Gradius V – Mike Matei Blog

The Gradius franchise has been dead for about a decade now, but Gradius V certainly wasn’t what killed it.  Released for the Playstation 2 in 2004, Gradius V was a gigantic leap for the franchise over the lackluster 4th installment.  Instead of being developed by Konami, this sequel was outsourced to Treasure (the studio behind shooter classics such as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, and Ikaruga), and a lot of Treasure’s design sensibilities, visual flair and audio flavor is very present in this title.  There was probably no development studio at the time that could have made Gradius V better than what Treasure was able to come up with.

A video version of this review is here:

Gradius started out as a followup to the 1981 arcade shooter Scramble, and was an instrumental game in defining the space shooter genre.  Most games beforehand involved flying through empty space shooting endlessly spawning waves of enemies, but games like Gradius pushed the genre forward into a level-based format with environments to fight through and many large boss battles.  Gradius quickly established its own identity with many unique ideas, such as the Weapon Bar powerup system that still make Gradius stand out from all the rest.  The original Gradius arcade was way ahead of its time, but still feels like a classic Golden Age arcade cabinet.

Gradius changed everything when it hit the scene, and most of its mechanics were so good they were left unchanged throughout the franchise.

I’m sure you’ve fantasized what it would be like to see your favorite game franchise be taken over by another studio to see what their approach would be.  Studio crossovers like this rarely happen, and it seems to be the case that it usually turns out well, like what WayForward was able to do with Contra or the incredible Metroid Prime games made by Retro Studios.  It just seems like a great idea to me to hand off a franchise to a qualified development house and see what a fresh pair of eyes and different creative sensibilities can come up with.

Gradius V feels exactly like a proper entry in the Gradius series, but also feels like a spiritual sequel to Ikaruga, which had come out a couple years prior.  Treasure was very diligent in making sure most of the classic elements of Gradius were accounted for, while also making sure you can tell it’s a Treasure shooter.  And, the most extraordinary part of this process was the stuff they cut out.  Treasure actually had the courage to take an honest look at the Gradius formula and fix the longstanding problems and design flaws that Konami refused to remedy, and what resulted is a Gradius game so much better than the others that you’ll have a difficult time tolerating previous installments ever again.

Be warned, Gradius V is a very difficult game.  Don’t screw around, when you start this game, go into the options and set everything you can to make things as easy as possible.

Don’t just wander into Gradius V thinking you can beat it on Normal, give yourself the best fighting chance you can when you’re starting out.

Before the game starts, you get to configure your ship, Vic Viper.  When you first play Gradius, you are limited to 4 predefined weapon loadouts.  This may seem like a narrow selection, but your reward for beating the game once is unlocking Weapon Edit mode, which grants you complete control over your setup, as well as fun new choices like a Fire Blaster or the classic frontal Shield.  This is a great motivation for getting through the game a single time, because Weapon Edit opens up the game to a multitude of strategic possibilities, and gives Gradius V a tremendous amount of replay value.

Choose carefully, because Gradius V is a wildly different experience based on your loadout.

The defining gimmick of Gradius over other shooters is the Weapon Bar system.  Picking up powerups is like a currency, the more you grab, you can cash them out to purchase upgrades while you’re playing.  Increasing your ship’s speed only costs one powerup, while adding another Option to your formation costs five.  Managing the Weapon Bar, especially in the heat of battle, can be difficult, but it’s essential to master if you want to get anywhere in this game.

Bonus segments like this can get you a lot of powerups quickly, but you have to be quick with the weapon bar to buy all the upgrades you need.

Gradius veterans will know all the classic tricks with the Weapon Bar, and they’re going to serve you well in Gradius V.

Keeping your Weapon Bar cursor hovering over the Force Field can let you quickly reapply the effect as soon as it depletes.

The most important decision to make when choosing a loadout is what type of Option formation you want.  Options are little orbs of energy that follow your ship around and shoot all the same weapons that you do.  Gradius V has a new feature in the series, the ability to activate your Option formation and make them behave in useful ways.  Gradius V’s level design throughout the game is such that each formation type will excel in some areas and be incredibly weak in others.  As far as I can tell after playing this game as much as I have, there’s no one size fits all loadout for the entire game, and you’re always going to run into a situation that you’re not geared for.  Which, I feel is good game design because it makes just about any loadout you could possibly come up with viable.  It can definitely be argued that some loadouts are better than others at very high level play, but I really don’t think anything you can choose is bad.

