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In 2004 or 2005 (I forget which exactly), my brother borrowed all of his friend's PS2 games. Among them was Gradius V, which I remembered seeing in passing in an issue of GamePro a year or so before. The article praised it for its graphics and loyalty to its classical roots. I'm not sure that's what caused me to try it out since I had never heard of Gradius before that but whatever it was, it single-handedly helped me find my calling in video games. Sure I have yet to get past level 5 in one credit but I'll never forget the first time I bested the first boss and how satisfying it was busting that core with a single blast.
Naturally, my experience with Gradius V led me to find out and try the other games through various means, legitimate and otherwise, to various degrees of satisfaction. Of the games I played, the SNES version of Gradius III is my favorite, after Salamander II and Gradius Gaiden. Having played pretty much every Gradius game (the mobile phone games excluded), I'm able to list nuances of the series that I see as problems that can be corrected.
1. Don't leave the player for dead after he dies. A little background on game mechanics is in order here. If you're not familiar with Gradius, a main draw of the series is that players are allowed to build up their ship's capabilities however they want. This is done with the use of a power meter, which is the list of available powerups stretching across the bottom of the screen. Certain enemies (usually red or orange in color) will leave a distinct capsule; collecting this advances the power meter one slot to the right, starting at "Speed Up". Because the ship's default speed is too slow to get anything done, most players will get Speed Up more than once before getting anything else on the meter. The player can press the powerup button at any time to instantly add the currently highlighted powerup to their craft and reset the meter. By the the start of the third stage, they usually have had enough time and capsules to max out their firepower.
One of the biggest problems with Gradius games since the beginning is that if the player dies, they are sent back to a checkpoint stripped of all powerups and the power meter reset. (If the power meter had anything active at all, it will start with Speed Up highlighted instead.) Only a few powerup capsules are available to the player at each checkpoint, giving the player at most only one or two Speed Ups and maybe a Missile if they're feeling lucky. Unfortunately, most of the time this is only enough for experienced players to make a comeback, especially if it happens to be at a late stage where there are always at leave five enemies present at all times. To make things worse, the game is known to increase in difficulty (known as "rank" in some inner shmup circles) in real-time depending on several variables, including amount of enemies killed and amount of powerups collected. If you play a Gradius game regularly, try to play the first section of the game without shooting anything at all, then try it again and destroy every enemy you can. If you opt to destroy every enemy instead of destroying just enough enemies to get maybe two Speed Ups, you will notice that some enemies will actually fire at you or approach you faster than if you just avoided everything. Obviously this is of little comfort to a novice player who may never notice this at all and opts to maximize his strength at soon as possible.
One point where this is especially frustrating for me is at the Crystal level in Gradius II, a large part of which has the player navigating small gaps in many chunks of ice in space. The second checkpoint is about halfway through the level where the saturation of ice blocks is at its heaviest. Should the player slip up here, they are given only two enemies to get a powerup from, which they will no doubt use to Speed Up, but for inexperienced players, who most likely will only be able to get one, this just isn't enough. The smaller ice blocks are destructible, but the default gun without any Options isn't enough to make any clearance in time to escape. I remember getting through that passage only twice, probably by luck. It is worth noting, however, that like everything in Gradius, there is a pattern to the blocks' movement that, when learned, can help the player escape no matter what speed he's on, but the frustration of having to learn it at the lowest power levels is probably too much for some (and don't get me started on the limited continues thing).
A few entries in the series attempted to get around this problem. Some versions of the original arcade game threw a large cache of red enemies at a checkpoint when a player respawns, giving her enough resources to not only get her speed to a decent level, but also get a Missile and maybe even an Option. Unfortunately, this was never seen in any home versions of that game, but thankfully this behavior is present in the port of Gradius in the DS compilation Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits. This would be the ideal solution in my opinion, but unfortunately, this showing of mercy is never seen in later games. In a two-player cooperative game of Gradius Gaiden (previously only released in Japan for PlayStation but now available worldwide as a part of the PSP Gradius Collection, one of the few reasons to own a PSP), a player would leave six or so powerup capsules where she stood when she dies, giving her a chance to get back in the game while her wingman covers for her (if he decides not to be greedy, that is). This doesn't apply to single-player games, however. Most recently, Gradius V allows the player to restart where she stood before getting killed instead of going back to a checkpoint (this can be disabled in the options), and the player's Options (the colored elliptical assist drones that clone the player's firepower; also known as Multiples in some regions) are shoved toward the right so that the player can recollect them easily. Salamander, a spin-off of Gradius, also plays like this, but if the player was at the left edge of the screen, regathering the Options would be very difficult as the Options would also stay where they were.
