Sunday, October 23, 2011

Coming Off a Konami Kick

If you've been following the blog for the past month or two, you know I've been writing excessively about Konami games. Well, yesterday marked the finale of our two weeks of Comic-Con buzz, so it's only fitting that I take today to wrap up my two months of playing almost nothing but Castlevania and Gradius.

If you're just jumping on board and have no idea what either of these games is, here's a quick overview: In Castlevania, you fly around in a spaceship, shooting up hordes of demons and undead on a quest to blow up Dracula. In Gradius, you run around a castle, knocking spaceships out of the sky with your whip.

Or something like that.

I'd previously had some exposure to these games--I grew up with the original Gradius for the NES, I'd played through all of Castlevania (also NES) and I'd had a fair amount of exposure to Castlevania II (NES) and Super Castlevania IV (SNES)--but I was completely out of touch with the last two decades of sequels and spinoffs.

I already owned a few Castlevania games that I was curious about but had never gotten around to trying, and I vaguely remembered playing through Nemesis, a Gradius mashup along the same lines as the first few Mega Man Game Boy games.

Once I started on Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance and found inspiration to get back into Gradius, it looked like nothing could stop the momentum of my Konami kick.

I was excited to get caught up on 20 years of popular gaming history; many more games were at my fingertips thanks to an gift certificate and the Wii Virtual Console; and most importantly, these games were just plain fun. Especially after slogging through a series of secret-filled RPGs requiring 40-80 hours of commitment, it was like a vacation to sit down with a game that'd take either 2-3 weeks or just a single evening to complete.

In the last two months, I've made excellent progress through my backlog by finishing off two new Castlevania games and six (!) different Gradius sequels and spinoffs. Let me tell you a little bit about each one:

Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance (GBA)
I appreciated the potential of the original Castlevania with its challenging gameplay and fine assortment of weapons, but the sluggish hero and the extreme penalty for failure (losing all your powerups) ruined the fun for me. HoD won me over by sanding off the rough edges of its predecessor's gameplay while still retaining the distinctive game mechanics. I realize there were several games before HoD that did this as well--Super Castlevania IV, for instance--but putting these game mechanics in a more Metroid-esque context of exploration made for a refreshing experience with a learning curve I could handle.

With its well-crafted atmosphere, creative enemies, and wide array of weapons and equipment, HoD was quickly shaping up to be, indisputably, my favorite Castlevania game (which is an odd statement in and of itself, considering how little I enjoy demons and the undead in my books and movies). Unfortunately, some serious repetition and backtracking come into play later in the game--even more so if you're trying to collect 100% of the items--which reminded me a bit too much of the RPGs I'd been playing. I ultimately decided to pass up 100% completion in favor of moving on to something more fun, but I enjoyed (the majority of) the time I spent on HoD.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (GBA)
Just as Mega Man 5 and 6 attempt to refine and build on the formula established in Mega Man 4, so does Aria of Sorrow attempt to streamline and develop the gameplay and ideas of Harmony of Dissonance. The RPG elements and menu system have been cleaned up considerably, and backtracking through the castle is seldom a chore thanks to a convenient teleportation system.

There's more of a plot this time around, though I've got mixed feelings about it. It's nice to have a bit more depth to the characters and their motives, but a few lines here and there seem like they don't entirely capture the gist of the original Japanese dialogue, and there's just a smidge too much standing around and talking for my taste. Still, the huge variety of weapons and special attacks you can steal from enemies makes this Mega Man and Muramasa fan quite happy.

Gradius II: Gofer no Yabō (TurboGrafx-16)
Now here's a sequel that improves on its predecessor in every possible way (except for the music, which is equally as catchy). The graphics are more detailed; your ship's arsenal is more customizable; the scenery, challenges, bosses, and enemies types are more numerous and varied; and the difficulty can now be adjusted for veterans and newcomers alike. It's a perfect example of what a sequel should be.

However, it's not just a matter of more--the changes and additions are often quite clever, and I found myself frequently laughing out loud at the surprises and sneaky tricks the game pulled that were unheard-of in the NES Gradius. Between bosses flying in from unexpected directions, an insane boss gauntlet, and a wickedly fast level that finally makes it worthwhile to overdose on Speed Up upgrades, Gradius II expands the boundaries of what to expect from the series while still staying very true to its roots.

