Side-scrolling shooters are perhaps the biggest casualties of games going mainstream. As the audience grows companies try less and less to find a unique niche to appeal to, and instead put their money behind a surefire hit. Combine this thinking with a total domination of 3D games and the quaint space shooter takes a backseat to budgets and franchises.
Not to say there aren’t some shooters still going strong, because the latest “Gradius” title has been unleashed and it will not disappoint those looking for a difficult, but still accessible game.
Today shooter means a “Halo,” first-person perspective, but in “Gradius V” and true shooters like it, the view is from the side as you blast through endless waves of enemy ships. It’s a genre that tests a player’s skill and reaction time like no other, forcing quick decisions that mean success or instant death. Yes, in “Gradius V” you still die in one hit.
The setup is, as always, your one ship (the Vic-Viper) against an entire fleet of alien invaders. Downed ships leave behind capsules you can use to power up your ship, which when fully charged, becomes a near unstoppable marvel of technology. But don’t think the evil armada is going to just sit back and let you tear through its plans, as there are oftentimes so many ships on the screen that you barely have room to maneuver.
At the end of each level is a boss. Blow it away and then proceed to the next level, then again and again until you finally see some credits. Easily said, rarely accomplished. The game is all about remembering enemy patterns and wisely choosing your weapons. There is a lot of trial and error, but once you figure out the sweet spots and the boss’s weak areas, the trip becomes much easier. It’s one of those games that people will watch you play and wonder how you’re able to get so far.
It also doesn’t hurt that the PS2 can easily handle the visuals, which allows for fluid game play and some truly awesome explosions. The Viper, enemies and backgrounds are crisp and full of graphic effects, keeping the genre’s tradition of impressive eye candy alive.
The audio is equally pleasing, another staple of both the series and its brethren. The sci-fi journey is bursting with the sounds of conquest, from crashing ships to the hum of the Viper’s cool blue lasers. Add some fast techno tunes and it’s a nearly irresistible sensory overload.
The only aspects of “Gradius V” that bring it down are of minor consequence to fans of the genre. The series hasn’t really changed that much from its original arcade roots, and this title merely tweaks a few thing here and there. You can slightly customize your payload and other straightforward game play mechanics, but in the end you’re still shooting from the time you start until the last continue is spent.
Two new features to the series are simultaneous play and more control over the options (the floating ball power ups, not literal options). For the first time two players can attack the horde of ships together, something that should have been implemented a long time ago. The action keeps its pace even with both Vipers going, however, and it’s nice to have the choice available for cooperative play.
As for Gradius’ signature power ups, the options, the player can now directly control them. Simply maneuver them into place and lock ?em down. This lets you make precision shots as well as keep your ship out of immediate danger. Sending the options in, then pulling back is a smart move for most of the screen-sized bosses.
One thing Treasure and Konami could have changed is the linearity of the levels. Perhaps some branching stages will sneak unto Gradius VI, should there ever be one. The levels are all well designed but they’re always going to be the same. The ability to alter your flight plan would have been pretty cool.
Eventually you can earn unlimited continues, so one way or another this game is going down. That may actually sound like a hindrance, but shooters are more about getting better than just winning. Newcomers shouldn’t have much trouble getting through the first stage, but after that some major practice will be required. If you’ve never piloted a loaded spaceship before, “Gradius V” is a good place to start, but an excellent place for vets to test their mettle.