I’m sure there are millions like myself who just assumed that Konami’s Life Force was the sequel to Gradius. Both shared similar ships and near identical power-up systems and enemies. But in reality the true sequel to Gradius would unfortunately stay in Japan. More than likely this was due to its use of the VRC4 chip was more powerful than anything available in the US. Regardless we missed out on a truly great game as Gradius II is one of the system’s finest.
The innovative weapon system that made the original so great returns and is expanded on significantly. Much like Parodius (another Konami series, they were really incestuous with their franchises) you are presented with a choice of four weapon configurations. Going forward this would become a staple of the series and it grants the freedom for everyone to tackle the game differently. You aren’t locked into your choice either; upon continuing you can switch out if need be.
That being said upon closer inspection the differences between each group aren’t as pronounced as you would expect. The only weapons that change are your missiles, double shot, and type of laser although to be fair those are all pretty major. The missiles especially have been upgraded: photon torpedoes are powerful but only travel below you while the spread bomb creates a nice little explosion for splash damage. I’ve yet to meet anyone who has ever bothered with the double shot. I’m sure those weirdos exist but they are shunned from society for a reason. The ripple has been brought over from Salamander and in my opinion is the better choice.
If you thought having two options was great you’ll flip when you collect four! The increased firepower four options provides is completely insane as you can cover almost half of the screen. This does cause problems which I’ll get into in a little bit but is still worth getting as soon as possible. As a little extra once you have gained the max selecting the option again will turn them into a rotating shield for about ten seconds which offers double the protection on top of the already strong force field.
The first game was a bit limited in terms of level variety but you’ll have no complaints here. It is immediately obvious that Gradius II is in a completely different league from its predecessor from its initial level. The numerous burning suns spawn fire dragons that chase around while solar flares randomly erupt. It wouldn’t be Gradius without a level featuring the Easter Island statues and they have a nasty surprise in store at the halfway point. Like Super C some of the levels have been shuffled around and new content added. There’s an added boss battle at the end of stage 2, and the boss rush adds the final boss from Life Force as a nice little bonus. Sadly one boss was also lost in translation, the Death MKII.
This version of Gradius II is far easier than its brutal arcade counterpart. The NES limitations mean the game can’t throw a bazillion bullets at you making it far more manageable. In addition you can use the slowdown to your advantage to make the boss battles a lot easier. The game is extremely generous with power-ups so even if you die it isn’t rough getting back up to speed. While there is a thirty lives code it isn’t as useful since you are sent to a checkpoint on death. It is still worth using though.
Konami have done a great job of squeezing the arcade’s visuals into the NES. There is basically more of everything. The level of detail packed into its environments is stunning and there is simply more activity all around. The miniature suns of stage one are just the beginning as you’ll wade through a sea of Moai heads, navigate a crystal maze and even fly through the intestines of the Bacterion leader. The bosses dwarf the mother ship of the original and are fantastic in design. The soundtrack is excellent although some of the music tracks have been switched around. It does come at a price however.
The one area this version of Gradius II suffers is in slowdown. This is some of the worst slowdown I have ever experienced; the game moves in literal slow motion at times. The thing is you are the direct cause! With four options and a weapon like the ripple filling the screen things slow to a crawl. Once you stop everything goes back to normal. It doesn’t happen all of the time but on certain levels like the Red Crystal Cage or the Old Stone Age you can expect it to drag on. As annoying as this can be it actually works in your favor: initiating slowdown will allow you to dodge bullets or colliding with bosses in tight areas. Some may say its cheating, I say who cares?
It truly is a shame that Gradius II remained a Famicom exclusive. I like Life Force but it simply cannot compare to this near masterpiece. Even with its technical flaws this is still one of the best shooters for the system and a great all-around game.