Everyone remembers Gradius: spaceships, Options that multiplied firepower, and a power-up system that let you manually choose what to go for first rather than deciding for you. It was a great series, despite its tendency towards levels that couldn't be beaten until you'd memorized which tiny section of the screen wasn't going to have the walls crash in around it. Still, the style of shooters today wants cute underaged girls as naked as possible, so rather than drag Gradius into that mess, Konami has redesigned and rebranded its gameplay as Otomedius.
The levels and enemy designs in Otomedius Excellent are standard shooter fare.
Otomedius Excellent is actually the second game in the series, though the first to see U.S. release. What little story there may be involves high-school girls who change into boob-centric outfits, which apparently are necessary to pilot frames that allow them to fly left-to-right and shoot things. It's not exactly Shakespeare (though still better than Stephanie Meyer), but who needs story in a shooter?
No, what a shooter needs is good shootin', and this is where Otomedius comes up short. It's got a great shooting system, but the levels themselves are either uninspired or so poorly designed that a single death might as well mean "game over." They work against rather than with the power-up system.
The classic method of powering up a ship in the Gradius series is present in Otomedius. At the bottom-right of the screen there's a bar divided into six parts, each of which contains a different power-up. Certain enemies drop a pod when shot that, when collected, lights up the next power-up in the list. Essential items like speed tend to be on the left, while more powerful abilities such as the shield tend to be on the right, so that earning them requires collecting more pods. You can choose to either manually trigger the activation of each power-up yourself or have the game do it for you in a semi-intelligent order, if you don't want to be distracted from the action.
Adding to an already-fun system, each girl has her own potential load-out of weaponry. The wide, fast ripple laser isn't available to all characters, and neither is the slow-firing but very powerful black hole gun. Each girl has two guns to choose from (except for samurai-girl, who has three but no Options), a missile, and the firepower-multiplying Options that follow her around in a pattern dependent on the character. A fully-powered character can lay waste to the screen with relative ease. A single death, however, puts her right back to zero, and when the screen is filled not just with enemies but bits of scenery that take a good pounding to remove, that pretty well spells Game Over. Technically you can quarter-feed through, but when a life lasts ten seconds that gets tiring fast.
When everything it ticking over properly, though, Otomedius Excellent is a solidly entertaining shooter, and this happens often enough that it's easy to start over and try to get a bit farther. After a while, though, the first levels wear out their welcome while the later sections chew up all your lives in short order. Once you've got the level layout and boss pattern committed to memory it's easy enough to see the game through to its conclusion, but the trek there depends entirely on your patience with repetition.
The repetition wouldn't actually be so bad if Otomedius could decide to go all the way to the levels of goofiness the other Gradius spin-off series, Parodius, managed so well. The big reason Otomedius Excellent gets dull quickly is that it never really goes after its theme, which is Gradius with cute anime girls. Yes, what's there is complete and total pandering, but it never goes for broke. There's some silliness with poking the girls on the character select screen, and the boss mecha pilots get a character illustration when they show up, but that's the extent of it. The levels and enemy designs are standard shooter fare with hardly a memorable design in the lot. A solitary barely-dressed anime girl is completely out of place, which makes no sense seeing as that's the big selling point of the game. Somehow Otomedius Excellent manages to be disturbing by over-sexualizing 15-to-16-year old girls and yet also not do it enough.
If Otomedius Excellent could pick a theme and stick with it, and design its levels to work with rather than fight against its power-up system, it would be an easy recommend. Once you've got a handle on a level and are powered-up properly you'll be laying waste to everything in your path, and the brightly colored, upbeat style is always fun to see. Quarter-feeding to the end is incredibly unsatisfying, though, while starting over from scratch each game turns the early levels into a chore. There's enough meat on Otomedius's bones to make a fun, if pervy, shooter, but Excellent isn't that game. Maybe next time?