Review: An Ikaruga sequel by any other name would still smell as sweet
Konami and Treasure have both been doing their part when it comes to preserving 2D gaming. Konami revived the platform shooter with Contra: Shattered Soldier and continues to constantly churn out 2D entries in the Castlevania series for the GBA. And last year Treasure created the excellent Ikaruga, a critical and commercial success that proved the 2D space shooter is still cool. Naturally, these two crazy cats just had to get together and the results are the astounding fifth entry in the Gradius series.
Gradius was a distinct member of the very overpopulated space shooter genre of the 80s and 90s. But it was always considered the cream of the crop (much like Irem's R-Type, which also got a PS2 sequel this year). The series stood out because of it's unique weapon system built around earning "Options." Some defeated enemies will leave behind orange spheres after they're blown away. Collecting these spheres will move your weapon gauge one spot to the left. Depending upon which part of the gauge is highlighted, locking in the selected weapon can give you double shots, rear missiles, laser cannons or clone ships known as Options that follow your ship (the famous Vic Viper) and fire weapons identical to yours. Purists will howl that Options have been renamed Multiples for Gradius V.
Treasure couldn't well enough alone with the name either. They had to change the way Multiples work, so Gradius V features four different special powers for your Multiples. You can manually change the direction they fire in, freeze them in place, space them farther away or closer to your ship or make them spin around your ship. Purists may howl again. Space shooter fans will applaud as this innovation keeps Gradius V exciting. It doesn't offer the strategy of Ikaruga's black and white system, but it helps keep the game interesting.
And speaking of Ikaruga, Treasure has designed Gradius V in such a way that it could be considered a new entry in both the Gradius and Ikaruga series'. Essentially, you get Gradius V and Ikaruga 2 all in the same game. Ikaruga fans can probably spot the similarities right away. Gradius V uses the same font and many of the same sound effects. The game even looks like Ikaruga, while still looking like Gradius. It's this kind of attention to detail that makes me want to kiss the geniuses at Treasure.
Gradius V is more straightforward than Ikaruga. It's also not as difficult, since dodging the enemy fire in Ikaruga required players to learn some funkier dance steps than most things Gradius V will throw at them. That's not to say Gradius V isn't hard. With five difficulty levels the game can be as hard or as easy (but not too easy) as you want it. A distributed credit system that increases your continue total after each hour of play also eases the difficulty burden. But the further you get into the game the more intense (and amazing) Gradius V becomes. Your nerves will be tested in the final three levels as the screen tilts and turns to show that there's still plenty of life in a 2D shooter. Among that life, a trip down an alien's gullet and an asteroid field feature amazing level design and plenty of "Dear god I'm not going to make it! On my god I made it!" moments. The screen will fill with bullets, enemy ships and obstacles on more than one occasion. Best of all, these moments all take place with no slowdown, a first for the Gradius series.
The rest of the game is equally impressive as the seven levels are difficult enough to be considered "long" and feature the kind of action old school fans want from a space shooter. And for players that need more game modes, Treasure included a Score Attack mode that rewards high scores with passwords for an Internet scoreboard just like Ikaruga and a Level Select that gives players unlimited continues to practice their craft. The graphics are great for a 2D shooter with colorful and lively backgrounds and detailed enemy ships (especially the bosses). The music is very reminiscent of "epic" 16-bit scores like Secret of Mana and Final Fantasy II/III with little hints of Star Wars and 80s pop.
To top all of this off, Treasure included a two player simultaneous option for the first time in a Gradius game and it is sweet. If one Vic Viper taking down hordes of alien scum is fun, then I can assure you that two is even better.
The only bad thing that could possibly be said about Gradius V is the way Treasure has set up the hit system. Because Gradius V is a noticeably slower shooter than Ikaruga, they've made it easier to dodge enemy fire by making the wings invincible. As the screen fills with bullets, there will be times that you'll be required to just barrel ahead and pray. That just seems wrong to me.