All Together Then: Gradius Collection
Moai money, Moai problems
Konami's Arcade Anniversary Collection releases today! And, amongst other, lesser games, it includes Gradius and its amazing sequel Gofer: Gradius II (listed as Vulcan Venture, which is wrong and stupid).
So, I thought it a good opportunity for an All Together Then covering the 2006 PSP compilation Gradius Collection, a gorgeous little treasure box of side-scrolling shooter goodness. It's packing the arcade versions of Gradius through Gradius IV, all of which are variously excellent. However, and most excitingly, it also includes the only localised release of PlayStation 1 masterpiece Gradius Gaiden.
An astonishing achievement, Gradius Gaiden ranks as one of the very finest "shmups" I've ever played. It presents the Gradius formula on the kind of steroids that would make even circa-1993 Vince McMahon blush, with every element that defines the series taken up to 11. Choice of loadouts? How about a fully configurable power-up bar, so you can put Option on the first chunk if you so please. Fanservice? There's a whole level made up of damaged, degraded, decomposed spaceship corpses from the previous games, some of them still partially active, firing plaintive shots at your Vic Viper. You want Easter Island Statues? There's a galaxy of Moai heads, including screen-filling ones that laughingly taunt you. The bosses are wild variations on series mainstays with the series stalwart Big Core mothership shows up in a terrifyingly souped-up form at the end of the boss rush stage (on the first time through the game, anyway), as well as many other callbacks. There's a stage that effectively recreates the first area of the original Gradius, only to have a black hole open up and begin vacuuming chunks of the terrain into its singularity, meaning the player has to avoid mountains as they're ripped out of the ground and hurled towards them. It's brilliant and it's crazy and it justifies the price of the whole collection by itself.
The rest is no slouch, mind. 1985's Gradius, while archaic compared to the rest of the set, is still very enjoyable and surprisingly ahead of its time. Its immediate sequel Gofer: Gradius II, however, is an absolute masterpiece. One of the most beautiful sprite-based games I've ever seen, it's such a pure, tightly designed arcade experience. Every other Gradius title is variously excessive or in some way flawed - even Gaiden has that irritating plant boss - but not Gradius II. It's pitch-perfect. The next game - Gradius III - is great but entirely too difficult and Gradius IV is fine but a little bit flat coming off the back of the near-revolutionary Gaiden, but they're both a good time. They just pale in comparison to II and Gaiden, an absolutely marvellous pair that - for my money - represent two of the top five shmups ever made.
The Gradius Collection itself is perfectly serviceable. There are your typical display options as well as a welcome toggle that lets you activate and deactivate the copious slowdown present in Gradius III; try beating it without, though. There's a gallery of excellent music as well as trailers for other titles in the series. Additionally, the unlockables from the earlier PlayStation 2 Gradius III and IV package are still present, so progress through those two games will allow access to new modes such as Stage Select and Boss Rush.
It's also easier in general as save states have been added. Crucially, however, they're not "anytime", simply returning you to the last checkpoint if you reload. Despite this limitation, they definitely make completion of these classics a lot more feasible for newcomers, seeing as one can try the trickier sections over and over again without being kicked to the title screen or losing all their power-ups.
Gradius Collection is essential for series fans - as mentioned, Gradius Gaiden alone makes it worthwhile, but the other games are not to be dismissed either. I believe it's still available on the US PSN, or you could nab a second-hand copy on UMD.