Gradius Review (NES)
Destroy the core!
Gradius. It may be one of the granddaddies of all classic shooters, but the name alone is enough to conjure up an array of emotions for anyone who has ever played it. I recently asked retro gamers across many communities about Gradius and heard the same words over and over to describe the game like how it’s “difficult”, “addictive”, “rewarding” “frustrating” and above all, “memorable”. Smartasses also said “option” and “destroy the core.” Damn kids.
If you’ve ever played a Gradius game, you already know that the series is one of the best shoot ’em up (shmup) series out there and also one of the most difficult. The original Gradius was ported to systems that could handle it very well such as the PC Engine and also to systems’ that couldn’t such as the X68000 or even the MSX and Commodore 64, but for now, I’ll be reviewing the version that most of us probably would associate with, the Famicom/NES release.
The peaceful people of the planet Gradius are suddenly threatened by the invasion force of the evil Bacterian Empire. When war is inevitable, the top Gradian scientists design the Vic Viper – a adaptable state-of-the-art hyperspace fighter with energy absorbing abilities to boost its own power. You are the best pilot the people of Gradius have and have been chosen to pilot the Vic Viper and end the war. Can the Vic Viper save the planet Gradius?
Gradius was among the earlier Konami arcade shooters and when it was ported to the Famicom in 1986. The Famicom version, while obviously more basic than the arcade, is surprisingly faithful and is a very good port.
While Gradius may not look like much by today’s standards, when it was released it was an amazing step forward for the shooter genre and arcade games as a whole. Enemies are colorful and uniquely shaped. Due to the blackness of space, the colorful bullets, missiles, lasers, obstacles and enemies are clearly vivid and show a level of detail that was very impressive for its time and still looks good today. Bosses often take up half the screen!
The rather bizarre backgrounds and locations lean toward the surreal, but this is part of the charm of Gradius. What other game has you navigating a space cavern where volcanoes erupt below you or has you flying through a field of intergalatic Easter Island Moai heads that blast oval lasers at you?
Much of what transforms Gradius from being just another shooter is it’s legendary soundtrack. It is not an exaggeration to say Gradius has one of the best scores ever produced for a videogame. From the heroic and inspiring main theme of the Vic Viper, the adventurous and uplifting melody of the first stage, the urgent and frantic boss battle music to the moody and plotting theme that plays in the final stage, every peice of music is lively and perfectly captures the imagination and embodies the very soul of what shooter games are all about.
Take for example the theme from the fourth stage.As you spray lasers and missiles on your enemies and are under constant counter fire, this undeniably uplifting song screams “go for it!” like no other shooter game does. The theme itself is simple, memorable, and just downright awesome, and is just one of many themes that play to the same effect. Check it out below.
So where did this awesome music come from? Gradius was composed by a young miss Miki Higashino, who would go on to become one of Konami’s most prolific composers they’ve ever had. Amazingly, Higashino composed Gradius at the very start of her career as a part0time composer at the young age of just 17. (I don’t know about you, but I think that’s incredible)
Higashino’s work on Gradius and the game’s subsequent overnight success would promote her from obscurity into the spotlight as she would later go on to compose the music for nearly every Gradius sequel and spinoff as well as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game and the entire Suikoden series. Sadly, she left Konami in 2002 and now produces very few new scores, but a true legacy was left in her wake that forever remain on the hearts of gamers the world over. Higashino-san, we solute you.
Obviously, such prolific music that Gradius gave us has been remixed and arranged endlessly over the years. Among the more interesting takes on the game’s soundtrack is the Gradius in Classic album produced by Konami’s Kukeiha Club in 1993. This album reproduces all the music from Gradius with a real, live orchestra and the results are simply amazing. Here’s just a taste of that incredible album.
Gradius is an auto-scrolling horizontal shooter that makes heavy use of a power-up system. By itself, the Vic Viper is a rather basic spacecraft with sluggish movement, limited firepower and no defensive shielding. To even the odds, the Vic Viper can absorb enemy power capsules to increase it’s overall status. This is where the now-famous Gradius power up system comes into play.
Essentially, the power capsules enemy fighters drop are a forum of currency to buy upgrades with. Different kinds of upgrades require varied amounts of power capsules. The more power capsules you stockpile, the better the payoff is when you finally do spend them.
Whenever you absorb your first power capsule, you have the option to speed up one level. Speeding up makes your ship faster and easier to control, but if you speed up too many times the Vic Viper will go from being sluggish to dashing across the screen with the slightest press on the d-pad, often resulting in collision and death. It’s best to only speed up 2-3 times in any game that employs the Gradius power up system.
When you absorb two power capsules, you can drop missiles. Missiles fall below your ship at a 45 degree angle downward. You have unlimited missiles so don’t be too concerned with firing them with abandon. Missiles have a limited guidance system. When they reach a flat surface, they travel along the ground before detonating on the first enemy they run into. Options, which I will soon get into, also drop missiles in addition to your regular shot.
Three power capsules gives you the ability to fire a double shot. The double shot is exactly like the default shot with the addition of another bullet stream that fires at a 45 degree angle above your ship, the exact opposite of missiles. Although you hae the ability to fire in two directions at once and pick off enemies that cling to ceilings easily, the Double Shot is best skipped over in favor for the next, more powerful ability, the piercing laser.
