Reviewed: June 28, 2006
Released: June 6, 2006
“Gradius” is one of those enduring game titles that will spark a twinge of pain in your thumb and possibly some mental anguish to anyone who has subjected themselves to the countless hours of exquisite torture of playing any of the four original Gradius games that date back to 1985. It’s one of those games that you love to hate and yet you still can’t stop playing it.
This unwavering adoration from gamers and critics alike is a testament to true quality game design that holds up even today, 21 years later in Konami’s loving tribute to the series, Gradius Collection, a compilation of the first four, now-famous Gradius games, as well as the long awaited Gradius Gaiden.
Gradius is the granddaddy of shooters, ranking right up there with R-Type and Silpheed. The premise is simple; navigate scrolling levels avoiding obstacles, powering-up, and shooting everything that moves until you reach some mega-boss that will require every ounce of skill and dexterous finger-tap you can muster. Yes, it’s a simple premise and a very addictive formula for compelling gameplay, and now that you are no longer restricted by the number of quarters in your pocket, you might just never stop playing.
The Gradius Collection not only packs in five complete games with more than 40 stages of shooting action, you also get all the original music, original graphics, classic trailers, and even enhanced modes that bring these classics a few steps closer to the 21st century…just a few.
The core of all the Gradius games is pretty much the same and extremely simple. You are put into the cockpit of the Vic Viper space fighter and are required to vanquish wave after wave of creative space enemies culminating in a massive boss battle. Your ship, for the most part is the same in all of the games with the exception of Gradius Gaiden where you can pick from four ships before launching.
Another twist to the shooter formula is the upgrade system. Most games have you picking up specific power-ups during the mission, but Gradius works on a leveling system where you simply transition from one level to the next. The weapon or ship ability you get in each level upgrade is determined by your power selection path before the mission begins.
There is no favored power path and it is possible to finish the level and the entire game with any of the paths, but some will be harder than others and they all require unique skills on the part of the player.
Much like the weapons and upgrades, many of the Gradius games allow you to pick your chosen shield or barrier style. All of these options and possible customizations allow for varied gameplay than can easily change the difficulty and total approach to the game.
Going through the game lineup, we start with Gradius, the 1985 original that launched a legend. This was the simplest of designs, allowing for players to choose their weapons during the game and offering some of the biggest and most original boss battles in the history of the genre. Gradius II took the series to the next level with advanced graphics and sound including speech – a rarity in 1988. The levels were outrageous as were the new creative enemy designs, and Gradius II was the first game in the series to introduce the aforementioned power-up path.
Gradius III is arguable one of the hardest games in the collection, but it is also the first to allow players to edit their own power path tree. The music and sound continued to advance with the technology and the gameplay was as fast and frantic as ever. Gradius III actually made its way to the SNES, but the PSP sticks to the coin-op version for the PSP translation.
Gradius IV is the next game in the menu and one of my least favorites. It does nothing to further the franchise and actually takes it back a few notches by returning to the pre-programmed power trees of Gradius II. The level design and enemies aren’t that creative and the entire game just feels tacked on.
Gradius Gaiden actually released prior to Gradius IV for the original PlayStation, but unless you were importing your games back then this is the first time North America can finally play this hidden gem. Easily the best in the series, Gaiden allows you to choose from multiple ships as well as customize the order of your power-ups. The music and sound are truly ahead of their time making this the most stunning Gradius game next to Gaiden V for the PS2.
The PSP offers a few next-gen gameplay options including a “PSP Tuned” mode for a more gamer friendly challenge. You can also toggle the speed of the gameplay with the slowdown option and tweak the precision of the collision detection. For the most part, you won’t need to mess with these settings, but Gradius III could be the exception.
As we’ve already covered, Gradius looks pretty amazing in all of its variations, even by today’s shooter standards. It’s nice to see them all side by side so you can compare and see how technology was advancing throughout the 80’s and 90’s.
While the game design was simple, the levels designs showed true inspired creativity as did the various ships and enemies and the bosses are still the stuff that legends are made of. I haven’t play a game this visually intense since Gates of Thunder back on my Turbo Grafx 16 CD.
The capabilities of the PSP are utilized to allow for multiple zooms so you can play the game in its original aspect ratio or scale it to fit the 16:9 widescreen PSP display. There is some nice artwork to fill in the borders if you choose the former. You can even visit the Gallery to view the few cutscenes for these games.
Gradius has always been at the forefront of music, even back in the 80’s and now you get to re-experience all of these amazing tracks and sound effect, accurately reproduced and just as energetic as ever. Just make sure to bring your “good” headphone with you so you can truly rock out.
Sound effects and synthesized speech are obviously dated but true to their original games. Younger gamers will scoff at the primitive effects while older and more experienced gamers will smile with the knowledge of what gaming used to be.
Five games, 40 intense stages of shooting action, variable difficulties, options, and the endless potential to surpass your previous high score will keep you playing any or all of the Gradius games until your PSP or your fingers stop working. My money is on your fingers.
Sadly, there is no multiplayer, not even for passing the PSP to a friend for the traditional two-player mode of the arcade originals. So the bad news is you can’t share the experience, but the good news is that you don’t have to stop playing while somebody else hammers the buttons on your PSP.
Obviously, this is a collection that will appeal to fans and veterans of the Gradius series and those who enjoy retro shooters. Younger gamers or those who live and die by next-gen visuals will probably dismiss this collection much like any other retro package.
While not inclusive of the entire Gradius library, the Gradius Collection delivers a solid sampling of the four core games and the legendary Gradius Gaiden, alone, worth the price of admission. This is hardcore, fast and frantic shooting action at its very best and a great trip down memory lane.