There are many who would have you believe that the 2D Shoot-em-up is a dead or dying genre. Hardly any such games are being released for the current generation of consoles, particularly outside of Japan. Luckily though there are still some developers out there who believe otherwise, such as Treasure, who as it goes are the creators of some of the best games in this genre. Although there is not showing this off as a Treasure developed game (they are only mentioned in the credits), it is obvious from the quality and style of the game.
Now because there is a lack of 2D shooters released, any that are will generally be lapped up by the hardcore fan base. Fans of the Gradius series and those of Treasure itself will be happy to know that this latest effort is up there with the all-time greats of the genre. There have been some minor changes to the typical Gradius formula – it has after all been developed outside of Konami, so there are some Treasure hallmarks to the game. However these only help to enhance the Gradius experience. Not least of which is how pretty this game looks at times. Shooter fans shouldn’t need much convincing so my advice is go get this now – it even has a budget price so there is no excuse to take the Vic Viper out of the hangar once again.
That is the easy part taken care of, but if you are not usually a fan of 2D Shooters, you will need a little bit more convincing. I personally am not a hardcore fan of these sorts of games, I have enjoyed a fair few throughout my gaming years but the latest I truly enjoyed was EinhÃ¤nder on the PS1. I agree that Ikaruga (another recent Treasure shooter) is a great game, but I tend to prefer simple destruction over its own puzzle based gameplay. Gradius V is a more simple beast than Ikaruga and for my money, all the better for it. I feel 2D shooters are the only type of game that can truly create the feeling of 'The Zone’. That feeling you get when everything just goes perfectly and you aren’t even thinking about the control pad, you are just wiping out the enemy. Of course the feeling doesn’t last forever but it keeps drawing you back to play one more time, and that the game is very challenging means there is always a reason to keep playing well beyond completion.
OK so it plays well, but you should know that this game is hard, very hard. Stick the difficulty to 'Very Easy’, bump your lives up to max. Chances are that unless you are a shooter veteran, you will still see Game Over before beating much more than the first of the 8 levels. Importantly though it is never unfair and the challenge is most welcome, in fact necessary for a game such as this. Over time, you will unlock more credits which will help you play that bit further into the game, you will remember the attack patterns and how to best beat the bosses. Most importantly you will get to grips with the weapons and upgrades system and find one that suits you. With practice you will manage to beat the game, and then there are higher difficultly levels (5 in total) and an unlocked weapon edit mode so you can create your ultimate fighter.
The star of the game is your own craft, the Vic Viper, which comes in four flavors. Each offers a similar set of basic upgrades – missiles, lasers, forcefield – each of the four types has slight differences in these upgrades. The stand out weapons though, a Gradius trademark, are the Options (renamed as Multiples in the Pal version for some unknown reason). These are small orbs that follow where your ship flies and shoot the same weapons as your main ship. The four types of Viper offer different configurations of these Options, which open up a huge range of strategies for playing the game. Though you will initially tend to favor one above the others, they are all well balanced and useful in their own ways and it is good fun to experiment with the different types. My advice with upgrades though is to collect 4 Multiples as soon as possible, for even if you lose a life you still get the chance to re-collect them with your next life (if you act quickly). This takes the sting out of dying as you don’t get immediately downgraded to the initial pea-shooter weapon, this was a pain in the neck with previous Gradius games particularly during Boss battles. For those of a more traditionalist (or perhaps masochistic) nature, there is still the option of turning this feature off.
This game is without a doubt gorgeous to look at. Everything is imbued with a neon glow, explosions are nicely animated and even with laser fire engulfing the screen you can still make out what is going on. Level design is in keeping with Treasure tradition – imaginative and varied. Graphically the most important aspect for shooters is slowdown, and gladly it only occurs during the gratuitous boss death animations so doesn’t affect gameplay.
There is however a slight blemish on the audio front. The sound effects are perfectly fine, and the music is OK (though nothing particularly memorable). The speech however is oftentimes very muffled and difficult to hear. There are subtitles though and plot is not exactly a large part of the shooter experience anyway, so it doesn’t really detract from the game and indeed might even have been a deliberate decision to create atmosphere.
In any other way though the presentation cannot be faulted, a simple menu screen allows a choice of a normal game, Stage Select (for practicing) and Score Attack modes along with the usual Options. The Score Attack mode will give you a password to enter on the games website so you can see where you rank alongside other players. There are some extras to unlock – a 2 player cooperative mode and the aforementioned weapon edit mode being the most interesting.
Gradius V is a game that should be held up as one of the greatest this genre has to offer. At the end of the day though it still comes down to how much of a fan you are of 2D shooters. Shooter lovers should not hesitate to add it to their collection. I would urge those of you who are unsure to give it a try (it is a cheaper release after all) and to stick with it through the initially difficult beginnings. It is true that not many games of this type are being released these days, but when they end up being as playable and all-consuming as this title then there is nothing to worry about. The 2D shooter is far from dead.