Four power capsules nets you the piercing laser, which is easily the best weapon in the game. This weapon fires straight from your craft and travels the entire length of the screen, regardless of what might be in its way. It can pass through whole streams of enemies, objects, even some solid objects. Best of all, options can fire it too, making the Vic Viper with several options and the laser capable of raining a devastating blue lightshow on your enemies.
With five capsules you can set off an option, also known as a multiple. An option/multiple is an indestructible orange drone that appears close to your ship. An option fires the same weapons the Vic Viper does, and moves in an inverted mirror fashion to your own movements. In the arcade original, you can have up to four options at once, but in the Famicom version you can have just two.
Finally, with six power capsules you can acquire the question mark, which is actually the shield. the shield in the original Gradius is two rotating energy discs that appear above and below the nose of the Vic Viper. They can absorb direct enemy fire and collisions, ensuring that frontal attacks will not result in the instant destruction of your ship. The shield can take a few hits before overloading, but it still does nothing to protect against enemies that shoot at you from behind. Regardless of the sheild, the Vic Viper will still be destroyed instantly if hit from behind. This flaw would be later be corrected in the sequels to follow.
If you pick up a seventh power capsule, the cycle repeats back to Speed Up, then Missile, then Double Shot, etc. The only major downside of the gameplay in Gradius is whenever you die, you looose all the upgrades you gained.
To make matters worse, if you die in the middle of a stage, it can be extremely difficult to proceed in your default weak and sluggish state with little hope of powering back up as most of the capsule giving enemies appear towards the start of each stage. If this happens, keep in mind there is always the Konami code, but even with the aid of the code you still will not have any speed or fire power bonuses and the code can only be entered once per game.
Each stage of Gradius begins with a swarm of weak enemies with plenty of power up opportunities, followed by a mid section of increased difficulty, a mid-boss, and then a boss. In the first game one of the main bosses that makes several appearances is a large carrier with a prominent blue core. To defeat this enemy you shoot at a series of hatches until you can fire directly at this core until you destroy it, hence the now infamous line “destroy the core!”
Gradius controls just as you would expect from a classic Konami shooter. It’s flawless. Due to the Famicom/NES only having two action buttons, both fire and missiles are mapped to the B button, but is is actually better than having another whole button just for missiles as was the case in the arcade version.
A: Upgrade your current power up selection
Select: No Function
Gradius is probably renown for being one of the most notoriously difficult shooters outside of the titular bullethell subgenre of shoot ’em ups. This is just one of those games where contact with anything other than the power capsules enemies drop means instant death. Worse, once you die, you loose all said power ups and revert back to your most basic, useless form that can barely deal with the weakest enemies in the game, let along anything else.
What this amounts to is the fact that once you die in the later levels, you’re pretty much fucked for the rest of the game. While this might not be true of all situations, it’s definitely enough to turn some gamers off from Gradius. Despite the constant frustration, Gradius is still one of the best classics worth playing again and again. Not too many frustrating games can make that claim.
Availability & Price
The Famicom version of Gradius is one of the more common and easy to find shooters out there and will usually set you back between $5-15 depending on level of completeness. Likewise, the NES version should also be around the same price range. Copies of both are usually readily available on ebay.
Gradius was original realsed by Konami in 1985 as a coin-0p arcade title, where it quickly grew in popularity. Soon, Gradius was the number one smash hit shooter in Japan and around the world. Around this time the budding home console market was beginning to be very profitable and Konami came on board with one of their first Famicom projects being a port of Gradius.
The success of Gradius in the arcades meant that the Famicom home console version quickly sold it’s first million copies, a huge milestone for a console game at the time. This fact would later be used as a selling point on the US NES version of the same game.
Here’s the original commercial for the Famicom release.
- Incredibly accurate to the arcade version despite much less advanced hardware
- Easily available
- Perfect play control
- Distinctive, large and detailed bosses
- Legendary soundtrack
- Rather difficult
- Occasional cheap level design or enemy placement
- No instant respawns upon death
- The standard Famicom/NES version only allows you to use two options at once
Games come and go, but the appeal of Gradius is timeless, making it truly one of the best classic shoot ’em ups. The listen to the music is to love the music and one way or another, every shmup to follow owes a tip of the hat to what Gradius accomplished. If it’s been a while since you took the Vic Viper for a spin or even if you’ve never done so before period, I highly suggest you give this one a try. It will be frustrating to learn, but once you get the hang of it there’s so many sequels to follow you’ll never be board. Gradius is as one retro gamer I asked put it, rewarding, hard, addictive, insane, radical, excellent and most of all, classic.
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System, Famicom, (ported from the Arcade and ported to numerous other consoles including the MSX, Commodore 64 and PCE to name a few)
Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up
Release Date: April 25 1986 (Famicom, Japan)
Also from the developer: Lifeforce, Gradius II, Gradius III, etc
Game Length: ~40 minutes
ESRB: N/A, but would be E
Savvy retro gamers might have noticed in the screenshots that the game seems to look bettere than the standard version. That’s because it does – I used a special rom hack that makes the game more closely mirror the arcade original. Since I don’t want to face any legal issues, I’d rather not publicly host the rom, but if you’d like it send me a private email and I’ll see about getting you a copy.