Breaking the space-time continuum in Gradius V (PS2)

Reputed to be one of Treasure’s best games and one of the most ambitious shmups of all time, Gradius V is the stuff of legend. Expensive and difficult to track down on its native PS2, thanks to the PS3’s online store it is finally within easy reach for PS3 owners. And at a cheap price too! Having sunk my teeth into it at long last, I’m happy to say that in my opinion this game’s glowing reputation is justified.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Gradius V is the way it shakes up the conventions of the traditional 2D shooter genre. When I wrote about Shienryu on PS1 in my most recent shmup review, I concluded that it was competent in all areas but inspired in none. Gradius V is similarly competent, retaining the tried and true gameplay mechanics of the Gradius series, but this fifth entry is also incredibly inspired, adding puzzle elements into a genre that is generally much more taxing on your thumbs than your brain.

For some reason, there is an unwritten rule that means vertical shooters are invariably much more focused on combating waves of enemies (hearkening back to Galaga, maybe?), whereas horizontal shooters tend to take place in designed levels where the environment is hazardous too (think R-Type).

There is an unwritten rule that means vertical shooters like Shienryu are much more focused on combating waves of enemies (hearkening back to Galaga, maybe?), whereas horizontal shooters tend to take place in designed levels in which the environment is hazardous too (think R-Type).

Gradius V’s biggest strength is its boss fights. Treasure games are well known for their numerous boss fights and this game is no different – in fact they probably account for one third to half of the game’s running time. Unlike your average shmup boss however, Gradius V’s bosses are ingeniously designed puzzles. For example, I ran into one boss in the latter half of the game that seemed near-impossible. Surrounded on all sides by asteroids, I was blasting them at full strength struggling to make room for my ship. Then the boss aimed a crapton of bullets directly towards me at high speed. I died, predictably. It took a few tries before I realised the trick: if I stopped shooting the asteroids altogether and took cover behind them they could protect me. Once the bullet storm subsided, I could emerge from behind the rocks to shoot and damage the boss.

gradius v 1

The boss in question. He doesn’t seem so tough now!

The levels are excellent too, don’t get me wrong, but the boss fights are what makes Gradius V unique, prioritising strategic thinking over bullet-dodging reflexes as they do (although the latter is still required!). With the right strategy, some bosses are beatable in mere seconds. Thanks to an extremely useful practice mode that lets you replay any stage you’ve reached in the main game, you can experiment and hone techniques until bosses that seemed near-impossible at first can be toppled with ease.

Aside from Shienryu, which I happened to be playing at the same time, I need to mention the obvious point of comparison for Gradius V: Ikaruga. As with every Treasure game I’ve played, I enjoy Ikaruga, but Gradius is that much more fun and accessible simply for not being a complete mindfuck. Gradius V has its share of mind-bending moments (see my note on time travel below), but the whole experience doesn’t revolve around them like Ikaruga with its challenging colour changing mechanic and complex score system.

I studied screenwriting once upon a time, and Gradius V reminds me of a golden screenwriting rule. It goes something like this: a good screenplay never starts out complex – it begins with a simple, easy to understand premise, and then becomes complicated. (Seriously, when you think about it, it’s true! All the best films do it this way.) The basic mechanics in Gradius V are identical to the rest of the series, there are numerous callbacks to previous games, levels follow the same basic templates… simple. And yet Gradius V becomes far more ambitious and complex than any previous game in the series. Essentially though, being grounded in the simple and easy to understand mechanics of the Gradius series makes it work. Ultimately what you’re left with is a game that is at once instantly engaging while leaving a lasting impression.

Did I mention that Gradius V contains a time travel element?

Did I mention that Gradius V contains time travel? The second stage of the game sees you play as the ship on the bottom. Then later in the game you return, playing as the top ship, while for the bottom ship the game replays a ghost of your actions from the first time round! (Hopefully that makes sense.)

