GRADIUS II / Konami / NES
So there's basically three types of space shooters:
A) More accessible shooters that take it easy and welcome the masses
B) Hardcore memorization-based masochistic shooters oriented around dying to some ambush that's almost impossible to avoid without foreknowledge, memorizing what to do, making a little more progress and dying again, memorizing, etc. by playing the same level from the start like 800 times
C) Hardcore reflex-testing "bullet hell" shooters
Gradius II is firmly in category B, whereas the first game
did so well because it fell into Category A but still offered fair challenge. And look, I'm not here to kink-shame your shooter preferences, but B and C are firmly in "cult" territory where they aren't for anyone else but the initiated. So it's kind of jarring for Gradius II to go in this direction, and I'm sure left a lot of fans in the dirt.
This was released only in Japan; I'm certain Konami looked at the difficulty, looked over at North America and was like "nope" even though the first game did well here and the sequel is one of the most graphically impressive games in the NES library. It's effectively an extra levels pack, with little change to the core engine, but it's much nicer-looking (with some impressive graphical effects and the ability to scroll the screen vertically through multiple paths in some levels).
I really like the game when it's you vs. the enemy fleet; I feel like that bit of it is a stiff but fair challenge, even though you'll catch me repeatedly cussing the Vic Viper out because the starting gun's rate of fire is way too slow and choppy. It's when the background gets involved that the game gets to be too much of a pisser. You get an early taste of what you're in for when you can unexpectedly scroll the screen down right into a wave of unseen enemies charging you vertically, or when you get taken out by giant solar flares that give no warning before taking up like half of the available screen space.
I'm absolutely positive a lot of people will give up on the first stage, or at the least will need to save-scum to cheese through it. That's a shame, because the rest of the game has a lot to offer - great backgrounds, great bosses (Snatcher-like skull firing a giant mouth laser is my favorite) and great tunes
I was tempted to give this one a 2/5 simply for being inaccessible, but it's just too well-made of a game for a negative rating; you can make it a little easier on yourself with the classic Konami Code, or just jump straight to the superior PC Engine port on the Virtual Console to play with cheats enabled.