Review by Sourichiro_Nagi
NES shoot-em-up action at its best.
Gradius II was the third in Konami's celebrated line of shooters that started with the original Gradius in 1985 and continues to this day - the most recent release as of this writing being the spectacular Gradius V for the PS2. At least one game in the series has been released for nearly every major console since the mid-'80s (with the exception of the Sega Master System, Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Sega Dreamcast and N64). The Life Force/Salamander titles are included in its ranks as well.
Gradius II was supposed to be released here in the U.S. sometime in 1989 but was passed over by Konami of America for reasons still unknown to us. My guess is that Konami of America didn't want to spend the extra cash on the custom chips that gave the game it's incredible visuals, and that's why they passed on it. Whatever the reason may be, it's a real shame we never got it. We missed out on one of the best 8-bit games ever created - it's right up there with Castlevania III, Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti and Bionic Commando.
In what was a first for the Gradius series, players could select their powerup configuration. Most of the weapons seen in Gradius and Life Force returned, as well as the new additions Spread Bomb, Photon Torpedo, and Tailgun. This feature would also be used in most of the later Gradius games - nearly every one released since then has had this option. The only power that didn't resurface in Gradius II was the original Shield, which was no big loss. Unfortunately, once you pick your armament, you're forced to use it throughout the entire game, so you can't switch it when you continue or anything like that.
The story? The Bacterion Empire is up to their old tricks again, under the command of their new emperor, Gofer, the giant mumbling head. Once again the Vic Viper is called forth into battle, blah, blah, blah, save Gradius from Bacterion... you get the idea. Standard Gradius plot. Of course, this doesn't detract from the game at all, but since when did a plot really affect a shooter anyway, aside from a few isolated cases? Don't get me wrong - I love the whole Gradius series, regardless of lack of an involved plot - but it's the truth.
During the course of the game's nine levels, players were treated to some of the most spectacular visuals ever seen in an NES game, thanks to the custom chip Konami used in the game. From the Supernova stage (stage 1) to Bacterion's Lair (stage 9), there is a constant barrage of enemy fire, solar flares (similar to Life Force's third stage), and my personal favorite stage (which ironically is also the stage I hate the most): a stage full of very tough to destroy floating purple crystals. The bosses deserve special mention: most of them were HUGE! Some former bosses return for another crack at you - the Xaerous Big Core fighter from Gradius, and several bosses from Life Force - Golem (that lovable brain thing), Giga (the giant skull which is the fourth level boss) and Zelos (the end boss.) Most of these guys have gotten a little tougher, but if you stick to the same patterns you used the first time around, you shouldn't have too much of a problem. The only exception to this rule is Zelos - his method of attack is completely different. Some of the other bosses would show up in Gradius III later on - Crystal Core and the weird-looking ship with rotating shields, Covered Core. Two other bosses completely blew me away when I first saw them: the boss of the Moai stage is three giant green Moai heads, and on the next to last level you fight a giant six-legged spider mech. Bosses of this size were unheard of back in the days of 8-bit glory, and it really makes Gradius II stand out.
The controls are the same as Life Force, and the power up method hasn't changed either (pick up pods, so on, so on). Control wise, it's just as good - the Vic Viper does exactly what you want it to. The Vic Viper itself looks similar to the way it did in Life Force - very streamlined, almost like an F-16. In another first for Gradius (at least for the home games) you could now have four options with your ship. If you tried to get a fifth, the options would start rotating around your ship (almost like a shield, although they don't protect you from bullets). This would also turn up later in Gradius III as an option formation. The music is very good for the NES - it's up there with Castlevania III's music. Even the boss music from Gradius and Life Force reappeared in this game.
Of course, Konami games are known for their difficulty, and this one's no different. You only get three lives normally, and you are sent back a bit of a way when you die. Losing all of your guys will return you to the beginning of the level, but this isn't too bad as it allows you to power-up again after you die. Thankfully, you have unlimited continues.
The Konami code is here (30 men when done at the title screen) and there is also a sound test (hold in A and B and press Start at the title screen, just like Super C and Castlevania III). Regrettably, even though Gradius II was released no fewer than six times in Japan (once in the arcade, on the Famicom, the MSX, the PC Engine and on both the Saturn and PlayStation Gradius Deluxe Packs) it never made it here. Konami of America needs to wise up and port this (and all of the other Gradius games that never made it here) over.
The bottom line? If you can get access to this game somehow, by all means, do. If you are fortunate enough to own a top-loader, just open up your useless copy of Urban Champion or Hogan's Alley and use that 60-pin convertor inside that plays Famicom games. That should save you a lot money and you won't have to get a Famicom to play this. Gradius II is possibly the best shooter for the NES that never had a worldwide release. You won't regret owning this.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
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