By Kris . November 17, 2011 . 4:31pm
Otomedius Excellent is a horizontally scrolling shooter, housed in a case that proudly proclaims that it’s “inspired by the legendary Gradius series.” For me, the Gradius series has always been defined by two opposite feelings.
The first feeling is one of absolute empowerment. You’re speeding through space, cutting a swath through tons of enemies with missiles and lasers, trailed by options (little glowing balls that follow your ship and fire the same weapons that you do) that amplify your destruction, all while comfortably encased in a shiny barrier that protects you from multiple attacks. This lovely scenario arose from your clever usage of power-ups and dexterous bullet evasion.
The second feeling is one of fear and frustration. You’ve just died on a particularly hard boss, all power-ups have been stripped from you, you’re scrambling to pick up your scattered options and praying that you get a shot upgrade before you’re eliminated, all while trying to shoot the boss’s weak spot: the core. When you finally figure out a strategy, and start damaging them, the boss times out and leaves. It’s crushing, and often recursive.
With Otomedius Excellent, I found myself experiencing the latter feeling more than the former. At least at first.
On my first run-through of story mode (although, there isn’t actually much story) on normal, I saw the “Continue?” screen over 30 times. I often died due to one of the following: bullets that blended into the backgrounds, improper barrier use, distraction by the subtitles that run in the lower-left corner of the screen (they don’t necessarily match the Japanese dialogue), and my own ineptitude.
Not all of those are the game’s fault, but regardless, I was frustrated by the time the credits rolled over the ending theme song. However, my annoyance began to wane when I started experimenting with Otomedius’s interesting take on the Gradius powerup system. In the past, Gradius’s powerups were presented in a line like this:
Speed | Missile | Double | Laser | Option | ?
Each power-up capsule would move the player one segment along the line, and the player can press a button to activate the powerup that’s currently highlighted, and the upgrade progress must begin again. The “?” was a barrier that would allow you to survive multiple hits, which (for me) is a must. Otomedius picks up this system and runs with it, retaining the line system, but putting a new spin on it.
While each playable character has her own loadouts, once you’ve selected your character, you’re given the ability to change their powers. This makes characters quite flexible. For instance, the main character, Anoa Aoba, based on Gradius’s Vic Viper, has a double shot (which is essentially the normal shot with an extra one added that fires at a 45-degree angle) as her third power-up by default, but I decided that I needed a third direction, since I’m not particularly talented with the double.
Whereas previous Gradius titles would allow you to choose between preset loadouts, Otomedius allows you to change the weapons individually. There are a ton of different shot, missile, and laser types, so after a bit of tinkering, some characters will play entirely differently than they would be by default.
Speed | Seeker Missile | Three-Way | Valcan [sic] | Option | ?
(that’s more like it)
On top of that, playing through the game will level up these powers and unlock new ones. I have absolutely no idea as to how or why the abilities that unlock get unlocked, but it’s always a pleasure to be rewarded with something as you replay story mode. Also, leveling up weapons can make the story mode a bit easier, although you have to activate a power-up multiple times to get to a higher level. Even so, a level 2 laser can tear through bosses much more quickly than its basic version, and is a worthy investment of power-up capsules.
While being able to swap characters’ powerup loadouts seems like it might make the multiple playable characters homogenized, each character also has distinctive (and unchangeable) options. Some characters’ options come earlier in the power-up list than others, many characters’ options act differently than the traditional player-trailing ones, and it seems that certain powers are limited to certain characters.
My personal favorite options belonged to Madoka, (who was somewhat modified from her appearance in the Twinbee series) tiny versions of Twinbee, Winbee, and Gwinbee appear one by one to aid her. They seemed to have minds of their own, targeting enemies while I randomly fired my ridiculously quick and overwhelming Valcan [sic] cannon. Perhaps their tenacity is why you only get three of them…
After toying with the loadouts, and making multiple attempts to get better at story mode on normal (hey, I was able to beat the first level without taking a hit, don’t judge me!), I finally decided to try out the lower difficulties. While a number of my frustrations were still valid (some backgrounds just have too much going on or color schemes that make bullets hard to see until it’s too late), providing players a shield as they start a new life makes the game a lot more manageable. Practice mode draws a red circle around the player that indicates their hitbox, which makes bullet dodging quite a bit easier. For comparison, my first full run-through of easy mode only had me see four “Continue?” screens as opposed to the previous 30-plus.
Despite the occasional annoyances and my initial hesitation about the art style, I ended up having a good time with Otomedius. While it’s certainly not quite as brilliant as its direct ancestor, Parodius, I thought the references to Konami’s history were charming, and, like the Gradius games of the past, there’s something incredibly elating about tearing through a level while completely powered up. It’s the kind of game that grows on you, becoming more and more endearing as you discover the best ways to take on levels and customize your loadout.
Food for thought:
1. While the bosses themselves are somewhat generic machines, they’re piloted by some interesting characters. I was particularly surprised to fight Shiori Fujisaki from Tokimeki Memorial and a scantily-clad moe catgirl version of the cat submarine from Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius.
2. The characters talk a lot. As I mentioned earlier, some of this text is translated in a little subtitle ticker that runs in the lower-left corner of the screen. However, there isn’t really much to what the characters are saying, and some lines go entirely untranslated. It’s also really hard to see on the brighter levels.
3. If you must use a controller, stick to using the D-Pad rather than the analog stick. One of my deaths was the result of a failed attempt at using the analog stick instead.