Ever since I first played it, I've loved the Gradius II arcade game. Much as I hate to disagree with an esteemed colleague of mine (see Kurt Kalata's review of the Gradius Deluxe Pack), I found Gradius II to be one of the most enjoyable chapters in the series. It may be tough in spots, true, but in my opinion, it's far from impossible - even with a lack of power ups in certain areas. I've finished the game numerous times, on varying degrees of difficulty, and I like it more and more each time I play it.
In 1992, Konami graced the PC Engine with a near arcade-perfect port of Gradius II. Konami chose to use the Super CD format when creating the game as well as enhancing the arcade music with RSS Stereo sound, and the end result is nothing short of phenomenal. I was able to get a copy of the game in late 1997, and after comparing it to the port found on the Gradius Deluxe Pack and the ROM that can be played via MAME, it stacks up favorably - even surpassing the arcade game in some respects, believe it or not.
If you've played the arcade version of Gradius II, then for the most part you know what to expect here. Every detail from the arcade game is reproduced perfectly, from the level design to the enemy patterns to the design of the Vic Viper. You still have four power-up configurations and two shields to choose from, and all of the arcade levels are intact. However, if you're used to the arcade game, you may be slightly (and pleasantly) surprised by some of the additions Konami made to the PC Engine game. For example, Konami added a PC Engine exclusive animated opening that showcases the Vic Viper and its capabilities - all set to some great Konami hard rock music. If you'd like to see what this intro looks like, check it out below (animated pic courtesy of SHMUPS!).
Konami also added a new stage that's exclusive to the PC Engine version. The stage is reminiscent of both stage five of the NES version of Life Force (the Temple stage) and stage one of Gradius III. You navigate your way through crumbling ruins that are in the middle of a desert. Sphinxes attack you, columns try to crush the Vic Viper, and you have to fight a boss that originally appeared in Gradius III. The music for this level is also brand new and exclusive to the PC Engine version. Konami was also nice enough to include a sound test which is accessible through the option menu. And if you're good enough to complete the game on easy or normal, don't be surprised if all you get is a nice shot of the Vic Viper and a message saying to try the next highest difficulty level - Konami saved the real ending for only the best players. On hard, Gradius II can certainly be tough.
THere is one minor drawback to this version of Gradius II, and this can be more or less attributed to the limitations of the PC Engine CD-ROM hardware. There is noticeable loading time between levels. This load time was almost completely eliminated in both Gradius Deluxe Packs, and of course is nonexistant in the actual arcade game. However, it is present here, and can be annoying at times - once or twice I had to make sure my Duo was still reading the disc (it was) because it was taking so long to load the next stage.
That minor quibble aside, this is the best port of Gradius II that I've ever played. The extra stage and animated opening are icing on the cake, making an already superb game just that much better. If you have a Duo and are looking for a great shooter, I heartily recommend Gradius II. On a side note, here's an interesting bit of historical trivia for you - had Turbo Technologies Inc. been able to pull it off, this would have been the first (and only) version of Gradius II released for a home console in the U.S. The game had already been announced as an upcoming TurboDuo release by TTI that year - the game magazines at the time even started covering the game in anticipation of its upcoming release. However, the deal between them and Konami fell through for one reason or another (my guess is because Konami was still held fast in the iron grip of Nintendo in 1992), and Gradius II was again left in Japan...
One other thing - you get this funny little hidden message if you try booting up Gradius II in a PC Engine CD-ROM system that doesn't have a Super System Card:
Pretty neat, eh? ^_^