Review by Crythania

"Captain Tinfoil to the rescue!"

I'm not familiar with the Gradius franchise of arcade games. Either they were too hard for me and thus ended up being forgettable arcade-going experiences or, more likely, the arcades I frequented didn't have them. This was my first exposure to Gradius, and I stand at once amazed and overwhelmed. This is one tripped out roller coaster ride of a game; and much like a roller coaster, it starts out innocently enough and then whoosh!, we're thrust along a path of craziness and insanity.

The game begins with a breathtaking cinematic scene before the title screen that gives us a good idea of what the game will be like. The Vic Viper, a super-duper starfighter, is released from its moorings on some sort of base ship as some great music plays, and our lone fighter pilot is soon dogfighting with alien attack ships, blasting point defense guns, and facing down an utterly massive alien battleship in appropriately heroic fashion. Luke Skywalker would be proud.

As is usually the case with classic shoot-em-up games, some sort of alien race with a stick up its collective butt has decided that the universe would be a better place if our little planet wasn't there anymore. In typical style, they've amassed a dazzling fleet of battleships, a near never-ending supply of attack fighters, and humongous boss contraptions with the hope of eliminating the source of all their woes. Apparently "live and let live" isn't in their vocabulary. Due to the immense cost of building a starfighter like the Vic Viper, there's only one available for Earth to send out to defend our inalienable right to exist. So it's up to our lone pilot to save the world (unless you have a buddy available for two-player co-op, in which case it's up to two lone pilots).

There's an impressive array of options to choose from before we even ignite the afterburners and leave home base, including difficulty ranging from "very easy" to "ridiculously hard", how many lives we begin the game with, how many points to score for an extra life, control configurations, and a "Revival Start" option (when you get killed, you can restart from the last waypoint or get your next life into play where you left off with hardly a break in the action). In addition, we can select from four different weapons arrays that allow for a variety of missiles, lasers, and "multiple" configurations ("multiples" are little energy orbs that you can obtain and control in a variety of ways; they follow your ship around and mimic whatever weapon you've currently got equipped). Also, we can unlock additional continues (credits) and the weapon array edit menu, which opens up even more options. These unlockables are obtained for time spent playing the game, and it culminates with unlimited continues.

I'd like to take a moment here and say that I play the game on the "very easy" setting with a max of 5 extra lives, and I don't really care how wimpy that sounds. I am not ashamed--no, I'm proud--to say that I'm a gamer who plays his video games to relax and have fun, not to be extremely challenged. "Challenge" does not necessarily mean "fun" for me while "fun" almost always equates to "playing the game". In short, I have never been and never will be one of those masochistic types who seems to always be in need of some ridiculous challenge in order to find himself entertained. I'm easy enough to please.

The weapons advancement in this game is convoluted. At the bottom of the screen is a meter that shows the various power-ups you can get, including speed, missiles, double-shot, laser, multiple, and defensive shield, in that order from left to right. Each power-up we collect moves the marker one slot to the right. Pressing the O button activates the currently highlighted power-up. So if you want a laser, you'll have to grab four power-ups and activate it. The double-shot and laser are mutually exclusive (can't have both at the same time), but we can max out everything else with speed, missiles, up to four multiples, and the shield.

I don't understand why shoot-em-up games like this give us a speed power-up. The ship starts out slow and somewhat sluggish and becomes more responsive with each speed power-up activated, with the higher levels of speed being too responsive for fine maneuvers required to carefully weave in an out of the ever-present enemy fire. I usually end up crashing into some obstacle or an enemy craft because my controls have become too responsive for their own good. I don't get it. Just give me a happy medium to start out with. Decent maneuverability that's neither too slow nor too fast. Is that too much to ask for? Apparently it is. Thankfully I can just choose here to not activate any speed power-ups and leave it at that. The ship's default speed is responsive enough for me. Unfortunately, this doesn't help during a late-game level that scrolls by ludicrously fast and high maneuvering speed is required to survive. I just... don't get this whole speed thing. This kind of game requires such fine, precise movements to weave in and out of enemy fire and not ram into walls inside tight corridors. Over-responsive controls are detrimental to that game-play dynamic.

