When you think of classic shoot 'em ups, the top 2 series that likely come to mind are Gradius and R-Type so let's take an in-depth look at both franchises and see which one comes out on top.
Before getting into the specific games, allow me to discuss their general gameplay. Both series consist of horizontally-scrolling stages where you dodge projectiles and hazards while shooting enemy forces. They're both far from bullet hell as the amount of onscreen projectiles is rarely overwhelming so the challenge primarily relies on your ability to deal with tricky situations and tackle enemies effectively before they get the best of you. Throw in a bunch of cool boss fights and you're left with a winning formula.
The main aspect that sets these series apart is their use of power-ups. Gradius features its iconic power-up gauge where collecting pick-ups cycles through an array of power-ups then you tap a button to deploy whichever one is selected. It feels awesome to slowly turn Vic Viper into an unstoppable enemy-killing machine. Meanwhile, R-Type's R-9 ship relies on an attachment orb known as Force that can shift between various chargeable weapons upon collecting them. Detaching it to deal with hard-to-reach foes and the ability to attach it to the ship's rear adds a layer of strategy that makes overcoming challenging situations a rewarding endeavour. This is honestly a tough one as I love Gradius' power-up gauge but I'll pick R-Type as the winner here simply due to its clever use of the Force unit.
Gradius debuted in arcades back in 1985 and the original game holds up beautifully. One thing that stands out about it even to this day is how much variety is featured throughout its campaign. Whether you're dodging chunks of lava spewing from volcanoes or dealing with Moai heads in a complicated section that wraps vertically, it's great fun from start to finish. That being said, you'll face the same boss a few times and the music is kind of cheesy and repetitive. Meanwhile, 1987's R-Type has awesome music and fantastic boss fights. Plus, it also features a solid amount of variety with a couple of creepy organic stages complete with enemies that can emerge from anywhere thus keeping you constantly on your toes. Although Gradius came first, the original R-Type is a significantly better game.Arcade Archives: Gradius Review R-Type Dimensions EX Review
Gradius would finally see a sequel in 1988 with Gradius II which included different arrays of power-ups which was a great addition then 1989's Gradius III allowed you to edit your own power-up gauge. A decade later, Gradius IV boasted refined visuals with 3D models for some enemies and environments and in 2004, the PS2 exclusive Gradius V released which was developed by Treasure and it's just great. Playing it cooperatively while mastering its brutal stages is a ton of fun. There were a few notable console-only releases as well such as Gradius Gaiden, Gradius Galaxies, the Nemesis MSX and Game Boy games, and Gradius ReBirth; a reboot of the series for Wii.Gradius V Review
R-Type got a sequel in 1989 with R-Type II which included new weapons and much more challenging difficulty. This also marked the end of mainline R-Type arcade releases and both original arcade games saw many console ports since. In 1993, R-Type III: The Third Lightning debuted for Super NES which had mind-blowing graphics and music as well as new Force types and action-packed segments that stood out wonderfully. R-Type Delta for PS1 implemented 3D visuals yet its gameplay stayed true to the series and the same can be said for PS2's R-Type Final which featured an outstanding cinematic aesthetic and 101 playable ships. Although the Gradius sequels are great, R-Type really went above and beyond with each successor so it wins here. Oh, and R-Type Final 2 is currently in development!
Gradius had a ton of spin-offs over the years, the best of which is 1986's Life Force (AKA Salamander) and its 1996 sequel, Salamander 2. Their blend of horizontal and vertical stages as well as co-op multiplayer is just awesome and, dare I say, more fun than Gradius itself. Next, the long-running Parodius series is a spin-off of Gradius that features hilarious enemies and stages as well as spoofs of classic Konami franchises. Finally, the very weird Otomedius games have you control women versions of classic ships like Vic Viper.Arcade Archives: Life Force Review
R-Type had 2 arcade spin-offs in the form of Armed Police Unit Gallop (AKA Cosmic Cop) and R-Type Leo; both of which are fun if you ever get a chance to play them. There are also a couple of SRPGs for PSP known as R-Type Tactics which is odd, especially considering the sequel is named Operation Bitter Chocolate. Anyway, it's pretty clear that Gradius has much more enjoyable spin-offs.
Well, my thumbs are tired from all this shoot 'em up action so it's time to choose an overall winner which is...
Gradius is a phenomenal shmup franchise that contains many unforgettable classics. However, R-Type's consistent level of quality that managed to improve drastically over its lifespan as a series makes it stand out as possibly the best shoot 'em up franchise in the genre's history. Of course, you couldn't go wrong with either series so collect them all and have a blast!
That's just my opinion. Agree? Disagree? Vote now!