Gradius V (PlayStation 2) review
"Despite its positive elements, though, it's tough to recommend Gradius V when the mechanics and boss encounters of even decade-old Genesis shooters are substantially better."
Certain things are better off left in the past. Silly trends like acid-washed jeans and terrible games that threaten to ruin their franchises like The Contra Adventure have no business living on as anything more than ugly memories. The Gradius powerup system is another such thing. Putting a bunch of hard earned pickups towards a single enhancement thanks to the slow filling upgrade meter gets boring, and the rewards (like a single laser!) aren't even worth your time. It also makes recovering from death far harder than it should be, as a mammoth effort is required on your part just to get yourself back up to passable condition. This might have been acceptable back when the first one came out, but I found myself wondering why they hadn't gotten rid of that crap by the time Gradius III rolled around in the early 90's.
Well, it's (was) 2004, Gradius V has rolled around... and they still haven't gotten rid of that crap. Nothing has changed. The weapons are still as lame as ever. Just a tailgun and a laser, which you can't even use simultaneously; the screen filling bombs and homing electrical charges featured in even the antiquated Raiden II are sorely missed. The speed system is broken. You'll want to increase your ship's speed so that it isn't unbearably sluggish, yet should you do so then that same level of speed will be way too fast for dodging the more intricately woven waves of bullets. The decade-old Lightening Force let us adjust our speed on the fly, while Treasure's own Ikaruga was simply designed around one speed level; why couldn't they think of something equally manageable for Gradius V?
The game hasn't exactly been made with such annoyances in mind, either. A segment that has you flying backwards, for instance, will be especially bothersome to those without the tailgun, and slipping between the enemies that your forward facing peashooter can't even reach might be nigh-impossible if you've raised your speed too much. Most bosses also fall flat in terms of design, as only a few don't employ the monotonous "destroy the core" antics that never fail to bore. Eventually, you just get sick of being assaulted by uniformly robotic foes that all blast the same stupid blue lasers and that all require you to hit the same stupid weak spot.
Gradius V's backdrops aren't nearly as flawed, at leastthough the game is more of a "greatest hits" package that will surprise only a shooter neophyte. Its shameless unoriginality lets it throw tons of different stages at you, like the rotating corridor filled sixth level. It's a throwback to those spinning stages found in most of the worst shooters to grace the SNES, except actually fun and challenging thanks to an erratically bouncing (and quite lethal) neon-green sludge. There's also the living cavern, a constantly shifting hunk of flesh that conceals enormous worms and lengthy strings of bioweapons, and an impressive asteroid field that's packed with enemy installations, sentries and barriers. The game is impressive in its variety, no doubt, even if it feels kind of pointless when you could experience similar scenarios in less aggravating shmups.
If you're willing to put aside the horrors of its powerup system, though, Gradius V can actually be pretty cool. The third stage, for instance, has the Vic Viper descending into a mysterious emerald city while the screen becomes flooded with erratic bullets and weaving enemies. Before you know it, you'll be embarking on a rather lengthy journey through the cavernous underbelly of said city. Dank corridors filled with miniature battleships, wall-mounted flamethrowers and anti-aircraft guns just itching to turn your ship into scrap metal await you, and the constantly winding path makes the level even more exciting. Even the boss is swell, surprisingly, a humongous mechanical spider that chases you down a cargo shaft while smashing boxes around and spewing lasers in your general direction.
The game's certainly not afraid to litter the screen with bullets, although that's not immediately obvious. The first stage is appropriately benign, a quick jaunt through outer space that's challenging only thanks to the circular battle station lurking at the end that ensnares your ship before trying to pulverize it. Gradius V quickly becomes a difficult and sometimes even rewarding shmup, though, one that isn't afraid to make your long (almost too long, clocking in around eighty minutes) quest a little bit... tough. Consider the massive fortress you battle in the thick of the aforementioned asteroid field: it fills the screen with pulsating bullets and smoldering lasers, as if dodging the dozens upon dozens of enormous rocks floating around wasn't hard enough.
Suffice to say, this isn't a bad game. It's certainly packed with enough bullets, and while the stages aren't terribly original, they're generally executed pretty well. It even brings some new things to the table via its enhanced focused on the multiples -- while it's not the biggest deal in the world, the Vic Viper is now able to control the little firepower doublers you can get to surround it, and it can use them to create a rotating "shield" or an evenly spaced wall of doom. Despite its positive elements, though, it's tough to recommend Gradius V when the mechanics and boss encounters of even decade-old Genesis shooters are substantially better.
Staff review by John L (February 12, 2005)
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