Review by Phediuk
Just another mediocre shooter.
There are certain games for which one must wonder the usefulness of a review. Gradius II is one such game. Being an average-at-best Japan-only release from 1989, it is highly unlikely that any casual gamer will read this review and decide "Hey, I really want to play that game!" Conversely, if you're a big fan of the other Gradius games (or shooters in general), chances are very good that you've already played Gradius II. If you're not, then the odds are high that you won't be reading this. Gradius II thus falls into an uncanny valley: if you know about it, you've played it, but if you don't know about it...you don't know about it.
Gradius II is in no way exceptional. This a straight-up horizontal scrolling shooter with absolutely no surprises throughout the entire half hour of gameplay it offers. To be fair, almost every aspect of the game is improved from the original Gradius; level design, while totally run-of-the-mill, is considerably more varied than in its predecessor. Sure, you'll still get plenty of stale, boring segments in the empty vacuum of space, but this time around you'll at least get to go through areas straight out of the Big Book of Shooter Cliches: fire level, technological level, "organic" level, etc. Each level now has its own unique boss battle, and so forgettable are they that I cannot specifically remember a single one off the top of my head. Aesthetics have also received an upgrade, but still retain the same Gradius flavor throughout; that is to say, you'll see boring, generic shooter visuals coupled with the same cheery music straight off the techno/rock treadmill as seen in every other Gradius game. And of course, no Gradius game would be complete without the inclusion of the Option bar, which consititutes the biggest gameplay change for this sequel: instead of merely having one variety of bar with which to trek through the game, Gradius II takes non-conformist philosophy to heart by giving you four. Instead of having just the standard laser beam, you can opt for the slightly different ripple laser this time around. O, Option bar, what wonders you bestow upon me.
Now would normally be the time in the review where I would detail just what this enigmatic "Option bar" system entails; however, I must once again bring up the nature of this sort of review and evaluate whether or not it would be worthwhile. Suffice it to say, if you liked the Option system in the other Gradius games, you'll like it here, because it works in exactly the same way. If you're scratching your head in bewilderment as to the nature of this gameplay mechanic, feel free to check out the million other reviews and walkthroughs that likely devote a paragraph or two describing just how it works, making sure to throw in a glowing comment on how it gives choice to the player (a feature not often seen in scrolling shooters), lends a pseudo-RPG atmosphere to the games, and just how gloriously innovative it all is (despite it being featured nearly identically in all 200 Gradius games.)
The main flaw of Gradius II is the same one that's wormed its way into every game in the series. You can spend the entire game giving copious amounts of upgrades to your ship, bringing it from a put-putting tugboat to a mach-speed cruiser, beefing up your initial peashooter weapon to a quadruple laser beam-toting powerhouse, outfitting your ship with shields and missiles...but as soon as a single projectile clips your wing, it's all gone. Just like that. Your ship is thrown back into the fray more crippled than a 110-year-old blind man with a walker; without any speed or weapons upgrades, it is impossible to keep up with the endless deluge of enemies, bullets, and bullet-spewing enemies careening towards your ship. The game gives you three lives, but it's unclear why: as soon as you die once, the title screen is 30 seconds away at best.
I don't think I'm allowed to simply say "if you liked the other games in the series, play this; if not, don't play it" and be done with a review, but it in this case I can't think of much better to say. Konami does the same thing, after all, releasing Gradius after Gradius with minimal differences between each game, always appealing to the same incredibly small segment of the market, and inevitably selling like crap each time. So therefore, if you're a hardcore shooter fan, you've probably already played Gradius II. And if you're not, you're not reading this review to begin with. And even if you somehow defy the laws of physics and don't fall into either of those two categories, the game is mediocre anyway and does not come recommended. There are many better shooters out there; if you're reading this, you probably know some yourself.
Rating: 2.5 - Playable
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