For those unfamiliar with this seminal series, lemme just give a quick breakdown: you must pilot the Vic Viper through a variety of side-scrolling level to destroy the evil Bacterion Empire. The power-up system revoles around picking up little orbs that advance your power bar and lets you pick you own weapons, based on how many orbs you've collected. The original Gradius only has one set-up, but Gradius 2 allows you to pick and choose (selecting the type of laser, missile, shield, etc.)
The original Gradius was also released for the NES way back when and it was a fairly decent translation of the arcade title. So you'd expect a monumental leap forward for the 32-bit Playstation compared to the 8-bit NES? Well, not quite. The graphics obviously look nicer, but not too much better than a Genesis or SNES game. But the music is horrible. I understand this was made in 1986 and it's a step up from the NES version... but not a large step at all. It's all very blippy and rather annoying. It's too bad, because the tunes themselves are rather decent. The sound effects are pretty rotten too. The gameplay is pretty much the same, only now you can actually scroll vertically in certain levels.
But as fun as the game is, IT'S OLD. Yes, it's a classic title, but the weapon selection is horribly limited (the useless gun, the even more useless Double gun, and the only decent weapon, the Laser.) And the boss is the same on almost every level (save one of the last ones.) The only real thing setting this apart from the old NES version, which can be had for a measly $5, is the graphics, and they really aren't worth buying it again for.
And then there's the real reason most people would want this CD: Gradius 2. Never released in the United States (not even for the NES, despite the excellent Famicom translation). No doubt many people would be curious, especially Gradius fans that haven't seen this chapter in the series.
The graphics have gotten somewhat better since the original Gradius, with the first level being a trip through a bunch of flaming stars (being chased by rather angry dragons.) You'll also find more interesting levels as whole, ranging from an trip to an H.R. Giger like lair, a field of flying crystalline asteroids, and another Moai stage. The music has also gotten MUCH better, using plenty of percussion to spice up the tunes (which, for the most part are great, save the utterly annoying boss tune.) So, what's the problem, you ask?
The unfair difficulty, that's what. When the Vic Viper is fully power-uped, the game is almost too easy. But if you're not, the game becomes well nigh impossible. All too often, you'll blast through the game, having a grand ol' time, screw up somewhere along the way, and get plopped into a situation where it's impossible to get out without cheating. Don't believe me? One occasion in the last level places you where the ceiling and floor crumbles apart and the debris all runs toward the Vic Viper. Now, if you have the Ripple laser and a few Options, it's not too hard. But if you're armed with your pitiful, two-shot-at-a-time normal weapon, there's no way you can do anything useful. You'll just die. And get tossed back right before this section with no way to power-up. Designing a game that's difficult and requiring many replays to get the patterns down right is one thing...that's acceptable. But putting the player in areas that simply cannot be beaten is not good game design at all. Gradius 2 would've been an awesome game had it not been for this horrible, horrible mistake. This works in the arcade, where you want to kill the player as often as possible to get money. But it doesn't work at home.
This is the primary gripe I have with the Gradius Deluxe Pack... it's like they just shoveled the ROMs of these old arcade games onto a CD, whipped up some emulators, and that was it. The only thing they really seemed to put effort into was the incredible opening (actually better than Gradius Gaiden) and the beautiful piano version of the Navigation tune at the end of Gradius 1. Why couldn't the difficulty of Gradius 2 been changed so that the screen wasn't totally littered with deadly projectiles leading to unavoidable deaths? This would've made the game much more enjoyable. Why is it that the PC Engine versions of Gradius and Gradius 2 have extra levels (and the PC Engine Gradius has much better graphics and sound to boot.)?
On a whole, Gradius fanatics and connoseuirs of classic shooters will probably want to pick this up. Honestly, if you're curious about Gradius 2, I'd actually have to recommend the Famicom version over this one...the sprite limit of the old system keeps the number of projectiles (and the difficulty) down to a much more tolerable level. And my final gripe? They left out Gradius 3... anyone who's played the SNES version knows that it's a great title, just hampered by so much slowdown. Now, how sweet would it have been to play this game on the Playstation sans slowdown? But it's mysteriously AWOL. (ed. note: as many of you already know, Gradius 3 was released for the PlayStation 2 in late 2000 along with Gradius 4 on the compilation disc Gradius III & IV, which was in essence the Gradius Deluxe Pack 2. As of this writing, Gradius III & IV had not even been announced.)
Yes, they're decent games, and they can be a source of much fun (if you can put up with the ridiculous areas in Gradius 2) but they don't have the lasting appeal of today's shooters. There are better blasters on the Playstation worthy of your attention (Gradius Gaiden, for one).
For more info on the Gradius Deluxe Pack, head over to SHMUPS!