Like other arcade-style shooters in this genre, the game is played on a constantly scrolling side-view field of play. The ship is facing right, and we're scrolling to the right... Most of the time. Our mission is to shoot anything that moves (and some things that don't), survive an increasingly nasty gauntlet of hazards, and face off with massive bosses. The left analog stick moves the ship in any direction while a fire button provides a steady stream of fire when held down and a shoulder button operates those little "multiple" energy orbs. Simple enough.

The arsenal of weapons here isn't very impressive. A forward-firing stream of laser bolts or a long, thin laser beam. The double-shot gives us a back-shot or diagonal shot depending on which weapons array has been chosen. Missiles can be fired forward or aft (again, depends on the weapons array). They arc upward and/or downward to help us get rid of threats above and below. The only impressive thing going on here is the "multiples", each of which provides increased fire-power. Without them I'd be worried. I think the easiest weapons array to use is Number Four, where I can just hold down the shoulder button and my multiples will orbit around my ship, laying down a steady stream of suppression fire. Easy to use, but perhaps not the most ideal for nasty late-game situations where we're scrolling vertically, diagonally, backward, every which way, and the kitchen sink. Yes, there's a part where we scroll backward with the beleaguered Vic Viper still facing forward. Doesn't this dope have the presence of mind to just turn around? Where's Defender when we need him? Old, badly outdated arcade game there, but at least we can turn and face left when needed.

This roller coaster ride of doom begins innocently enough, with the Vic Viper departing from its base ship and boldly heading out to confront the alien menace. Various formations of enemy craft soon come on the scene, firing little white bullets in your direction if you're playing on any difficulty above "very easy". These little white monstrosities are soon everywhere in sight, tossed out by enemy craft, point defense guns on battleships... Some particularly mean aliens toss out mines that explode into fireworks displays of little white things flying in every direction. Man, I hate those little white things. My orbiting energy orbs can destroy most enemy craft and point defenses just by ramming into them, and they can even absorb some forms of enemy fire, but they can't absorb those evil little white buggers. After completing the game and seeing the end credits, it starts up again on a second iteration where most enemies blow up into little white things flying in every direction when you shoot them. This is why we need good, solid controls here; to carefully and with great precision weave in and out of prevalent hailstorms of those gawd-awful little white thingies.

Power-ups are left behind by formations of defeated enemy craft and some enemy craft that have a red hue. We have to grab 'em while keeping track of the power-up meter at the bottom of the screen and activate our desired power-ups when they become available. Multiples are much desired, followed by laser, missiles, and shield.

It's not long before we are facing down large enemy ships that can take a lot of sustained fire before going down. There are numerous hazards, enemy craft, and surface-mounted defenses that can take a beating before blowing up... And my ship gets blown up with one measly hit. What is my ship made of, tin foil? Why do I always get the ship made of paper mache while the aliens tend to have massive battleships with reinforced titanium hulls and enough point defenses to give Buck Rogers an ulcer? Where's the quality control in the engineering team who designs these puddle jumpers they're always sending out to save the world? The bad guys appear to have some good quality control. Where's mine?

Got a planet that needs saving? No problem. Captain Tinfoil is on the job!

In contrast to our frail starfigther, the multiples are indestructible. They pass right through walls, enemy craft, anything that gets in their way, and they do damage to vulnerable things they touch. An easy way to get rid of point defense guns on ceilings and floors is to get close to 'em and my orbiting multiples take 'em out. Let's start making our starfighters out of whatever material these glowing orbs are made of.

Yeah, I get it. It's a video game.

Level designs here are intricate and well thought out, presenting a variety of fantastical backdrops and obstacle courses to maneuver through We fly through space above the Earth, enter a large enemy base ship full of tight corridors, do a boss rush with four bosses back to back, then we're inside some sort of industrial ship-building facility (great backgrounds here as we descend humongous shafts reminiscent of the Death Star in "Star Wars"). Then we enter a large orifice of some sort of immensely large space-going creature and shoot our way through its innards like in the classic arcade game Life Force. We proceed into Asteroid City, a very dense asteroid field where aliens push asteroids around and harvest them. Then things take a nose-dive into absurdity with a vast chemical processing plant full of green ooze, moving walls, dispensers that drop waterfalls of ooze into pools below, and tight situations that offer hardly a place to hide. The designers decided this wasn't challenging enough, so someone came up with the bright idea of having the entire screen rotate left, right, and every which way, creating admittedly inventive situations for the ever-present green ooze to spill over walls and fill up areas that would've otherwise been safe to navigate through. What is this, "take your kid to work" day on the alien mothership? "Hey dad, what does this dial do? Cool, it rotates the entire ship! Whee!"

