WiiWare was undeniably a shelter for a lot of old school genres that would have required a lot more investment if released at retail. Indeed, it has become quite hard to sell a game that can be beaten in a matter of two to three hours at full price like some old genres could...namely shoot 'em ups. The first of a series of three games -- the other two being Contra ReBirth and Castlevania: The Adventure ReBirth -- Gradius ReBirth harks back to the roots of the franchise it belongs to, ignoring the advancements of technology that were used most efficiently by the teams of Treasure Co., Ltd. in Gradius V for PlayStation 2, but rather offering an experience closer to the original Arcade titles. Developed by M2, who also worked on the Gradius, Salamander, Twinbee and Parodius collections for PSP, the game certainly was put into good hands. How did it turn out, though? Read on to find out.
One of the most distinctive aspects of this specific Gradius episode is its emphasis on a storyline. A lengthy intro, done in the style of the older MSX entries that were already notable for this aspect of things, sets the stage for the rest of the game. Planet Antichthon, Protectorate of the Gradian Empire, has suddenly fallen silent. It is feared that the Bacterians, the main villains in the Gradius series, may have infected their mother computer. It's now up to a single squadron of small spaceships, of which yours is going solo, to go out there and defeat the enemy leader to put an end to hostilities before it's too late. It's one of the most cliché pretexts for the action happening inside the game but in others of the same genre the storyline is often relegated to a mere mention on the game box art or the instruction booklet. Here, a text-based introduction is dedicated to setting the story, which is a nice thing, especially since the whole Gradius series has a quite complex story by genre standards when all episodes are taken together.
Staying true to its roots, Gradius ReBirth has the player taking control of the Vic Viper spacecraft, initially armed with a sole cannon shooting forward an infinite flow of tiny bullets.
Collecting orange power capsules will help Special Colonel James Burton, pilot of the Vic Viper on-screen, to increase the power of its arsenal. Cubed3's review of Gradius for NES should fill you in a bit more on further details of how the basic gameplay works in the Gradius franchise.
The usual option bar is still there, borrowing the visual appearance used by some of its cousins, namely Gradius Gaiden and Life Force for NES, as well as Gradius 2 on MSX2. Inheriting from the improvements brought by a whole series of games, Gradius ReBirth allows for three different sets of powers to be chosen, each compiling the most popular abilities the franchise has ever known (a couple more sets can also be unlocked). This time, the style that could be observed in a couple episodes was chosen, which is that to get a full powered version of the powers one chooses to equip, they have to be selected at least twice, which differs from the original Gradius reviewed here recently.
After selecting what set of powers will be accessible during gameplay, the action starts with the Vic Viper setting off for outer space and the enemy base. The game contains five stages in total, which feels noticeably short.
Why the development team didn't include more levels is incomprehensible, considering the game doesn't even come close to the file size limitation imposed by Nintendo on WiiWare. Moreover, these are for the most part heavily inspired by stages from previous games, especially the MSX and Game Boy episodes, some of which were released in the West under the "Nemesis" title. Thankfully, online leader-boards are there to incite the player to aim for the absolutely best score they can manage. The scoring nature of the game, in addition to the plentiful supply of secrets to be found throughout, requiring multiple play-throughs, shall multiply the time that players will want to stick with it. Those rankings, unfortunately, are region-locked, meaning you won't be able to compete with people from other regions for the best score in the world.
Two modes of play are available. The regular game saves all the check points reached so far in the game and lets players start over from there, not unlike Gradius Advance on Game Boy Advance. Score Attack is a more Arcade-like affair, ditching the small animation at the beginning showing the squadron setting out for space, and removing the possibility to use the Konami code, making every player evenly equipped in their attempt to reach the top of the online leader-boards, where competition is quite fierce.
It is also possible to record an entire play session and watch it later, which can be interesting to show off some one-time skilful moves to friends (or rather lucky ones in a lot of cases). It's impossible to "send" any to their Wii, though, which is unfortunate.
Visually speaking, Gradius ReBirth is made to look old-school, more like the Konami Arcade games using the GX400 hardware to be precise, in terms of amount of colours and 2D visual effects...but just without the limitations that the original hardware came with, allowing for more use of the "Mode 7" style and transparency effects than anyone could have ever dreamed of in the arcades at the time. These are used to great effect on a lot of occasions throughout the game and will have old-school fans growl with pleasure at the sight. Curiously, though, the Japanese version was incompatible with progressive scan, which was a weird decision.
The sound part is nothing short of awesomeness either. Like other Konami "ReBirth" games, it's made to sound like its old arcade games that used the infamous Yamaha series of FM synthesis sound chip. However, just like with the stages themselves, every single track is taken from older Gradius games, still mostly from the lesser known ones. Setting that fact aside, the music being enhanced over its original incarnations, even fans should be happy about such a brilliant soundtrack and non-fans wouldn't notice the references anyway. If anything, recognising what game the tracks are originally from will be like "a game inside the game" for hardcore fans.
What more could be asked for, for this type of game, than a trusty old D-pad and enough buttons to comfortably perform all the actions a good shmup should require? A Wii Classic-Controller has all of that, and more. The Wii Remote itself held on the side should do the trick as well, so long as one can deal with its tiny D-pad.
Obviously not up-to-date with the latest technology, but "made to look old-school" graphical goodness through and through. The zooming, rotation and transparency effects used at every possible relevant occasion add a lot to the experience and will make old fans of the genre shed a tear as memories of better days gone-by will come flowing back while playing this game.
Anyone loving FM-Synthesis soundtracks shall find that Gradius ReBirth ranks very highly with the best soundtracks. A couple new tracks done in the old-style would have been a welcomed addition, but what's on offer is still pretty damn good. Alas, perhaps some players still won't like the old sounding music.
It feels all too short on the whole but online leader-boards, unlockables and a high replay value will ensure that it remains enticing enough to make fans of the genre come back for more every now-and-then.
While not exactly a new game in the purest sense of the term, Gradius ReBirth is a worthy entry in the series, even if it's a short one. It mostly remixes stuff borrowed from the whole series, but carefully chooses its source material from among the lesser known episodes in the process so that it won't feel totally familiar even to some of the most hardcore fans. The all-out retro style of the game will undoubtedly appeal to fans of the genre, of retro games, and the franchise as a whole, while perhaps even enticing new players to the party due to it being one of the very few representatives of the genre available on WiiWare in the West. What a perfect example of a good shmup it is! At the time of writing it has already been over four years since its original Japanese WiiWare release and the world has yet to see a new entry in the series grace any system at all (Tactical-RPGs and Pachi-Slot games don't count, Konami!). Here's hoping that the franchise will see a revival in interest in the future and that we will finally be graced by another ReBirth game, or yet even better, a totally new HD Gradius experience in the same vein as Gradius V. We are standing by, Konami!