Playing the game for the first time, I highly recommend using Direction first, which lets you rotate the fire of your Options 360 degrees to fire in any direction you want.  After you’ve gotten an Option from the Weapon Bar, you can hold R1 and move to change the direction of fire.  This gives you a tremendous amount of versatility throughout the game, and makes cleaning up the top, bottom, and rear of the screen much easier than it would be with the other choices.

The versatility of Direction makes it useful in most situations.

Not being able to attack in every direction can make many parts of the game a huge pain, especially for new players.  Direction gives you the flexibility you need to make it through the game, and also looks super cool when you sweep the laser around.  It may seem awkward that you can’t move while aiming your lasers, but you’ll discover quickly that the way Gradius V is designed allows for this without it ever really feeling like a handicap at all.

Awesome sweeping laser effects make this game very visually impressive even for a PS2 title.

Direction can give you a fighting chance against certain bosses where other loadouts would have a tremendously difficult time.

This part of the game can be a huge pain for other loadouts and will result in several deaths, but Direction makes it simple.

Direction coupled with Laser can offer unparalleled screen coverage.

The other formation I recommend for new players is Rotation.  Holding R1 will cause your Options to orbit around your ship, which coupled with laser fire can help keep you safe from destructible objects heading towards you.  Note that bullets and lasers will not be destroyed, so you still have to be diligent in dodging enemy fire.  Luckily though, there’s thousands and thousands of destructible objects threatening you through the course of this game that Rotation will protect you from.  You can turn your ship into an orb of destruction that you can use to carve paths through difficult segments unscathed.

There are many parts of the game where Rotation does a great job keeping you safe.

The problem of Rotation is its offensive ability.  Options spinning around firing lasers aren’t focusing in on a particular target, so your damage output will be a lot lower.  Damage is really important for boss fights, so while Rotation will make levels a lot easier, boss fights will be much more of a struggle.  That being said, you can still let go of the R1 button and use the default “snake” Option behavior to try to stack your fire into one solid stream.

Rotation lacks a lot of versatility and offensive power, but its ability to defend your ship is unmatched.

This is one such situation where Rotation isn’t going to offer you what you need to hit the boss, but still does a great job defending you.

Freeze lets you lock the current shape of your Option formation and move around with it stuck that way.  This is probably the one that advanced players are going to eventually be using all the time, because with enough creativity, it can do anything.  Nothing in this game can fire through obstacles, but you can come close by freezing your Options far in front of you and damage enemies from the inside.

Freeze can definitely be adapted to fit certain situations like a glove.

With the right formation, Freeze formation can allow you to attack things behind you.

Freeze is probably the best I think, along with Direction.  Direction does a lot of stuff that it can’t, and even though you can use Freeze for rear attacks, it’s far weaker at the job than Direction.

Freeze and the next one I’ll go over, Spacing, have the wonderful ability to easily stack all your weapon streams together.  This can multiply your damage up to 5 times, and is one key strategy to using them.  You can stack with the other formation choices, but you will break that stack if you try to move.

Focusing your Options into a line to stack your damage into one stream is essential for dealing lots of damage.

The fourth choice for Option array is Spacing, which I really can’t recommend at all except for new players.  Basically, your options will fly on top and on bottom of your ship in a fixed position, which you can close or open with the R1 button.  Pressing R1 will open the formation, letting go and pressing it again will close the formation.  It’s the choice that doesn’t really offer much  for expert players.  There seems to be a minority of situations where it actually outperforms the others, and even in those circumstances, you’d be able to get through just fine anyways.  Spacing just doesn’t help enough with the difficult parts of the game to justify using it.  The one saving grace is you can close the formation all the way to focus your fire, but Freeze can do the same thing and has far better benefits beyond that.

Closing Spacing all the way allows for focused fire, which deals lots of damage.

Spacing can be setup in such a way where you can get the exact coverage you need.

The one thing Spacing does that the other 3 selections can’t is easily spreading your array over areas the ship cannot fly.

You’re very likely not going to get through this game on the first try, so you’re going to want to play around with your loadout until you find one you’re comfortable with.

Your default shot is the machine gun, which is much more viable in this game than other Gradius games.  Typically in Gradius, your default shot is a wimpy pea shooter that needs to be upgraded as quick as you can before you’re overwhelmed, but the default shot in this game can actually do great damage.  You can only have so many shots onscreen at once with the machine gun, so flying closer to an enemy will increase your damage output.

The closer you are to an enemy, the faster your shots will fire.