Gradius III (SNES)
I'd been wanting to play this one since I first read about it in Nintendo Power magazine all those years ago, and I am disappointed to report that it did not live up to my expectations--and Gradius II is partially to blame. Gradius II set the bar for a sequel quite high, and Gradius III let me down by relying too heavily on rehashed challenges from previous games. It's one thing to bring back the Moai again and again but add laser beam eyes or rotating walls of stone heads; it's another thing to spend an entire level bursting bubbles that behave suspiciously like the crystal asteroids you were breaking up throughout an entire level in the last game.

To its credit, Gradius III offers a tremendous amount of customizability for your ship's armaments, but that's really the only part of the game I truly love. I've come to expect a tough challenge from Gradius games, but there's something about the enemy placement or the level designs that makes even the lower difficulty settings a little more tedious and frustrating than usual. The music also didn't leave much of an impression on me--with the exception of one or two songs, the soundtrack isn't all that memorable for some reason (perhaps because the difficulty overshadows the atmosphere, as was the case with Mega Man 10). Bummer.

Life Force (NES)
Technically an adaptation of the Gradius spinoff Salamander, Life Force does very little to encourage me to play any other spinoffs. While the mechanics and powerups are all comfortably familiar, there are three critical differences: first, the levels alternate between sidescrolling shooter and top-down shooter; second, there's a considerably larger focus on dodging obstacles than on shooting enemies; third, instead of restarting at a checkpoint when you die, you continue immediately where you left off. I don't mind the first difference; it gives the game character and opens up new level possibilities. It's the second and third difference that bother me.

At first, I liked the thought of being able to seamlessly press on through a stage after dying, instead of going back and redoing a section after losing all of your powerups. However, this frequently leads to respawning in places where your newly de-powered ship is completely incapable of defending itself properly, leading to another quick death. The game quickly becomes a matter of how many ships you can slam against a wall until you get back to an area with some powerups. But even then, the abundance of indestructible obstacles frequently makes the risk of going after powerups to strengthen your vessel a pointless one--all the firepower in the galaxy won't make a difference if you can't weave through those incoming asteroids.

Nemesis (Game Boy)
I first played this one years ago, but I had difficulty remembering anything about it. So, into the lineup it went. I'm willing to cut it some slack because it's a Game Boy interpretation of the Gradius games that came before it and not a true sequel, but it's about on the same level as Gradius III as far as reused challenges go. It's still fun, though by no means novel.

There are plenty of game options (including increasing your starting total to as many as 99 lives!), but the smaller playing field of the Game Boy screen makes for a few sections that require extreme precision and allow for little or no improvisation. This is the only game where I ever willingly utilize the Double shot option throughout a stage, as there's hardly any room to maneuver into a position where you can shoot anything above you before colliding with it.

Gradius: The Interstellar Assault (Game Boy)
I was overwhelmingly impressed by the quality of this game. The music is some of the best I've ever heard come out of a Game Boy speaker, the graphics are clearer and the gameplay smoother than in Nemesis (though still a bit choppy by console standards), and the stages feature the same fast-paced Gradius action I know and love...without falling back on any of the established conventions.

There's no boss gauntlet. No mountainy volcano stage. No Moai. The final boss fights back. While Gradius II proves that you can bring back old ideas without being repetitive, The Interstellar Assault proves that you don't have to bring back old ideas at all to have a solid Gradius game. The intro stage alone is worth the price of admission--outrunning an enormous mothership bearing down on you at high speed. Add in some cutscenes that give neat transitions from one stage to the next, and you've got one of the best (and most unexpected) games in the series, as far as I'm concerned.

Gradius ReBirth (WiiWare)
Speaking of unexpected...I had no idea they'd made a brand-new Gradius game for a system I owned. The title is highly suggestive of the content--it's a revival of all the familiar conventions of the series, blended together in such a way that it feels more like a tribute than a rehash.

