Review by Phediuk
"Call it a victim of age."
When asked to name a Konami game, the Gradius series--likely a mistranslation of "Gladius"-may not be the first games to come to mind. The series has always been aimed towards the hardcore shooter crowd, and as such, they've never been all that high-profile. The series really hasn't evolved much over the years, being your typical side-scrolling shmup, and its gameplay has always revolved around one central gimmick: the Option system.
The original Gradius pioneered this mechanic and added in some much-needed strategy to the scrolling shooter genre, however slight that strategy may be. The idea is simple: rather than have a bunch of different pickups for each different weapon in the game, there's just one: the ever-coveted "red thing". Acquire a red thing, and the leftmost space on your Option bar at the bottom of the screen will be highlighted. Collect more red things, and the highlight will move across the bar to the right. Options at the right are more powerful, and thus require more red things to obtain. At any time, you can pick up the highlighted choice by pressing the B button, and then the bar resets.
It's an interesting idea, and it works about as well as you'd expect. At the start of the game, your ship is horrendously slow, and thus you'll immediately have to cash in some red things to upgrade your speed to a reasonable level. After that, the course of action is clear: collect red things until you can get an "Option", a little red orb that follows your ship and shoots in tandem with it. Collect more red things and you can get another one. If still more red things are snatched up, you can outfit your ship with laser beams and missiles. Get all of these things, and you're an unstoppable juggernaut.
But there's a fatal flaw to all of this. When you die, all of the upgrades that you've worked so hard to earn simply disappear. Back to the two-mile-an-hour ship. Back to the pitifully weak default peashooter gun. No Options. No shields. All of this while a barrage of enemy fire is raining down on you and enemies swarm at the wrinkled paper airplane that was once your ship. Simply put, if you die in Gradius after being fully powered up, you may as well just reset the game altogether.
Gradius is essentially the Option system and nothing more. If the game is memorized well enough that one can beat it without dying (and it is possible), it takes around 15 minutes in total to complete. During those minutes, it provides some decent twitch action as you weave through the sea of projectiles invariably fired at you, but never aspires to anything higher than that. You'll shoot little ships, some bigger ships, Moai heads (a Gradius series staple), weird tentacled brain-things...but you'll always get the feeling that you've played games that have done this all before, and done it better.
Nowhere does Gradius feel more half-baked than in its boss battles. These "fights" simply consist of the game ceasing to scroll for about 30 seconds while projectiles and/or enemies fly out of nowhere is vast numbers to attack you. The rather awkwardly-placed volcanoes at the end of the first and fourth levels are the worst offenders: volcanic rock is spewed all over the screen far too quickly and rapidly for you to have any chance to avoid, making your best bet to hide in the corner, hold down the fire button, and hope for the best. Aspiring shoot-'em-up designers, take notes: this is a textbook example of what a fun shooter boss is not.
After surviving the gauntlet, so to speak, you'll almost always proceed to a battle against a guardian ship, which has exactly the same appearance and attack patterns in every level, with only a gradually rising movement speed from level to level differing between them. The game's finale against the defenseless alien brain is horribly anticlimactic, and quite literally consists of standing still for a few moments until the game proceeds to its five-second (not exaggerating) ending sequence automatically.
If you're looking for a shooter with lots of eye candy; keep on looking; Gradius has one of the blandest visual presentations I have ever seen in a shoot-'em-up. The game's background almost always consists of the empty blackness of space, dotted with some stars here and there. Enemy designs are recycled ad infinitum, your weapons are nothing to look at, and the entire game is plagued by slowdown--though admittedly, some slowdown is almost a blessing in a scrolling shooter.
The game's sound isn't anything special, either. The game's main level theme is mildly catchy, but everything is typical NES beeps and boops. I did rather like how the tunes slowly fade out as you move from area to area, though; it gives a sense of cohesion not usually found in a space shooter.
There's no real reason to play Gradius. All of its sequels are vastly superior to it, and even on the NES, there are far better scrolling shooters. While the game does feature some interesting mechanics with its Option system, there is nothing else here that stands out aside from the flaws.
Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 03/14/06
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