Title Screenf['Green and Black Attack' is a "regular" column by James Edwards taking a reflective look at Nintendo's original portable workhorse, the Game Boy. This week, we blast off into space and sanction surreal aliens in Konami's Nemesis II.]

Monsters In My Pocket

As the Game Boy era began, the smart folk realized straight away that it's needs would be unique. That's why the venerable (and much missed) Gunpei Yoko's only entry into the Super Mario Bros, canon was the sublimely different Super Mario Land, and why the tiny philosophy of our previous subjects Batman and Donkey Kong outshone blur-ridden attempts to mimic home console sizes and standards like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall Of The Foot Clan or Super Mario Land 2.

More than that, it's so easy for series to slip into a groove when they're constrained to a single hardware line - consider how unique the Mega Drive entries in the Contra and Castlevania series ended up, ditching or rethinking motifs to refresh themselves. A smart development team will use a change of format to branch out from a tested formula. And so, to Nemesis II on Game Boy.

For a very long time, the name Nemesis was European for Gradius. Konami's venerable and idiosyncratic shooter series has carved out five main entries and two entire side franchises in Salamander and Parodius with a third in Otomedius recently announced. This is entirely ignoring the series' spinoff episodes, of which Nemesis II is one. For easy identification, the only Gradius game to be known all over the world was Nemesis, prequel to Nemesis II. In America, Nemesis II was known as Gradius: Interstellar Assault.

I'm sticking with the Nemesis title because I'm non-American, but if you want to edit the HTML of this page to satisfy your national preference, be my guest!. Gradius I-IV in the arcades, Gradius V on the PS2, Nemesis I and II on Game Boy. Unless, you're American, in which case iit's Nemesis and Gradius: Interstellar Assault. Simple? No, but if we get bogged down in the labyrinth intricacies of franchise name-swapping, I'm going to end up hating myself. Onward!

Gradius has a pattern from which any game in the series fears to deviate. I love Gradius to pieces, but it'd be impossible not to admit its formulaic motifs: you start in space, at the controls of the Vic Viper fighter craft. Strings of small drone enemies attack, and the last one of each string drops a token when destroyed. Collect the tokens, power up, move forward into a surreal and impossible gameworld, avoid volcanoes and maoi heads. Rinse, repeat. It's part of the charm of the series, but it's also equally charming to see it thrown out on Game Boy for the second and final entry.

Pocket Universe

This is a laser. Don't touch itk2.gifNemesis is a much more faithful adaptation of the Gradius formula, and thus unsuited for monochrome innovation discussion. It's compact and very playable, even if scrolling fatal mountain ranges in a background layer of parallax is an almost obscenely hateful design choice.

Instead, Nemesis II opens with our hero flying in formation with a sleek, cliched group of hard sci-fi capital ships. It's a very unGradius moment, almost like a betrayal of the series' traditions. It's hard to complain too much after you fleetmates get wiped out in a battery of laser fire and you're chased by one of the massive, iconic beamships from the first Gradius game. You'll be pursued at high speed through a meteor herd, then a series of caverns, completely at odds with the mother series. If you like fresh concepts and ideas, this is a very good thing.

For people who like to start new games, it's less of a good thing - the unskippable intro makes it hard to get into a fresh game quickly. It's well directed and tense, and for what it does with the system's limited resources it's extremely impressive. But iIt's not a good fit to begin an arcade game where you're bound to die and restart again and again with such an lengthy setpeice.. You're going to get real sick of it, so try and keep good memories of the first time it thrilled you, provided you're able to understand and appreciate the technical limits of the era (stupid kids and your stupid "PlayStations").

Polly Pocket

So the gameplay proper begins, in weird Greek ruins infested with alien scumbags dying to cough up their power tokens (the traditional upgrade system has been retained, with all the associated problems of dying and returning vastly underpowered - I like the challenge, but your mileage may vary). The statues are huge, which makes you feel very small indeed, a perfect fit for the system.

As you travel through the game, you'll keep encountering situations that recall Gradius without perfectly aping it. Like Castlevania: Bloodlines or Contra Hard Corps, the game keeps a fine balance of familiarity and irreverence. I like that. I like it when games loose the bathwater, but keep the baby. I like new creative ideas. More importantly, I like it when games fit the capabilities of their system - there's a respectable ammount going on at all times, your ship is in proportion and blur is kept to a minimum on the brick model Game Boy. As with any title, you'll need a Game Boy Pocket to totally smooth out the bumps.

Trouser Salamander

I can't talk too much about this game beyond its quality and context in the overall scheme of Vic Vipers, Options and voices that say "DESTROY THEM ALL" (only the latter is lacking). It's a shooter, and these things are to be truly known in the act of playing. That eternal truth handily covers my inability to beat it so far, because I'm rubbish at shooters. I don't care though, because It makes my thumbs happy, and isn't that what Game Boy games are for - making thumbs happy?

Nemesis II takes pride of place in Konami Collection Volume 4 for Game Boy Color, sporting a weird neon colour scheme that retains the stripped-down looks but gives it the feel of an 8-bit Jack Kirby adventure. There are few comic artists more in tune with the same eerie cosmic vibe than The King, and I approve. It also has the great Yie Ar Kung Fu and Antarctic Adventure shuffling uncomfortably next to lamentable trudge-fest Belmont's Revenge, but get it for Nemesis!

It's hard to do shooters at such a low resolution and on such confined hardware, but Nemesis II is everything I want from a Gradius: surreal, creepy, tense and compulsive. It mixes the science fiction into the fantasy a little differently, and the muted colors give it a unique, dark edge - not completely disturbing, but a flavorful edge. Games like this make me wish Nintendo would transpose the Virtual Console to DS so I can enjoy them without toting a small brick around. Recommended.

[James Edwards regrets this column's unfortunate hatius, and promises to review his next game before we reach the Gradius Era.]