Whoever says that classic shooters are dead should be subjected to Gradius V. For the last few years I have heard the same bull about the 2D shooter being a dying genre now that 3D has taken over. During that time, although being limited in supply, 2D shooter fans were treated to masterpieces such as R-Type Final, Contra: Shattered Soldier, and the insane Mars Matrix (which I recently had the chance to play thanks to MAME).
I always have a love for classic 2D shooters, and even today, thanks to the power of emulation, I always go back to playing the best shooters. For a time, I memorized the patterns of the best series available: Thunder Force (5 was a masterpiece), R-Type, Aleste, and of course the one that started them all, Gradius.
Yes, it’s believed that Konami’s 1981 Scramble was the very first side scroller, but according to Gradius Galaxies on GBA, it is part of the Gradius series.
One of the best shooter developers is a company called Treasure. Interesting enough, they were formed by several former employees of Konami, and during their SNES era they created some of the best games made for that system: Contra III, Super Castlevania IV (which I to this day believe is the best Castlevania before Symphony), and the unforgettable Axelay (which sorely deserves a sequel). After leaving Konami, they formed Treasure and their first release is what I consider to be one of the greatest games of all time, the heavily underrated Sega Genesis classic Gunstar Heroes. Later on in their career, Treasure also developed what many consider to be the best shooter of all time, Radiant Silvergun on the Sega Saturn. Sure they made some disappointments such as Silpheed 2 and Mischief Makers, but most of the time Treasure was known for quality.
When Konami announced Gradius V for the PlayStation2, shooter fans like myself were ecstatic. After all, we are talking about one of the oldest but most loved shooter franchises ever. We’re talking about a series that is almost 20 years old (more if you include Scramble into the mix). We were first treated to Gradius 1 in 1985, and Japanese gamers got the honor of playing Gradius 2 in 1988. As for US gamers we received the spinoff series Salamander (also known as Life Force).
Gradius 3 was released first as a nearly impossible arcade title in 1989, and then into a much easier and more enjoyable SNES cart in 1990. Then the series slowed down until 1995, when Salamander 2 was released to Japanese arcades along with Gradius IV in 1998. Gradius 3 on the Super Nintendo was always a personal favorite of mine, but when Gradius IV came out, it was somewhat of a disappointment. Everything about the game was a rehash of Gradius 3 with only 3D graphics: the dragon-infested planets, the volcanic stages, the heads from Hell known as the Moai, the turbo maze, the boss rush before the main base, and of course, the insanely easy end boss. A little bit of originality in the series would be helpful, and thanks to Treasure, that originality has been added for Gradius V.
Most of the gameplay from the original series is left intact. We still have the classic side scrolling and the collection of capsules used to boost up a power meter with six different items: Speed Up, Missiles, Double Guns, Lasers, Multiples (also known as Options), and Force Fields. Also we have the common "Shoot the Core" bosses that we have been accustomed to since the first game.
But Gradius V has a few surprises of its own. First off, this is the first US-based Gradius title to support two player simultaneous play. (Japanese gamers had this luxury when Gradius Gaiden was released for the PS1 in 1996) In addition, as a radical change from past titles, when the Vic Viper is destroyed, you are not sent back to a checkpoint, but by taking a cue from the Salamander series, you respawn where you left off, and are able to pick up your stranded Multiples.However the biggest change in the gameplay is the new Multiple Control.
Before, Multiples hollowed the Vic Viper in a set formation based on weapon selection. But for Gradius V, Multiples can do more than follow your ship, they can be controlled separately in four different configurations. Freeze Multiples lock in formation with the Viper, Direction Multiples can change firing direction when the R1 button is pressed (even causing a Gunstar Heroes-like laser whip to lash out at enemies), Spacing Multiples spread out to cover a wider range, and Rotation Options do what their description says, providing an additional level of protection to the Viper.
Gradius V might be a little shorter in terms of the series, with 8 stages (one of the stages is actually a replay of a previous stage). There are some stages that will be familiar to Gradius masters, such as the floating orbs and the mechanical base, but some new areas, such as the Toxic Waste Dump (as I call it because tons of toxic waste fills the screen and needs to be carved through to survive) add a new twist to the series. Again, core shooting is the main goal to beating the bosses, and some of the bosses are brought back from Gradius 3, but the new bosses deserve special praise of their own, especially the first boss, a rotating Core Fighter base similar to Episode I’s Droid Control ship.
And for the first time in Gradius history, there is not one Boss Rush (a parade of bosses in order), but there are actually two! Some of the new bosses are tough by themselves, but that helps to the already challenging gameplay. Don’t worry, this is not the impossible difficulty that Gradius 3 was in the arcades. I would give anything to meet someone who’s finished that game without cheating. The big surprise in Gradius V, however, is that the trademark Moai "heads from Hell" are nonexistent, but the hellishly tough spider walkers return for two engagements. At least one of them can finally be destroyed.
When Gradius IV was released, it was introduced to the 3D world, but it wasn’t truly in 3D. All the objects were polygonal, and they moved fluidly. This time we are in full 3D, and Treasure went all out in the graphics. Take a glimpse at the asteroid stage, where rocks float and smash into other objects realisticly, or look in amazement at the first boss who literally flies toward the screen while planet Gradius twirls around in the background. Gradius has never looked so beautiful.
For most of the time, I can say the same thing about the sound. The music is a little light at times, but at times we actually can hear the classic original theme in the background, as well as an amazing remix of the classic boss fight music, The track played for the mechanical base has always been a favorite of mine (even the somewhat sappy track used in Gradius IV), but this time it is very catchy. I would love to get an MP3 of it. Voices are now used more than before. Once again we have the announcement of power ups and the classic line of "Shoot the Core," but now there is full dialogue from the Viper pilot in cut scenes as well as the cheesy pre-death diatribe that the Bacterian core spews. It wouldn’t be a true Gradius game without it (as well as his overall wimpiness).
Aside from the overly easy final boss, the other true weakness of Gradius V is the length of the game. A seasoned shooter vet can finish the game in several hours, but Konami has added replay value with the addition of the Internet Ranking contest. Playing in Score Attack mode will generate a password that is to be registered to the Gradius V web site. The highest score in each Multiple Control Type, as well as the top overall score, will be awarded with various Gradius V prizes; the Top Prize will be a laser etched Vic Viper crystal with an illuminated base.
Konami and Treasure reunite to bring us back to 2D heaven. Shooter fans have been waiting for a return to a once forgotten genre like this for a long time, and Gradius V does not disappoint as well. I only hope other companies, as well as Konami keep this in mind, as there is still a diehard shooter community out there. We all shudder to see how Neo Contra will turn out if it’s going back to true 3D.