Gradius II ★★★★★

As I took the Vic Viper across burning suns and lava-born dragons I began to realize the scope of the adventure unfolding before me. Gradius II is a game of blinking lights in computerized bases and dodging lasers in asteroid belts, a story in which large mechanical enemies are defeated through quick reflexes and sheer force of will.

CLASSIC

Gradius II is a classic. Each enemy and obstacle has been carefully placed by hand to craft a challenging fantasy environment. Your ship’s weapons act as tools, ready to be wielded to solve any problem. Strategy is an absolute necessity, but, when the time comes, only a bold move can assure victory.

It’s the perfect showcase of the reigning design philosophy of the 1980s, when arcades were on the cutting edge and level design was the main tool in the designer’s arsenal. It’s a simple game in which any technological limitations were compensated by creativity and a thoughtful implementation. From raging volcanoes to asteroid belts to the narrow confines of an alien starship, each level in Gradius II has its own personality.

It’s never just a matter of shooting patterns, there’s always some strategic twist. Swatting alien appendages that try to grab our ship, flying at incredible speed through narrow corridors and systematically destroying a maze of treacherous moais are only a few of the situations we’ll face over the course of the game.

What separates the Gradius series from other classic games is that it’s not completely deterministic. Unlike Castlevania or Contra there’s a small degree of uncertainty in the design that forces players to be more brazen. The behaviour of the game remains familiar but it’s never exactly the same.

The reason is the game’s enemies, which do not follow rigid patterns. Like their appearance, which resemble mechanical insects, they combine cold mechanical logic with the inherent chaos of living beings. They give us chase and aim for our ship but they do so in a slightly different manner depending on how we move.

There’s a sequence in which we must go through crashing, indestructible asteroids that is a perfect example of this combination. While they move erratically and the path to follow changes, we must always get through the small space between them. The key to the obstacle is not memorization, but understanding its dynamic.

POWER-UPS

Unlike most games, power-ups in the Gradius series don’t have an immediate effect once collecte. Rather, they fill a selection bar and we can choose how to spend them. We may trade them for ground missiles, an armor-pierce laser, shields or even increase our ship’s speed. This time, we might even select four different configurations each with a different playstyle.

The most interesting power-up in Gradius is little spheres of light called “Options”, that follow the movement of our ship and provide additional firepower. They can be positioned around our ship like a mantle, to protect it from debris or gather them all in a straight line to focus all weapons on the enemy’s weak spot.

It’s a brilliant mechanic. They act as a natural extension of our ship and are as intuitive to use as moving up and down the screen is. They open an immense amount of possibilities, ways to tackle the game’s challenges and cover our weak spots. To me, they are the best power-up in the genre, only rivaled by R-Type‘s Force.

Power-ups are such an integral part of Gradius that we might feel powerless when we lose them. But there’s a very underrated aspect to the series, which is its dynamic difficulty. The more power-ups we have, the more intense the game becomes while a weak ship will see less enemies cluttering the screen.

This means that, if we are doing well, we have an advantage but the game never becomes trivial. Conversely, if we died, the game slows down and helps us learn from the experience without distractions. At their core, shoot’em ups are about learning. We are bound to fail, hundreds of times. The way Gradius accommodates that experience is one of its strengths, not a weakness.

Gradius II is not perfect. There are two spots in which it’s harder to recover than to never make a mistake in the first place. The 2-way missile, while not my prefered choice, is generally considered to be much stronger than the alternatives. Most importantly, by the time you are halfway through the game the two first stages will become too easy.

But its flaws never meddle in our enjoyment. While difficult, the shields and enemy behaviour make for a surprisingly forgiving title, willing to overlook small mistakes. The joys of learning and the adrenaline of shooting the enemy before their bullets encroach all the available space are such powerful thrills that anything else becomes minor.

GRAPHICS

Gradius II is rounded by beautiful pixel graphics. I have the privilege of being able to enjoy it in old fashioned cathode-ray screens, where the darkness of space is contrasted by the powerful lightning of lasers. It’s a colorful game, with lovely sprites and animation.

I’m also fond of its soundtrack. Its rich melodies and energetic synths contribute to that sense of adventure, of going beyond and tackling fantastical challenges. The instrumentalization provides the mechanical feel, fitting for the game’s enemies, and, while it’s a spirited soundtrack, it never becomes distracting or overly intense.

There’s something timeless about Gradius II. It has been released in a wide range of platforms over the years and is now being made available on all console services but remains as great as it was in 1988. It has a simple, innate sense of wonder that is hard to replicate.

It’s all part of a powerful package. The main strength of Gradius II is its elegance, how Machiguchi Hiroyasu and his team brought powerful ideas of flying spaceships to the screen. It’s a classic, in all senses of the word.

GRADIUS II: GOFER NO YABOU (1988)
DESIGN Machiguchi Hiroyasu SOUND & MUSIC
Seiichi Fukami Motoaki Furukawa Kenichi Matsubara Shinji Tasaka
DEVELOPMENT Konami SCORE ★★★★★

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