Review #1 by Michael Motoda
Aside from Konami's extraordinary platforming effort, Dracula X: Nocturne in the Moonlight (also known as 'Castlevania: Symphony of the Night' in the US), Konami has been somewhat dormant in their efforts to bring back some of their most popular games from the 80's and early 90's. I'm a shooter fanatic, so the games of that era from Konami are very special to me, and most people who owned a Super Famicom/SNES or PC Engine/TG-16 at the time undoubtedly remember some of their best efforts. Their Parodius (Deluxe Pack, SexyParo, OshaParo) and Twinbee Deluxe Pack titles, which have simply been conversions of older arcade and home games with a little more gloss, don't count in this case, although I still regard them as being among the most entertaining shooters out there. What I'm referring to here are true 32-bit upgrades/sequels with refined and new gameplay elements which still retain the feel of the originals. Namco's Xevious 3D+G failed at improving upon the original in any significant way, so naturally, I was skeptical when I heard that a new Gradius was headed for the PlayStation. However, after seeing what Konami was capable of pulling off with Dracula X, I waited for this title with optimism, and what I then experienced did not disappoint.
However, and this has no bearing on the game itself, if there is one thing that has bugged me about Konami's titles as of late is the poor quality of their CG FMVs. I found the ones in Dracula X to be average at best (no textures on parts of the castle, etc.). Gradius Gaiden is no exception. While it's not the worst FMV you've ever seen (games like Hudson's Bloody Roar and Takara's Toshinden 2 hold that title), it's not all that great, either. However, in a day and age where flashy, rendered intros have become almost standard or expected, I sometimes forget that these things are actually a bonus. If we didn't have the CD storage medium, we wouldn't have ever experienced the FMV that games like Final Fantasy VII, Rage Racer, NiGHTS, Soul Edge, and all the rest have charmed and amazed us with. So, in that respect, it's nice that Konami included this intro at all (although it definitely wouldn't hurt to see their CG work improve in the future).
Konami has successfully retained the feel of the Gradius series with this latest installment. And like Dracula X, Konami Computer Entertainment Tokyo (KCET) has added a whole slew of new options to satisfy almost every shooter fan out there. You now have four different ships to select from, all of which vary greatly from one another. The strategies you need to learn in order to master each ship are diverse and add a lot of variation to the game itself. Certain weapons work better in certain stages, and conversely, have their own disadvantages as well. For the Gradius veterans out there, you're aware that the power-up order for the Vic Viper ship is Speed Up -> Missile -> Double, etc. You can now rearrange all of your weapons so that, for example, Missile comes first, Force Field comes next, Option after that, and so on. Basically, you can custom tailor your ship exactly to your liking. You can also select manual and semi-automatic power-up arming, similar to the Parodius series. As I mentioned, Konami has added features to this shooter which are new to the series. Specifically, the biggest upgrade to the gameplay is the option to power-up your weapons 2 times. In all previous Gradius games, you were limited to upgrading to a new weapon (such as a Laser), and that was that. It didn't get any more powerful. In Gradius Gaiden, you're allowed one additional level of power-up, and the upgrades make a big difference in how many enemies you hit and how fast you hit them.
Gradius Gaiden also marks the first Gradius title sporting a simultaneous 2-player mode, which has been sorely lacking from this series, while Twinbee and Parodius have had them since early-on. It's a nice addition to an already classic series, and allows you to blast through these levels with a friend.
Graphically, Gradius Gaiden is gorgeous, and like Dracula X, this game needs to be seen in motion to be fully appreciated. There are all sorts of environmental and special effects, such as blizzards, avalanches, collapsing glaciers, crystals which refract lasers, landscapes being torn apart by whirlwind-like black holes and many, many more. Colors are vibrant and sprites are drawn and animated splendidly. Konami makes full use of scaling, rotation, morphing, motion blur, smearing, transparencies and every other special effect up the PlayStation's sleeves to deliver visuals seldom seen in a 2D sprite-based home shooter, if ever at all.
