The first sequel to Gradius appeared exclusively on MSX computers. It’s called Gradius 2 (or Nemesis 2 in Europe), not to be confused with Gradius II (note the roman numeral), which appeared in arcades in the next year. It’s a completely original game with a lot of cool aspects that don’t appear in any other game in the series.
There’s a slightly heavier emphasis on story here, with a handful of cutscenes. The game takes place in the year 6666, starring pilot James Burton as he sets off to destroy the Bacterian forces let by Dr. Venom, an evil green faced alien. The Vic Viper is also ditched in favor of a new star fighter called the Metalion.
Many of the Gradius mainstays are first introduced here. Although there’s no Moai stage, there is a ruins level, a plant level, a biological level (which actually looks like you’re flying through intestines), and a fire level. There are numerous bosses, though they tend to repeat on a couple of occasions. When you kill one, you’re given the opportunity to fly into the core and enter the interior of the ship for a brief “extra stage”. If you complete it – and you killed the boss quickly enough – you’ll be rewarded with an extra weapon or two. If you get destroyed or were too slow, you get nothing.
A lot of these extra weapons are pretty cool – the Up Laser sends a small beam straight upward, which can be combined with the standard laser. The Down Laser is the same thing, just fired downward. The Reflex Ring is like a boomerang, while the Napalm Missile is like the Spread Bomb in the later games, exploding when it makes contact with an enemy. There’s also a flame weapon called the Fire Blaster, although due to a bug it’s almost useless on anything but popcorn enemies. All of the weapons can be upgraded by selecting them on the power bar twice, resulting in faster missiles or stronger projectiles.
Some enemies also drop additional power-ups with various effects, including Enemy Slow, which briefly slows down time; the Option Ring, which will temporarily cause your Options to rotate around you; the Vector Laser, which shoots out a power wall of energy; and the Rotary Drill, allowing you to dig through certain walls.
There’s so much cool stuff packed into Gradius 2, but the choppy scrolling on the original MSX version really brings things down. Additionally, after a certain point, you need to replay all of the stages again in reverse order before you reach the last level, which seems like a needless way to pad out the game. Despite the choppiness, the background graphics are pretty cool looking, The music, powered by the SCC chip, is also fantastic.
Nemesis ’90 Kai is an enhanced port of Gradius 2, for the X68000, developed by SPS. It’s a pretty faithful conversion, with enhanced graphics roughly on the level of Gradius III. Due to the more responsive controls and smoother scrolling, it’s a much better experience than the original version. There are also two entirely new levels – an asteroid field and a waterfall stage – and four new bosses.
There is also Nemesis ‘95, a fanmade port for the X68000. The scrolling is smooth, and the graphics are improved, but not as much as Nemesis ‘90 Kai.
Gradius 2 received an improved port in the Salamander Portable compilation for the PSP. This includes an enhanced version with smooth scrolling, slightly improved graphics, and a bug fix for the Fire Blaster. It’s not as nice as Nemesis ’90 Kai, but it’s still quite excellent.
Gradius 2 also shows up on the PlayStation and Saturn on some of the MSX Antique Collections that Konami released. However, the MSX had a unique function where you could stick a different cartridge in the second slot for various effects. For instance, Penguin Adventure turns the ship into a penguin, and Maze of Galious lets you keep power-ups after dying. Some of these features are unlockable via a cheat code on the Antique Collections, but there’s a special option to emulate their specific functionalities in the PSP version.
There’s also a beta version of the MSX ROM that has two completely different stages, including an Egyptian level and a crystal lair, complete with a different boss, which is a dinosaur with crystal spines on its back.