This is the first time I've seen the plot discussed outside of the instruction manual; the graphics are about as pretty as they come; there's finally a snow level (which makes me happy); and some of my favorite bosses in the series appear in this game. While it may not be the most innovative or substantial entry in the series, it's still good fun, and I find it to be the most accessible and replayable one in the bunch.


I've officially run out of Gradius games for systems I own, and I've had my fill of whipping succubi for a while, so I can safely declare that my Konami kick has ended. The past two months have been the most fun I've had gaming in ages, and beyond that, I've determined that (a) I'm better at space shooters than I give myself credit for, and (b) I would do well to keep a steady supply of shorter games in my playing queue.

I think I might dive into one of the games I picked up at Comic-Con next, or maybe something like Sparkster or Jolly Rover that I received as a gift and haven't tried out yet, or...

...wait a minute...

I forgot a GBA game.

...I could play Gradius Galaxies.


Matt Link said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Link said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Matt Link said...

Great post! Reading this brings back a lot of nostalgic memories over some of the greatest Castlevania & Gradius Games I've played over the years.

Being a long-time Gradius fanatic (I own 1-5, rebirth, and Gradius Gaiden), it's interesting to see how the series progresses over time.

While I agree with your thoughts on the SNES Gradius III, I'll defend that game a little bit. True, it does borrow many aspects that were a tad more revolutionary in the previous game and probably has fewer newer progressions than the leap between I and II was (for a much worse offender on the whole recycled ideas thing, see Gradius IV). Thing is, while it's got great customizability and gameplay, it's definitely NOT a perfect arcade port of the original Gradius III (the Turbographic 16 version of Gradius II was fantastic! Near-perfect graphically as well as soundwise... the music was reproduced to the T!). Apparently, several stages were rearranged in the SNES version, and a few of the originals were completely removed altogether. In fact, one of my favorite stages in the game, the ice block stage that assembles itself as you fly through it is nowhere at all on the SNES version! What were they thinking?

Also, when I first heard the SNES counterparts of the music, while the tracks themselves are technically similar to the originals, I was greatly disappointed in the changed sound quality in their transition to the SNES. I don't know... something seemed off about them. The tracks all seemed to lack the personality and atmosphere of the original arcade versions. Youtube's got them I'm sure.

Plus, (and this is just a personal preference) but while the Crystal stage from Gradius II did come first, I actually enjoyed the Bubble stage in GIII a lot more. I found it easier to tell if you were actually connecting the shots to the bubbles as opposed to the ice chunks, and the hit boxes of your ship and the bubbles seemed much more consistently readable than the often unfairly and poorly designated collision areas the ice blocks would plod around against. I don't know... Might just be me, but I found the bubble stage to be a worthy improvement over the crystal stage. Plus, I found there to be a better variety of enemy-based challenges in the bubble area.

I do love the crystal boss better though... very worthy challenge of a Gradius boss! And I will definitely say the multi-screen alien 2nd stage was much superior to Gradius III's underground cave. Very cool and reminds me a lot of the Alien movies!

If you have a PS2 (or know someone who has one), see if you can find a copy of the Gradius III & IV collection. It's got the arcade perfect port of Gradius III (with the addition of being able to select your difficulty like the SNES version). It probably won't change your mind overall on Gradius III, but it may be interesting for you to see for yourself what all changed in its translation to console.

I've found that most Gradius fans I knew over the years that bought the games only had access to the SNES version for a long time (since the arcade version was never released here). So coming from that standpoint, most will probably find nothing wrong with it. Either that, or it'll wind up being more nostalgic for some. I ended up buying Gradius III & IV collection first and then the SNES Gradius III much later, so that's where I'm coming from on my thoughts.

All that said, my personal favorite Gradius games are still Gradius II and Gradius Gaiden (rare find, but well worth it... this one worthily builds on the challenge and innovation precedent that II and III set... plus it's got a cool snow stage with awesome music!). As for Gradius II, that game just has that something special about it, and it's difficult without being too frustrating.

Just some tidbits from a Gradius nut. Great post again, keep up the awesome work! :)

(my apologies for the duplicate comments, button was a little twitchy!)