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.
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.
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.
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.