I'd heard lots of great things about Gradius II before I purchased it. Back then, it was relatively expensive and hard to come by, so I had to wait a while to nab my own copy, and I grew more and more eager to play it as time went by. Right before I finally got it, I'd beaten and loved Parodius, so at that point in time I was totally psyched for more Gradius-style action.
I ended up disappointed. There are lots of 16-bit sidescrolling shooters that are more intense and have better visuals, and very little of this fairly antiquated game seemed fresh to me. Cartoony Parodius boasts not only more personality than G2 but also more action. But at least the CD renditions of familiar Gradius tunes are absolutely wonderful (fans of the series will adore them), and while the bitter taste from that initial experience still lingers, every time I replay the game I like it more than I expect to, as it really isn't terrible.
I could gripe about the lousy checkpoints, the options thieves (who sometimes appear during boss fights--argh!), the unimpressive weaponry, the horrible slowdown, the poor collision detection, and the absurdly redundant "shoot the core" bosses, but Gradius fans already know about all of that stuff and are accepting of it. What bugged me the most was the lack of freshness, which might just be what'll make G2 paradise for the aforementioned fans. In any event, let's take a look at each stage in turn:
Stage 1 - The money level--the one everyone knows about thanks to its huge "fire planets" and flame serpents. It scores points for cool looks and cool concepts, but there's pretty much nothing going on action-wise. That's fine for a first stage but not so much for a money level.
Stage 2 - You get web-like crap to shoot through and hopping spider-like things to kill as you make your way through a drab gray level. This stage has one of the few tunes that I dislike in the game.
Stage 3 - How many shooters have you seen by now with a level where you have to break apart chunks of rock/ice/crystal?
Stage 4 - The usual Gradius forestial "bytopia" with the usual cannons, little guys, and volcanic debris to deal with.
Stage 5 - Moai head time. Seen these guys before? It's still pretty intense stuff, and the Moai music sounds GREAT here, very chilling.
Stage 6 - Ruins with pillars that break from their foundations and shoot vertically across the screen. This stage wasn't in the arcade game. It's pretty lackluster, but the statue-like things that hop towards you are quite cool.
Stage 7 - Maze level. I much prefer high-speed reflex-based scenes like the Aero Blasters speed tunnels to crap like this that basically has you crash, learn, and proceed.
Stage 8 - Boss gauntlet. Great rendition of a familiar tune. You've seen most if not all of these bosses elsewhere by now.