"So, what did Konami do to ramp up the difficulty? If you answered, “Throw in a few obstacle course sections WHILE botching up your ship’s hit detection ever-so-slightly!” you get full credit. I, on the other hand, received nothing but frustration from the mass number of cheap deaths inflicted on me."
All things considered, I have to look at Konami’s Gradius Galaxies as a fun trip down memory lane. Not only did this GBA addition to the classic shooting series open with a nice, nostalgic look back at the evolution of the series (including forefather Scramble and step-brother Salamander), but many of the game’s actual levels had much in common with ones I remember fondly from those old-school Gradius games.
I soared through caves, hoping to wipe out cannons strategically placed in grottos before their bullets overwhelmed me; I dodged fiery rocks spewed by volcanoes; I rapidly pumped the “fire” button as I drifted between floating platforms covered with the ever-beloved hostile Moai heads spewing colored rings of death; I picked up missiles, options, expanding ring-shaped lasers and other power-ups and I fought plenty of bosses where I had to chip away at shields protecting an inner core. Truly, Gradius Galaxies was able to succeed in bringing me back to the days in which these games seemed like fresh, new experiences on my NES or SNES.
And it didn’t hurt that the game both looked and sounded much better than the classics it is so reminiscent of. While a lot of the minor enemies are tiny and undetailed, a number of the bosses look quite nice and the backgrounds are well-drawn. While playing, I spent a lot of time flying in outer space, but instead of the few tiny points of light constituting stars that many retro shooters relied upon for decoration, I saw asteroids of all shapes and sizes, as well as phenomena such as black holes. And the other settings were beautifully rendered, too, rather they be mundane in nature (such as the ever-present base and alien belly levels) or simply strange (like the seventh level’s acid-induced, ever-shifting blue and green patterns — Vic Viper: Meet Jimi Hendrix!).
While none of the game’s actual music did much to impress me, the sound effects were top-notch, particularly the limited voice work. Maybe I’m just a sucker for insignificant little “bells-and-whistles” like this, but there’s just something intoxicating about a voice either telling me what power-up I just picked up (“FORCEFIELD!”) or giving useful, if overly-obvious tips on how to handle that gigantic spaceship firing lasers in my general direction (“SHOOT THE CORE!”).
As a nostalgic trip, Gradius Galaxies is excellent. As a pure horizontally-scrolling shoot-em-up, I found all eight stages to be fun, even if (at least on the default difficulty) only a handful of foes put up much of a fight.....as long as you have a few power-ups affixed to your ship. However, as a complete experience, Gradius Galaxies has one immense flaw that served to greatly detract from my overall enjoyment.
Since this is the GBA, I was playing on a tiny screen controlling a miniature version of the Vic Viper. So, what did Konami do to ramp up the difficulty? If you answered, “Throw in a few obstacle course sections WHILE botching up your ship’s hit detection ever-so-slightly!” you get full credit. I, on the other hand, received nothing but frustration from the mass number of cheap deaths inflicted on me.
On the first level, none of the enemies could touch me. I rapidly collected power-ups and seemed well on my way to dominating the first few stages. Then, I had to dodge falling rocks. Weaving through tiny gaps between these gigantic hazards proved fatal to the Vic Viper (more than once), but I was still okay, right? Not for long, as next on my plate were a couple of enormous, rotating asteroids with only one tiny path for me to fly through. And, since the asteroids were in motion, that tunnel wasn’t stable, forcing me to adjust my flight....ever....so....slowly....oops, looks like I just lost another life. The sad thing was that I’d only grazed the asteroid with one part of my ship — while other bits of it seemingly were allowed much more contact without penalty.
Cheap and unfair as that seemed to me, it was only one tiny part of the game, though. While the hit detection remained a bit inconsistent throughout, at least the challenges didn’t seem unfair. In fact, I was getting ready to tip my cap to Konami for coming up with a number of innovative challenges, such as the part of the fourth level where I had to fly through waterfalls that pushed my ship downward, threatening to smash it into the ground.
But then, I played the amazingly long final level, a multi-sectioned base, and two particular sections completely dispelled my happiness. Initially, the pace of the scrolling picks up, sending me through narrow corridors and past rapidly-closing gates at breakneck speed. On a tiny portable system, this was definitely a bad idea, as I lost more than my fair share of lives simply because I couldn’t see upcoming obstacles until right on top of them, giving me very little time to react. Unless one has this section memorized completely, I’d guess that for all but the quickest of hand, making it through unscathed would be a near-impossibility.
For the most part, the rest of the base was a bit more standard for the Gradius series, as the pace was slow and the main challenge came from fitting through tiny corridors while facing swarms of foes and their unlimited ammo. For the most part. Right before the final boss, Gradius Galaxies unleashed their last true challenge — an updated version of the gigantic, indestructible robot-thing which would pace back-and-forth, forcing you to dodge under its legs at it moved. Now, that foe comes at you in the guise of an immense wheel, with the only “safe” spots being a quartet of small grooves that only those with the hands of a surgeon could consistently slip into and maintain a safe position. While I never was a huge fan of the robot-thing, this wheel made me wish it had been present. At least the robot never expanded in size halfway through the encounter and I’m pretty sure it also never self-destructed, only to fall right on top of my ship, taking me down in flames, as well.
Like I’ve said, Gradius Galaxies provides a fine trip down memory lane, giving players a nice sample of several series’ highlights. Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain the crisp, efficient gameplay those shooter classics possessed. It’s still a pretty fun game that’s definitely worth the time of retro shooter fans (it did provide me a fair amount of enjoyment and I likely will play it again), but anyone expecting Gradius Galaxies to be a future classic in the genre likely will be disappointed.
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (November 04, 2005)
Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.
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