This is gaming history.
Shooters, at some point in the last few years, mutated from one kind of twitch game to another. The endlessly inventive bastardry of the 8- and 16-bit period turned into the real-time bullet mazes you see in Ikaruga or Mars Matrix.
Gradius V is a throwback to yesterday's shooters. I don't want to use the phrase "old-school," well, ever, but it's accurate. Treasure has taken the basic building blocks of the Gradius series, one of the foundation stones of shooters as we know them, and turned it into an experience that's simultaneously modern and nostalgic, using new technology to its advantage while keeping the old games' feel.
It is, in short, why I played these games when I was a kid.
There's a storyline, involving the usual Bacterion army and a bit of time travel, but who cares? I don't, you don't, and the game certainly doesn't. All you need to know is that there's another bio-organic alien army bearing down on Earth -- in the Konami universe, bio-organic alien armies apparently grow on trees -- and the Vic Viper is dispatched in a last-ditch effort to stop it.
Gradius V is a 2.5D game, with 2D action and 3D graphics. If you played one of the past games in the series, or Lifeforce, imagine one of them cranked up to eleven.
If you haven't, then you're in for an entirely different experience than you may be used to. Gradius V isn't about throwing endless tides of bullets at you; instead, it's about weak points, recognizable patterns, and sudden changes to the rules.
A stage may, at any time and with remarkably little warning, change direction, speed, or timing. It may give you progressively less space to manoeuvre within, until you're literally sitting in the only place on the screen where you won't instantly die.
One level's set within an asteroid field, where the rocks that're constantly rushing at you are colliding with larger debris to set it rotating, so you have to move fast and use your weapons to counteract the debris's spin. At the same time, there are ships and turrets coming at you from every direction, which means you may have to use the asteroids as cover at the same time you're dodging both them and enemy fire.
Another level forces you into the body of some unthinkably vast creature. You have to fight through its soft tissues and immune system in order to reach its heart. This involves blowing holes through its constantly-regenerating soft tissues, blasting its antibodies out of the sky, and avoiding the walls as they expand and contract for reasons I don't want to think about for even a damn second.
When you're "just" blowing away waves of ships, Gradius V is no great shakes; it's the same thing you've played countless times before, just prettier. What sets it apart from the pack is how how a given level turns from an alien massacre to the kind of constant duck-and-weave that a generation of gamers cut their teeth on, and then back again.
It's as much trying to find that sweet spot in waves of incoming fire as it is watching your environment and trying your damnedest to somehow react to its constant changes. Here, bosses are not simply heavily armed bullet sponges, but are instead battle platforms that have a strategy and the means to carry it out. Treasure's chosen an intricate blend of new battle machines and old favorites to fight you at the end and middle of each level.
Among other things, such as the evil giant brain from Lifeforce, the familiar Big Core has come back for another go, and has brought every friend and relative it's ever had.
When Big Cores are coming at you by the fleet, when an enemy ship that was a handful on its own is chasing you through a curving horizontal labyrinth lined by flame projectors, you'll know whether you're actually good at these games, or whether you've been lying to yourself for all these years.
As usual, victory's a question of building up momentum. Thankfully, you respawn instantly in Gradius V, and you've got a choice of four different weapon configurations. You can opt for the classic Multiples, where your secondary guns orbit your ship or fly by its side, or new options that you can aim or freeze in place with the R1 button.
Gradius V seems to be a lot easier for most people if you use the Type-2 ship, which features options with a 360-degree field of fire, but each Type has strengths and weaknesses. Type-1 options can be stuck inside an enemy ship to bypass its defenses, while rotating or formation multiples provide a sort of protective barrier around the Vic Viper.
It's genuinely a different game in each configuration, and once you clear the game's first loop (and thus turn Gradius V, inevitably, into Ikaruga, with bullets flying out of every atom of space directly at you), you unlock a number of new guns and a weapon edit mode.
Gradius V, on any difficulty, is not an easy game, but it shouldn't be. It's the descendant of some of the most difficult shooters in gaming history, and it'll break you in half the first few times you play it.
If you keep at it, memorizing the game's patterns and figuring out each level's sweet spots and strategies, Gradius V is ultimately rewarding in the same way as all good arcade games. It's about action, adrenaline, and enormous explosions that block out the sun.
I don't really have much of a choice here; I've got to rate this one highly. Gradius V reminds me of the glory days of the NES and SNES, when shooters like this one were how you gauged how powerful a system really is.
Treasure's managed to make a game that's set in 1992 and 2004 simultaneously, and if there's any justice, they've given 2D shooters a new lease on life. Gradius V is one of the best games I've played this year, and belongs in any former arcade rat's game library.