You can also upgrade your shots to Double, which fires differently based on your loadout.  They will fire a default shot in front, and another shot in a different direction.  This can help you clear out stuff in the pesky top, bottom and rear part of the screen, but you sacrifice half your damage in each direction, because your shots are split.  Depending on your playstyle, you might find Double to be great, but I don’t personally get much out of it.

Double options such as Free Way can help compensate for weaknesses in your loadout by giving you more versatility at the expense of damage.

Most likely, the weapon type you’re going to want is Laser, which is an umbrella term to refer to Laser, E. Laser, Fire Blaster, and Ripple Laser.  These are the most powerful shots you can get, and are the defining portion of your loadout.

Fire Blaster has high damage, but very short range.  It’s very difficult to use, but something advanced players will get a lot of mileage out of with practice.

Fire Blaster is not easy to use, but works great if you master it.

E. Laser lets you charge your shots for a very long time to dish out gigantic energy blasts.  It’s embarrassingly bad against large formations of weak enemies or in situations where you don’t have time to charge it, but when it’s time to take down something large, you can make hilariously short work of them, including bosses.  Unfortunately, tapping the button to fire small shots with it are even worse than the default machine gun.

E. Laser makes short work of large enemies quickly.

E. Laser can cause a lot of trouble with many parts of the game and large enemy formations, but the tradeoff is bosses can be obliterated quickly.

Ripple Laser is a safe bet, although I don’t consider it to be tremendously powerful.  It’ll make short work of small swarms of enemies but it’s dismal at attacking armored targets.  It’s really fun to use though.

Ripple laser covers more of the screen than the other choices.

There’s also several Missile types to choose from, and I like Spread Bomb the most.  Missiles are inexpensive and have no downsides, so always make sure you have them purchased.  One benefit of Missiles is they fire independently of your laser, so you can still attack in situations like when your E. Laser is charging.

Spread Bomb is great for extremely tight spaces.

One thing Treasure did to fix the Gradius franchise was allow the player to spawn in place when they die.  Other Gradius games will stop the game and restart at a checkpoint when the player dies, but in Gradius V, another ship flies into the screen and the action keeps going.  This is such a massive improvement to the series and makes the game more fun and far less frustrating.  The game isn’t easier because of it, because Gradius V goes out of its way to be challenging anyways, and I prefer it so much over the old system.  The game flows a lot better without constant interruptions and restarts.  However, If you prefer the old style of doing things, you can just turn on Revival Start in the options menu, but I really doubt you’re going to want to.

If you don’t like Gradius games, this might be the reason why, and Gradius V might be the reason you should try it again.

I fail to see how this is more exciting.

Gradius V takes a lot of practice to get through.  When you start, you’ll only have 3 credits to play with, and with each hour of play, you’ll get another one.  After 17 hours, you’ll unlock Free Play, which is unlimited continues.  Note that this is game time, so you can’t cheese it by pausing the game and leaving it on overnight.

The good news is, you can practice any segment of the game you’ve reached in the main game as many times as you want, and try out different equipment loadouts to see which one you like for specific sections.

Thank you Treasure, for putting in a feature every shooter game should have.

There’s a multitude of sections you can’t react to in the moment, so there’s some memorization involved.

There’s a lot of closing doors in this game, and you’ll get stuck outside and forced to die if you don’t get through in time.

Keep an eye on the environment, because some walls will close that won’t open again.

Lots of hazards will pop out of the sides of the screen, and you’ll need to memorize where a lot of these are as well.

Just like life, the Game Over Worm appears where you least expect him.

Dying pops your Options out into the field, which you have to collect again.  You’ll be invincible for a short while, so it’s usually doable.  However, some fast moving sections will scroll your lost Options off the screen faster than you can grab them, which will put you in a very difficult situation.

Dying too much and losing all your powerups can result in you being completely overwhelmed, and it’s very difficult to build back up again.

One way to help you finish the game is to use the Konami code.  In this game, you pause and input Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, L1, R1, then resume the game.  You’ll get fully powered up, and your shield will be refreshed (Use L2, R2 if you want Double instead of Laser).  Every level you don’t use the code, you’ll build up another use of the code, after which it won’t work anymore.  It’s a good idea to start using the code on your last credit to help you complete the game.

The game provides an incredible amount of level variety, from both a graphical and gameplay perspective.  Gradius V is a relatively short game, but the 8 stages make this seem like a marathon, and you’ll be completely drained after even one play session.

