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SummaryThis is how to make shoot-em-up games (v1.5)
The GoodI was not very fond this genre, because I looked at the wrong games. Most of these (even if they are well programmed), are mindless, boring, repetitive, impossibly hard, and very, VERY frustrating. This was one of the most popular genres in the 80's, but it looks like they missed the point most of the time.
And there is Gradius, from Konami. They took Scramble (another great game of theirs) and improved it. They added a power-up system, among many other new features. I don't know what is the arcade original like, but the MSX port of is very well done.
Technical wise it is as good, as the hardware of the MSX 1 allows it. Yes, the C64 version has a rich sounding music, colorful sprites, and smoother scrolling, but they left many details out and cut many corners, so in overall, the MSX version is better. Indeed the music is something that will stuck in your head and you will keep humming it, especially the tune of the first level. The MSX even has sound effects and music simultaneously, plus it has all the soundtracks from the arcade (I guess). The collision detection works also better than in the C64 port.
UPDATE: Ugh, last time I forgot the most important part, which without both the games of this genre and the review are pointless :D And it is, of course, shooting! Lots of things to shoot at, lots of explosions, boom, boom, BOOOM! Clearing out the area and everything in the way, like in Scramble, you keep smashing the fire button and it has no end of satisfying explosions. Back to Gradius, yes it does have that button smashing, in a good sense. It is not a "press any key to win" case I am talking about. Put it more like this: some situations can be quite intense, many bullets and enemies on screen (some of them even react to your movement), But you can dodge them and take all of them down with a satisfying explosion, and this is quite rewarding. Even if you suck at the game, it keeps you busy and hooked. On the MSX, the sound effects do not sound like actual explosions, but I like to hear them.
The level design looks inspired and interesting, with each of it's own set of enemies (Moai statues, anyone?). It really feels like you are going somewhere, not just seeing the same old bland stuff over and over again. You really want to see what is coming next. The bosses are the same on most of the levels, but immediately before them are so called "boss-rushes" where you have to survive intense perils unique to each level.
The game is quite hard, but not impossible! Checkpoints are scarce, but fortunately, if you loose all your lives, you can continue from the last checkpoint again, in case you press F5 in time. Due to the power up system, you have to involve a little bit of tactics if you want to have the right weapons at the right time. When you die, you loose all the upgrades. I noticed that the developers placed the checkpoints that way you can collect just enough upgrades you will need at the end of the level. This is not obvious at the first few try, but as you find out the right path and right timing, success comes.
The BadI can't think of a problem in the MSX version. The C64, ZX Spectrum, and Amstrad CPC versions are not as good ports as this, but I don't want to talk about them right now.
The Bottom LineThose Japs really knew how to make fun shoot-em-ups! Summing up my point: lots of "shooting them up" to be done, even if you keep failing you really want to continue because of the small basic "rewards", interesting scenery and music, and it also does not over-frustrate because it throws you out at every mistake. This is the contrast of those games I checked out before, may be them low budget or highly praised and well programmed. Gradius has a well thought out design (and also well executed on the MSX), that made me hooked to these shooters recently.
I am aware that many good games came in since Gradius, including its own sequels, and R-Type (aka "the ultimate shoot-em-up of the '80s"), so there is not much point recommending Gradius itself, I guess. But if this game is dated, the majority of the genre is COMPLETELY obsolete!