Review: I don't think that even the Konami Code can save your Vic Viper in Gradius III!
The Vic Viper space ships have traveled many light years and have shot down many alien fighters since the Gradius series debuted in 1985. The series will continue into the next-generation as Gradius VI is set to fly on PlayStation 3. However, that day is still far, far away, so in the meantime, Konami has provided PSP owners with a look back at its genre-defining side-scrolling shooter series. The star-studded collection includes the original Gradius, Gradius II, Gradius III, Gradius IV and never-released-stateside Gradius Gaiden. Except for the glaring omission of multiplayer, this five game compilation remains a perfect fit for the handheld system's wide screen and for old-school shooting fans alike.
In case you're unfamiliar with the Gradius franchise, it's a 2D horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-up series that hasn't evolved much in graphics over the last 20 years, but remains classic in terms of tough-as-nails gameplay. As the pilot of the Vic Viper, the space ship in all of the games, you must shoot down wave after wave of bogies and collect power-ups that certain enemies leave behind. You can either use a power-up right away to upgrade your speed or save it until you collect a second for a more powerful upgrade like missiles. There are a total of six possible upgrades in the games, the last being the most beneficial. So, despite the desire to use a power-up right away, it tends to be more rewarding to wait until you collect multiple power-ups if you can survive. This six-tiered power-up formula has always given the series a distinct sense of strategy and the constant waves of enemies have always required pattern memorization.
Gradius is classic in every sense of the word and while it's still fun to play, it pales in comparison to its better-looking, superior-sounding and smarter sequel Gradius II. It easily bests the four other games in the compilation that originally released in North America. In addition to improved graphics, an enhanced soundtrack and new cheesy voiceovers, the game introduces upgrade path choices. The next game, Gradius III, continues the increased quality in presentation, but also increases the difficulty at the same time. Therefore, only the hardcore of the hardcore Gradius fans may enjoy this one. Even the clutch seventh upgrade option that destroys everything on screen in moments of peril isn't enough to get most people to the end. Gradius IV, on the other hand, is not challenging enough and is uninspiring in terms of its design. Some of the boss battles are worth playing, but it's overall the least impressive title in the collection.
The honor of most impressive goes to next game in the compilation: Gradius Gaiden. It actually released before Gradius IV, despite the compilation's ordering of games and the superior presentation and options of Gaiden. However, it never made it out of Japan after releasing on PlayStation in 1997 and therefore has only previously been played by American gamers through import. The game features a number of changes, most notably in the multiple ships that can be selected. In addition to the Vic Viper, players can pilot Lord British, Jade Knight or Falchion B. It's also possible to edit your upgrade path and to select from four different types of shields. These new options go along with the interesting level designs and 3D rendered graphics that make this previously unplayable Gradius game one of the best in the series.
The biggest disappointment is the lack of multiplayer support for the Gradius games. While the compilation takes full advantage of PSP's widescreen advantage, it doesn't support the system's WiFi capabilities and completely axes the two-player options. It'll disappoint some Gradius fans that more titles weren't included. Gradius V may have been a stretch, but another tough to find title like Gradius 2 (different from Gradius II) would have been another hidden gem because it only released on the MSX home computer. How many people have that at home?and still working?