I understand that having to start from a checkpoint is tradition and hardened veterans wouldn't like to see it go, but Gradius V has shown that this doesn't have to be the case. The "Revival Start" option in Gradius V is off by default; enabling it will turn on old-fashioned checkpoint-based play instead of continuous Salamander-style play. This and other options are also recorded in the high score table, so there doesn't have to be any disputes over dependency on features like that for a good score. As they say, everybody wins!
2. Revive features of previous games. Gradius Gaiden is hailed by fans as one of the best Gradius games ever for a variety of reasons. As mentioned earlier, it's available on the PSP as part of the Gradius Collection, so if you own a PSP for whatever reason, buy this collection immediately. Aside from what I think is the one of the best soundtracks of any shmup, or indeed any game, of its time and a reasonable difficulty scale ("Very Easy" is actually easier than the lowest difficulty settings of other games in the series), one of the distinct features of Gaiden is the ability to rearrange the order of the power meter as the player saw fit. A common usage of this feature is to put the Option or defensive items closer to the left, allowing the player to access them sooner. As you would imagine, this is a godsend for the more challenging levels and bosses. Further, Gaiden is also praised for an unprecedented abundance in available powerup capsules throughout the game, which, when coupled with having more favorable powerups at the start of the meter, allows the player to spring back from virtually any situation.
Gradius Gaiden also expands on the defensive capabilities of the player's ship. Since Gradius II, most games featured only two options for shielding: the Shield and the Force Field. The defensive powerup is traditionally at the far end of the meter and is represented as a "?" out of tradition (in the first Gradius game, the instructions on the cabinet didn't indicate what the last powerup did and enticed players to find out themselves). The Shield is comprised of two gear-like guards that arrive from the right edge of the screen and attach themselves to the front of the ship. They can sustain around eleven hits before fading out entirely. It provides no protection to the rear or sides of the ship and is very difficult to keep out of environmental danger, as it will diminish quickly if it touches a wall. The Force Field is an all-around protection option that can block only three hits from all sides. For a long time, these were the only options for shielding available, with Gradius III exclusively adding ship size reduction (Reduce) and an enemy-clearing bomb (Mega Crush) to the mix in its Edit Mode (more on that later). Gaiden adds two novel shield types to the player's arsenal in addition to the two classic shield types. The Guard, my personal favorite, is similar to the Shield in that it has to attach to the player from the left edge of the screen before it becomes effective, but it connects to the top and bottom instead of the front. While they revolve around the player's craft, they protect the player from death by crashing into a wall. This protection will never fail until it sustains three hits from anything other than a wall, such as enemy fire. The other shield is the Limit, which simply renders the player completely invincible for all of three seconds. When placed at the start of the meter, or if simply timed well, the player could fly through a stage invulnerable for virtually the entire stage, as the below video demonstrates. It's a shame that these shields have never been seen again, since I sure would have been able to use Guard in Gradius IV.
One feature that the game more replayable is the "Edit Mode" introduced in Gradius III. Instead of the four or so static sets of powerups, the Edit Mode allows the player to create her own array of firepower from a variety of weapons and shields not available in any stock sets. In that game, however, this comes at the cost of being denied some of the more useful weapons from the stock sets. For example, the mighty Spread Bomb missile type isn't available in Edit Mode; the closest thing to it is the Small Spread, which falls straight down and not in a forward curve, which is more useful during boss fights and heavy enemy concentrations. Gradius V is the only other game in the series to feature the Edit Mode, although it must be unlocked by completing the game one time. However, V perfects the concept by adding all of the weapons from its preset weapon arrays and adding many more weapons to the player's arsenal. Once in a while I like to play with only the Fire Blaster laser and see how long I can last with the severely limited range.
3. Make the lowest difficulty easy. One of the biggest complaints of Gradius games and most shmups in general is that they are too freaking hard to complete on the sixth try and that only the most dedicated newcomers would have the tenacity to continue eleventy billion times to finish just one loop. The original arcade version of Gradius III is notorious for being one of the most difficult games in the series, one of the major reasons being that continues were completely disallowed (which was corrected in the SNES version). With odd stages like a high-speed pseudo-3D behind-the-ship chase stage and one stage that involves dodging a series of high-speed indestructible glass cubes, it could take amateurs a very long time to master just these phases (and don't get me started on the Moai boss on level 5). I heard that these factors prompted Konami to pull the game from arcades very shortly after release. One version of the arcade game allows the player to keep most of their powerups when they die, which certainly makes things a little easier, but I would bet that it still didn't remove the bad taste in the mouths of those who played the original version. On that subject, there's no good reason to limit continues on console versions of arcade games, especially since some determined players will just cheat to see the ending anyway.
