Regrettably no longer available for purchase due to Nintendo’s closing of the original Wii Shop Channel’s payment processing, Konami’s ReBirth series consists of several wonderful “modern retro” takes on classic Konami properties, including Castlevania, Contra and Gradius.
It’s the latter we’re concerned with today, as it really is an absolutely fantastic shoot ’em up, and an absolute crying shame that it can no longer be legitimately acquired via normal means.
Still, if you want to know what you missed out on — or perhaps spend some of those Wii Points you’ve been hoarding before the Shop Channel closes down completely — then read on.
Most gamers of a certain age are more than likely familiar with Konami’s venerable Gradius series by now — and if not, you probably at least know about the “Konami Code” it introduced. On the off-chance you’re unfamiliar, however, it’s a series that began all the way back in 1985 as a spiritual successor to Konami’s popular Scramble arcade machine. Much like its predecessor, which was one of the pioneers of games with scrolling levels, the Gradius series has proven to be enormously influential over the years for a number of reasons.
The original Gradius’ chief innovation was how it handled power-ups. Rather than a linear progression of upgrades as seen many of its contemporaries, Gradius adopted a system whereby there was a single collectible item that advanced a bar at the bottom of the screen, with each division of the bar representing a different power-up. At any point, the player could choose to “cash in” the power-ups they had collected and receive the highlighted upgrade; in this way, they could effectively customise their loadout to a certain extent, or at least choose the order in which they received new abilities, ranging from increased speed to more powerful and/or wide-arcing weapons.
A significant part of the Gradius experience, then, is carefully upgrading your ship and taking a great deal of care not to lose a life once you’re in a good position. Losing a life in Gradius is particularly disastrous as, unlike many side-scrolling shoot ’em ups, you don’t respawn where you fell — you have to restart from the last invisible “checkpoint” you reached, only with a ship that has no upgrades whatsoever. This means dying at a really bad time — such as immediately before a boss encounter — can have terrible consequences for your playthrough as a whole, as reaching one of the game’s more challenging setpieces without sufficient firepower or speed upgrades will more than likely mean a Game Over following in short order.
Gradius ReBirth maintains this challenging — some might argue overly brutal — approach to power-up acquisition and loss. The game provides infinite continues — permanently blotting the last digit of your score with a non-zero digit if you choose to use them so everyone can see your shame — but in practical terms, you will more than likely reach a point where it’s simply not possible to get enough upgrades in time to deal with an impending boss encounter following a death or continue. At that point, there’s little option but to start again.
This may sound overly harsh, but recall the fact that the “endgame” for most shoot ’em up players — whether they’re playing a psychedelic bullet hell title or a seemingly more sedate title like Gradius — is to achieve a “one credit clear” (1CC) or even a no-death run. In Gradius you could probably brute-force your way to the end by credit-feeding, but it’s by no means a sure thing; if you want to guarantee your success, it’s time to git gud, don’t die and hold on to those precious power-ups. It’s worth adding that there is also a Score Attack mode for purists; this prevents you from continuing at all, so if you really rate your skills, that’s the mode to plump for — though sadly at the time of writing the online leaderboards are long dead.
Much like Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth, Gradius ReBirth adopts a deliberately retro look to its visuals inspired by Gradius Gaiden, with some absolutely beautiful pixel art. Unlike its Transylvanian counterpart, however, Gradius ReBirth’s graphics play nice with systems set to play in widescreen mode, with deliciously pin-sharp pixels you could cut glass with. The game manages to maintain its sharpness even if passing the Wii’s 480p signal (or the Wii U’s upscaled equivalent) through to a modern television, meaning the game always looks great, regardless of what you’re playing it on.
On the sonic front, Gradius ReBirth again adopts a similar approach to Castlevania by featuring remixes of classic tracks from the series, and making use of an FM synthesis-style soundtrack rather than using more modern digital or live instruments. Even the sound effects are authentically “retro”; rather than sampled explosion sounds, we have peculiar-sounding but no less satisfying synthesised equivalents. The whole thing really does feel like a “lost 16-bit game”.
There’s plenty of variety to the gameplay as you progress. Much like earlier installments in the series, you’ll find yourself fighting for survival in a curious mix of locales, including spacescapes, Scramble-style caverns and oozing organic areas that make it appear that you’re flying inside some gigantic creature. As you replay the game, you’ll come to recognise various pieces of scenery and be able to make use of them as “visual cues” for what to expect from the waves of attacking enemies, and this memorisation aspect is a big part of how you’ll eventually reach victory.
There’s replay value, too. Before starting a new playthrough, you have the option to choose one of several different arrangements of the power-up bar. These affect the specific weapons and upgrades you get at particular points on the bar, and are tuned to provide slightly different amounts of difficulty without affecting the core level layouts and enemy formations. One is authentically close to the classic Gradius loadout, for example, while another that focuses heavily on weapons with a wide spread is indicated as being particularly suitable for beginners.
Gradius is an excellent shoot ’em up, but newbies should beware that this game isn’t messing around, and most certainly is not afraid to kill you off within a matter of seconds. It’s a game in which you will have to improve your skills very quickly if you want to make progress, and that makes it somewhat less accessible than many other shoot ’em ups out there.
Much like its predecessors, though, it’s oh so rewarding when you do finally manage to make it through an especially challenging encounter… and few can deny the appeal of taking the initially weedy Vic Viper and upgrading it into a little plasma-spewing dart of death. Just don’t get cocky, or all that heavy weaponry will be gone before you really got to appreciate it…
More about Gradius ReBirth
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