IGN Review of Gradius Collection
Konami's Gradius series has been credited with a great many things, not the least of which was its undeniable influence in the shoot 'em up genre. Along with R-Type, the franchise helped define a generation of shooters that not only thrilled us, but also inspired other such fine side-scrollers as Salamander and Parodius. Unlike other popular genres of the 1980s, however, the "Shmup" category hasn't evolved much past its original roots, and finding a good shooter that isn't played in the first-person perspective nowadays is close to impossible.
But that's why the arrival of the PSP's Gradius Collection is such great news for old-school fans. Offering terrific arcade emulations of five different Gradius titles, it brings home some of the best and brightest that the genre ever had to offer (the franchise was consistent, to say the least). Though it may not provide anything new to those of us who've played it before, that's not the point -- this is about nostalgia and great game design, and Konami's latest compilation has both.
Now if you're somehow unfamiliar with the Gradius franchise (highly unlikely, but let's pretend), here's a quick overview: You're the pilot of the space-age fighter ship, Vic Viper. Your one and only mission is to move to the right, shoot anything that isn't you, and power yourself up continuously in order to do it quicker and more often. There's a whole deal about saving the planet from alien invaders too, but screw that -- your goal is to shoot stuff, plain and simple.
What makes the Gradius line of titles so brilliant, though, is that its basic premise has a surprising amount of depth to it. Most games in the series were balanced extremely well and offered a solid challenge, while also allowing players the ability to upgrade their ships with new weapons, shields, and other goodies. But nothing ever felt "tacked on," and the immediacy of the fight and uncovering what cool cosmic level and zany boss you'd fight next were always the highlights.
But what about the specific games in this collection? Well it goes without saying that the original is a classic and amazingly, it still kicks a lot of alien butt even today (a testament to how good the game was back in '85). Its claim to fame in its heyday was two-fold -- not only did it offer the novel idea of allowing players to choose their weapons on the fly (acquired through power-ups), but it also had some pretty great little boss battles. It's Gradius II, however, that's the overlooked gem of the series. Visually, it's a big step up from the original game by leaps and bounds and its soundtrack and audio effects are a noticeable improvement too (it even had limited voice-over; that was awesome for 1988). More than anything, though, it was the stage design and cool enemies that really sold it and users could even choose different upgrade paths for their power-ups; definitely fun stuff.
Next up is the general bastard of the series, Gradius III. Though the game has certainly taken some hits over the years for its high level of difficulty, I'm in the minority and actually enjoy it quite a bit. This third installment provided a neat "weapon edit" feature that allowed users to create their own power-up trees as an extension on the previous game's customization mode, and the overall presentation was top notch (great graphics, a killer soundtrack, you name it). Hardcore fans looking for the SNES version of Gradius III may end up disappointed, however -- the PSP collection only includes the arcade original and not its dumbed-down port.
The last two games in the collection are Gradius IV and Gradius Gaiden -- the latter of which actually came out before part 4 and was designed specifically for the original PlayStation. Sadly, the title never came out in America so most of the western world hasn't played it (including me until I got a hold of it for this review). For shooter fans without an import budget, the lack of a domestic release is a real tragedy because Gradius Gaiden is pretty damned awesome. Not only does it have some excellent visual and audio polish (the best in this collection), but it also allows you to choose in which order your power-ups appear! Multiple ship types, all-new levels with some great designs, and a solid challenge also make it great.
Gradius IV is my least favorite of the entire set. Lacking a lot of the cool features that III and Gaiden benefit from, there's nothing new to speak of in it at all (in fact, it goes backwards in the power-up department). The stages aren't that great either, and well... I've always considered this particular game a big disappointment so it's time to move on!
In true compilation tradition, Gradius Collection also offers a couple of cool additional features that UMD owners can mess around with. My personal favorite is the music player that allows you to hop in and listen to any tune in the game (Gradius has good music) and there's also a movie viewer for watching the few (but neat) cutscenes used in the various sequels. Another neat feature (especially for those that fear Gradius III) is the ability to select multiple difficulty settings including a "PSP Tuned" option for the more casual folk, and the option to change how precise the collision detection on your ship is. Players can even turn slowdown on or off if they're a purist sort and select multiple zooms to view the action in original or 16:9 ratios.
As much as I like Gradius Collection there are a few aspects I found a tad disappointing. Multiplayer support in the games that had originally had it, for example, has been dropped completely and this loss is especially bothersome considering all the shooters that supported two-person play in Capcom's last compilation (proving that Konami could have done it as well). I was also surprised to see that the set only contained a total of five games. With Salamander, Life Force, and a number of other spin-offs out there, I expected a couple more.
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