The roller coaster ride ends on a disappointing note with some more boss rushes, a level that scrolls by at ridiculous speed, yet more bosses, and a lackluster end-game boss. It feels like there are a gazillion bosses here, but at least our relentless space aliens try out something new each time. They have an impressive array of gadgets they use to try and do our hero in. Most of these guys have one or more power cores concealed behind destructible gates. Our goal is to shoot the small gates, then shoot through the narrow opening to damage the power core. Some boss contraptions have destructible point defenses that regenerate over time, but the entire hulls of these massive crafts are impervious to our hero's weapons. Why not encase your power source entirely behind this indestructible material so that some pesky human can't come along, blow up your little protective gates, and blow up your power core? Yeah, I get it. It's a video game. Many of these boss contraptions fire off large lasers while filling up the screen with energy balls and other flashy ordnance, such as the first level boss. This battle is an impressive visual display, perhaps the best in the game. What follows in the boss department never manages to reach this level of excitement. They become more dangerous and they try harder, but they never seem to catch up with the overall feel of that first screen-filling confrontation.

In the head-scratching department, bosses will leave after a while. They do their attack patterns a few times and then just up and leave if you haven't beaten 'em yet. What happened, do they get bored? Do they run out of ammo? Did their favorite TV show come on?

Alien: Man, we've been shooting at this guy for a while now, and--oh, look at the time! Gotta go!
Vic Viper: Hey! I'm trying to kill you here!
Alien: Sorry, dude, Baywatch is on. Laters.

But seriously, all joking aside, this is a fun game for the most part. The asteroid level boss is a bit over the top, as is the green ooze level and almost everything that follows, but the first five levels are at least reasonable with their challenges. That's more than half a game worth of gaming goodness.

Visually, Gradius V is spectacular. There always seems to be a scrolling or moving background behind the foreground where all the action takes place. The expansive shafts we descend in the third level have the background rotating around us during the descent into the alien stronghold. Many groups of enemy craft and larger craft come in from the background, making for a nice "2D yet 3D" effect. I think it might be even better to watch a competent player play the game. When I'm playing I'm concentrated on what's happening in the foreground most of the time. Defeated bosses explode into spectacular fireworks displays, filling the screen with fire as they break apart. From small enemies to larger mini-boss craft, everything is finely detailed and moves smoothly. Large craft are sometimes seen barrel rolling as they advance, creating an awesome 3D effect. There are parts where the screen is almost literally filled with asteroids or other objects moving around, and it gets no slowdown to speak of. This game is one of the most visually impressive works for the PS2.

On a different note, many of the walls have a 3D effect, seamlessly melding from foreground into background. I can't tell where the actual wall is (the one that kills you if you happen to ram into it). Don't think you've got clearance to move next to a wall just because it looks like it. The looks here are often deceiving.

The sound department here is also a treat, with some great pieces of background music throughout. It tends to be soft and unobtrusive for the most part. I particularly like the piece that plays during the fourth level. Effects are a wide assortment of explosions, laser shots, hits scored on large aliens... Everything in the game has its own effect for shooting, firing off large energy orbs, getting hit by the player's lasers, and whatever else it does. Exploding bosses are accompanied by appropriately spectacular explosions. Most of these effects are soft and easy on the ears. There's nothing too loud or annoyingly high pitched.

All said and done, this game is a spectacular thrill ride that derails on occasion when the difficulty goes over the top. On a good day I can get through the first five levels on one credit or sometimes without even getting killed. That asteroid boss is a piece of work, and the green ooze level is a bit too hard for its own good. That's where I need lots of continues to keep going. Get killed, come back with a shiny new ship, try to grab my floating multiples before they drift off the screen, and try to get a little farther before getting killed again. And so it goes for the remainder of this tough ride from there on out. But at least a good two thirds of Captain Tinfoil's space adventure are fun and satisfying.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 11/11/10, Updated 11/12/10

Game Release: Gradius V (US, 09/14/04)

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