Monday, November 15, 2010

PS2 Look - Gradius V

Everyone knows Gradius and everyone knows Treasure. Put them together and blammo! a Gradius game by Treasure. Five is a dramatic departure for the series and while it's oft-seen as a quality title there's still been many discussion as to how this game holds up to the rest. I try not to look at Gradius V compared to other Gradius games, but how the game compares to other 2D shooters. Still I have my reservations and I'd like to air them out. If you just want a short answer...well I highly recommend checking the game out, no doubt about that.

Criticism is never easy. It used to be something was either awesome or crap and that was the end of it. Nowadays that junk doesn't fly so I try to put forth the effort to explain why things don't work the way I think they should. Gradius V is a good game in practically every respect so I can't just start going off about whatever since it wouldn't make any sense and admittedly I'd lose a bit of self-respect.

The goal of the game is the same as any other Gradius. As the Vic Viper and/or Lord British the player(s) must navigate 7 and 1/3rd stages filled with hostile life-forms, diabolical traps, and fearsome bosses. Fans of the genre will slip comfortably into this game as all of the additions are seamlessly integrated into the core of it all, making even the more complicated aspects like multiple-manipulation seamless and entertaining.

Multiple-manipulation, Option-handling, whatever phrase fits best for you that's the most important element of this Gradius. Power-ups and thus options are very easy to come by which means the stages have every excuse to test the player's control over their ship as well as the options that help to protect it. It's a very fresh approach to the series since for the most part options were pretty limited in how they could be used. All four option-settings in Gradius V offer different configurations for differing play-styles and skill-levels. Freeze is handy as it locks whatever positions the options are in, leading to some great setups that take advantage of particular locations and enemy weak-points. Rotate is an effective choice for novices as the multiples encircle the ship for solid protection. Spacing is a rather unique setup in that it has many viable methods yet they're not always obvious. Finally direction is perhaps the most difficult and most rewarding to master as it allows constant control over where the multiples are aimed.

Despite all of the multiple-setups there is only one path through the game. This means that situations that might favor one setup will have to be trudged through using another one, and there's no getting around that. Furthermore exceptional players might also opt for no multiples at all, which leads to some creative methods of surviving. Throw in a host of difficulty settings, multiple loops that further increase the level of challenge, and a bunch of extra weapons...and this becomes a game that will take awhile to master.

It's rather strange how Gradius V is setup. Each level revolves around a particular gimmick. This is nothing new for the series but in this game the gimmicks are taken to the extreme. Whereas one Gradius game might have asteroids flying about, this Gradius Game will throw around thousands of asteroids, toss in some different-shaped ones for flavor, and have an entire boss-fight revolving around the importance of the asteroids (as they're pretty handy for stopping enemy-bullets). For the most part this game is all about using whatever option setup that works best to get through situations that continue to ramp up the level of intensity. It's a pretty fresh take on the series and though it lacks some key stalwarts (like a level based around Moai-heads) it is as I've said a quality title.

Now then this leaves me with the job of criticism. The way I see it is that Gradius V is simply too long. It's too long for the series, too long for the genre, and just plain overly long. That sort of thing might be a boon for some but we're talking about a 2D shooter. This is a genre where a single mistake decreases the chances of the player beating the game by as much as a third. Sometimes this mistake is one of those truly awful ones where it takes the player entirely out of "the zone", destroys their rhythm, and before-long they've lost whatever momentum they had and crumble to pieces. This works wonderfully in a game that is about thirty minutes in length...not so much when a game clocks in at over an hour.

This is the part where it gets complicated. Making Gradius V reach an acceptable length means that sections of the game have to be cut out entirely. Treasure put a lot of effort into showing off some very creative and memorable sections into the game. What can be taken out of Gradius V so that the game is leaner, more focused, and better but at the same time none of the best moments from the game will suffer for it? To further complicate things one must also understand that the key to good level design is proper pacing and a steady build-up of intensity. Cutting out a chunk from one section could see the player hitting a massive brick-wall, the sort of thing they'd never expect given what they saw earlier. It doesn't help matters that Treasure is especially fond of "slow-burning" the gimmicks in this game. Condensing things may also ruin the pacing as particular sections would be too close to one another, leading to a confusing and disorganized game.

So again we must turn to the magic of youtube and I'll point out whatever fat that can be trimmed.

Stage 1

For the most part it's pretty standard for the series. The thing is though is that the gimmick really doesn't come into player for over a minute in. It's also a rather boring gimmick as it's been done before in other games, though slightly differently. Unfortunately without a sufficient replacement this level is probably best left as it is. Still at least a minute could be shaved off and it would not affect the game in the slightest. On higher difficulties/loops things become more interesting but it's really not enough to consider leaving things as they are.

Stage 2

From the outset one thing is very noticeable: This stage is apparently over ten minutes length. Is that really at all necessary? Especially considering the fact that about a third or so of this stage must be re-done at the end of the game. Sure it's a very cool twist on the standard "destroy the great evil" at the end of the average Gradius but again it's a pretty slow-burn. The first few minutes are very necessary as they begin to show off the situations the Vic Viper is capable of getting into. Stages will move in all different directions and enemies tend to be placed in hard-to-reach areas. It's a good stage as it introduces elements at a good pace and does not waste anything.

