The original Gradius arcade release was one of the first truly great side-scrolling shooters and, along with R-Type, spawned a legion of copycat video games back in the 80s and 90s. The Gradius titles have been copied and cloned more times than can be counted and, much like other popular shooters over the years, the series has gradually evolved, taking on more modern touches. With the release of Gradius Rebirth, Konami (with the assistance of emulation experts M2) decided to revive the franchise on Nintendo's WiiWare service, but instead of making use of the more modern shooter conveniences, they chose to take a trip back to the origins of the series to try to cash in on the popularity classic gaming is currently enjoying on the current generation consoles. So how does a game that attempts to mimic the 8-bit shooter stylings of its early counterparts fare in a world where shooters have long since lost their lustre, not to mention become so ridiculously intense that they've garnered such labels as "bullet hell" and "manic"?
Gradius Rebirth allows for a wide variety of control methods including using the Wii Remote on its side, the Nunchuk, the Classic Controller, or even a Gamecube controller if you're so inclined. The game also features several play modes and options to keep things interesting, not to mention a wealth of configuration options to customize the controls to your exact liking.
The main game mode is pretty much what you'd expect it to be. It's “Gradius” in all its glory. You'll navigate through the many levels blasting baddies and eventually facing off with a boss. As you progress through the game, you'll have the ability to start back at the last check point you reached. While this will come in handy for less-seasoned shooter fans, most hardcore shooter enthusiasts will seldom, if ever, use any type of continue or save point while playing, but at least the feature is there if you need it.
If you're looking for something a little more competitive, you can choose to take on the Score Attack mode that allows you to play through the levels in an effort to rack up the most points. You can attempt to outscore players locally or on a worldwide scale via the Wi-Fi function. You can even record your scoring runs and replay them at a later time, a nice feature for those that like to show off a bit (you know who you are).
The gameplay itself couldn't be any more familiar to fans of the classic Gradius series. The exact same power up system is still in place and the game even allows you to set a button to rapid-fire, which will save your thumb some serious wear and tear. As with most of the early Gradius titles, the pacing of the game is a bit on the sluggish side and lacks the high level of intensity found in many of the other shooter series of the time period. The power-up system is also a mixed bag. While the Speed power-up can be useful for making your ship move around at a faster rate of speed, the cannon fire and bomb power-ups can be tricky as certain types work better in certain situations and you often have to decide ahead of time which type of power-up you want to use in a given situation. So while the feel of Gradius Rebirth closely resembles that of the classic Gradius titles, this isn't necessarily always a good thing.
That's not to say that there's not still plenty of classic arcade shooter-style play to be enjoyed, and the tricky enemy and bullet patterns and plenty of closed-quarter levels will keep you ducking and dodging for cover. The game also features a fairly high level of difficulty, so if you find yourself easily frustrated, you might want to take that into account. Of course there is a wide range of difficulty settings, but unfortunately there's little difference between the various settings.
Visually, Gradius Rebirth looks like it just stepped out of a late 1980s arcade. It has a very pixilated look reminiscent of the 8-bit era of gaming and, although there are probably more colours onscreen than we saw back then, it still looks like it would be more suited to running on an NES or PC Engine system than an advanced piece of gaming hardware like the Nintendo Wii. The end-of-level bosses are probably the high point of the visual experience with some being absolutely immense and extremely detailed. But for the most part it's clear that developer M2 was going for the nostalgic look. If you can appreciate that, you'll surely enjoy what Gradius Rebirth has to offer in terms of visuals. It's worth noting that this game is yet another WiiWare title that doesn't quite stretch the full width of the screen, which has become a rather sore subject with many widescreen HDTV owners. Overall, M2 has captured the classic look and feel of the Gradius series, but doesn’t go too far beyond that.
Musically you couldn't ask for a more accurately executed classic shooter soundtrack. Gradius fans will instantly recognize the musical stylings from the 8-bit days, although the music quality is quite a bit better. There are clearly sound effects and music that could not have been executed on the NES console--probably not even the Super Nintendo system, if the truth be told. You even get a taste of the good old muffled digitized speech to give it that classic arcade audio effect. Another nice feature is that the music tracks tend to change quite often, even mid-level, so you'll never really get tired of hearing the same track over and over again. It doesn't hurt that most of the musical tracks are fairly catchy and fit right in with the classic Gradius atmosphere (in fact several of the tracks will be instantly recognizable to fans as remixes of past favourites) as do the sound effects. If you've got a good Dolby surround sound system you're going to be in for a real treat as the audio has a very open and spacious sound that's really quite impressive considering its only Pro-Logic II sound.
It's obvious that Konami and M2 haven’t tried to reinvent the wheel with Gradius Rebirth, as many of the game play ideas have long been a staple of the series over the years. Fans of the early Gradius titles are likely to find a lot to like with Rebirth as it looks, sounds, and plays pretty much the same as those early Gradius titles. Having said that, shooter fans who've grown more accustomed to the more recent Gradius releases (the spectacular Treasure-coded fifth entry in particular) might find Rebirth too much of a step backward for their liking and the toned down intensity will likely overshadow any of the nostalgic feelings the game brings out. Gradius Rebirth is certainly a solid enough shooter and the trip down memory lane is fun while it lasts, but you can't help but walk away wishing that Konami had tried some new ideas instead of just rehashing the same formula. Having said all that, it's still hard to complain given that the game only costs a mere 1000 Wii Points and there's not really much else on the WiiWare service to choose from as far as shooters go. As a love-letter to a highly esteemed franchise this is a reasonable success, but it tends to leave you wanting a little more. Roll on Gradius VI.