Shoot-em-ups are one of those genres that I’m okay at. I’m never going to feel confident enough in my skills to play a bullet hell shooter, but I appreciate the design of those games and the skill that goes into them. Thus, a game like Gradius Collection for the PSP is a game that caught my attention.
The title collects 5 Gradius arcade titles, generally going with the arcade versions where available (complete with the arcade BIOS check screens). The collection appears to do a pretty good job of emulating the arcade hardware, including having slowdown where it similarly would have appeared – which I’m not sure is a plus or a minus. Each game also includes the ability to save your game, with your current selection of power-ups, at almost any point from the pause menu, allowing you to pick up from the last passed checkpoint if you have to take a break, or to stick with your power-up selection if you get taken out.
On the one hand, the latter case makes for a good quality of life improvement, but I can’t help but feel that it would be nice if there was a way to skip the save and load part of the process – and just let you restart from that checkpoint with your last saved power-up loadout, possibly losing a life in the process. In a way, that would be defeating the point of emulating the arcade experience, but if you’re including a Save/Load option, then including that form of checkpointing seems reasonable enough.
Each title also includes the option to have an automatic power-up path you can choose from, which will optimize what power-ups you’re using based on what configuration you’ve selected. This lets you focus on evading enemy bullets and taking on targets, and also lets you avoid, for example, the Whammy option included on the power-up path for for Gradius 3.
The Gradius games themselves generally play well, and are well designed, though each of the games have their little quality-of-life issues that cause problems when playing on a portable system. The checkpointing in the boss rush for Gradius 2, for example, works perfectly if you’re playing the game arcade style, as it provides a way to get enough power-ups to get back where you need to be for the boss fights. However, if you’re save-scumming, it can get frustrating, as what you want to do is save after beating each boss so if you have to shut the game down you can pick up right where you left off. Instead, it starts you off back at the beginning of the boss rush. Similarly, Gradius 3 starts with a very claustrophobic level – probably the most claustrophobic first level in the series, which requires some very precise maneuvering, which gets aggravated by some of the slowdown that comes up in that level as well.
This leads to the fundamental issue that you have to keep in mind in this collection. The Gradius games are not what I’d describe as marathon friendly. Blitzing through Gradius, going on to Gradius 2, and then directly into Gradius 3 is a recipe for burnout. With, for example, the SNK and Namco collections, there’s a considerable variety of game types to be found, and even the Mega Man games have enough variety in the level designs to make them feel more conductive for playing back-to-back. The Gradius games, as side-scrolling shoot-em-ups, are just similar enough, that playing them back to back becomes the video game equivalent of eating pepperoni pizza, from the same pizzeria, for a week straight. Yeah, you like pepperoni pizza, and you like the pizza from this pizzeria, but eventually you want some variety – even if you’re staying with pizza you want some extra toppings on it. The Gradius games included in this collection play similarly enough that you don’t get the equivalent of those extra toppings. Just the inclusion of Lifeforce would go a long way toward improving this collection, due to how that title changes up the gameplay with side-scrolling and top-down stages, and with the change in checkpointing. Having that variety would make moving to Gradius 2 or 3 a little better.
Additionally, the collection is rather light on extras. We have a sound test and soundtrack mode for each game, along with the opening cutscenes from the Gradius Deluxe Pack for the Saturn and Playstation, and Gradius III and IV for the Playstation. What we don’t get is concept art, pictures of the arcade cabinets, ad brochures, or manuals for each game. There isn’t even an option to replace the overlay around the screen (when you’re not in fullscreen mode) with something replicating the art around the screen on the arcade cabinets. It feels incredibly bare bones.
As someone who likes the Gradius series, and who remembers Gradius for the NES as the first shooter he ever bought, I want to like this collection – and to be clear there are things to like here. Die-hard Gradius fans will be disappointed by the lack of the kind of extras you really want in a collection like this. Otherwise, it’s a good collection to take a piece at a time, beating one game, playing something else, and then coming back to it later. Just don’t make the same mistake I made and try to marathon through all 5 titles – that’s just a recipe for burnout.