The chemical plant stage is one of the hardest, as the stage will constantly fill with green globs faster than you can shoot them.

What would a Gradius game be without an absurdly hard speed maze?

One surprising thing about this game is the sheer number of bosses.  I really feel like this development studio pushed themselves to cram as much content into the experience as they possibly could (almost as if they knew it would be the last Gradius game).  There are two Boss Rush segments in this game, and it’ll keep throwing boss after boss at you even after you’re sure the one you just killed had to be the last.

Some parts of this game are truly brain-bending, in typical Treasure fashion.

The asteroid boss seems impossible until you learn to use the rocks as cover, which is still difficult even if you know to do it.

Sometimes when you’re in a bad spot, the only way out is to try to end the battle as quick as you can.

Bosses will time out and leave if you spend too much time fighting them.

After you beat the game (which has a really cool story twist at the end which I don’t want to spoil), the game will begin again, only way harder.  The game actually can be looped 256 times, and it gets more insane with each loop.

The first boss becomes way more difficult and has two heads after the game loops.

Higher difficulties introduce surprises such as the gravity distortion field on this boss.

Higher difficulties and loops cause most enemies to fire revenge shots upon death, which makes things extremely vicious.

Treasure omitted the Moai heads, which had been in every Gradius installment prior.  I’m okay with that, because Gradius V has more of a serious tone.

Gradius V is a tough game to give a definitive verdict on.  The fact is, a lot of people are not going to be as stoked on it as I am.  Most people don’t like hardcore shooters like this, and Gradius V is about as hardcore as it gets.  The target audience is somewhat narrow despite its incredible level of quality.  The game has a great 2 player cooperative mode, but the game’s high difficulty will make it a bit tougher to find someone who will want to play with you.  Definitely wait until you’ve unlocked Free Play mode to play with a friend.

I personally can’t criticize Gradius V in any way, except for some minor nitpicks like unskippable cutscenes in the middle of the game, and a couple of boring, slow segments here and there.  It’s the culmination of everything the Gradius series has been trying to accomplish since it first hit arcades in 1985.  14 years later, I don’t think any shooter has come out since that has been able to top it.  This game is an absolute triumph.  If you can handle the high difficulty, this game is an untouchable masterpiece.  You could devote years of your life attempting to master it.

There was a Wiiware Gradius game that came out later, but this was the very last of the mainline Gradius games.  It’s heartbreaking that we may never get a Gradius VI, but the series ending with what is honestly one of the greatest games ever made is more than we ever could have asked for.

What Treasure did with Gradius is what I want to see more from in gaming.  Too many sequels doggedly hang onto franchise traditions, and sometimes what sequels really need to do is get rid of things that don’t work rather than always building on what is already established.  We saw this in Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which got rid of a lot of Zelda’s less stellar traditions in favor of just plain better design.  We see the opposite of this in so many other series that refuse to cut and rework core parts of gameplay and have become stagnant or were never fun in the first place.  For that, I think Treasure deserves some serious recognition for turning Gradius from a fun but horribly flawed series into a perfect shooter experience.

If you have a PS3, download this from the store and give it a shot.  You need to experience the laser-blasting glory and grandeur that is Gradius V.  If you only play one Gradius game, make it this one.

4 thoughts on “Gradius V – Mike Matei Blog”

  1. As a hardcore Gradius fan, V is the pinnacle of the series even if III was my favorite. Nice to see some love given to this franchise considering the last thing Konami did with the series was make a slot machine based on the series.

  2. I freaking love this game. When it came out there was a global contest with the leader boards (I really love when games do this), and I managed to place. They sent me a T-Shirt and a Directors Cut version of the Gradius Breakdown DVD. It was neat, I still have them ;).

    Awesome review, Mike!

  3. Thanks for this huge article! It took me a couple days of glancing at it during work to read the whole thing, but I feel like I know so much about the experience of playing this game now. Watching some of these videos was nail-biting. The video where you demonstrate the Fire Blaster showed some serious patience and skill. Something about those slow-moving blue spirals and tight spaces really had me on edge the entire time.

    I wish I had not overlooked so many wonderful games like this purely because of their aesthetic when they were released. The simple 3D rendered backgrounds and objects aren’t my favorite (another example being Duck Tales: Remastered), but it seems to really work for this game and the type of effects that it uses.

    I’m seriously going to give this is a try. My last SHMUP was Sine Mora, which while fun to play, was something I loved mainly for the style, story, and atmosphere. This is kind of the exact opposite but in a good way!

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