It doesn't seem possible, but it's been 20 years since Gradius first showed up on the arcade scene, becoming an instant classic and one of the defining shoot-em-ups (aka, shmups) of all time. Over the years, the Vic Viper has turned up in a plethora of ports, sequels, and side stories, and while some of them have been better than others (Gradius IV has always seemed like the series lowpoint for me, personally), Gradius V may well be the best of them all. This is shmupping in its purest form, a melding of Zen aesthetics and lightning-fast reflexes that becomes poetry in motion when in the hands of a master. In a crowded gaming landscape where genuine challenge is harder to find than a Democrat in middle America, Gradius V is a welcome throwback to the days when a game could hand you your ass on a regular basis, and players were likely to respond with, "Thank you, sir. May I have another?"
If I were forced to pick one reason for this sudden Gradius renaissance, I'd invariably go with the fact that this is the first Gradius game to be developed in conjunction with Treasure. It's become almost something of a fad to champion Treasure over the past few years, but let's be honest-their games are, for the most part (I'm looking at you, Stretch Panic) brilliant. Their shooters, in particular, have this almost sublime quality to them that allows them to compete with far more narratively and technologically advanced games. Treasure's titles are often games in their purest form. There's no involved story, no need for a 12-button controller, and anyone can pick them up and play. This simplicity in design is countered by the fact that a player may be able to pick up the gist of how to play in mere minutes, but mastering the games is another matter entirely. Gradius V is a shining example of this design philosophy in action.
What's most apparent when firing up this newest incarnation of the series is how Gradius has gotten back to its roots. Gradius IV went overboard in terms of weapons, taking what was in essence a perfectly refined shooter and cluttering it up with a lot of unnecessary contraptions that complicated the gameplay. Shmupping is ultimately about the simplistic act of killing everything on the screen while dodging impossible amounts of return fire and environmental objects. To achieve this goal, a game doesn't need ten-thousand weapons; it needs a ship and a few upgrades. Gradius V is a return to form in this regard, offering players a few ships to choose from, a small but effective set of upgrades, and the series staple options (those little satellite guns that circle the main ship). Rather than offer up countless number of ship variants (like R-Type Final) or the ship-flipping puzzle game elements of Ikaruga, Gradius V offers a far more traditional experience. The game's biggest innovation comes in the fact that players now have an unprecedented amount of control over their options. With several different settings (implemented through the R1 button) players can customize their options depending on the situation. Mastering this system is essential to mastering Gradius V.
Long heralded for its difficulty, this iteration of the series doesn't disappoint. However, in a bid to remain accessible to a new generation of gamers (who haven't experienced the masochistic joy of dying and being returned to an earlier checkpoint—minus their options), ships can be set to respawn instantly at the point of death, and can chase down ghost options to make continuing to advance easier than it used to be. Purists will be pleased to know that the old style of Gradius gameplay can be chosen as well, so the classic aggravation factor can still be experienced first-hand.
Like all shmups, the gameplay here revolves around reflexes, pattern memorization, and a whole lot of try-and-die game mechanics. Gradius V will frustrate even the most patient gamers at some point, but there's no denying the exhilaration one feels after finally making it through a particularly daunting stage. Today's games, with their seemingly requisite hand-holding and low difficulty curve (so low, in some instances, that it ought to be called a difficulty slope—and that's being generous), rarely offer up that kind of thrill, which is a big part of why these older games endure.
Another reason is because they still look pretty. While none of the new era of shmups feature full 3D environments (which would almost be blasphemy, to be honest), they do a wonderful job of blending quasi-3D graphics with some gorgeous 2D backdrops. The end result is the best of both worlds—the illusion of 3D is ever-present while the 2D gameplay mechanics are faithfully recreated. The level designs are beautiful—particularly the asteroid level, which features so many rocks on screen at once (without even a hint of slowdown) passing from one side of the screen to other—that it seems all but impossible. Factor in the stunning laser effects, a rotating level, and several other equally impressive stages, and the whole game becomes one of the prettiest shmups around.
Games like Gradius V are niche titles, and if you're reading this review then it's highly likely you already know what this series is about. It's a sad truth that the shmup is something of a dying genre in gaming, but with titles like this one, it's too soon to sound the final death knell for these classic games. Gradius V may not reinvent the wheel that is the space shooter, but it refines it to near perfection. This is a title that no serious gamer should miss.