Gradius II


Review by Rob "Dire 51"



Graphics: 9

Sound: 9

Gameplay: 9

Overall: 9

Gradius II was the third in Konami's celebrated line of shooters that started with the original Gradius in 1985 and continues to this day - the latest release in the series as of this writing is the upcoming Gradius V for the PS2 in 2004. At least one game in the series has been released for nearly every major console since the mid-'80s (with the following exceptions - the Sega Master System, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega Dreamcast, N64, GameCube and Xbox). The Life Force/Salamander titles are included in its ranks as well.

Gradius II was supposed to be released here in the U.S. sometime in 1989 but was passed over by Konami of America for reasons still unknown to us. My guess is that Konami of America didn't want to spend the extra cash on the custom chips that gave the game its incredible visuals, and that's why they passed on it (this also seems to be the case with a lot of other games Konami created right around the time that didn't cross the Pacific). Whatever the reason may be, it's a real shame we never got it. If you were expecting an exact port of the arcade version of Gradius II, however, you may be disappointed. Much like Life Force for the NES and Gradius III for the SNES, Gradius II is more or less a remix of the original arcade version. There are new levels and enemies in this version that weren't in the arcade, and some levels and enemies in the arcade version remain exclusive to it. Don't let that deter you from playing this version, though, as this is one of the best Gradius titles ever and in my opinion is one of the best 8-bit games ever created - it's right up there with Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse, Crisis Force, Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti and Bionic Commando.

In what was a first for the Gradius series, players could select their powerup configuration. Most of the weapons seen in Gradius and Life Force returned, as well as the new additions Spread Bomb, Photon Torpedo, and Tailgun. This feature would also be used in most of the later Gradius games - nearly every one released since then has had this option. The only power from the original Gradius that didn't resurface in Gradius II was the original Shield, which was no big loss. Unfortunately, once you pick your armament, you're forced to use it throughout the entire game, so you can't switch it when you continue or anything like that.

The story? The Bacterion Empire is up to their old tricks again, under the command of their new emperor, Gofer, the giant mumbling head. Once again the Vic Viper is called forth into battle, blah, blah, blah, save Gradius from Bacterion... you get the idea. Standard Gradius plot. Of course, this doesn't detract from the game at all, but since when did a plot really affect a shooter anyway, aside from a few isolated cases? Don't get me wrong - I love the whole Gradius series, regardless of lack of an involved plot - but it's the truth.

During the course of the game's nine levels, players were treated to some of the most spectacular visuals ever seen in an NES game, thanks to the custom chip Konami used in the game. From the Supernova stage (stage 1) to Bacterion's Lair (stage 9), there is a constant barrage of enemy fire, solar flares (similar to Life Force's third stage), and my personal favorite stage (which ironically is also the stage I hate the most): a stage full of nearly indestructible floating purple crystals. The bosses deserve special mention: most of them were HUGE! Some former bosses return for another crack at you - the Xaerous Big Core fighter from Gradius, and several bosses from both the arcade and NES versions of Life Force - Golem (that lovable brain thing), Giga (the giant skull which is the fourth level boss) and Zelos (the end boss.) Most of these guys have gotten a little tougher, but if you stick to the same patterns you used the first time around, you shouldn't have too much of a problem. The only exception to this rule is Zelos - his method of attack is completely different. Rather than having a snake guardian like he did at the end of Life Force, he now throws orbs at you, which luckily can be easily destroyed. Some of the other bosses would resurface in Gradius III later on - Crystal Core and the weird-looking ship with rotating shields, Covered Core. Two other bosses completely blew me away when I first saw them: the boss of the Moai stage are three giant green Moai heads, and on the next to last level you fight a giant six-legged spider mech. Bosses of this size were unheard of back in the days of 8-bit glory, and it really makes Gradius II stand out.

Gradius II's control configuration is the same as Life Force (B fires, A activates power-ups), and the power up method hasn't changed either (pick up pods, activate weaponry, etc.). Control wise, it's just as good - the Vic Viper does exactly what you want it to. If you oversteer and smash into a wall or an oncoming enemy, you can't blame it on the controls this time. The Vic Viper itself looks very similar to the way it did in Life Force - very streamlined, almost like an F-16. In another first for Gradius (at least for the home games) you could now have four options with your ship. If you tried to get a fifth, the options would start rotating around your ship (almost like a shield, although they don't protect you from bullets). This would also turn up later in Gradius III as an option formation. The music is very good for the NES - it's up there with some of the best the NES has to offer. Even the boss music from Gradius and Life Force reappeared in this game.

Of course, Konami games are known for their difficulty, and this one's no different. Be warned: if you're not a Gradius fan, Gradius II probably won't change your mind, as it retains all of the (sometimes aggravating) features that the Gradius games are known for. You only get three lives normally, and you are sent back quite a way when you die. Losing all of your ships will return you to the beginning of the level, but this isn't too bad as it allows you to power-up again after you die. Thankfully, you have unlimited continues. Some may find that the difficulty detracts from the replayability of Gradius II, but Gradius fans will feel right at home with it. Let me offer one important tip: always have a shield on and try to have one in reserve. It will help you immensely if you do.

The Konami code is here (30 men when done at the title screen) and there is also a sound test (hold in A and B and press Start at the title screen, just like the Famicom version of Contra, Super C and Castlevania III). Regrettably, even though versions of Gradius II was released no fewer than six times in Japan (once in the arcade, on the Famicom, the MSX, the PC Engine and on both the Saturn and PlayStation Gradius Deluxe Packs) it never made it here to the U.S. Konami of America needs to wise up and port this (and all of the other Gradius games that never made it here) over. If you can get access to this game somehow, by all means, do. It's possibly the best shooter for the NES. You won't regret it.


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Last updated: Sunday, February 08, 2004 12:42 PM