Gradius (NES)

This time, it’s personal.

I’ve long nursed a grudge against Konami’s celebrated 1985 shooter Gradius. My hard feelings date back all the way back to one fateful afternoon sometime in 1991 when I was wandering the aisles of the Aladdin’s Castle arcade in the Redlands Mall, out of quarters and just killing time. Video game-obsessed kids actually did that quite a bit back then. Passing by Gradius, I did a double-take when I noticed that someone had left a ton of credits on the machine! Around thirty of them! What a one-in-a-lifetime windfall this felt like for a broke kid like me. I can only assume that one of the arcade staff had been messing around on the machine after hours or during a break and simply forgotten to clear it when they were done. I promptly latched onto that cabinet, determined to put each and every one of those miraculous free credits to good use.

It was a disaster. My initial giddiness quickly turned to annoyance and then animosity as I died over and over in rapid succession, each time losing all of my little spaceship’s precious power-ups. I must have burned through a hundred lives in about as many minutes and I don’t think I ever saw past the opening level. My first encounter with Gradius was formative in that it was enough to put me off the scrolling shooter genre as a whole for decades to come. It wasn’t until early last year that I started to reconsider my longstanding prejudice, thanks to falling head over heels in love with Compile’s NES classic The Guardian Legend. I’ve completed and reviewed nearly twenty additional shooters since then and now greatly regret my prior view that the genre as a whole was just too difficult and repetitive to be any fun. Until now, however, I’ve never actually attempted to go back and finish what I started with the first Gradius. Well, no more. I’m done running.

Gradius is easily one of the most influential games of the 20th century. It’s the Super Mario Bros. or Street Fighter II of side-scrolling spaceship shooters. If I was feeling lazy, I’d be fully justified in invoking the old “needs no introduction” cop-out. Though it certainly didn’t birth the format in one grand stroke (both Williams’ Defender and Konami’s own Scramble are clear antecedents), Gradius was one of the first such shooters to utilize a robust power-up system that allowed for player choice when it came to which ship upgrades to equip and in which order. It also codified the template of thematically-distinct levels with their own unique boss enemies waiting at the end and was one of the first of countless games from the mid-’80s onward to work elements of Alien/H.R. Giger-inspired “bio-horror” into its art design. Other developers would take these ideas and run with them, and while some of the resulting offshoots like the R-Type and Thunder Force games are of sufficient quality to rate as legends in their own rights, all remain recognizable on sight for what they are: Gradius variants. Gradius would also see its share of official sequels, of course, and even spin-off and parody versions over the years, some of which (Life Force, Jikkyō Oshaberi Parodius) I’ve already reviewed.

This particular port of the arcade original is impressive and important in its own right. It was Konami’s first release for the NES in North America. That they would opt to break into a new market with Gradius makes sense when you consider the standards for arcade ports in 1986. The Famicom was a machine designed back in 1983 to play Donkey Kong and even Nintendo’s own home version of that game was compromised, missing one of the four stages from the arcade. Other major conversions released in the interim, such as Capcom’s 1942 and Ghosts n’ Goblins, were marred by some glaring technical shortcomings and rather ugly to boot. NES Gradius isn’t a perfect one-for-one match for the arcade cabinet, but it is damn close and it looks and runs like a dream next to Capcom’s early offerings. This was the platform’s first true home run of a contemporary arcade translation and occupies a similar place of honor in its library as Strider on the Genesis or R-Type on the PC Engine.

If you guessed that this space shooter is all about defending your home planet from a fleet of evil aliens, then congratulations: You’ve probably played a video game before. Here, it’s just you and your Vic Viper space fighter out to save the peaceful planet Gradius from the rampaging Bacterians. The Vic Viper may be the most iconic spaceship in all of gaming but, it always sounded like the name of a loan shark from a pulp crime novel to me.

Your mission sees you flying from left to right across a total of seven side-scrolling stages, each with its own unique hazards to contend with (apart from stage four, which is consists of various elements from the first stage rearranged to be more challenging). Generally, each level opens with an introductory “approach” segment set in deep space where you’re given the opportunity to power-up a bit by shooting down formations of weak enemies and harvesting the power capsules they leave behind. After that comes the true test in the form of an asteroid field, enemy base, or similar claustrophobic setting where avoiding contact with the scenery itself becomes just as vital as dodging the many enemy shots, as even the briefest instant of contact with a wall, ceiling, or floor spells instant death. Make it through that to defeat the stage boss and you’re granted the privilege of doing it all over again, except harder.

