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Gradius Galaxies (Game Boy Advance) artwork

Gradius Galaxies (Game Boy Advance) review

"Well, I've made a horrible decision: Galaxies encapsulates nearly everything that makes it tough for me to scribble down a coherent Gradius review nowadays."

Imagine yourself in my situation where, after talking about seven titles in the Gradius franchise and seven spin-off games across ten reviews, in a marathon-like fashion, I've since found it incredibly hard to review another release. While each Gradius title has its own unique touches and bizarre flaws, the overall design and structure have stubbornly remained the same, from the power-up selection to traditional stages that include upside-down volcanoes and moai head islands in space, to the point where it becomes strenuous to explain things without sounding creatively bankrupt. However, in what I can only describe as morbid fascination, I couldn't stay away for long, because I really want to experience every Gradius game firsthand. I had an itch, and hoped Gradius Galaxies would help scratch that urge.

Well, I've made a horrible decision: Galaxies encapsulates nearly everything that makes it tough for me to scribble down a coherent Gradius review nowadays. I mean, I've played the game quite a bit from start to finish, but if you were to ask me to list stages in chronological order, I couldn't help you; these locations, from organic caves with destructible, regenerative walls, to a legion of stars that spit out enemies, as well as a high-speed segment and the aforementioned moai heads, are such a staple of Gradius and appear countless times in other games, that it's all become a blur for me. Seriously, if I were to mention the stages to someone without telling them they're from Galaxies, they could easily assume I was talking about Gradius II or Salamander.

But, despite treading old ground for what felt like the millionth roundabout, I gotta tell you, the first time I tried beating the game, my hands felt like they were glued to my Advance SP. I should've been bored, my brain should have been on autopilot, even when the screen cluttered with bullets from turrets tucked away in corners, even as I squeezed through uncomfortably small spaces while glass ceilings were centimeters away from crushing the Vic Viper, and even when bipedal tanks waddled their way from behind where I couldn't retaliate immediately. I've experienced this all before, yet I was compelled to fight my way to the eighth and final stage, at which point my palms were sweating at the intensity of countering everything being thrown at me while piloting an underpowered ship.

You know that morbid fascination thingy I mentioned earlier? It's because of the odd difficulty shifts between games, thanks to "tiny" modifications, which usually make them distinctly different from one another. Like, Gradius II has some incredibly awful checkpoint placements that ruins any fun in the late stages, and the arcade version of Gradius III is just so dreadfully unplayable with its masochistically hard difficulty curve. Galaxies may repeat a lot of the series' traditions almost to a T, but what makes it worth playing is the fact that it channels the spirit of Gradius 1.

The original Gradius is pretty antiquated when compared to its enhanced sequels, but I personally maintain that it's one of the series' best titles with the help of balanced, challenging gameplay. Gradius 1 is short, but ruthless, your ship is going to be destroyed numerous times, and you'll respawn at a checkpoint with no power-ups and minimal speed. But, the beauty is how you're always given a fighting chance, even in your underpowered form.

Galaxies follows this design wonderfully, especially for the boss fights to whom you're usually forced to battle with basically nothing if you're coming back from a loss. Whether it'd be facing three giant moai heads that sprinkle the field with tiny bubbles, battling a double Core ship that hogs most of the screen and force you to dodge small lasers in extremely tight spots, or playing merry-go-round against a huge eye with rotating tentacles, the game always ensures there's a victory to be had regardless of the Vic Viper's condition. The only time I feel Galaxies gives you a tremendous workout without a beefy ship is a particular frantic segment in the final stage. However, considering this is practically the last real obstacle of the game, I can forgive it for being brutal.

Of course, though, since this is the Gradius franchise we're talking about, there's likely to be one or two odd things off with the product, and in the case of my first complaint... it's actually not Galaxies' fault. In a series that requires the player to make precise movements when dashing through tight areas, around a batch of bullets, or destroying turrets on the ground and ceiling, it has to gel well with the controls. Unfortunately, I don't think the Advance's d-pad, in both the original or SP model, works as good as it should with Gradius' formula. The problem is how the 8-way directional pad is really embedded, seemingly melted, into the hardware, causing for some inane deaths, since there's almost always a chance the controlling becomes jilted when in diagonal movement. It doesn't happen constantly, and it's not game breaking, but when it does occur at random times with a powerful ship, it frustrates to no end.

How do I know it's the hardware's issue and not the game's? When I played Galaxies on a magical device for screenshots, the controls never became a nuisance. Actually, the entire playthrough felt a tad easy, too, which in turn made me question if playing on the portable system, with its small screen, contributed to the game being as hard as it is. But that theory went out the window when I started dying a bunch of times in usual spots... It's a strange problem in that, if you want the absolute Galaxies experience, you're probably in need of a Game Boy Player or, um, other applications. Well, that, and playing the Japanese version of the game, since it was released last and includes additional content.

As for any flaw in the actual title, the only legitimate gripe is about the hit detection being "off" with specific objects, like thick laser beams or certain floor and ceiling tiles. However, if I want to be picky, then the game's soundtrack is also shockingly sub-par, at times sounding like a Casio keyboard being strangled. But despite the d-pad quirk, little oddities, and stages being revisited and remixed for the thousandth time, Galaxies is still a fun entry in the series because of its charming spirit. Also could've been the best Gradius on a handheld, had the PSP compilation never existed.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be on my merry way and occasionally ask life's ultimate question: when's the next Gradius review?


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (July 06, 2014)

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