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|[ Writer ] = Eight Rooks
|[ 05/06/03 ] = Gradius Gaiden
You have to see the intro - it is to die for. A spurious observation? Maybe. But you need reminding that familiarity in this case doesn't breed contempt, but a thrill, a rush, a homecoming. The music, the pyrotechnic neon, the four ships carving their way through wave after wave of enemies and speeding into the dark nebula... Sit and let the credits idle while the backstory, though definitely superfluous, gets read out as the words scroll into the middle distance, Gradius a la George Lucas.
For the two of you at the back who have no idea where we're headed, this is the release in a franchise that began back on the Famicom and, like Bond films, some have a favourite; some hate one or the other; and some love them all. Gradius, in its day, was quite revolutionary; one of the horizontally-scrolling shooters whose influence touched countless other titles. The series introduced the options: little dumb-fire helpers who followed you in a tiny conga-line and mimicked your pattern of shots and it produced the Vic Viper, one of the most widely recognised little silver spacecraft ever created. It also made much headway with its system of hoarding powerups (like collecting tokens), the player either choosing to redeem them as quickly as possible or saving up for something more powerful sooner rather than later.
Gaiden is the PlayStation incarnation, and oddly enough exclusive to the system; there were no ports, and it wasn't an arcade machine to begin with (like the others in the series). Four ships launch into the void this time against a new enemy; an evil force reaching out of the mysterious Dark Nebula - a sort of ubiquitous "we've just about done the regular bad guys to death over the years, haven't we?". The nine levels are the expected gamut of trademark videogame locales (genre staples and Konami eccentricities), and the powerup system though remixed and simplified, remains fundamentally intact. Indeed after the euphoria of the intro wears off and you pick your ship, the opening twenty seconds or so are initially so similar to the previous games as to be seriously unsettling.
And then you realise you're having the time of your life.
It's all there still; the beautifully judged enemy waves with enough pattern memorisation required to draw you in, yet not so much needed as to leave you feeling you're not being given enough time to react. The weapons run an appealing gradient; some require skill and judicious timing to maximise their potential. Others provide enough easily deployed boom-boom to entertain the casual player, yet subtly encourage them to watch enemy fire all the more intently and better to avoid the odd stray bullet that slips through.
Levels are not huge, though this is for the good, in the most part. As ever some are multiple screens high, offering alternative routes and bosses, the rising and falling an evocative dynamic, like a submarine dropping into an ocean trench. They are dense and full of activity, forcing you to move around the screen in all directions, dashing forward through closing gaps or backing away from storms of bullets.
The puzzle dynamic common to so many shooters crops up many times - how best to pass geometric arrangements of lasers flickering crisscross over your path, or at what intervals to dart through patterns of bullets. Not that it would give a hardened fan of Cave's manic shooters much to think about, but Gaiden is tough, all the same. Better, in some ways, given it doesn't require the player go so deeply into "the zone". You're much more aware of the tension, acutely conscious of how narrowly you just escaped slamming into a wall, or how closely you slid by a bullet.
Like the intro, the game proper is eye-candy, too. Disappointing in some respects, it has to be said; not as dynamic as something like Layer Section. There are very few tricks of perspective and things going on in the background to match 3D rivals like G-Darius. At the same time though, it is beautiful; this resemblance to the older games is quite evocative. The effects are more subtle, less dazzling, and everything looks far more whole than some of the 3D shooters' shakier moments. There is a gorgeous feeling of craftsmanship to the artwork, the animation, and the enemies (particularly the bosses). Colours have that 1980s Technicolor sheen to them, with a rainbow palette that makes you think of lasers scything across the screen in Robotron or Defender.
The music, too, deserves a mention. Spot FX do a sterling job (amusingly you have the choice, now, of a male or female announcer) but the score is a deft compromise between the old-school compositions from years gone by, and a slick intricate mix of modern electronica that acknowledges the passage of time.
Nothing is perfect, though. The faults of Gradius, as many see them, still remain. The power-up system is a haphazard, irritating thing at worst; malicious when you choose one too many speed boosts in the heat of battle and rush straight into a solid obstacle. The game is still something of a placid experience at times, next to something like DoDonPachi (with explosions as far as the eye can see and bullets rocketing around so fast they almost seem invisible to the novice). With this in mind, when Gaiden annoys, it really grates - coming up against an enemy you cannot pass can seem as if it's taking forever to learn the way around. You could so easily be unkind to it - it seems, in a harsh light, like something of a relic. You have to be in the mood, and that mood, even for the most passionate fan, is usually a sometime thing.
But when you want to believe it is one of the greatest tribute packages ever conceived - a new installment in a classic series that also acts as a respectful homage to the franchise as a whole. It is cinematic beyond compare, in a way that even modern graphical showcases find it hard to match. You care what happens to that little ship, alone against the tide, and it is so compelling as to ensure you won't stop watching until you reach the end and the credits roll. When you put the controller down, it's with much the same feeling as you'd walk out of the cinema, and you'll be whistling the theme tune for the rest of the day.