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Gradius II: Gofer no Yabou (NES) artwork

Gradius II: Gofer no Yabou (NES) review


"In Gradius II, you are immediately greeted by the choice between four different weapon sets (as opposed to only one in the original) and then you advance to a very attractive opening stage loaded with fiery asteroids. Making this level particularly neat is the way you can scroll up and down while moving to the right. If the particular path you're charting through the asteroids seems too fraught with danger, it's simplicity itself to go over one instead of under it in order to fight a different arrangement of foes."



The Famicom's Gradius II is an interesting title. Not only is it a really good shooter that dramatically improves upon its predecessor, but it also wasn't originally released in America. Around the time this one might have come out in the region, we instead saw Konami's port of Salamander (known here as Life Force). That likely explains why we didn't get Gradius II.

Konami had the interesting habit of somewhat altering games when porting them from the arcade to home systems. Since the Famicom didn't have the same processing ability as the average arcade board, Konami changed a few levels and inserted new elements to make sure the port was worth playing. A lot of the new content in the home conversion of Gradius II actually came straight from Life Force. I can’t be sure, of course, but that’s another factor that may have prevented both games from reaching the United States back in 1988. When deciding which title to localize, Konami gave the nod to the one that alternated between horizontal and vertically scrolling stages, instead of one which was simply a great sequel to a well-known game.

There's a part of me that feels kind of ripped off by that decision. I would have preferred that Konami left gamers with the choice of which title to purchase. After all, the Gradius name is pretty much synonymous with "borrowing from oneself". There's a certain sort of predictable charm to these titles and their spinoffs. If you like Gradius, you'll probably also appreciate Life Force and the Parodius series of parody titles. Stages all tend to start in empty space against weak foes that move in simple patterns, which makes it easy for players to get a few power-ups and enhance their ship a bit. When you get into the meat of each stage, there are numerous elements that have been recycled from one game to the next. Not every element makes an appearance in every single one, but if you play all of Konami's Gradius-related shooters, you'll find tons of volcanos spewing rocks, hordes of Big Core ships where you have to dispose of a few shields before your bullets can reach that core, and many other familiar scenarios. They might be presented in different ways, but they're almost always there in some form.

As I played Gradius II, I wasn’t surprised to find a handful of things that I remember from Life Force. A handful of the bosses, including three found in the fifth level's boss rush, made appearances in that other game. For the Famicom port, a couple of levels were lengthened to allow Konami to "borrow" the third stage's fire prominence area and the cell stage of the first level. Despite having played the Life Force versions of these stages dozens of times, it didn't really feel like I was rehashing old material. Part of that may have been because of where they were placed. This game's fire gauntlet was in the first stage and was a bit simpler to navigate than in Life Force. On the other hand, the cell stage takes place in the final level and, therefore, is a good bit more challenging. Such adjustments might render familiar content original, but at least they offer a different sort of challenge.

What I noticed more than the rehashed elements, though, was the sheer amount of improvement in this game when you compare it to the original Gradius. The first installment in the series was a good stepping stone from the ancient era of shooters, which included the likes of Defender and Konami’s own Scramble, but was pretty no-frills. In Gradius II, you are immediately greeted by the choice between four different weapon sets (as opposed to only one in the original) and then you advance to a very attractive opening stage loaded with fiery asteroids. Making this level particularly neat is the way you can scroll up and down while moving to the right. If the particular path you're charting through the asteroids seems too fraught with danger, it's simplicity itself to go over one instead of under it in order to fight a different arrangement of foes.

The second stage moves you to a spaceship that could have seamlessly fit into Alien, with Giger-esque design and hordes of skittering monstrosities. You'll then progress to a mountainous stage (where the rock-spewing volcanoes reside) and the Moai level, where those statues seem particularly durable. The cell stage of the final level is preceded by a lengthy and often-claustrophobic jaunt through an enemy base. Before that, the fifth level is based around a quintet of boss fights. Usually, I'm not a fan of boss rushes, but when they’re presented as they are here, they're not objectionable because none of the five duplicate encounters with earlier or later adversaries. The difficulty ramps up as you take each one out, too. It's still child's play to destroy Life Force's brain boss, but by the end, when you're taking on a heavily-armored Big Core firing never-ending waves of tough-to-dodge missiles, things become harrowing and you'll quite likely lose a life.

That moment when you lose a life is when things suddenly get tough. As per the norm for Gradius games, death punishes a player so severely that it'd be hard to blame a person for wondering if he is playing in an arcade after all. As you advance through levels, you'll collect a lot of power-up icons that can be used to "purchase" speed improvements, missiles, option ships, shields and so forth. The longer you stay alive, the more powerful you'll be. A fully equipped ship can cover virtually the entire screen with its firepower, while also being agile enough to dodge incoming attacks. If you die, though, you're returned to square one with no fancy weaponry and next to no ability to dodge bullets and the like. Making matters even tougher is a checkpoint system that seems to have been designed to ensure that the rest of your lives will also quickly disappear. It usually seemed that when I died, I'd be taken back to the beginning of the main part of the level. The thing is, the easiest place to get a bunch of power-ups is in the uncluttered opening areas that those stages possess, when you're being besieged by weak and more predictable opposition. A skilled and dedicated player probably could overcome this sort of handicap, but for me the loss of one ship tended to mean the loss of my entire fleet.

Such was life in the shooters of old. You either found yourself utterly devastated upon losing a life, which was frustrating, or you simply moved onto the next ship with little to no ill effects and the game became a boring endurance run that didn’t require much skill to complete. While I did find myself gnashing my teeth occasionally as I braved Gradius II, I'd rather be occasionally frustrated with one of these games than bored with it. The biggest question for me is whether a game has enough good stuff to encourage me to play through those moments when I just want to throw my controller and give up for the night. The latter scenario was uncommon in this case, thanks to seven stages that each offered a variety of challenges and sights to see. Maybe the "Big Core" prototype was used a bit too often in the boss designs (variants appeared a total of four times), and I've never appreciated the inevitable encounter with the damn dancing robot, but it's easy to recognize that this game is one of the better shooters of the eight-bit generation.

Rating: 8/10

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (January 12, 2013)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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