Gradius V is beautiful. Let's establish that first of all. This is what happens when a supremely talented developer is let loose on a modern console to create a 2D videogame. Glowing lasers, nebulous clouds, dense, twinkling starfields, flames, huge mechanical bosses and of course... some of the most satisfying explosions ever put into a game. The first stage with the Earth spinning around in the background is a visual treat and a stunning introduction. The attention to detail in the ever-moving backdrops throughout gives the game a great sense of place. I own a copy of the 'Perfect' DVD - a playthrough by one of Japan's most skillful gamers - and I often sit and watch the whole thing through. It's a great way to appreciate the artistry on display.
Ironically, Gradius V - developed by the uncompromisingly hardcore team at Treasure - turned out to be arguably the most accessible and playable in the series. It doesn't bash you over the head with insane difficulty the way many of the previous entries did, and any moderately competent player will find themselves slowly but surely progressing further and further with each attempt. One decision that was absolutely essential in this is the fact that the player ship respawns on destruction, with a chance to grab back any Options it had acquired.
It's also very exciting and dramatic, helped in large part by the superlative score by Hitoshi Sakimoto. The cutscene overture at the beginning of level 2 gives me goosebumps every single time.
The modern shmup market maintains a loyal fanbase, enough to keep a handful of specialist developers going. There are worthy entries here and there, but Gradius V simply blows them all away. It's the finest shmup since Treasure's own Ikaruga, and undoubtedly one of the finest ever made.