Thursday, June 3, 2010

Of Import: Gradius (PC Engine)

An editorial note:  I'm going to start differentiating between the Japanese games I attempt to play in clueless gaijin mode, seriously handicapped by my inability to read or understand spoken Japanese, and import games that play perfectly well in spite of it.  I'll still tag all of these posts as import games, but the largely-unplayable games will be treated separately from the playable ones.

One such game is Konami's Gradius, which began life as a 1985 arcade game, itself a descendant of Konami's earlier Scramble coin-op.  The game is better known in the West as a cartridge for the 8-bit NES; that version also appeared in US arcades courtesy of Nintendo's VS. platform.  But Japanese gamers got to play prettier, better-sounding, more arcade-faithful conversions released for MSX computers and the PC Engine.

The PC Engine HuCard boots up to a simple menu screen:

If the controller is left alone, some artwork from the arcade machine's attract mode, missing from the NES version, puts in an appearance:

Once the player hits start, the gameplay is more-or-less the same as the NES version -- level layouts and enemy timing are slightly different, but everything seems familiar, with improved audiovisuals and a welcome absence of sprite flicker.  The game's evolution from Scramble is apparent in the first level, where the player pilots a tiny Vic Viper fighter through mountainous terrain, shooting and bombing small enemies of various types before facing a somewhat larger, though not exactly screen-filling, boss at the end of the level.  The sprites are small but nicely detailed and shaded, and the rock-spewing twin volcanoes don't challenge the PC Engine's sprite hardware to any visible degree:

Compared to getting there, dealing with the boss ship isn't too difficult.  It definitely helps to have at least one speedup powerup enabled, though, as the enemy's initial volleys of four lasers are otherwise very difficult to avoid.  All it takes to destroy the boss is five precisely targeted shots straight down its center channel.  The look may be dated, but the action is one hundred percent classic 2-D shmup:

Following the boss's demise, we proceed immediately to level 2, where destructible pink blocks must be cleared out of the way if the player hopes to navigate the level or take out any enemies lurking behind them:

The Gradius series is known for its difficulty -- I saw this screen quite a bit, even during the first level:

But it's also addictive, with that classical one-more-try quality common to the best arcade games -- we don't really mind playing through the same levels repeatedly, trying to get to something new, because the game stays interesting and constantly challenges us to execute as effectively as possible.  Small mistakes are often fatal, and even the first level isn't exactly a cakewalk, so the additional practice never feels like a chore.

Konami has finally released a conversion of the original coin-op for the PSP, but for retro gaming purposes, this edition beats the pants off of the NES cart.  The PC Engine also saw an enhanced CD-ROM release of sequel Gradius II: Gofer No Yabou, which is readily available to American gamers as an import TurboGrafx-16 title on the Wii Virtual Console.  Either version is well worth seeking out for Gradius fans interested in a fresh, quality look at its classic gameplay.

Gradius is a worthwhile addition to any PC Engine collection, but it is in HuCard format, so unlike PC Engine CD games it won't work on an American TurboGrafx-16 or Turbo Duo console.  You may be able to find it for purchase at this affiliate link.

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