The Game Boy Advance (GBA) Shmup Library
Presented by Noiseredux (with Brickiemart and Racketboy)
Although the Game Boy Advance is not generally remembered for its library of shooters, it was the first portable gaming system powerful enough to recreate the classing shoot-em-ups of the 16-bit era. As such it saw ports and variations of many of the 16-bit staples: Gradius, Darius, R-Type — they’re all represented to some degree. And ports of 8-bit shmups are in even greater abundance, especially once you delve into the import scene. However there are also some rather interesting exclusives released for the system. Unfortunately there are perhaps just as many disappointments for shooter fans as well. With this in mind, we here at Racketboy present you with a guide to all the GBA shmups out there including imports, compilations and even a handful of borderliners.
The sequel to an on-rails shooter, Iridion II is instead a perfect love-letter homage to 16-bit shmups as a whole. The gameplay is everything you could want out of a vertical shooter with a plethora of visually stunning stages, colorful bullets and unique boss battles.
The sixteen levels in Iridion II have a beautiful variety of locals, many of which feature obstacles that you must avoid to survive. Trying to avoid these elements while also avoid bullets is a wonderful mixture that adds to the challenge (reminds be a bit of Ikaruga at times). Your ship also has a life bar that can be refilled by going over checkpoints.
Most hardcore shmups fans will probably agree that there isn’t a lot in Iridion II that was especially innovative, but it is probably one of the most well-rounded shmups on the GBA, especially for casual shmup players. It does offer some different weapon options to liven things up a bit.
Though the game inexplicably lacks a battery save feature, passwords can both save your progress in the story mode or eventually unlock bonuses including a boss rush mode and more. The soundtrack is of especially high note, and even received a digital re-release in 2010. By far this is one of the greatest shmups that the GBA has to offer.
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Certainly one of the better GBA shmups out there, Gradius Galaxies is a nice little exclusive for the handheld that works as a bit of a Gradius Greatest Hits by using cherry-picked elements from many of the series other games.
Gradius Galaxies works similarly to Gradius Gaiden, in that it tries some new things such as the sort of scrolling effects that the GBA boasted early on. But it also re-uses enough familiar elements from previous games to work as a sort of collage rather than feeling like a new game proper. Though not developed by Konami itself, it was a team called Mobile 21 who was actually made up of Konami employees and focused on portable games.
Certainly this team of handheld specialists succeeds at making a shmup that works on the GBA’s hardware. The graphics are wonderful, whether its fireballs or ice shards taking advantage of the GBA’s hardware. The audio is spot-on from the infamous “shoot the core!” dialogue or the appropriately synth-tastic soundtrack. Of course the classics Gradius power-up system is intact and the self-referential level design should feel nostalgic without ever being completely trite.
An overlooked GBA release in the US, Steel Empire is a port of the Sega Genesis shmup of the same name. Unfortunately, it was only released in Europe and Japan.
Steel Empire handles the basic shmup aspects very competently: controls, pacing, sound, and graphics. Though the music is a little underwhelming in this version, the graphics are incredible. There’s an immense level of detail put into each sprite giving everything an astonishing amount of personality. This game was steam-punk before it was cool and the graphics have a rusted look to them, which by the way is not a criticism.
The game has seven stages of horizontal scrolling; to get through them you have a choice of a zeppelin or an airplane which is basically a dichotomy of slow-with-a-lot-of-health versus fast-with-less-life. The game can get tough at times, but thanks to the inclusion of a health bar Steel Empire keeps itself from getting ‘Gradius-hard which make this game a shmup worth checking out.
Though it’s not one of the cheapest GBA carts to import, it’s certainly one worth pursuing for fans of the genre.
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A prime example of a hidden gem — Invader was supposedly released in the United States, though I’ve never seen a cartridge (or even ROM) that can back that claim up. So instead this excellent vertical shmup seems to remain a bit of a European-only obscurity.
It’s a shame Invader never saw more distribution. While it truly caters more to the hardcore retro crowd without boasting a larger brand name, it brings a quality shooter to the GBA. Invader is filled with all sorts of great old-school graphical effects such as parallax scrolling, line scroll warping, and beatiful animation. It also features some great shadowing effects on the ships. On top of this, at Invader’s peak it can send plenty of sprites flying at you without dragging the GBA hardware down.
With Invader, you ship starts off with a standard shooter, but you eventually build up your weapon selection with ability to switch off between any two of them.
