7 Difficulty levels
9 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
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Developed by Konami / KCET
Published by Konami in 1997
When looking at the main timeline of the Gradius series it’s a bit shocking to notice that there’s a 10 year gap between Gradius III and Gradius IV. Before the latter came out one would imagine the series to be dead after such a long time with only a few console adaptations released for the Gameboy and the Super Nintendo, as well as the nostalgic Gradius Deluxe Pack collections for both the Playstation and the Sega Saturn. However, in an interesting and unexpected twist, by the time the 32-bit video game era reached its peak Konami designed and unleashed Gradius Gaiden exclusively for the Playstation. Building upon the foundation of the series and its spin-offs, the game injected new ideas into the Gradius canon and renewed its epic strength, while definitely paving the way to the series rebirth in the arcades with Gradius IV.
The fact that Gradius Gaiden is considered by many people as the best shmup developed for a video game console is no coincidence at all. The improved visuals are a no-brainer, and old staples like the moai and volcano stages have been elevated to a level that makes them feel truly unique this time around instead of just rehashes of the same old mold. Cheering and provocative voice samples abound from start to finish, helping to create a sense of adventure that greatly enhances the grand scheme of things (voices and speeches also change depending on the difficulty setting). Being console-oriented, the game automatically boasts a much more tame difficulty than its infamous arcade ancestor Gradius III. Add to that the ability to play in co-op and you get the picture for how much fun it might be if you enjoy the idea of experiencing Gradius with a friend.
Another point of attraction in this particular chapter is the choice of four different ships. It’s not possible to select their abilities as in the Weapon Edit mode of Gradius III though, but on the other hand you’re allowed to completely reorder the famous weapon array – that familiar gauge that tracks power-up capsule collecting and controls how you want to upgrade your vessel. Do you want option/multiple to come as your very first upgrade, even before the classic speed-up? Gradius Gaiden has got you covered, my friend!
Lord British takes on two planets
(courtesy of YouTube user Akihabara. ch)
(courtesy of YouTube user Akihabara. ch)
The behavior of each ship follows the classic tradition of the series. Natural upgrade order is speed-up, missile, double, laser, option/multiple and shield. To activate the desired upgrade you need to collect the necessary amount of power-up capsules. Weapon variations appear in the missile, double and laser upgrades, so choosing between the Vic Viper (blue), the Lord British (red), the Jade Knight (green) and the Falchion β (purple) requires playing at least a good couple of levels with each ship. A feature inherited from Parodius and MSX console Gradius iterations is the ability to power up missile, double and laser one second time each. I quite like the beefed up double and its extra rear shot stream of the Vic Viper, for instance.
Upon accepting to wage another war against the Bacterion empire, brave Gradius Gaiden pilots must battle nine levels of increasingly tougher hazards. Starting out in an ice planet, players proceed to a space junkyard full of carcasses of previous Gradius bosses such as several variations of the ever present Big Core and even Salamander’s Tetran. The crystals in the next stage are capable of refracting your lasers, while Moai heads fire laser beams from their eyes and fall to the ground when destroyed in the fourth level. Then you enter a pulsating organic stage before being attacked by all sorts of plants and reaching what’s probably my favorite part of the game: a volcano stretch that completely falls apart as it’s being sucked by a black hole. After that you face a boss rush comprised by completely new captains (not reappearances from previous games). Finally, the emblematic fortress stage wraps the game with a mix of classic Gradius staples such as the high speed scramble, the gun wall, the indestructible mechanical beast and the ridiculously easy final boss.
A lengthy animation with a Star Wars styled introduction panel alternates with some nice demonstrations of the old and new weaponry developed by the scientists from the Gradius planet. That’s just one hint of the amount of cool effects used throughout the game, which range from simple warping to all sorts of zooming with often outstanding use of color. Don't expect to run into those bouts of slowdown so typical of the arcade chapters, in this one it rarely happens if you're playing solo. The enemy arsenal has been overhauled for more diversity and goes way beyond the previous assortments of bullets and blue lasers, which leads to a handful of boss fights that emphasize twitchy dodging over positioning and safespot strategies. Bosses are, in fact, remarkably cool, varied and in my opinion the strongest design asset of Gradius Gaiden.
Contrary to all Gradius games released before, this chapter has a lot more power-up capsules than usual. Even without tinkering with the flexibility of rearranging the weapon array to your liking, which obviously allows for quicker recoveries upon death (a default set-up can be made in the options menu), it’s still possible to have a fully powered ship by the time you reach the first boss. Speaking of which, Konami apparently listened to widespread complaints and gave each boss in the boss rush only one chance to stop the player’s advance. This means that you don’t need to fight the defeated bosses again if you happen to die against any of the later bosses in the queue.
The first FORMIDABLE boss
Just like the grey smart-bomb capsule that appears at every 12th capsule released and the insect-like thief creature that comes to try to steal your options every now and then, progressive rank also returns to spice things up a little in Gradius Gaiden, although with a toned down intensity that never hints at the need to, let’s say, avoid activating all four options or the secondary double/laser upgrades. After spending some time playing with the new ships and using the extra shield types, I still think the best gameplay choices lie with the old resources. The Jade Knight and the Falchion β are fun to play with, but they both have a few characteristics that make using them tricky under certain circumstances (shorter weapon reach, annoying overlapping blockage of the ship’s own firepower).
Amidst all that's new in the game design of this much lauded entry in the series, the final stage is actually the least innovative of them all since it's essentially a collage of very similar bits and pieces of previous chapters. However, it does redeem itself for having (during the section after the high speed boss) the most energetic BGM of the entire soundtrack, a fair collection of tunes that definitely gets better towards the end.
Beating the game unlocks a stage select feature at the start screen, which then tracks all stages you reach while playing the second loop. As expected, the loop is harder but still manageable, and not just a mere act of increasing bullet speed and density. Players have to face new enemies and hazards, meaning that what was once harmless will suddenly become a threat (examples are the snowfalls pushing the ship towards the ground in the first stage and the new deadly nature of the high speed mid-boss thrusters). The first score extend comes with 20.000 points, with further ones granted at every 150.000 points afterwards. And how interesting, if you reach the loop you also get an extra last attempt when you die your last life.
For a long time Gradius Gaiden remained exclusive to the Japanese Playstation, until it got included in the Gradius Collection compilation released worldwide for the PSP in 2006. Functionally the Playstation disc offers everything you expect from a shooter: full button mapping, automatic saving, nine credits that evolve to free play once you've invested a predetermined number of hours in the game and the aforementioned level select feature, among other minor options. I spent much of my time playing with the default upgrade gauge (SMDLO?), but in the end I switched to SOMD?L. Vic Viper was still my ship of choice, with force field as the "?" shield upgrade. My best result is below, reaching stage 2-5.
Next: Gradius IV.