradius features, such as the frequently-found Moai head enemies, but when a game is a lot of fun, does it really matter if it includes every single series staple?
Even if The Interstellar Assault is a monochromatic small-screen game, as opposed to one that got released in color on the larger screens of our televisions, it's still very worthwhile to experience. If I'm living up to the site's name and being honest, I'd either not heard of this one previously or the fact it's a GameBoy release caused it to fall out of my mind as soon as it'd entered. I only discovered it because I have a fondness for classic Gradius games and was looking online to see if there were any I'd not played. And, man, for so many years, I was missing out on a really good one! Really, the biggest negative I can take from all this is that I can see me scouring Wikipedia for hours, looking up every single series I like to see if something else has slipped beneath my radar.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (May 19, 2022)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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