As a kid growing up in the '80s, I was never able to spend much time playing the Gradius games. This isn't because I didn't like them - not hardly - but rather it was due to the punishment handed out by games of its ilk, most notably Defender. I wasn't exactly loaded with lots of extra spending money or gaming skills in those days, and Defender was just vicious and cruel to me. It seemed to take so much genuine pleasure in crushing my spirit by giving me, oh, about 1.3 minutes of gameplay per time that I quickly learned to stand back and watch skilled players take their turns with those fast-paced, side-scrolling, futuristic space shooters. After a half an hour or so of that, I would head over to the titles that I could handle a bit better, getting as much game time out of my 25 cents as possible with friendlier-to-the-lousy-gamers machines like Centipede and Pac Man.
That's why it was so nice to finally have the Gradius Collection come out on the PSP. I no longer had to worry about losing money faster than at an Atlantic City Texas Hold 'Em table. Rather, I can get blown up three times in two minutes with a smile on my face, since all that's necessary when that happens is to just start another game - or change the settings to make it easier on myself. Very few of us don't get some sort of twinkle in our eye when the whole veneer of a coin slot is no longer standing between us and our favorite arcade games of the past. Is that why these collections continue to get released on every imaginable console ever, and seemingly will be forever? Or is it because in many cases the games stand the test of time? Chances are that it's usually a little from column A and a little from column B.
The Gradius titles that make up the collection number a total of five - Gradius, Gradius II, Gradius III, Gradius IV, and Gradius Gaiden. They all share many of the same formulas so well designed in the first title, and move forward in a series of small but key improvements through the entire series.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Gradius franchise, the basic premise is that you navigate a spaceship through a series of treacherous levels, culminating with a boss. A plethora of power-ups are available to you by virtue of destroying series of not-terribly-threatening enemies and/or particularly marked opponents. Each power-up conjures up all sorts of nifty stuff, starting off with small things like a speed-up and a secondary weapon, increasing to second and third "ghosts" that also spout off all the same ordnance as the original ship. There are also force fields and giant "lasers" that tear through your enemies much better than the flimsy bullets that you start out with.
Regardless of the iteration of the game being played, the standard level starts off with a mini-shooting gallery intended you allow your ship to get a couple of cheap bonuses. This is followed by a dangerous traverse through some sort of dungeon-style area, complete with all sorts of combinations of flying tigers, dragons, gunships, and other not-very-nice caches of enemies bent on destroying you. If you're good enough to make it through that in one piece, there's the boss. Your best chance by far to take out these dudes is to not be blown up prior to facing them - the powerups you accumulate throughout the level should make an impossible job fairly do-able if you haven't had to start collecting them again late in the level. For the most part you'll need a couple of ghosts and some upgraded weapons to blow up the end-of-level giants. I suppose that it is possible to take them out without being armed to the teeth, but it's not recommended at all.