Based on: Fisher-Price's "My First Gradius" and an uncharacteristic sense of clemency.
By Nicola Nomali | June 1, 2009
Likening the Game Boy's screen to pea soup isn't just a reference to the greenish tint of its overlay. The thing could also be murky as hell, even after you fiddled with the contrast knob. And while low-impact, non-scrolling games such as Tetris weren't affected much by the system's visual shortcomings, something like a shoot-'em-up posed an obvious liability. In some ways, the genre was a great fit for the format; the sprites typical to side-scrolling shooters already tended to be small enough that they could easily be scaled down to the screen's resolution and still retain a sense of familiarity. But such tiny visual elements could also be easily lost in the blurry miasma of an unlit passive matrix screen—and in games about avoiding deadly moving objects, that meant the difference between life and death.
In the Game Boy's early years, Konami was enthusiastic in developing portable entries for their most popular franchises: Castlevania, Contra, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles -- even Goemon, in Japan. They'd certainly have been remiss, then, to leave out Gradius, their most enduring arcade hit and shoot-'em-up pioneer. Fortunately, they understood the physical limitations facing them on Game Boy and responded with an unlikely but nevertheless ingenious decision: they made the game incredibly easy.
Nemesis presents an ordinary, if truncated, Gradius experience, including all the expected touchstones, from the volcanos to the Moai. The few elements that don't seem recycled, such as hidden bonus stages where you can collect point bonuses and 1UPs en masse, are actually just taken from the series' obscure MSX installments. (In fact, Stage 4's dinosauric boneyard is an original evolution of an MSX Gradius setting, and would go on to be emulated in the PC Engine port. Years later, Gradius ReBirth would reprise both the boneyard and Stage 2's boss, the Crawler.) The graphics might be a bit too close to those of former games, though: enemies such as the Zub, which love to teleport right on top of the player's Vic Viper, appear nearly identical to power-ups when there's no color to differentiate them.
That issue alone could have been a game-breaking flaw if not for the fact that Vic's hitbox in Nemesis is somewhere on the smaller side of minuscule. Foes and bullets alike pass through the ship harmlessly, and you'll frequently reel back in defeat from what looked like a definite collision only to glance down and realize that you're still in the game. Preemptively outdoing Operation C, you can also freely select to begin the game from any stage on either the normal difficulty or the marginally-harder second loop. (You can only see the ending by starting from Stage 1, but it's unsurprisingly incidental.) By default, you launch with three lives and absolutely no continues, but you can select your starting number of lives, too. And not like in, say, Contra III, where you can go up to seven. Nemesis has absolutely no problem with giving you a hundred lives, if that's what you want.
If Konami had tried to put a standard Gradius game on the Game Boy, it could easily have turned out unplayable. Hurling Nemesis in the exact opposite direction might have been an overreaction, but its all-encompassing compassion and acquiescence are by far the preferable of the two extremes. The sequel would eventually offer a more balanced challenge, but even with its marshmallow teeth, Nemesis remains an excellent, tranquil way to pass twenty minutes again and again. Especially as a portable title, that makes it a success.