Lost in space.
Konami’s new Gradius Collection boggles my mind. It’s a series of five nearly identical versions of a twenty year-old game meant to be played on your expensive, fancy PSP for forty whopping dollars. If that sounds like a deal to you, read on, and hopefully I’ll be able to prove that it’s not.
Gradius, in case you were born in Kazakstan, was one of the original, great side-scrolling shooters. Because of its extremely simple gameplay but shockingly high difficulty level, it’s always been fun for gamers of all ages.
This may explain why, after twenty years, it has barely changed. The proof of this is in the collection itself. Featuring Gradius, Gradius II, Gradius III, Gradius IV and Gradius Gaiden (never before released in the United States), Gradius Collection feels more like one gigantic Gradius rather than five distinct titles. In each game, you fly left to right grabbing power-ups, dodging projectiles, fighting bosses, and killing hundreds of bad guys in a powerful space ship called the Vic Viper.
The good news is that all of these games are a lot of fun, albeit for the exact same reasons. They’re easy to pick up, outrageously creative and wonderfully hard. For example, there are these recurring Easter Island heads that spit Fruit Loops and shoot lasers from their eyes. There are also giant heads that spit out smaller heads, which in turn spit fruit loops. Any given screen is full of such floating heads, a million different bullets, ships, and maybe a giant worm with a glowing butt. It is and always has been fun to fly around shooting and dodging this stuff.
One of the coolest thing about Gradius is its unique power-up system. Your ship has five different abilities. When you collect one power-up, you are able to activate the first, which is always a speed boost. If you save it and collect another, you will be able to activate the second, and so on until you’ve saved five power-ups and can activate the fifth, final power-up. Each ability can be enhanced five times, allowing you to build up certain aspects of your ship as you see fit. This is common to all five games.
What differs between them are power-up customization options. In the original, you simply have five powers in a single order. In Gradius II, you can choose between four different orders, making it easier to increase preferred abilities faster. In Gradius III you can completely customize your own power-up order. Gradius IV goes back to Gradius II’s model, except that you have six orders to choose from. Gradius Gaiden, finally, allows you to choose four different ships with their own unique powers.
games are also more difficult than others, though these differences are slight. Gradius III
is outrageously hard, for example, while Gradius Gaiden
might only be considered rageously
hard. These are pretty fine hairs to split, though. Every game is Gradius
, and Gradius
is flying through space canyons shooting robot bugs and avoiding fire dragons. Whether you’re playing the original or the fourth, this is all, for better or worse, the same stuff.
All are made easier thanks to a button configuration that allows you to shoot every weapon at once, rapid fire. Instead of jamming the laser and missile buttons, you simply hold the Triangle button and all aspects of shooting are taken care of, allowing you to focus on dodging between enemy attacks. You can also play each game on one of several difficulties, making the enemies faster or slower, as well as tune the hit detection of your ship, making you easier or tougher to destroy.
Less interesting features include the ability to view the game in arcade resolution, as well as a gallery that includes several tracks from each of the Gradius games and some cut scenes. It should be noted that one of the cut scenes is in 3D, a feat the series itself never managed to accomplish.
The series’ look has changed as much as its gameplay. Fire dragons made of pixels in one game are made of garish, gold polygons in another, but the game still looks like you're piloting a tiny ship through tons of brightly colored confetti no matter the version.
Although some of the Gradius titles included in this collection originally featured a two-player option, Gradius Collection is single-player only. We know, it seems lazy, but you must remember: this is a collection of five identical games. What did you expect, really. Still, it’s hard to forget how fun it was to coordinate with a second player, having them nab the rockets that fired up while you score the bombs that shot down, and how each would cover their section of the battlefield. Thanks for the lack of memories, Konami.
And thanks for trying to sell us an incomplete collection of five identical games for forty bucks. Gradius is fun, no matter what number or word you put after it, and twenty years ago, it would have been worth forty bucks. But today, it’s just another obsolete space ship, grounded in favor of better, faster rockets.