While the Vic Viper might not be a household name on quite the same level as Mario or Master Chief, it still is emblematic of what makes video games great. This spacecraft and its distinctive split-nose design is the unlikely hero of Gradius, possibly the all-time greatest series of shoot-'em-ups. This style of game simply challenges you to survive wave after wave of enemies, by maneuvering to avoid them and their bullets while returning fire. The Gradius series' primary innovation was its customizable power-up system, though the games also featured some distinctive level design and excellent presentation quality. Now five games from the Gradius series--most of which have never been released before in North America--are available on one PSP disc, in the form of Gradius Collection. It's a must-have for any shoot-'em-up fan, but even those who weren't pumping quarters into arcade cabinets during the series' heyday should be able to appreciate the pure action and challenge these games deliver.
Vic Viper could have been the name of a heavy metal rock star. Instead, it's the name of the greatest star fighter since the X-Wing.
The original Gradius game dates back to 1985 and stands as the definitive side-scrolling space shoot-'em-up, in which you, as a lone fighter pilot, are expected to vanquish an entire alien armada without any backup. Fantastic. This game, of course, is part of the package in Gradius Collection, along with Gradius II (1988), Gradius III (1989), Gradius IV (1998), and Gradius Gaiden (1997). That's a lot of Gradius games, though the one that's notably missing is Life Force, the spin-off sequel to Gradius that introduced two-player gameplay and vertical-scrolling stages. 2004's excellent Gradius V is also absent, though maybe it's too much to expect this relatively recent game to be included. Despite these omissions, it's hard to be disappointed by how much quality action is presented in this collection.
It's important to consider these games in their proper context to appreciate them, which is to say, they don't all stand tall and proud on their own merits by today's standards. But some of them do. Predictably, the later games in the series, including Gradius IV and the PlayStation's Gradius Gaiden, feature the best visuals, and they still look quite impressive to this day. Really, the only game in the series that hasn't held up particularly well is the original Gradius. What's amazing is how good Gradius II is. It's nearly 20 years old, but it's superior to the original game by leaps and bounds and offers some of the most finely tuned challenge of any game in the package. The very first level has you maneuvering around huge, fiery planetoids spewing forth fireball-spitting flaming dragons every which way... Seeing all this makes Life Force's absence a lot easier to accept.
Gradius III is the toughest game in the batch, giving you the impression that Konami simply took its shoot-'em-up formula past some sort of logical extreme with that game. As more and more players mastered the fundamentals of this style of gaming, Gradius III gave them a stupefying challenge, and probably contributed to the gradual demise of the genre in the process. It's still got some interesting-looking levels and a slick presentation, but you should expect to have to drop the difficulty and crank up your extra lives to get through this one. Gradius IV is next in the game's lineup, even though it was technically released after Gradius Gaiden. Gradius IV is a pretty game that treads a lot of the same ground as its predecessors, whereas Gradius Gaiden is arguably the best game in the bunch. It lets you choose between four different spacecraft (so you can give the poor Vic Viper a much-needed breather), so it's got the greatest amount of replay value up front, and it still looks and sounds great. The original PlayStation version of Gradius Gaiden also featured a two-player option, though unfortunately, that aspect was cut from this version. Thankfully, Gradius Collection makes it pretty easy to jump between all these different games, especially since you can quit out to the game selection menu at any time during gameplay (although you can't quit to the main menu of the game you're playing, which is a minor issue). Loading times are fairly quick, and there's no more loading once you get into a game.