The boss-rush takes nearly as long as the entire stage yet it's an even harder section to cut from. I'd probably drop the second mini-boss. It's a rather unnecessary battle. The more drastic measure would be to lose the boss-rush entirely. Gradius games really only need one of them but on the other hand three pretty good fights would be lost. I can only choose to lose the weakest of the three.

Stage 3

Here we have another stage that ignores the straight-forward nature Gradius is known for. While some of the sections look easy on harder settings they're a bit more complicated. Again changing them would probably ruin the difficulty curve in one way or another. In fact I'd go as far to say that there isn't a single thing I'd change about this stage. It's kind of difficult to accept since the stage is around eight minutes but there's hardly an element out of place.

Stage 4

This level is the standard "bio-themed" stage that tends to crop up in Gradius games. One thing that I should have mentioned early is that these stages are based off of the easier difficulties. On normal and above there are all these creatures that crawl out of the various holes in the stage, making for some serious problems. It's a brilliant stage in my opinion as it effectively uses four different gimmicks. There's the uh...whatever those things are with the arms that attach to the walls, the shifting walls and the crawling guys that accompany them, a giant worm, and regenerating walls. Some of this could have been pared down but stage 4 is so important because it represents an up-tick in challenge.

Stage 5

Here we have my favorite part of the game. When it comes to 2D shooters I like to dodge stuff and blow stuff up and there's an overload of both going on here. There's an absolutely amazing showcase of mechanics going on here as the asteroids are constantly shifting in motion depending on the circumstances. This leads to an almost endless supply of close-calls and situations that cause the sort of rush I can only get from a 2D shooter. This all leads to one of the best boss-fights in Treasure's history, making this an absolutely perfect stage.

Stage 6: part 1

With this one I really get the feeling that it's bloated. Nearly the entire stage revolves around this endless supply of dangerous green goop and the player must carve a path while the stage itself makes all sorts of twists and turns. Treasure really outdid themselves with this one and it's such a creative gimmick that the slow-burn process really works here. The slightest changes in how the level is structured lead to some dramatic effects. It's a great level for at least the first-half.

Stage 6: part 2

The second part starts off with a backwards-section which leaves a number of multiple-configurations and the ship itself practically defenseless. Still it's not impossible as the ship can actually slide in-between the space where the ships and walls connect. It's a clever little piece but ultimately it really has no place in the stage and possibly in the game. The jump to the boss-rush could have been made immediately after the last of the green goop and nothing would have changed. On the other hand the third mini-boss undoes my theory a bit because he can attack the Vic Viper from behind, which means the backwards-section early isn't really a waste. Anyway it's a long rush but the end-boss goes quickly if the player is willing to play risky.

Stage 7: part 1

The final stage like all Gradius titles relies a particular set of gimmicks. This is the part where I get really biased because I hate Gradius last stages. First there's the speed section. I'm always terrible at these and for whatever reason there always has to be this sharp-angled turn towards the end. Earlier Gradius games were less-forgiving when it came to speed-powerups so death was guaranteed if the ship wasn't set at the right level.

Stage 7: part 2

Just watching this video makes me ill. I'm pretty sure I'm claustrophobic and this part of the stage is all about tight spaces filled with enemies. As a bonus another last-stage stalwart in the form of moving walls makes an appearance. I think a lot of this doesn't really need to be there as the only purpose it serves is to remind everyone that this is a Gradius game. The mini-boss here is an exceptionally challenging one and it's pretty much game-over if the player never bothered to figure out how to get past the section with the laser-blocking movable orbs.

Stage 7: part 3

Second only to the completely pathetic final boss is the invincible or nearly invincible mid-boss. These guys attempt to crush the Vic Viper with their legs while various smaller enemies do everything to either kill the player outright or distract them so they get killed. Thankfully this version can be destroyed but depending on how quickly it dies the rest of the time until the final door is spent sitting around waiting for something to happen.

Stage 8 or Stage 2: Alternate

Gradius games are known for their loops but whoa a time loop? That's pretty crazy. Honestly it kind of bothers me because as with past videos the player uses the single-stage mode instead of doing a playthrough of the entire game. So the second Vic-Viper doesn't even appear...what the heck? Anyway this is the final portion of the game and while it is really creative the whole time-traveling aspect is probably the most unnecessary edition to the game. However if that gets taken out stage 2 is going to be a complete mess and it'll probably lead to this paradox that destroys the universe and...well I give up.

So despite everything the most I could actually see getting cut from this game is minimal. Treasure put together a really tight game with excellent presentation, flawless mechanics, and some of the best level and boss designs seen in the genre. The only real argument that can be made (its length) would require drastic changes to the entire game. It really isn't worth the trouble and considering the game had to be balanced for over 250 levels of difficulty I can't really argue much more than that. Although in all fairness around 95% of those extra difficulty settings amount to things such as more bullets. In any case Gradius V is a spectacular game.

Game rating - 5 stars out of 5

Believe me when I say I actually tried to put forth an argument that Gradius V wasn't flawless. Considering the issues are negligible and my arguments amounted to little more than nitpicking there's really nothing that stands out as problematic.

My rating - 4 stars out 5

I really like the game but I still hate stage 7 and stage 1 gets really dull after repeat play-throughs. It is great for picking up and challenging certain stages with differing weapon setups however. In the end this game stands next to Gradius Gaiden as the best the series has to offer.

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