Gradius V is a remarkable game. Really, it is, and I have to stop myself from gushing more about it. If I had one complaint, it’s how time consuming it is to see all this game has to offer. It has a similar system to R-Type Delta in that you gain one extra credit for every hour of playtime you clock up. In fact it’s even more extreme than Delta in that the game demands a whopping 17 hours of playtime before you unlock unlimited credits. For me, playing on the easiest difficulty available, it took over eight hours of play before I earned enough credits that I could make it through to the end credits. Thankfully, the game being so enjoyable and the practice mode (which mercifully counts toward your total playtime) meant I didn’t find clocking up the hours as laborious as in Delta. It is still a grind though, which is occasionally infuriating when you just want to progress.

Oh, and the final boss sucks. Anti-climactic final bosses are tradition for the Gradius series, but personally I don’t get it and think it’s a shame. Gradius’s bizarro twin, Sexy Parodius, had a final non-boss, but it made up for it with a post-game special stage with an intimidating boss fight at the end. Oh well. Really these are small quibbles – in the bigger picture Gradius V could well be my favourite game made by Treasure, and considering I’ve long been a fan of their games that is really saying something.

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5 comments

  1. Red Metal

    The Gradius series is well-known for its lame final bosses, isn’t it? Then again, some people consider the entire last stage in most entries to be the boss fight, and those tend to be very difficult indeed. It doesn’t help that dying even once in these games tends to be a major setback.

    Interestingly, I heard that’s not true of Life Force, which plays very similarly to the Gradius series. Apparently, the final boss of that game is exceedingly difficult.

    • veryverygaming

      I know it’s a kind of staple, but I don’t know… in a game like this where the bosses make up such a large proportion of the game, it just seemed weird to end without one. And the final level wasn’t too difficult either. Anyway it’s just one of those things – I dislike final bosses in most games I play so perhaps it’s not such a bad thing after all 😛 I probably wouldn’t have minded at all if it hadn’t taken me eight hours or whatever it was to reach the end!

      I’ve not played Life Force or Salamander as it was called in Japan, but there is a Salamander compilation on Saturn with both games on it which I’ve been tempted to pick up on more than one occasion…

  2. moresleepneeded

    I have not played this game. The statement about the difference between side-scrolling and 2D shooters is interesting, I suppose it could be because it is easier to determine what could be harmful from a sideways point of view. It is interesting that the developers were able to add changes to each boss in such a simple game. I am interested in the idea of time-travel in the game and am surprised that the game is able to use a past version of the character which mimics the actions taken by the player. I also noticed that the backgrounds in some of the screenshots seem more complex (with structures at different points in the distance) than the sky used as background in similar games. Having to play the game for a certain amount of time seems irritating, it seems to force the player to constantly replay the game and become bored of it to allow them to experience the entirety of the game.
    What is Gradius V: Ikaruga? Is it a sequel? Or an add-on? How does it disorientate the player?

    • veryverygaming

      Yeah I suppose, it just seems to be convention. The time travel element is really cool. If you think about it, most racing games use the same concept with ghosts that let you race against yourself basically. It makes me wish other games would use it in cool ways because there’s a ton of potential there. I did play a puzzle game once that uses ghosts of yourself, I don’t remember what it was called though.

      Ikaruga – it’s not directly related to Gradius V but it’s a vertical shooter made by Treasure a few years earlier. In some ways the games look and feel quite similar but Ikaruga has this unique colour changing mechanic that is incredibly tough to master. Basically you can swap colours at any time, and if you’re white/blue you absorb bullets of that colour, and if you’re black/red you absorb bullets of that colour. It sounds simple but they push this concept to incredible extremes in the game, especially towards the end. It’s a good game, but it’s so hardcore and the difficulty is so high even on the easiest settings you have to be incredibly patient and dedicated. By comparison Gradius V is way more accessible and therefore fun in my opinion. Mere mortals like myself actually stand a chance of surviving more than a few seconds at a time!

  3. Old School Game Blog

    Thanks for writing this. Great read! 🙂 Gradius V is my favorite shoot’em up. Like you said, the only complaint one can launch at it, is that it demands a lot of your time, hehe. It’s worth having a PS2 just for this game in my opinion.

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