Gradius II
by Polly

Ah, Gradius. I loves me some Gradius, while at the same time hating me some Gradius. We all love us some Gradius, while at the same time hating us some Gradius. It's likely that a lot of us had our first Gradius experience on the NES with either the original Konami Code bearer or the follow-up released a couple years later called Life Force (Salamander in other parts of the world). After that, the series dipped under the radar in the west until the release Gradius III on the SNES in 1991. Even though Life Force had originally been marketed in the West as a sequel of sorts to the original, it still wasn't the actual Gradius sequel many had probably hoped for in the early days.

This was one of my earliest experiences with the infamous "Wait, Japan has a game I don't know about and didn't get to play?" phenomenon. "Where the hell is Gradius II?" I asked nobody in particular. With both Gradius and Life Force seeing the light of day on the NES, why on earth did this game never see a proper Western release? It likely has a lot to do with the fact that the game used a custom mapper to give the in-game graphics a bit of a boost, and Nintendo, for some reason I can't quite remember, rarely allowed the release of games using custom mappers and chips outside of Japan. Some games like Contra and Castlevania III were released here without the special bells and whistles, but a lot of the time these games just never made the trip.

Gradius II: Gofer no Yabou was released in arcades about two years after the original and ported to the Famicom nine months later. The arcade sequel, which the West wouldn't be properly introduced to until 2006's Gradius Collection on PSP, saw the addition of lots of new features that would become mainstays for the series, including selectable weapon sets, vastly improved graphics and sound, and large menacing bosses in interestingly themed stage designs. This game was everything a great sequel should be, and much like Super Contra, it's the game that would most heavily influence the overall direction of the series from the point of its release.

Given Konami's tendency to almost always spruce up their ports, adding new features and stages, or sometimes just making an entirely different game, Gradius II on the Famicom pretty much plays it straight and remains almost 100% faithful to the arcade original. Hell, the arcade was good enough, so why mess with what ain't broken? There's really not much missing or changed here and it stands as one of Konami's most faithful Famicom/NES ports. Unfortunately though, it does seem to crumble a bit under the weight of its gigantic arcade cousin's large cabinet-shaped ass.

As I mentioned, Gradius II uses a special mapper that allows for slightly upgraded graphical effects. True, this game does feature quite a bit more animation and detail than one may be used to seeing in enemies and backgrounds in an NES game (multi-segmented enemies and grotesque pulsating backgrounds, for instance), but it all seems to come with some hefty expenses. The little grey shoebox just can't quite seem to keep up with the action much of the time. Slowdown can be horrendous sometimes, but this is slightly forgivable because it's been intentionally programmed into the arcade originals at certain points. What isn't forgivable is the atrocious amount of flickering, which is the sole reason why the screenshots seem to be lacking sprites most of the time. There is not a point at all in this game when shit isn't flickering constantly. Careful, you crazy epileptics. Flicker is a common trait of NES games, but the amount displayed here is truly excessive. It really does start to hinder the gameplay at times, because bullets can sometimes flicker in and out too, and by the time you notice it'll already be too late. The game looks fantastic with its huge enemies, detailed backgrounds, and incredible amount of animation work, but the toll it's likely to take on one's nerves and eyes may be too much, and that's a damn shame since this really is a good game.

I guess by this point it should surprise nobody that I'm going to call another Konami soundtrack awesome. In my eyes, Konami, Sunsoft, and Tecmo were kings at making the NES sing (bring it on, Mega Man lovers), and having fiddled around with chiptune tracking myself at this point, I can appreciate the effort that went into replicating the arcade's soundtrack even more. It's the type of music you expect from Gradius, really. High-tempo, space adventures of the space adventurer heroic-type tunes that suit the action just fine. Some great memorable melodies here, many of them sure to get stuck in your head as much as they have mine over the years. There is a strange oddity where sound effects disappear for as long as ten seconds or so when starting a new stage or recovering from a lost life, but that just means more awesome tunes for you, yeah?

If you've played Gradius you'll know what you're in for here. Pick your set of weapons at the start, blast through some stages, die a whole fucking lot, and just keep doing it until you're good enough to see it through till the end. This is a task that'll likely seem a lot more manageable than it had been to you before if you've only played the original and III, because Gradius II is probably the most well-balanced and put together game in the numbered series. I'm not saying that you'll cruise through this game in any way, but the experience will feel a lot more consistent as the difficulty doesn't spike after each successive stage, it climbs at a fair and decent pace where the game is only asking just a bit more from you each time you progress.

What keeps the game exciting is that no two stages are the same, another ever-present theme throughout the entire series. While later games seem to have bashed the concept into the ground recycling the same themes, it still feels quite original and fresh here. Each new stage has a new theme and new obstacles or environmental obstacles to overcome such as multiplying space debris, high-speed tunnels, and growing biological masses that threaten to trap and destroy you. All of these hazards get piled onto normal fodder enemies that are constantly swarming your tiny little ship, though the progression never feels too overwhelming. Bosses are deceptively difficult, each only have one or two gimmicks you must learn to dodge and counter. They don't typically have much health and will crumple under five or six seconds of concentrated fire, but the trick is learning how to survive until they expose their core. The bosses do feel a tad out of balance with how difficult the stages themselves can be, but they're still no pushovers...well...maybe that final boss that doesn't even attack...but hey, that's just the series' tradition being born and nurtured here!

Fly through the Space Wieners to "fight" the final boss. 'Sup, Frezno!
Finally, this is one of the only Gradius games where that dreaded "syndrome" doesn't rear its ugly head once you die. You know the one I'm talking about. You still lose your entire arsenal built up to the point of your death and are flung back to a checkpoint, but this game is a little more generous about it. Unlike most games in the series, checkpoints are usually set right before a generous amount of enemies that should drop a quick load of power-ups to help get you started again. There are still a few down-right unfair spots (the game's final checkpoint), but I never felt frustrated at any time while trying to recover from a death, and for a Gradius game, that's something quite spectacular.

Gradius II is an exceptional port that unfortunately can get chewed to bits by its graphical technical flaws. I usually wouldn't be so hard on a game over graphics, but it's a big enough issue to interfere with gameplay, and that's where you cross a line. Impressive as it is, they probably needed to scale this game back a bit and work a little of that sweet Konami magic to make it more Fami-friendly. It's still a fun game and a great NES shooter, but I'm gonna recommend that you instead take the arcade version out for a spin and then maybe have a peek at this version if your curiosity ends up getting the better of you.

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