Gradius Collection Review
The five games on the disc are Gradius, Gradius II, Gradius III, Gradius Gaiden, and Gradius IV. All of them play roughly the same. The player, piloting a lonesome spaceship, has to get through ten or more side-scrolling levels packed with bullet-spewing enemies and giant bosses. Grabbing the power-up pods left by the enemies you destroy will allow you to add lasers, missiles, and shields to your ship, as well as multiple "option" pods that double your firepower. All of that can be lost in an instant, however, as contact with the terrain, an enemy, or a single enemy bullet will cause your ship to explode and force you to restart without any upgrades. Subsequent games didn't change the overall formula too much. Mainly, they brought better graphics to the franchise and allowed players to pick from a range of different power-ups.
With the exception of the original Gradius, these games have withstood the passage of time. The classic formula of a lone ship fighting an armada never gets old, and is just as exciting today as it was back in 1985 when the first Gradius was released. Gradius looks and sounds as 8-bit as 8-bit can be. Gradius II and Gradius III up the ante with lush 16-bit backdrops, clear synthesized music, and recurring speech comments. You'll never forget the first time you hear the disembodied male voice tell you to "attack the core." The two recent games on the disc, Gradius Gaiden and Gradius IV, take the next logical step in the franchise's evolution, by incorporating CD quality music, along with transparency and sprite-scaling effects that were first made possible with the advent of 32-bit processors. There's something wonderful about mowing down enemy ships with four option pods each firing off thick transparent laser beams, while flying through an icy wasteland where snowy boulders are constantly falling from the sky.
All of the games on the disc are identical to their arcade counterparts. Konami used the original ROM code to put this collection together, which means they look, sound, and play just like they did in the token-galleries of days gone by. Sure, none of these games push the PSP to its limit, but it's nice to know the system can handle them without any hiccups or shortcuts.
Some PSP-specific options were added that allow players to tweak the presentation and difficulty to their liking. You can pick from original, full, and zoom display options, which let you play the game in its original dimensions with a border around the screen, or stretch the graphics to fill the PSP's wider aspect. The volume of the music and sound effects can be adjusted independently of one another. A multitude of other options can be adjusted to make the games easier or more difficult. You can change the difficulty setting, adjust the number of ships you start with, and even vary the size of the ship's hitbox. A smaller hitbox means it's harder for enemy bullets to hit your ship. You can also adjust the processing speed of each game, such that, if you want to, you can eliminate the slowdown that occurs when too many bullets and enemies are visible at one time.
One of the more significant enhancements implemented on the disc is the ability to save mid-game and reload from the last checkpoint you passed. This feature is a godsend. From day one, the Gradius franchise staked a reputation for being tough-as-nails. To say that these games are challenging is an understatement. Twitch reflexes and quick pattern recognition are requisite skills if you hope to make it through the constant bullet-storms and giant bosses. Gradius III, in particular, has a reputation for chewing up and spitting out even the most devoted and honed players (by the end of the 2nd level!). When you lose a ship in one of these games in the arcade, you respawn without any power-ups either at the beginning of the level, or at the midpoint. In Gradius Collection, the levels are split up into five checkpoints, and you respawn from the last one you passed. When you reload a save game, you start from the last checkpoint you passed with all of your power-ups intact.
Between the hitbox and difficulty settings, and the save/load feature, it is now possible for mere mortals to play and finish these sadistic shoot-'em-ups. Not that these settings reduce the difficulty of any of these games to manageable levels. Oh, no. They're all still "bitch hard," especially Gradius III. You really can't describe a game that would fill the screen with a hundred bullets and challenge you to snake your ship through them while flying through a tiny tunnel as anything other than cruel. These new features mainly let players work through tough spots without having to start over from the beginning every time.
There aren't many extras on the disc, just a few video clips and a music player. It's really a shame that Konami didn't include any sort of historical retrospective. The music player is a great bonus though. It lets players listen to every piece of music from each of the games included on the disc. That's nearly 100 unique tracks! All of the tunes are catchy and unique. Much like Contra or Mario, the Gradius franchise has a few identifiable tracks that are re-mixed and re-used from game to game. The Gradius boss theme, for instance, is unmistakable. In general, the franchise has always had listenable toe-tapping soundtracks. This is especially true of Gradius III, Gradius Gaiden, and Gradius IV, which serve up CD quality crescendos that easily warrant piping through the home speaker system without coming off as "video game" music.
The one feature that I really wish they would've implemented is a two-player WiFi mode. It makes sense that they didn't, since four of the five games on the disc were solo-only affairs in their original incarnations. Even so, playing shoot-'em-ups with a partner is much more fun than doing so alone. Also, Gradius Gaiden, when it was released for the PlayStation in Japan some years ago, had a two-player mode. The version included with Gradius Collection does not. What the hell?!
Considering that the biggest problems with this compilation are that the games are exceedingly difficult and don't offer a two-player mode, I'd say Konami has put together a winner with Gradius Collection. If you enjoy old school shmups; the kinds with spaceships; you'll feel right at home here.
Need further incentive? Think of it this way-- This disc retails for roughly thirty dollars. If you bought the PlayStation and PS2 versions of all of these games individually, at the cheapest possible price, you'd still have to shell out upward of eighty dollars. And you wouldn't even reap the benefits of the new features implemented in the PSP collection!
6/9/2006 Frank Provo