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Gradius Deluxe Pack (Saturn) artwork

Gradius Deluxe Pack (Saturn) review

"If there's one thing I can take away from Gradius Deluxe Pack, it's that there's a right way and a wrong way to make a challenging game."

By the mid-90s, Konami had established themselves as a video game powerhouse company around the world, cranking out hit game after hit game: Castlevanias, Contras, Goemons, Metal Gears, TMNTs, you name it. Then came the rise of affordable next-gen consoles, and instead of being crushed under pressure of developing for newer technology, Konami pressed forward with more hit sequels and new franchises. However, they also took this opportunity to release compilation packs of past titles on the Saturn and PlayStation, giving players the chance to relive the classics, as well as allow newcomers the choice to see what the fuss is all about. Gradius Deluxe Pack is such a release, and contains the arcade versions of Gradius and Gradius II on one compact disc.

Now, obviously, in comparison to its sequels, the first Gradius comes off as a simple game. But is that such a bad thing? Even today, it holds up well as a challenging shoot-em-up, providing players enough action and chaos for their money with its tough play mechanics. Though, for you gamers visiting Gradius for the first time, the game comes off deceptively easy, being thrown into deep space and tasked with blowing away the simple ship formations that pop up. At this point, the only unique thing you'll notice is the power-up system, with a row of power-up names lined up and contained in a bar at the bottom of the screen: Speedup, Missile, Double, Laser, Option, and "?". What makes this interesting is how you can't select any at will when a power-up is grabbed; with each one collected, the highlighted bar will shift to the right, until it eventually lands on one that interests you. Neat, but will it be enough to entertain in this supposedly tame game?

Play a few more minutes in, however, and you will have a different opinion of Gradius' difficulty. What happened? The Bacterion Empire and its ruthless fleet happened. Enter a space cave complete with trees and mountains growing every which way possible, and you'll encounter enemies from the ground, ceiling, and directly ahead. Turrets fire, bipedal robots dash back and forth with bullets, and giant pods dispense formation fleets aiming for your space fighter, the Vic Viper. Later stages will force the ship to shoot open paths in a maze filled with turrets, and then stumble onto a batch of floating islands with moai heads that want nothing but to fire an endless wave of projectiles at you. Get used to the latter, it becomes a series staple.

If this doesn't sound hard yet, that's because you haven't heard the catch: the more power-ups you activate, the more aggressive the enemies become. Ships that would normally fly by without attacking will now fire a few bullets once it gets behind the Vic Viper, and other foes will react more wildly when they appear. This requires a bit of strategy and maneuverability on your part, as you need to destroy specific enemies quickly first while dodging a hail of projectiles... which isn't exactly easy considering the pointy design of your spaceship. And you'll need to handle that power-up system gracefully under fire, because you can accidentally select the wrong add-on if you're too distracted by all the traffic on screen.

You will die a lot, see your poor Vic Viper explode in space countlessly, and get tossed back to the title screen more times than preferred. But as hard as Gradius can get, it is always fair. More so than not, if you lose a ship, it's usually your fault for not reacting quicker, and when you return at a checkpoint with zero upgrades, the game places you in a logical spot; Gradius always gives you a fighting chance if you look for an opening, it's the type of challenging game that inspires you to come back and get farther with as few deaths as possible. That's what makes it a charming game. Even then, if you still feel overwhelmed, the Deluxe Pack was gracious enough to have options for this game, like additional lives, a wider screen, and a difficulty setting called Saturn Easy, which removes the growing aggressiveness of enemies. Think of it as training wheels before going back to the default settings.

Gradius II, the other title on the disc, is much more ambitious in nearly every way. This time, you get a selection of four power-up sets before the start of a game, as well as two shield types. Welcomed variety for those wanting to tackle Gradius II in different ways. The stages themselves are more visually impressive, too, wowing immediately with the very first level, where you must guide the returning Vic Viper through a legion of burning stars with giant, fiery beasts spilling out from them and giving chase. Other unique stages involve having to shift carefully through a mess of icebergs that bump into one another, as well as dashing through some kind of space fortress at alarmingly high speeds. Adding to the already grand nature of Gradius II are a pounding soundtrack and voice work with memorable lines like "YOU SHALL NEVER RETURN ALIVE!", right before piercing through a barbed, tangled area.

The difficulty has more or less stayed the same, but it is understandable that some consider it a more frustrating Gradius experience. This is thanks to one aspect being tampered with: the checkpoint system. While Gradius 1's checkpoints give you some breathing room and a fair chance, some of Gradius II's put you in horrible positions. There are times when you'll reappear in the middle of action, giving you only a second or two to react correctly. Thankfully, there's a continue system this time, but that won't stop the bleeding. It's.... somewhat manageable, but it's lame that, in certain situations, you're forced to switch power-up sets due to these absurd checkpoints, normally because your weak ship can't handle what's happening. Unlike Gradius 1, Gradius II appears to encourage having a beefed-up Vic Viper throughout most of the game, which is unfortunate.

This also makes the final stage an absolute nightmare to complete if you get destroyed once. It has the most unforgiving checkpoints in the entire game, tossing you back in during unbelievably irritating moments of chaos with a slow ship. It's downright masochistic... If there's one thing I can take away from Gradius Deluxe Pack, it's that there's a right way and a wrong way to make a challenging game. Ideally, with all the improvements implemented into Gradius II, it should have been the game to play on this pack. Sadly, the inane checkpoints screwed things up, which means the fair and simple predecessor is only worth your time.


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (July 17, 2011)

Even after reviewing all these Double Dragon games, it's crazy to think there's still a ton of games left to review due to varying interpretations.

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