Gradius 2
Box Shot
Gradius 2
Platform: Famicom
Publisher: Konami
Designer: Konami
Genre: Shoot-em-up
Players: 2 (Alternating)
Published Date 1989
Reviewed by: Rob Strangman

Gradius II was the third in Konami's celebrated line of space shooters that started with the original Gradius (1986) and continues to this day - the most recent release being Gradius Gaiden for the PlayStation in Japan. The series has been on nearly every major format (with the curious exception of the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive) and includes the Life Force/Salamander titles in its ranks.

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. Personally, I can't see why. Gradius II has to be one of the best 8-bit games that I've ever played, right up there with Castlevania III and Bionic Commando.

Gradius II opens with a beautiful still picture of the Vic Viper soaring through space. Then the Gradius logo is spelled out in what looks like a neon green laser beam. Immediately after the logo solidifies, a slanted Roman numeral "II" appears behind it. From there, it's on to the game. 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 be used in some of the later Gradius games, such as Gradius III (SNES) and Gradius: The Interstellar Assault (Gameboy). The only power that didn't resurface in Gradius II was the original Shield, which was no big loss. Alas, 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. As an added bonus, you can upgrade your laser weapons twice in order to make them faster. And if you select the "Option" command even if you already have four options, they'll rotate around the Vic Viper for a few seconds.

As far as a story is concerned, 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? Don't get me wrong - I love the whole Gradius series - but it's the truth. Oh, well.

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. 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 (and most hated) stage: 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, plus Golem (that lovable brain thing from Life Force), Giga (second 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 - the Crystal Ship and the weird-looking ship with rotating shields. 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. Also worthy of note is the big skull head boss that bobs around and shoots enormous lasers out of its mouth, appearing at the end of level 2 (exclusive to the Famicom version, no other one has it.) Bosses of this size were unheard of back in the days of 8-bit glory, and it really makes Gradius 2 stand out.

Controlling the Vic Viper is a breeze. The controls are the same as Life Force, and the power up method hasn't changed either (pick up pods, so on, so on). 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 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, but the game still gets frustrating (especially considering that the hit detection seems to be a tiny bit off...or this could just be me.)

The Konami code is in effect (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 three times in Japan (once on the Famicom, the PC Engine and on the PlayStation Gradius Deluxe Pack) it never made it here. That's probably the worst thing about this game. It's a cryin' shame. Konami of America needs to wise up and port this (and all of the other Gradius games that aren't coming here) over. If you can get access to this game somehow, by all means, do. It's possibly the best shooter for the NES. You won't regret it.