Compared to the crowds of people flocking to Konami’s E3 space on the E3 show floor to catch a look at new developments with Silent Hill, Metal Gear or Neverdead, the kiosk where Otomedius Excellent sits in the booth sees relatively little traffic. There’s a few reasons for this. The obvious reason is that shmups aren’t known for garnering much attention beyond their dedicated niche. Perhaps more importantly, though, Otomedius doesn’t have the same brand weight Konami throws around with its top-tier properties; Gradius is old-school. Yes, it’s based on one of the Japanese publisher’s longest-running classic series but the sad fact for fans of the series is that it seemingly hasn’t been a major priority for Konami in years.
Outside of Japan, anyway. While US gamers have had only the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it WiiWare release of Gradius ReBirth to satiate their Vic Viper cravings over the past several years (ZOE 2 doesn’t count), Japanese fans have been acquainted to the series’ would-be successor, Otomedius, for a few years now. The difference between the two games is almost entirely cosmetic: Gradius is a hardcore, serious horizontal exercise in shooting and dodging, while Otomedius is a hardcore, serious exercise in shooting and dogding… starring sexy anime girls piloting small spaceships. Excellent, the sequel to the arcade (and Japan-only) original Otomedius, isn’t much different.
If you’re even peripherally familiar with Gradius, you’ll be able to jump into Otomedius Excellent with no trouble. After choosing your fairer sex-pilot, you’re given a choice from among several offensive and defensive powerups arranged sequentially on a power meter. Gradius’s tried-and-true strategic mechanic is still in play - the more powerups you collect from destroyed enemies, the more weapons and abilities you can unlock and activate. The catch is that your abilities cycle through based on the number of powerups you pick up, so stopping when you’re at the right number is key. Grab too many powerups without activating a power and the meter will reset, robbing you of your hard-earned power. Gradius has never allowed players to reap the benefits of mindlessly picking up powerup after powerup ad nauseum, and nothing’s changed in Otomedius.
Though Otomedius Excellent's design is not especially different from the oldest Gradius (only updated with a 3D engine on a 2D plane) Konami added a few things so that it feels current. Unlike Gradius proper, Otomedius’s ladies can fire off screen-filling burst bombs, complete with anime flourishes that are played on-screen before the move is executed. Your weapons selection has also been vastly expanded to include several unlockable armaments like piercing missiles (that instantly tear through a straight row of enemies), a Contra-style spread shot and tri-fanning projectiles that shoot above, below and forward simultaneously, to name a few. Longtime fans may even recognize some boss and enemy types that tie Otomedius to its forebears. They may be thrown off by the chunkier character and enemy ship models, though - whereas old Gradius games had you threading your way through passages increasingly fraught with enemy fire, Otomedius gives you less room to maneuver in general, creating a different kind of claustrophobia. (The slowdown this causes in-game may or may not be an homage to Gradius’ chugging 8- and 16-bit console incarnations.)
Frankly we’re amazed that Otomedius Excellent is being brought to the US at all, since the brand is so unknown in the states that Konami branded the box with the Gradius logo. Otherwise it’s likely no one would get it. From the few levels we played, which ranged from a Yokohoma-esque harbor area to underground caves, Otomedius is looking pretty good. The difficulty ramped up quickly and some of the boss battles we saw - including a crafty, tentacled mech that could very be well a tongue-in-cheek rendition of MGS4’s Gekkos - were genuinely interesting. For better or for worse, Otomedius is still Gradius. Just try not to get too distracted by all the boobs when the game hits the 360 next month.
Jun 10, 2011