Though it isn’t the best GBA shmup out there, it’s far from the worst. It’s colorful graphics and interesting power-ups should appease fans of the genre hungry for a new title to add to their GBA collections, while its difficulty is steep enough to make sure the challenge lasts for an extended period of time. It can be a challenge finding a copy of this gem. (One showed up on eBay last month and sold for about $45)
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The GBA has a bit of a reputation as a portable SNES, which is all fine and good. Especially considering the re-release of one of the SNES’ most overlooked shmups. Indeed, while many gamers are aware of Phalanx thanks to its hilariously arbitrary cover art, many seem unaware of just how fun the game really is.
Though often cast aside for being a bit too cliché, there’s really more of a pastiche. Present are so many great shmup elements from the biologic levels found in classics like Lifeforce to the mechanical sea creatures found in the Darius games. Phalanx looks and sounds great on the GBA and a battery save feature is a welcome addition.
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Released as Space Invaders EX in Japan, this is actually an interesting remake of the classic arcade shooter. The game offers a bit of variety by color-coding enemies into four distinct colors. Shooting a chain of four of the same color will give you a power-up to use. Certainly the seeds of what would later appear as Space Invaders Extreme on the NDS and PSP can be seen here, albeit not quite as fleshed out. A 2-Player co-op mode is also available via the GBA link cable and the cartridge even contains a port of the original classic that started it all.
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Released in Japan as part of the Famicom Mini series, Star Soldier is a port of the Famicom game. Though it’s been cropped a bit to fit the GBA’s resolution, it’s a perfectly good looking port of an 8-bit vertical shooter. Though colors and sizes of bullets can make things a bit tough to see on such a tiny screen. Like the rest of the Classic NES and Famicom Mini series releases, this is little more than an emulator and ROM on a cartridge. Though at least the cool packaging is enticing.
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This Japanese-only quasi-port of the original Darius arcade game is slightly devastating. On the one hand, it’s got some of the most stunningly beautiful graphics seen on the system. It’s also got plenty of fan service, with a nice sampling of music from the entire Darius series . But on the other hand, the gameplay just isn’t quite there. Sadly the GBA’s resolution just kills the experience as the screen feels excessively cramped. With perhaps a bit too much zoom, everything is a little bigger than the GBA’s screen real estate can really allow for desired comfort. The result is that an already difficult game is made way harder than it needs to be.
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Though a Nick Toons license, and marketed at a younger crowd, Danny Phantom: Urban Jungle is a surprisingly good horizontal shooter. You play as the titular ghost who must fly through various stages shooting other ghosts. Because of its target demographic, the default difficulty is rather easy. But of course there are harder difficulty options present to make things more interesting for seasoned shmuppers.
The level of effort that the developers put into the game should give any fans of the genre an excuse to hunt this one down. The cell-shaded graphics are lovely, the power-ups are aplenty and the bosses are all unique and have excellent animations. Add to this bonus stages that test your endurance and even hints of Ikaruga with a pink-and-blue polarity system and you’ve got one satisfying and overlooked shmup on your hands.
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Another Famicom Mini shmup that never made it to the Classic NES line, Twinbee is a vertical cute-em-up that has you shooting bells over colorful backdrops. Obviously this is basically just another NES emulation like the rest of the series, though it is worth looking into for those who have managed to overlook this unique series through the years. Though it was certainly far less popular to the NES crowd as games like Gradius or Lifeforce, its power-up system was iconic enough to be referenced later in in the classic Parodius.
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Strike Force Hydra
A port of a European-exclusive PlayStation title (see our PS1 Shmups Guide), Strike Force Hydra is a vertical shmup that really has very little to offer. While the backgrounds look good as screen shots, really their very lazy and repetitive. The same can be said of the sparse levels and simple enemies. Even worse is the fact that your ship is huge compared to most items on the screen, making it nearly impossible to evade the sporadic shots that come from off-screen. Ultimately the whole effort comes off as a lazy attempt to make a shmup without really appreciating what makes the genre great or taking into consideration the limitations of the hardware.
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An incredibly frustrating port of the SNES favorite, R-Type III had a whole lot of potential. It’s an incredible looking game, but sadly looks can be deceiving. Somehow it just doesn’t feel like the SNES original. It’s hard to put a finger on, but the controls are just slightly off and the GBA’s resolution forces everything into far too cramped quarters for the kind of tight maneuvering necessary. So while the game might be a bit of a marvel graphically, it’s really not as functional as the ports that the Game Boy Color received of the first two games.
