Gradius V is a modern-day relic, a throwback to the salad days of the NES, and an obvious work of love from Treasure. The problem is, when you start with a game entrenched firmly in the mid 80’s Japanese arcade ethos and try to build a modern representation of it’s genre, you wind up with something that feels very much like a mid 80’s arcade game wrapped up in a neon blue polygon bow. There’s a lot of things in Gradius V that a neophyte shump fan is simply ill-adjusted to deal with or even enjoy.
The central conceit of Gradius V–and it’s central flaw– is it’s power up system, and indeed this powerup system defines Gradius as a whole. This system relies on collecting pods which are used to buy a sequence of power-ups shown as a segmented bar across the bottom edge of your screen. The problem with this system (and indeed with most shumps featuring a power-up system and why they’ve been phased out as of late) is that the game is balanced against a fully-powered Vic Viper. It has to be, otherwise a boss encounter– and there are many boss encounters– will result in all of a moment’s challenge if you come ready to bear with a full compliment of laser drones and missile pods. So once you get hit your survival strategy revolves around a war of attrition between the boss’s weak point and the number of credits you have left. In fact, once hit, the game changes from one of pattern memorization to one of a war of attrition between the boss’s weak points and the number of credits you have in reserve. Chances are, unless you’ve loaded up a wholly unreasonable number of extra lives and are playing on anything above Easy, they won’t be enough.
As a result you wind up with an inherently frustrating game, one based not exactly on skill, but on trial and error and the ability to memorize patterns, on being in the right place at the right time at all times. Most modern shooters eliminates pattern memorization (and thus create a game about skill and guile) simply by eliminating the powerup process completely, or at least allowing a player to keep their powerups after being destroyed. The one hit kill nature of Gradius V allows for very little imagination on the part of the player. There is the pattern, this pattern is paramount, learning the pattern is the only way to live.
I’m not saying Gradius V is a bad game– far from it, it’s a quality shump and Treasure’s pride and craftsmanship are evident in every detail– but it is a very difficult game to fully enjoy, especially if you already own Ikaruga or R-Type final or Mars Matrix, or any number of inherently less frustrating, more sophisticated shumps. The Catch 22 here being that if you don’t already own a shump, getting into the genre via Gradius V is akin to a layman learning about string theory by picking up a college-level physics textbook.
As such it’s a hard game to fully recommend. Yes, it’s a good game, but it’s one that’s really only meant to be appreciated by aficionados of the genre. For it’s part, Treasure makes no apologies for this, outright insulting a player on his poor performance while at the same time teasing for one more playthrough to see the imaginative level designs and uniquely Treasure boss encounters. It’s deserving of a spot in the shooter vet’s wall unit, but just be aware before going in that only the most dedicated of shump elite will ever get the full value inherent in this title.
Luckily, Gradius V is cheap, having not yet succumb to the particular madness of shooter fans that result in newcomers having to pay upwards of $40 just to enjoy Ikaruga. So by default it becomes one of the best easy-to-obtain shooters made in the past 5 years. In any case, the $20 spent will not go to waste, Gradius V is a fine game, albeit a fine game that is deeply flawed. If you have a low threshold for frustration, however there are any number of quality PlayStation 2 action games to be had for the same price, most of which will not lead the player to fits of controller-twisting rage.