Konami has also come up with some truly nasty bosses. The first few stages possess bosses which are quite easy to defeat, but later in the game, defeating these bosses becomes an exercise in precision movement, targeting, and dexterity. It never gets to the point of being unfair to the player. This is a stark contrast to some of the insane bosses in Saturn shooters like Banpresto/Toaplan's Batsugun or Atlus/Cave's Dodonpachi, which almost require that you use super bombs against them. In Gradius Gaiden, however, they are difficult yet not impossible, and require you to be on your guard at all times. This is the mark of good game design in a shooter, where the developers have hit the right balance between difficulty and playability for the game's Normal difficulty setting. In lots of other shooters these days, players are almost forced to choose the Easy setting just to get through the game.
In the sound department, the game has its highs and its lows. Musically, I've never heard music this good coming from a Konami shooter. The tunes are bright and full of sharp highs and some very tight low-end. Some level tunes are even accompanied by choral background vocals, which further enhance the experience of this game. Think of the music as a blending of Salamander 2, RayStorm and Darius Gaiden. It's very good, and the only downside is that the music tends to get drowned out by the sound effects while you're playing the game. Luckily, you can adjust the music/SFX levels in the options menu to your liking. Sound effects are above average, and do their job adequately. However, the voice in this game is somewhat of a letdown. It's not that the voices are recorded poorly (quite the contrary), but the people Konami hired to do the voices sound very weak. It sounds a lot like a US dub version of a Japanese game or anime (think Castlevania: Symphony of the Night in the US). Luckily, the voices do not play that big a part in the actual game itself, so it doesn't really hurt the game too much. Some of the bosses, however, spout off some truly horrible dialogue, such as the level 4 boss, who says something to the effect of, "You think you can beat me with that?! Loser!" Yes, and these are supposed to be alien life forms who are talking to you. Really bad stuff. On the plus side, Konami has included two different sets of voice samples, Male and Female. Therefore, you can choose either one to announce weapon names, message announcements, and the intro dialogue. Nice touch, even though they sound like your standard B-movie fare.
The final issue in this title that slightly irked me is the fact that in one player mode, if you die, it takes you back quite a ways in the level, and you are basically left with zero defenses, except for one power-up credit (allowing you one level of speed-up). In higher levels, this becomes frustrating, as the enemies attack in complex and fast patterns, and therefore, it becomes somewhat repetitive. In the Saturn/PSX Parodius games, you were given the option of turning this on and off, which would have been a good addition to this title. However, if looked at from a different perspective, this prevents people from sitting there and continuing while the level just scrolls on by, allowing them to blast through and finish the game within a short amount of time. This, coupled with the limited number of continues (although you can boost up your reserve number of ships in the options menu), will give even the most seasoned shooter players a great challenge while making their gaming dollar go a long way.
All-in-all, I can heartily recommend this title just as much as Taito's RayStorm or Squaresoft's latest foray into the shooter genre, Einhander.
+ Crisp, detailed, hand-drawn sprites and backgrounds. + Extensive use of the PlayStation's special effects. + Makes you feel the same way you felt when you fired up Axelay or Space Megaforce on your Super Famicom/SNES. + Awesome bosses and weapon animations. + Good contrast between foreground and background animations. - Mediocre CG FMV movies.
+ Awesome soundtrack perfectly suited for the Gradius series. + Some of the tracks have beautiful choral accompaniment. + Loud, booming explosions and ambient sound effects. + Selectable voice samples from either a male or female character. + Speech recording is clean... - ...although the actual speech delivery is poor. - Select boss voices and dialogue border on horrendous.
+ Perfect, old-school gameplay hearkens back to the days when 16-bit shooters ruled the market. + Responsive controls, intuitive button layout. + Ingenious level design and background interaction. + Streamed loading of levels, therefore there is little to no loading time between them. + Upgrades in almost all aspects of the Gradius series, including weapon power-ups, power-up order, etc. + Challenging gameplay which doesn't require super bombs. - The way in which the game handles deaths may frustrate some players.
High challenge, a familiar feel, and 32-bit graphics will please fans of the series and shooters in general. If there's a shooter out there that will reawaken those dormant shooter instincts in you, this game will definitely do the trick. High praise to Konami for bringing back the games which made them famous, and here's to hoping that we'll someday see a 2D upgrade to Contra.
Review Copyright (c) 1997 by Michael Motoda.
Please feel free to email me with your questions, comments, and criticisms. Thank you very much for your time.