Thursday, January 24, 2013

Gradius (NES, 1986)

Gradius is one of the first great shooters of the modern era. In this game, you play as Vic Viper, a space fighter that would go on to get appearances in Zone of the Enders and mentions in the Metal Gear Solid games. Originally, this 1986 post was going to be Adventure Island for the NES. When I was a kid, a friend of mine and I played the first couple of worlds in that game and it was fun. We didn't stay with it too long because we had Marioes and Mega Men to get to. In any case, I was looking forward to revisiting it... but then I discovered firsthand that the game is almost impossible after the first few worlds. Seriously. It's harder than Ninja Gaiden. There is one particular level (7-1, I believe) that is flat-out un-passable due to some truly baffling level design. Given my desire to not have a heart attack, I defaulted to a game I'm more familiar with: Gradius. It won't be the last time a Konami game appears on this list, because Konami is awesome.

This game is a horizontal-scrolling space shooter, and one of the first great ones. Gradius evolves the genre right out of the gate with an innovative powerup system. You grab energy sparks that you can choose to either use (on the lowest powerup, Speed Up, which incrementally increases your movement speed) or hoard to use on higher-tier powerups (like Missile, etc). For instance, grabbing three energy sparks puts you on Double, which you can then grab or wait for another spark to get to Laser. Once you get a powerup, it resets back to the beginning with Speed Up being first. Ideally, getting two Options (trailing ships that also fire) as soon as possible is what you want to go for. Since Missile fires downward, I usually go for it and Double (which fires straight and upward, thus I'm covering three directions with fire) over Laser (which is powerful, but only fires straight). Double and Laser don't stack with each other, but everything else stacks.

Now that we've gotten through that massive explanation, here's the first boss. Actually, this is most of the bosses, because almost all of them look like this. It gets a little faster and more dangerous after every stage, much like the player. Laser is the best weapon for taking this thing out quickly, but Double is far superior for the actual stages. I find the bosses much easier than the stages, which is why I avoid Laser.

One of the things Gradius is famous for? Moai statues. These show up in all of the Gradiuses, and they're kind of mystical.

As you continue through the game, more and more enemies swarm onto the screen, filling it with little bullets. Good luck dodging all of this without your speed sufficiently powered up...

Is that a tiny AT-ST Walker?

Here we have both Options, Double, and Missiles. This is as much screen coverage as you're going to get with your firepower in this game. Because the Gradius games have relatively limited weapons, they have never been my favorite space shooters. The R-Types, Axelay, and Space Megaforce are all superior in their own ways.

The ? at the end of the powerup line is Shield. This is another awesome one, and lets you absorb a number of hits without dying. If you're good at the game you can often make a Shield last until you're ready to bust out another one.

After five battles with that one boss ship, the sixth boss is pretty crazy for an early NES game. This is the hardest fight in the game, as the... whatever the hell that is absolutely bombards you with various attacks.

While Gradius is well-designed 99% of the time, this would be the 1% of the time that it isn't. Right before the final boss, there's a gate that closes. If it closes before you pass through it, it doesn't open again, and the auto-scroll of the screen soon crushes you. This is a pretty cheap shot to throw in right before the final boss (the worst possible time to strip you of powerups). Nothing else like this shows up anywhere else in the game, so you aren't expecting a wall to close in front of you. Doesn't help that you're conditioned to hang back on the left side for the whole game.

Here's the final boss... a gigantic brain. This fight is pretty easy, and victory at this point is fait accompli.

The heroic Vic Viper, having saved the Earth (or whatever the plot here is) speeds out of the nefarious alien space station as it explodes. While this is nothing particularly interesting now, at the time it was one of the first fully-realized games of its genre.

Given that this is an early NES game, we should be glad that they managed to spell the one word in the ending right. It's pluralized and everything!

That concludes Gradius. Short game, short post. Onward.


  1. Konami /was/ awesome would be more apt.

  2. Great concise explanation of the game's logic and what made it cool (like powerup stacking and shooting in multiple directions). A setup that logical never has to be changed.