There’s a lot to be said about Konami in 2021. A lot of bad things to be said. Their shitty, abusive work environment. The complete shitcanning of Kojima Productions. Turning the beloved Pro Evolution Soccer series into a cynical gambling den. Turning the beloved everything else they’ve ever made into a cynical gambling den. Strong-arming the Japanese insurance industry. It’s clear that Konami is and was run by evil clowns, and that the amazing games they published were made in spite of them, rather than because of them.
Among these games were a large host of shooters. A whole bunch of all-timers that, even in the era of Touhou and Danmaku, are as amazing today as they were in the 80s and 90s. It’s the 2000s, the PSP is doing well in your home country, and nostalgia is always a good way to make a buck. You run to M2, the undisputed kings of porting retro games, and throw a bunch of money at them to make your shit look good again. Specifically, Gradius. Yes, there were also collections made for Parodius, Twinbee, and Salamander, but I’m focusing on Konami’s flagship STG today. I love to fly around in the Vic Viper.
Anyways. This compilation has five games: Gradius, Gradius 2, Gradius 3, Gradius 4, and Gradius Gaiden. Now, these are not straight ports of the games. Rather, these are all reprogrammed versions of the arcade originals, now given support for the PSP’s widescreen resolution, and not the roughly 4:3 that they originally had. You now also have the option of giving your ship a smaller hit box, which in some ways feels extremely perverse, but is still welcome. Despite the improvements of being able to see more of the screen and being harder to hit, these games are still really hard and demanding, which I love. Gradius is still a series about pattern recognition and being able to react accordingly.
Admittedly, a major reason why I wanted to cover these games is because I very recently 1cc’d the original Gradius, 100% indisputable this time; last time I did it, I was on Vicodin after a dentists’ appointment, and therefore was in no position to confirm that I actually did it.
Gradius still rules. It’s as good in 2021 as it was in 1985. It is a game about flying through a dangerous warzone where everything is trying its damnedest to kill you (and they most definitely will your first time around). It’s about pattern recognition; knowing when and where the enemy will strike. It’s about having the right weapon for the job (I will firmly place myself in the camp of “the Double Shot isn’t actually a terrible weapon, jerks!”). You have to learn all of this pretty quick, as dying will absolutely fuck you. Losing a life causes you to lose all your power-ups, and can leave you way too slow and under-powered to handle whatever lies ahead. Now, it is possible to finish the game like this, as I’ve done, but it’s not ideal, it is however, really cool to finish the game with only a pea shooter and maybe one speed up.
Now, because this is based on the original arcade release, this collection does not include the extra level added in the PC-Engine port of Gradius. That sucks, as I actually really liked that level. This is an extremely minor nitpick in the grand scheme of things, though. I mean, this collection is worth it for this one enhanced version of the original Gradius alone.
Gradius 2? It also still rules. It takes everything about the first game, and makes it bigger, badder, and also a bit harder. Now you get multiple weapon loadouts to use, all of which are viable and versatile for an entire run. I still tend to use the original loadout, as I am an old boomer fuddy-duddy, but I do have a soft spot for the Photon Torpedo-Ripple Laser combo.
On an audio/visual level alone, Gradius 2 might actually be the best in the entire series. It starts off with you flying around a series of burning planets, shooting at giant fire dragons, all set to this killer song, “Burning Heat.” It’s a hell of a memorable way to open your video game.
When I said the game was a bit harder, I meant it. The first game got tough on stage 3. This one gets tough on stage 2, arguably the first boss, even. It’s these obvious rip-offs of the Facehuggers from Alien that get me the most. They are pretty hard to hit, they come from enemy spawners that are surrounded by turrets, and if you fuck up here and lose your power ups, it’s almost a guarantee that YOU SHALL NEVER RETURN ALIVE.
I’m still working on getting that 1cc for this one. I can make it up to stage 4 without continuing, but after that? Forget it. Game’s awesome.
Fuck Gradius 3. It’s awful, and is the worst game in the series by a mile. Doesn’t matter if it’s the arcade game, or the even worse SNES port that ran at like 2 FPS, it sucks. All it does is take all the things you liked about the first two Gradius games, and replaced it with way too fucking bullets on screen, and enemies that take way too much damage to kill. Skip it.
Admittedly, I have very little experience with this one. This might actually only be the second or third time I’ve played Gradius 4. As such, I don’t really have much to say about it. It seems pretty cool. I like the T-1000 melting effect on the dragons on the first stage. No kidding, I’m actually quite fond of the font that the power-up bar has; looks like the interact menu in a particularly seedy PC-98 game with lots of big titties and exploding heads.
My big complaint about this one is that a lot of it feels a bit desperate. Like, I know that a number of years had passed between the release of Gradius 3 and 4, but there’s a lot that comes across as Konami going for that Nostalgia Pop. Remember the giant crystals that broke and became smaller and more dangerous? Remember the shitty bubbles in Gradius 3? Remember shooting the core? There are a lot of callbacks that probably didn’t need to be made, as Gradius 4 could have stood as its own game without feeling like a Best Of. Not a terrible game, but there are better ones.
Oh, and that announcer is terrible. Dude sounds like a cross between the fat kid from Mission Hill, and someone who has made a three hour YouTube video on character balance in Super Smash Brothers.
Speaking of better games, the final one on this collection is Gradius Gaiden. Gaiden kicks fucking ass. This really does feel like Gradius for a new generation (that generation being a hardware generation, as this was on the Sony Playstation). It’s frenetic. It’s intense. It’s fun. Most importantly, it’s still Gradius, but it stands on its own, which Gradius 4 really didn’t.
Other cool things: multiple ships to choose from (though I still stuck with the Vic Viper), and being able to customize your power bar. You want that extra firepower early? Sure, go ahead and put your Options at the front. Gradius Gaiden gives you so much room to tailor your experience, then tells you, “alright bitch, now it’s time to play the game. Get good, asshole!” There’s very much the spirit of the first two Gradius’ (Gradiuses?) at play here. Incredible game.
One callback that I do like is the junkyard level, where the wreckage of Gradius 1 bosses shake loose from the floors and ceilings to mount a mostly-feeble offense against you.
This game is not on the Gradius collection. It is actually a part of the Salamander compilation. I guess there weren’t enough Salamander games to justify a compilation without a couple extras.
Anyways, this is an enhanced port of Gradius 2 for MSX. The MSX game is far, far more different than the original, being more of its own offshoot, really. What makes this special is that the slowdown and choppiness have been removed. The MSX was not a system known for smooth scrolling or intense action; one of the reasons why Metal Gear was a game about avoiding enemies, rather than taking on an entire army. This one is surprisingly really cool, too. Maybe not on the level of the big arcade boys, but still leagues ahead of Gradius 3.
Thought I would write about the Gradius Collection because 1) Gradius rules and 2) because I don’t think too many people know about this one, or if they did, would have assumed it was a half-assed emulation job. It’s not! It’s an improved experience that matches, and even surpasses the originals. Definitely one of those must-haves for the PSP.
Except for Gradius 3. Go fuck yourself, Gradius 3.