Saturday, September 3, 2011

Space for a Sequel

Gradius was one of the first three video games I ever owned, yet despite the fun hours my father and I spent playing the frantic space shooter, I never so much as watched somebody else play any of the sequels and spinoffs that followed. Part of that was because I never saw any new or used copies of anything in any of the GameStops or Electronics Boutiques of FuncoLands I ever visited; part of it was that I am really terrible at space shooters.

Oh, sure, I love space and spaceships and spaceship weaponry, but I can count on one hand the number of times I've made it--honestly, without cheating--past the third stage of Gradius.

You know; the stage with the Moai heads. Gotta love the Moai heads.

I excel at platformers, I'm pretty decent with first-person shooters (provided I'm playing with a mouse and keyboard), and I was exceptional at RPGs until Final Fantasy V Advance ruined everything...but I have never--not ever--been good at top-down or sidescrolling shooters.

Yet I still play them, and I still love them. (I say "love" with the typical exaggeration most people apply when saying they love inanimate objects.)

When I visited the Wii Shop channel to test my Nintendo Wii's wireless Internet connectivity in this new apartment, I found myself with a few hundred Wii Points kicking around, left over from my purchase of Mega Man 10's downloadable (dis)content some time ago. I debated for a few weeks about what game I should pick up with my newfound loot, but I kept determining that any game I wanted to download was one I'd rather have on a cartridge for the original system.

I finally got the inspiration I needed while listening to random video game music on YouTube to help me through the workday. If you're connecting the dots and coming up with Bonk's Adventure, you need help. No, it was Gradius II that caught my attention. Between the spiffy new music and the sort of Easter egg I recently found in Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance where one of your special attacks mimics the shield powerup from Gradius, I found myself wanting to play a new Gradius game.

I take back what I said in the first paragraph--actually, I did own a Game Boy Gradius spinoff, Nemesis (not to be confused with that other Nemesis). What I wanted was a new Gradius game, one with all the bells and whistles of the SNES era (because that constitutes "new" in my book). I had seen a Nintendo Power magazine preview of Gradius III oh so long ago, and it blew me away that you had options (hah!) and weren't limited to just one progression of powerups.

So, even though I ran the distinct risk of burdening my Backloggery with a game I might never beat, I downloaded Gradius II: Japanese Subtitle for the outrageous price of 900 Units of Imaginary Currency.

I was obliterated in the first 30 seconds, and it was the most fun I'd had all day.

In control of a spaceship that exploded at the slightest proximity to danger, and with no continues and no likelihood of scoring any extra lives anytime soon, I found myself in one of the most intense and absurd gaming experiences I've had in a long time.

Gradius and Nemesis start you off slow and give you time to adjust to the feel of the game; Gradius II tosses you right into a situation that's crazy enough to be the second or even third stage, with vertical scrolling and blazing suns all over the place and the fiery dragons curving around and breathing fireballs at you. I was genuinely giddy thanks to all the fun weapons and creative challenges--and the more outrageously impossible they appeared, the more I loved them.

I relish a good video game challenge, so long as it's fair. I don't mind losing if it's entirely my own fault for being no good at a game, and Gradius II pulls no cheap shots for me to get upset about. If I'm paying too much attention to the endless stream of enemy projectiles to notice the rock pylon right in front of me, I can't whine and whimper when I smash into it and blip out of existence.

I secretly hoped I'd breeze through the entire game in one incredibly lucky sitting, but realistically, I knew I was just practicing. Not that I know anything about surviving space shooters, but there's a fair amount of memorization and careful planning required to get past Stage 3. Most of my time was spent playing around with the special weapons that weren't in the original game, and figuring out the most powerup-heavy route through the first stage. I was especially amused by the Japanese-accented announcer; though there's certainly the potential for the digitized voice to become grating after a while, there's something special about having a video game declare, "PHOTON TORPEDO" or "YOU NEED MORE PRACTICE." (I cracked up when I heard that one.)

My only complaint so far is that the Game Over screen lasts longer than I can typically stay alive while playing a stage, so that unusually fluffy losing jingle (preceded by the ominous digitized laughter that accompanies the loss of your last life) will undoubtedly become the object of my ire when the tedium of replaying the parts I'm already decent at to get to the parts I need help with becomes a serious issue.

In the meantime, I'm having a blast. And not just because I'm getting blown up every five seconds. I'm rediscovering just how fun a game can be when you're not playing it just to win.

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