I must admit, I had never played a game of Gradius in my life before Gradius Collection showed up. I decided to finally give it a try due to the series’ excellent reputation, my own past enjoyment of other shooters such as R-Type, and the excellent soundtracks rivaling the best even the RPG genre had to offer at the time. My only regret now is that I waited so long to give it a shot.
Gradius Collection includes five different titles, Gradius I - IV as well as Gradius Gaiden. The latter was actually released for the original PlayStation in Japan before IV, and has never been seen on these shores until now. Regardless of which game you play, the same basic rules of engagement apply. You control the trusty Vic Viper while the screen almost constantly scrolls from left to right, forcing you to destroy wave after wave of crafty ships, huge freaky aliens, and everything else the game’s designers can throw at you. Every once in a while you’ll fight a huge boss, which features mostly predictable patterns and obvious attack points, but will keep you on your toes nevertheless.
The franchise as a whole is extremely high on the difficulty scale (even on easier settings), due primarily to the sheer number of enemies onscreen at once (touch pretty much anything and you die) and not so much due to advanced AI. Anyone short of a gaming wizard will become frustrated at times (particularly if you didn’t play shooters as a youngin’), but the ability to save anywhere and adjust the difficulty level makes this much easier to bear even for novices. And the sense of accomplishment when you finally do make it through that trouble spot you’ve spent hours plugging away at is very nice indeed.
Keeping in mind the hardware available at the time, the number of enemies coming at you at any one time is also very impressive. When there is a rare bit of slowdown, it’s by design (or so I understand) to give the player an extra second to react to the dozens of onscreen enemies. Naturally however, the processing power just wasn’t there to give them advanced movement routines beyond “occasionally zig-zag.” Levels transition seamlessly from one area to the next, so the action remains fast and furious throughout.
With this collection, you can easily see how the franchise has evolved over time. The original Gradius is pretty basic; there’s a set “power meter” (basically an upgrade path) that you’re forced to follow. As you collect upgrades, you’ll gain a faster ship, missiles, lasers, front shields, and helper ships (that look like blobs) to help you fire multiple bullets at a time. Gradius II improves on that by offering additional power-ups (including the spread bomb, photon torpedo, tail gun, and ripple shot – the latter being my favorite), as well as several different power meters (each varying slightly in the order and inclusion of power-ups) and choice of shields.
Gradius III goes one step further and allows you to build your own power meter, complete with power-ups only available in custom ones you build. It also offers a lot of new power-ups, including the free way, vertical shot, and ill-advised (in my opinion anyway) remain option that converts your remaining lives into extra on-screen ships. Gradius IV adds a few new power-ups such as armor piercing lasers, while Gradius Gaiden features several different playable ships (each with its own custom upgrades). Without knowing too much of the latter’s history, I’m guessing that having several different playable ships (and being a direct sequel to Gradius III) is what earned it side-story status in Japan.
The only problem is that in all of these games, the controls never seem responsive enough. Neither the analog nub nor d-pad seems responsive enough at lower levels and too touchy once you accumulate a lot of speed upgrades. It’s not terrible by any means and something you can work around with practice, but there were times I died and thought that it never would’ve happened on a console (even after I became used to the difficulty). Whether this was a problem in the originals I cannot say, but I’m guessing that they were tailored to the arcade hardware (and later PSX controller) and thus had no such issues.
My only other complaint with this collection is that, as compilations go, it’s a little on the light side. Five games simply don’t begin to compete with the volume in other collections like Midway Arcade Treasures: Extended Play, even if they’re all classics. Also, with Konami’s extensive library of shooting games it would’ve been nice to see some others included such as Life Force or even non-ship based ones like Contra. There is a gallery however, which features several short CGI movies based on the series and a very nice music player. The latter should be of particular interest to fans, as the series has always been known for its excellent soundtrack.
The inclusion of Gaiden makes it a good purchase for old school fans, while younger fans will be given a challenge today’s games rarely provide. If you like shooting lots and lots of things, Gradius Collection is for you.
The horizontal shooter genre hasn’t changed much over the years, but with games such as this it’s pretty easy to see that it doesn’t really need to.
Posted: 2006-07-07 16:51:43 PST