The stages in Gradius can come off a bit plain in hindsight, but the degree of variety on display was quite extreme for a game of its vintage. My favorite of the lot is easily the surreal gauntlet of laser ring shooting Easter Island moai heads from stage three. These would go to become a series staple enemy and make cameos in countless other Konami games starting as early as the first Castlevania. There are even a few games (Konami Wai Wai World, Moai-kun) where you can play as a moai statue! Supposedly, these odd fellows were included in Gradius in the first place because the developers were inspired to include a “mysterious” element by the appearance of Peru’s Nazca Lines in their competitor Namco’s shooter Xevious. I reckon it can all be traced back to the ancient aliens fad kicked off by crackpot author Erich von Däniken in 1968 and still making the rounds among kooks of all stripes to this day. Who knew we’d get a wacky video game mascot out of that mess?

The star of the show here is the revolutionary power-up system. Unlike in most games of this kind, the glowing capsule pickups dropped by enemies do nothing on their own. Instead, they act as a currency or sorts for purchasing the actual power-ups. At bottom of the screen is a menu of all six available abilities, each its own discrete box and arranged in order from least to most expensive. Collecting your first capsule will cause the first box (“speed up”) to become highlighted. You can then either press the B button to spend your single capsule on speeding the Viper up a bit or you can choose to wait and collect more capsules in order to advance the menu along to a more expensive upgrade like the missiles, laser, or protective force field. All of these are highly effective against the enemy onslaught, but the real MVPs are the iconic option satellites. You can have a maximum of two of these indestructible orange orbs trailing after your main ship and duplicating every shot you fire, effectively doubling or tripling your offensive power. This idea of a helpful drone ship that assists the player in this fashion has been so widely mimicked that it’s tough to imagine the shooter genre without it. The humble option is the great granddaddy of them all and its capabilities would be greatly expanded in future Gradius titles.

This classic Gradius power-up scheme is very much a love/hate prospect. Some players can’t stand having to divide their attention between the menu bar and the main portion of the screen. This is understandable, particularly in the arcade, where you can’t pause the action to mull over what power-up you should invest in next. Personally, I appreciate that it adds a layer of strategy beyond the basic “grab all the cool stuff you can” approach of most shooters. I also like that most of the power-ups are compatible with each other. If you can just stay alive long enough, the Viper can have eventually be tricked-out with enhanced speed, a more powerful main gun, air-to-around missiles, multiple options, and a force field all at the same time. That’s uncommonly generous of Konami and, again, highly ambitious for game from 1985.

Don’t go thinking that generosity extends much further, however. Gradius has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessness. No matter how many cool powers you manage to unlock, one stray bullet or brush with a wall is enough to vaporize the Vic Viper, sending you back to the last checkpoint with nothing to show for it. While being stripped of your extra weapons and shield would be bad enough, it’s the loss of speed that stings most of all. The Viper’s default movement is so achingly slow that it verges on the unsporting. This means that surviving long enough to actually pull off a comeback after the first couple of stages always feels like a one-in-a-million miracle. This is compounded by the fact that this NES version doesn’t include a continue feature. If your stock of lives runs out, you start back at the beginning. The degree of perfection demanded can be maddening at times. The game’s testers apparently agreed, because this is where the famous “Konami code” (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start) was born. Inputting it mid-game will instantly equip the Viper with all available upgrades. No code for me, though. I crushed this one fair and square.

So what do I think of my middle school boogeyman Gradius now that I’ve finally faced it head-on and emerged victorious? Well, I don’t hate it anymore, that’s for sure, and I have a new appreciation for how bold and full-featured its design really was. Do I love it, though? Is it as good as its many sequels and offshoots? Absolutely not. Even on the same system, the NES port of its spin-off Life Force and the Famicom-exclusive Gradius II both surpass it in every possible way. Better sound and visuals, more elaborate stages, cooler bosses, more power-ups, the works. Although the original is still a fun enough playthrough if you’re patient and willing to adapt to its unforgiving nature, its primary appeal these days will be to the nostalgic and to weirdos like me with an abiding interest in classic gaming history. Beating Gradius feels like getting a flu shot: It’s good for me and I’m glad I did it, but I’m not exactly in a rush to do it again.

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