1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1991
I have a confession to make. Back in my teenage days, during my first era as a video game nerd, I never played a Gradius game. Surely I had laid my eyes on Gradius III for the SNES, but the game was too dry and slow to capture my then incipient shmupper self. The first time I would really be exposed to a game in the series would be when I snagged an used copy of Gradius V while wandering through LA's Universal City Walk in April 2005. Damn, it's been more than 5 years already, I'm getting old!
I'm mentioning this because I had this warm feeling upon playing the PC Engine port of Gradius again, the same feeling you get when you return home after being away for a long while. It's that comfortable sensation that brings familiar memories to mind and makes weaving through the game a pleasant, relaxing experience, to the point that I was able to surpass my previous high score in one sitting. Granted, this version isn't nearly as difficult as the original, but it was the first time I felt this way with any of the Gradius games. So I guess it's quite clear that I should be moving on to Gradius II, don't you think?
Gradius on the PC Engine is a fine game. Besides that, it's a very decent conversion of the arcade original. It preserves the overall graphical excellence and boasts above-average audio when compared to the general PC Engine shmup library. You can think of it as a pumped up version of the NES port, with the same simplifications (such as the simplified mirror stage or the shortened cell stage) but holding up pretty well graphically. And true to the love Konami did show to NEC's console, there's an exclusive extra level that comes right after the mirror stage and before the tentacle golems, complete with giant skeletons, floating skulls and bone debris flying everywhere. The rich design in this stage is definitely a step-up from all other levels, and although it deviates a little from the whole concept it fits the game perfectly.
I wrote about this many times, but here goes a recap of the gameplay: you pilot the Vic Viper. One button in the controller is used to shoot and the other to activate power-ups, which are collected from complete waves of small drones or differently colored enemies. Each power-up shifts one position in the lower bar, and the several available upgrades are activated as you see fit. The bar is cycled through speed, missile, double, laser, option and ? (shield). Some of these enhancements can be activated only once (missile) or as long as needed/wanted (speed and ?/shield). Alternatives to the main weapon are the "double" (forward and 45° angled shot) and the "laser". The "option" adds a glowing orb (up to 4) that follows the ship around and mimics everything it does.
Not counting design excellence (for its time), the above paragraph alone underlines the genius behind the popularity of the series. Gameplaywise, the PC Engine version remains faithful to the original down to the extends (first with 30.000, and then for every 80.000 points), with only one glaring limitation that becomes evident as you activate more options: slowdown. Lots of it. When present, slowdown makes the game a lot easier and the tricky sections a lot more manageable. I'm quite sure that if it weren't for the slowdown the game would be a lot more challenging. Flicker is also present in heavier parts, but fortunately it doesn't affect bullet visibility at all.
Dangerous skeletons and flying skulls try to stop Vic Viper in the exclusive extra stage
(courtesy of YouTube user BrYaN5555)
And just when I thought I had learned everything I needed to know about the game, while searching for some decent gameplay footage to add to this post I found this video. It explains in full detail how to activate four hidden bonus areas, which according to the Gradius strategywiki were only available in the MSX port!
My new high score shows an improvement of roughly 66% from the last one. This time I reached loop 3-4: