Nostalgia has a way of coloring one’s perceptions of the past, and I think that’s part of why I so greatly enjoy this game series I’m so terrible at. Gradius was one of the first three videogames I ever owned (along with Crystalis and Super Can’t Get Past World Fiveio Bros.), and I have fond memories of watching the Game Over screen with my father. With three lives, no continues, and a fragile spaceship that explodes if the pilot so much as yawns, Gradius is tough…but worth the trip down memory wormhole, especially if you can drag a friend or family member along.
The moai, the merrier, I always say.
Here’s the premise, summarized from the instruction manual for the sake of the illiterate: Gradius, a peaceful Earth-like planet (a contradiction in terms, I know), is under attack by the eeeeeevil Bacterions. (It’s written like that in the manual: “eeeeeevil Bacterions.”) You, the person holding the controller, have blasted off in the direction of the Bacterion superfortress in a prototype space fighter called the “Warp Rattler,” a name no doubt derived from the nauseating motion of OH GREAT GRADIUS WHY DIDN’T WE TEST THIS FIRST!? Evidently someone forgot to install a guidance system before liftoff, because instead of plotting a safe course around all the hazards between you and the final boss, you pilot the last hope of your people directly through the densest concentrations of Bacterion forces in the galaxy, pretty much guaranteeing the utter annihilation of your civilization.
These turrets look like they’re howling at the moon to mourn my passing.
The game itself consists of virtually nonstop sidescrolling space-shooting action, and the learning curve is excellent. By the end of the first stage, you’ll have mastered the basics of dodging, shooting, and collecting/using powerups. By the end of the second stage, you’ll have gained some exposure to maneuvering your ship through tight spaces and tackling enemies with more unique attack patterns. By the end of the third stage, you’ll be dead. Perfect learning curve. Still, progress is not impossible; it just requires the right balance of reflexes, practice, and strategy. However, if you want to actually beat the game, you’ll need Game Genie and dumb luck.
You’ll also need to shoot at the enemies from time to time instead of taking screenshots. But that’s an advanced tactic.
Aiding you in your mission to at least get as far as Stage 4 are the power capsules left behind by certain defeated enemies. With the exception of the rare green capsules that obliterate everything on the screen (except you; that would be stupid), each power capsule you collect advances the powerup meter on the bottom of the screen. At the press of a button, you can activate whatever ability is highlighted, instantly upgrading your ship to drop missiles, fire lasers, or speed up enough to turn off your four-way flashers and pull out of the breakdown lane. Your spacecraft is woefully inadequate against the forces of galactic domination at first, but each stage begins with a relatively tame “hunting ground” where you can mow down enemies to snag powerups before entering the main part of the stage where you’re just going to die and lose everything anyhow.
Fortunately, the explosion noise you make when you die is pretty sweet. For all you know, I did this on purpose.
Rounding off the powerup list are glowing orange doodads called Options that follow your ship and copy whatever attacks you make, a protective force field that delays your unavoidable Game Over for a few more seconds, and a multidirectional double shot that you’ll only ever activate by accident. In concept, the ability to fire bullets in two different directions is pretty neat, but the fact that you cannot combine Double with Laser makes for a sad decision between the mighty beam that tears through entire rows of enemies, and the dinky double shot, which reduces your rate of fire and occasionally flicks a bullet toward the ceiling at a funny angle.
Battles fought with Double simply aren’t that exciting, no matter how hard the boss tries to liven things up by firing exclamation points.
I’m exaggerating the difficulty of this game to a certain extent, but only because it’s utterly impossible; things don’t necessarily get easier as your power increases. Oh, sure, eventually you can tear through enemies like a bazooka through potato chips, but the game is balanced so that even the beefiest Warp Rattler isn’t so unstoppable that it can’t be…stopped. Enemy projectiles are easily obscured when your Options are littering the screen with missiles and laser beams. Too many Speed Up uses, and you’ll find yourself redecorating the walls with pieces of you and your ship at the slightest twitch. Grow too powerful, and you’ll suddenly discover that the bad guys have way more ammo at their disposal than they’ve been letting on. I had no idea that adaptive difficulty was even a concept back in 1986, but here it is, still kicking my butt.
Ongoing efforts to teach these creatures to do “YMCA” have been met with limited success.
Gradius is a solidly planned and challenging-yet-fair shoot-’em-up that should at least hold a minimum appeal for any fans of the genre. The powerup system adds a level of complexity to the gameplay that’s perfect for players with more of an interest in strategy and customization—the fun of Gradius isn’t just from reaching full power and blasting everything apart (except yourself; that would be stupid, unless you’re doing it for the cool explosion noise); it’s also from nurturing your sitting duck into a graceful bird of prey. For those of us with an appreciation of noises like “browmp,” “tik-tik-tik,” and “kuh-foom-foom-foom,” Gradius offers a bevy of satisfying sound effects. The visuals are no less enjoyable, with a respectable amount of creativity and detail going into every memorable stage. From erupting volcanoes to upside-down erupting volcanoes to doughnut-vomiting Moai heads, this game has everything I just mentioned in this sentence, and more.
I would like to retract the phrase, “doughnut-vomiting Moai heads.” Now this image just looks gross.
Not only is Gradius a strong game in its own right, but it’s a game that stays relevant amidst sequels and spinoffs that might already have condemned it to obsolescence in the hands of another company. Whether through sincere reverence or abject creative poverty, Konami has continually brought back enemies, weapons, and locations from Gradius in the games that followed and as Easter eggs in other titles such as Blades of Steel and Castlevania: The One In Which You Kill Dracula. The ideas set forth in this game have become an institution, and you can’t swing a photon torpedo around without vaporizing a hilariously undefended final boss that can trace its roots (or brain stem) back to here.
Because an unarmed brain makes a credible final boss.
Fans of the sleeker, more customizable follow-up games might argue otherwise, but I say Gradius is a classic. I’ve played the original Metroid enough times to know that being the first game in a series shouldn’t automatically qualify you for “classic” status—the great concepts that define a series aren’t always polished or cleanly executed in the first installment. However, in the case of Gradius, I’d argue that any improvements on the game have been to modernize and expand on a foundation of solid gameplay—not to fix anything that was broken.
This is so cool. I have no idea what this is, but I will kill it, and it will be so cool.
If you enjoy relentlessly difficult space shooters, or if you just enjoy smashing spaceships into big rocks, Gradius should absolutely make its way into your Backloggery. Whether you play it long enough to discover every hidden 1-UP and warp zone or whether you’re totally lame and give up before making it to Stage 4, it’s a memorable experience thanks to the iconic enemies, the nifty scenery and sound effects, the pulse-pounding challenges, and the catchy, energy-filled soundtrack that I’m only just bringing up now in my concluding paragraph. Nostalgia or no, Gradius still holds up against its oft-superior successors…even the ones with adjustable difficulty settings.
Screenshot from the popular spinoff, Metroidius.