I don't think I've played enough games in my lifetime to start a discussion about the difficulty of games and how they should be defined, but I think that an "easy" mode should be just that: gentle enough for anyone to try it. Harder difficulties entail denser enemy fire patterns and altered boss tactics. I wonder why the reverse can't be applied for the lowest difficulty.
[Addendum] Some people may not know this, but there were a couple original Gradius games released for the MSX computer. One of them was Gradius 2 (not to be confused with the arcade Gradius II), which I read is supposed to be a canonical sequel to the original game. It does have a plot which involves an evil scientist waging war on his home galaxy and then being exiled to the farthest planet of said galaxy after losing. (Sound familiar?) He then builds up his resources to construct a massive army to take over every planet, starting with the one he was imprisoned to and ending with the player's home planet of Gradius. Gameplay issues of Gradius 2 aside, I hear that it was included in the as of yet Japan-only Salamander Collection for the PSP which corrected the biggest problem, that being formed from the MSX's inability to scroll backgrounds smoothly. However, it also faces the three above problems, namely:
1. This may be just me, but I find that I need four or five Speed Ups to get to a speed that I'm familiar with from other games.
2. After defeating a boss, the player has the choice to invade the enemy ship and collect an upgraded weapon, which is permanently added to the power meter. Such weapons included lasers that fired from the top and bottom of the ship, which were invaluable for later stages. I wish this could have been included somewhere else.
3. After finishing the final stage, the player is only allowed to see the ending by completing all stages again in reverse order. Know of any modern games that have followed this example? Can you name even one of them in which this was a good idea?
4. Slap yourselves for forgetting to include Moai in Gradius V. You oughta be ashamed of yourselves. I chose to make a Moai head for a sculpting project in art class because of your games and I got the highest grade for that assignment.
5. Give the player more freedom over their speed. With the exception of Gradius III and V, the Speed Up powerup has no reverse option. The player can only increase the speed of her ship; if it's too fast, there's no way to slow it down. When the clouds of bullets get thick and the passageways get thin, slower speeds (probably from the first or second level of Speed Up) are the only thing that will guarantee any chance of success. I don't know of any players who use all five Speed Ups allowed in practice for the entire game, and from my experiences, it would be favorable to be able to decrease speed by just one level by the final stage, what with its challenging maze-like layout of a mechanical base. Gradius III allows for a Speed Down option for the "!" slot (which is usually reserved for a Mega Crush) in its Edit Mode and Gradius V changes the Speed Up slot to Init.Speed, the activation of which resets the player's speed to the default. Both are welcome options to control speed, and were I any better than I am now, I sure would be using them more often than I should.
6. Make the last boss trash-talk the player more instead of just prophesying the eventual doom of their species. It's not by accident that the final boss is ridiculously easy, it's been that way since the beginning of the series and I wouldn't have it any other way. What I like about the above video is how the last boss taunts the player even though it's demolished in seconds. Other Gradius' final bosses just say something to the effect of "this is only the beginning" and die like pussies. Watch the end of the above video again starting at about 6'30" and tell me that that isn't one of the best evil laughs you've ever heard. I also like how the player loses all of his Options just before the fight; it really puts a lot of suspense into the battle. I love it when games like this add heavy-handed dramatic flair into the battles and I wish it occurred more often.
Most of these suggestions aim to increase accessibility of the series to newcomers by removing long-standing roadblocks that historically made the game intimidating or discouraging. As has been stated above, Konami has already solved most of these problems in some way, just inconsistently and not all in one game. As mentioned in point 1, Gradius V has shown that if an experienced player doesn't want anything to change, he could just change the options until they're reminiscent of the game he's most familiar with. It is my belief that these problems are impediments to accessibility to the series, and in a time when the shmup genre is making a big comeback with all of the current consoles' respective download services giving it new life, one of the most popular shmup series of all time can take part of this resurgence in popularity while being both accessible for new players and challenging enough for hardened veterans. I pray that the Gradius VI development team will at least take some of these rantings in consideration, because I want it to be as memorable and welcoming to new players as Gradius V was for me.
[Edit]It looks like I chose a bad time to publish this. Whatever; I spent weeks writing this and I don't feel like waiting any longer to put it live. Now to work on my Ace Attorney essay.