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The only shmup to actually make it to the US as part of the GBA’s Classic NES series, Xevious is Namco’s early horizontal shooter that blew minds 1982 with its scrolling backgrounds and the ability to shoot things both in the sky or on the land. Though it’s certainly a nice piece of 8-bit history, it’s also a slightly odd pick to occupy a Game Boy Advance cart on its own.
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Compilations Featuring Shmups
Activision Anthology (Megamania, River Raid, etc)
If you’re looking for bang for your buck, look no further than Activision Anthology. This tiny GBA cart is loaded with a staggering number of classic 2600 ROM’s and homebrews including a handful of shmups such as Chopper Command, Megamania, River Raid and its sequel.
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Atari Anniversary Advance (Asteroids, Centipede, Tempest)
This rather small but solid compilation of Atari’s classic arcade games offers up excellent ports of Centipede, Asteroids and Tempest. As an added and interesting bonus several games including Tempest offer the option to rotate the screen and play with the Game Boy Advance on its side to mimic the orientation of the original arcade cabinet.
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Konami Collector’s Series: Arcade Advance (Gyruss, Scramble)
This neat little Konami compilation includes three classic arcade shooters: Gyruss, Scramble and Time Pilot. Each of them plays pretty well on the GBA’s hardware, although Gyrrus does suffer from a control problem since a D-pad is really no replacement for a dial. That being said, fans of the originals will no doubt want this collection simply due to the fact that entering the Konami Code at each games’ title screen unlocks a secret arranged version with updated graphics and features.
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Midway’s Greatest Arcade Hits (Defender)
This collection offers up a single port of Defender as one of its four games. It’s a nice enough port, though perhaps not quite appealing enough to make this barebones collection worthwhile.
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Namco Museum (Galaga)
Galaxian and its more well-known sequel Galaga are both present on Namco’s GBA launch collection. They’re both pretty accurate ports of the classic arcade titles, though the tiny bullets in Galaxian can be a bit difficult to keep track of on the GBA’s screen. And strangely there’s no battery in the cartridge to facilitate a high score table. But still Galaga addicts will surely want to add this one to their collections.
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Volume five in Hudson’s Best series is Shooting Collection. The idea is simple, take three Famicom shmups and put them together on a single cart. The inclusion of Star Soldier makes the Famicom Mini release completely unnecessary as this cartridge also includes Star Force and Starship Hector. Unfortunately this remained a Japan-only release, but having three shmups bundled together means it’s totally worth importing if you can find a copy.
Other [Non-Run-N-Gun or FPS] Shooters
A Game Boy Advance launch title, Iridion 3D is really more a tech demo than a great game. It’s not exactly a shmup either, instead using a behind-the-ship view. There’s no denying that it’s a visually stunning game to behold running on the GBA’s hardware. And certainly it’s amazing for being such an early title developed on the system. But ultimately it’s just not a very good game. Luckily its sequel would come along and give shmup fans a real reason to own a GBA.
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Robotech: The Macross Saga
The Macross Saga attempts to bring the Robotech license to the world of shmups, but unfortunately it fails horribly. Although there are horizontal scrolling levels for your ship to fly through, it can also transform itself into a walking mech and opt for a run-n-gun style of gameplay instead. Though this is a somewhat interesting concept, the actual levels are overly long and filled with terribly boring enemies who pose very little threat. Add to this mix music that sounds like it was programmed for the original Game Boy and you have a very underwhelming shooter as the result.
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Sigma Star Saga
Namco took a bit of inspiration from the old NES cult classic The Guardian Legend and created their own shmup mash-up. Sigma Star Saga is a futuristic console style RPG that uses scrolling shooting levels rather than turn based battles. It’s certainly an interesting concept, and there’s no denying the great artwork within. However the main problem is that it’s just not that great as a shmup. The scrolling often feels too fast while your never seems to maneuver quite quick enough. The shooting levels also tend to be a bit monotonous. At least Namco can be given credit for trying, and there’s definitely a small but loyal group of followers for this unique game.
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Star X basically amounts to being an homage to the classic SNES title Star Fox. It’s a rail shooter like Star Fox but also apes that game’s appearance by using a similar polygonal design method. Ultimately it’s nothing amazing. Though Star Fox was certainly a wonder to see running on the SNES, the Game Boy Advance hardware would be capable of a lot more. Really the only gamers who are going to want to give this one a try are hardcore Star Fox fans hungry for something else to tide them over.
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