Review by The Vic Viper
"Do you want to know why Treasure is one of the most beloved developers in the shmup community? Then play Gradius V."
Fans who have been playing Gradius since the original game was released in the mid-eighties do not need a review of the game to know that it will be great. Actually, they basically know what Gradius V will be like since the series hasn't changed very much over the years. The graphics and sound have been improved, and controls have been updated for the PS2 controller, but the gameplay is still the same as it always has been. Not that this is a bad thing; when you have a great gameplay model and execute it flawlessly, you don't need innovation.
You are the pilot of the Vic Viper, a ship on a mission to protect the planet Gradius from invasion. You must use your vast array of weapons to penetrate the alien forces and destroy them before they destroy you. You start off with a slow ship, a standard gun, and no missiles, lasers, or shields. As you progress and destroy certain enemies they will leave behind power-ups that enable you to activate your lasers, double-guns, missiles, shields, multipliers, or boost your speed. To get the better items, such as multipliers or shields you will have to collect numerous power-ups, but to get missiles or speed-ups you will only need one or two power-ups. You get to decide if you'd rather spend your power-ups on missiles and lasers, or save them in order to get a multiplier.
Multipliers are invincible glowing orbs that surround your ship and mimic your movement and firing. Multipliers can fire whatever type of missiles and gun/laser you have; essentially giving you two to five times the firepower you would have without them. Normally your multipliers will simply trail your movement, but holding the R1 button activates their special functions, such as locking them in place, manually changing their direction of fire, rotating them around the ship, or changing their spacing, depending on what type you selected at the start of the game.
In the beginning there are four configurations available, each with a different type of missile, double, and multiplier. There is no "best" configuration; which ever one you prefer is the one to use. With some configurations you will find the guns to be very useful, but the lasers to be less-than optimal. Others have great lasers but fairly useless missiles. The four configurations are very balanced, and none of them will significantly alter the difficulty of the game. After you beat the game once you can unlock Weapon Edit Mode, which lets you freely mix and match guns, missiles, and multiplier to whatever you want. There are a couple of items that are not available in any of the preset ship configurations. While it is fun to play with new stuff occasionally, I generally don't bother with Weapon Edit mode. There aren't that many options and the standard configurations are pretty good as it is.
The simple, yet outstanding, gameplay is only one of the reasons why Gradius V is so great. The other reason is that it is really hard. Do not go into this game expecting to over power your enemies in a few second and then sit back and watch a bunch of CGI movies. Go into this game expecting to be blown into a smoking pile of debris left to drift through space. This is a twitch shooter, which means you have to have near perfect reflexes to survive. With tons of bullets, lasers, and ships flying around constantly and only needing to take one hit to die, you will have to play through many, many times in order to beat the game. There are very few pauses in the action, generally only at the start of each level and in between bosses. That's another thing about Gradius- there is very rarely just one end-of-the-level boss, so expect to fight three or four in a row.
Don't take the difficulty to mean that the game isn't fun for anyone but the elite shmuper; it will just take a lot of time and patience to finally win. Even if you don't get past stage one on your first try, you just have to keep trying and getting better. One play through the game may not take very long, but it will take a long time before you are able to beat the game in the first place.
The stages are masterfully designed using 3D graphics and 2D gameplay, similar to R-Type Final or Ikaruga. You will be flying left to right, with a few section of vertical scrolling. The backgrounds will be twisting, turning, and rotating in every way, which gives the appearance of 3D movement even though Gradius V is a side-scroller. The backgrounds and enemies are beautifully designed, colored, and textured. Despite all of the motion, the game runs perfectly smooth, which is a real good thing since a bad framerate can kill any game, especially one like this.
Just when you think the game can't get any more fun, you discover the wonders of co-op play. Much like an arcade game where a second player can jump in by putting in their quarters, in Gradius V a second player can join in to help out. While a second player does make the game a bit easier, it will still be hard. In some ways it will be harder since there is even more motion on the screen and both players must share the four multipliers available.
So you've spent hours playing through Gradius V and finally beat the game? Now it's time to see how you compare to the rest of the gamers in the world. There is a mode called Score Attack, which will allow you to play through the same game, but with specific parameters so the playing field is level. It's the same game, but the number of credits, bonus life rates, and difficulty level cannot be changed, and cheat codes are disabled. After you beat the game in SA or die trying you will receive a password based on your score. That password can then be submitted to Konami's Gradius V website, which lists the high scores of everybody (or at least it could be at the time of this review was written, it may not exist forever).
Treasure is one of the few companies that still knows how to make a game accessible to everyone while being one of the most challenging games this generation. Veteran shmup gamers will be able to start on higher difficulties and beat the game quickly, letting them spend their time in Score Attack trying to out do others. Less experienced gamers will be able to play through on lower settings and still enjoy playing despite dying every ten seconds.
Despite being a next-gen game with amazing 3D graphics, Gradius V still feels like the original game. Levels still start out with lines of weak enemies that drop power-ups if you kill them all and end with a rush of bosses. This is not to say that Gradius V is just a port of the old games, there are new enemies and levels, plus the difficulty is unmatched. This game successfully incorporates the power and advantages of being on a next-gen console while sticking to its roots as a 2D arcade game.
As an added incentive to buy the game, it has been released for only $30 (in the U.S. at least). If you're a fan of shmups you should defiantly get this gem right away and if you've never played one before, this is a good place to start.
Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 10/04/04, Updated 09/26/05
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