Gradius will forever be considered a definitive game in the shoot 'em up genre, held up as a key example of what makes these kind of games truly special. It's a game familiar for its iconic NES version, of course, but the release of the TurboGrafx-16 iteration on the Wii U Virtual Console is a welcome one - after all, it was a console that delivered arcade ports of enviable quality back in the day. Yet now it's 2017, so it's a question of whether this classic is still worth a purchase.
For those unfamiliar with Gradius, it's a shoot 'em up that scrolls from left to right, and employs a simple - yet surprisingly strategic - power-up system. Some enemies drop power-ups and you need to decide when to activate them, with each one moving along a checklist at the bottom of the screen. Right at the start your ship has all the speed of a dial-up internet connection, so boosting that becomes a priority. After that, though, it becomes a careful game of choice as you opt for double shots, missiles that automatically bomb the area below, a powerful 'laser' and an 'option' that provides extra shots. There's a power-up also marked '??', which brings in a couple of orbs that provide a handy shield - of sorts - at the front of your ship.
Some of these power-ups are unlimited, others deteriorate over time, and all disappear when you lose a life. That's what makes Gradius so brutal - the difficulty ramps up, and not only does death cost you a valuable life, but resets your ship to its default capabilities. When on a roll you can create a true death machine, as you bombard weak foes with a triple laser and double missiles. If your alien enemies get you with one shot, though, the tables are turned. For die-hard players that'll be part of the thrill, a fear of death endangering an entire run through the short but tough campaign.
Of course, this is the Virtual Console, so you don't need to be a champion gamer to get to the end boss and trigger the tricky second run through the game. A tap of the GamePad touchscreen brings up a rather snazzy retro-styled menu, clearly a nod to the original hardware's arcade-inspired era. You can create and load a restore point in rapid time, so spamming this to maintain your ship of ultimate destruction when you die is easy. For initial run-throughs, at least, it's a welcome way to see all the levels without hurling your controller out of the window.
The menu also lets you adjust some screen settings - the default adopts a 4:3 ratio that better suits the source material, though you can change the screen size manually or just whack up to full screen. In our case we used the default view on the GamePad, which gave nice deep colours and showed the visuals in a good light - on a large TV the graphics lack the same clarity and sharpness, a sign of their age and the occasionally underwhelming emulation of the Virtual Console. On the controller, though, with a pair of headphones on, we had a great time experiencing what - at the time - would have been an eye-popping arcade port.
Compared to the NES original this iteration boasts more detailed visuals and a broader range of sound, giving the music in particular an extra kick. We fired up the NES version on the NES Mini, too, and though it looked better on the TV thanks to the sharp 720p emulation on the little system, this TurboGrafx-16 version still has the edge. Oddly, we also found it quite a bit easer to make progress in this TG-16 iteration, showing that 'NES difficulty' wasn't always an urban myth.
Gradius, as we've said, is a classic, and we enjoyed the frenzied button tapping and retro blasting when playing through it for this review. Nevertheless, the experience was spoiled a little in the second half of the campaign.
For starters, there are some serious slowdown issues at key points. One section with destructible scenery causes the action to slow to a crawl, and tough later missions - with plenty of enemies and our own fire on screen - struggled quite badly. This writer is unsure whether this is a problem of emulation or whether the original had the problem, though it's not really important; what matters is that these dips in performance partially spoil the gameplay experience.
There are some coding inconsistencies, too, with some hitboxes not being what we'd expect. Sometimes blasting a foe with a direct laser hit would kill them quickly, sometimes an equally accurate shot would go through the same kind of foe and do no damage. It's not a constant problem, but does become frustrating later on when allied with notable framerate dips.
The TurboGrafx-16 version of Gradius is a handsome iteration of a classic game. Combined with a smart Virtual Console menu and restore point functionality, playing through the campaign is a nostalgic pleasure and one that kept us coming back. That said, there are a couple of notable problems - some areas bring up drastic drops in framerate, and at some points hitboxes appear to be inconsistent.
For fans of the genre eager to sample an iconic game this is worth a look. Hiccups in the final result, however, mean that we aren't giving Gradius its customary sky-high score for this release.