Space-shooter fans screamed for joy last month when Konami announced that Gradius Portable, a collection of five games, would be released for the PSP in Japan this coming February. Since the PSP is import-friendly (games aren't restricted by region), we thought we'd bring you everything that's fit to print about this upcoming shoot-'em-up compilation.
Update (Jan. 25): Gradius Portable is coming to North America as Gradius Collection in the spring of 2006!
The five games making their way onto the disc are Gradius, Gradius II, Gradius Gaiden, Gradius III, and Gradius IV. Astute shmup fans will be quick to point out that Konami previously released Gradius and Gradius II on one disc for the PlayStation, as the exclusive-to-Japan Gradius Deluxe Pack, and that Gradius III and Gradius IV are currently available as a PlayStation 2 two-in-one set. Nevertheless, the PSP collection is shaping up to be a very compelling purchase, first because it packages all five games together onto one disc that can be taken and played anywhere, and secondly because the PSP collection will offer a batch of new features that those earlier discs didn't have.
First up on the disc is Gradius, the side-scrolling space shooter that introduced us to concepts that were fresh and new at the time and are still found in many of today's shmups. Players step into the cockpit of the Vic Viper spaceship and have to navigate through eight increasingly difficult levels, collecting speed-ups and helper pods to augment the ship's basic laser blaster. Gradius was the first game to feature the so-called Konami Code, which instantly gifted players with all of the game's power-ups and lived on as a cheat code in numerous subsequent games. The version of Gradius included with Gradius Portable is a conversion of the original arcade game and not the "watered down but still extremely fun" NES version. That means more on-screen sprites, additional background layers, less slowdown, and complete level structures. On the PSP, Gradius will include an optional wide display setting, which will make the graphics fill the entire width of the PSP's screen. The graphics won't be stretched or cropped. Instead, the game will show more of the playing field in front of and behind the player's ship and let players roam around that now-visible area.
Gradius II (1988)
Gradius II kept the gameplay from the original Gradius intact but upped the ante with new levels, bigger bosses, and vastly improved graphics and audio. Few that have played the game have forgotten the first time they saw those giant flame snakes and burning suns leap out from the top and bottom of the screen. It's definitely a testament to the peak of 8-bit gaming. Unfortunately, Gradius II was never released in North America–not in the arcade or on home consoles–so many players still haven't been able to experience its beauty. Like Gradius, the version of Gradius II included with Gradius Portable is based on the arcade game and not the Famicom (NES) game. Some players prefer the level layouts and bosses found in the Famicom version, but the general consensus is that the arcade game wins out thanks to the gigantic bosses, enemy-packed screens, and gorgeous flame effects made possible by the beefed-up graphical horsepower. Gradius II on Gradius Portable also features the same optional expanded playfield setting as Gradius.
Gradius III (1990)
When the 16-bit era began, Konami was quick to bring their side-scrolling shooter franchise back for another go with Gradius III. Once again, gameplay was mostly unchanged from the two earlier Gradius games. Players still have to pilot a single ship through multiple levels and collect power-ups and helper pods to improve their ship's capabilities. A new flexible power-up system allows players to choose different power-up paths, which change the order that weapons are activated when power-up capsules are collected. What changed the most were the graphics and audio, which pushed 16-bit to its limits. Gradius III flexed that hardware muscle with its large sprites, multiple background layers, numerous gigantic bosses with multiple attack forms, and synthesized music and digital sound effects. A Super NES conversion came out soon after the arcade game did, but while it had the same graphics and audio, many of the levels and bosses were abbreviated or outright removed. Gradius Portable includes the original, full-length arcade version. Graphical display options will include a standard letterbox mode as well as a widescreen stretch mode, which, unlike the field-enhancing mode in Gradius and Gradius II, will stretch the graphics in order to fill the PSP's screen… making everything look a little fatter.
Gradius Gaiden (1997)
One of the more welcome additions on the disc is Gradius Gaiden, the PlayStation revamp that many consider to be the best game in the entire series. It incorporates some of the familiar enemies, bosses, and levels from previous Gradius games (graphically enhanced and updated, of course), but this homage to all things Gradius also includes numerous original levels and bosses all its own. Gradius Gaiden was the first Gradius game to include an ice level, for example. Gameplay innovations include new weapons and the ability to pick from four different ships, each with its own set of power-up items. A new power-meter path editor lets players arrange to their liking the order that weapons are activated. If you want helper pods right away, by gum you can set it that way. Gaiden also kicked the graphics and audio up one more notch, bringing the series into the 32-bit era with sharp, high-resolution 2D graphics, plenty of flare and transparency effects, a CD-quality soundtrack, and dozens of high-quality voice clips. Similar to Gradius III, the version of Gradius Gaiden included in Gradius Portable will let players choose between a 1:1 letterbox display or a stretched widescreen display.
Gradius IV (1998)
For some reason, Konami took a few steps back with Gradius IV. They removed most of the new weapons introduced in Gradius III and Gradius Gaiden, and reverted back to the pre-set power-up strips from Gradius III. For the most part, level designs merely copied layouts from previous games (although the graphics were noticably improved). Still, Gradius IV has the same classic gameplay that fans love, and boy is it beautiful. The bubble stage has large transparent bubbles, the volcano stage is filled with multilayered lava and plasma flows, and the laser spitting Moai in the jungle stage are the largest they've ever been. An arcade-perfect conversion of Gradius IV was included in a recent PS2 two-pack, and the same is the case in Gradius Portable, except now players can pick between letterboxed and stretched display ratios.
Every game in the collection will include multiple difficulty settings, a stage select option that will allow players to start from previously-completed levels, and a high score mode that challenge players to earn the highest score possible on individual levels using only a single ship. Bonus content will include a movie gallery, featuring movie clips that were included with the earlier Gradius compilations on the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, and a sound gallery that will let you listen to all of the music and sound effects from every game on the disc.
Surprisingly, Konami isn't just halfheartedly throwing their old compilations together on a single disc. They're also greatly expanding the variety of settings that players can adjust and incorporating a user-friendly game save feature into each game. From the options menu, players will be able to adjust standard options, such as the difficulty setting and the number of ships and continues, as well as "cheat" settings, such as the size of the ship's hitbox or whether slowdown is on or off. Every game will keep track of high scores and completed levels, and, in an added nod to today's technology, players will be able to quicksave their games in-progress and jump right back into the game they were playing in the very spot they left it. Quicksaves won't be erased when you re-load them either, so you'll be able to store multiple saves on the same memory stick.
Gradius Portable goes on sale in Japan on February 9, 2006, priced at 5230 yen (about $50). Word from our sources inside the company's North American branch suggests that they plan to publish the game in North America sometime later in the spring, pending Sony's approval process.
Update (Jan. 25): Yes! Konami officially announced that Gradius Collection will be coming to North America sometime in the spring of 2006.