Gradius (NES) review
"From deep space and the theme that accompanies it, we fly full tilt into the earthly environs of level one. Dormant volcanoes line the ground, until at last, one volcano proves to be active, and violently so. Hide, and pray, and shoot, and survive the angry magma to fight Gradius' only boss (outside of the final one, snicker. More on him later). A nondescript ship faces off with you on the right of the screen and moves up and down, loosing volleys of slivery blue lasers. The same pattern is necessary for every level when he greets you. Take his eye out for the first time in level one, knowing that it wonít be the last. "
It's the classic music that will first get your juices flowing again. The incredibly enjoyable pressure of powering up your weapons while juking this way and that, can only be made secondary by a soundtrack this sublime. And you remember the innovative weapon system donít you? I mean, who hasnít played the side-scrolling shooter, Gradius, or seen Gradius being played, in some incarnation or another? Konami brought the arcade hit home to the PC Engine most brilliantly, true enough, but the NES version is no slouch either.
Revolutionary Gradius staples are on show from the very beginning of your fledgling one man mission. You see, Gradius is famous for its weapon system whereby you collect power ups to allot as you see fit. Speed is the 'cheapest' choice, and youíll need quite a bit of augmentation in that area, because you start off slow as hell. Slower than even the much maligned R9 in R-Type. And thatís slow. Missiles are your next choice up, then the Double gun (it fires one stream 45 degrees up and forward, and one stream straight ahead), then the enemy-rending Laser, the ever popular Options (little indestructible green companions that follow you, firing as you do), and finally, the Shield. Again, itís up to you how you power up, and in what order of items you see fit to do so. Will you level up your speed three times before saving up for the very power up costly shield? Or will you take less speed and opt almost right away for the immense offensive power of the Laser? Itís your call. Strategy in a shooter? Yes, and Konamiís treasure is old. The innovation and execution put more modern games to shame, truly.
As much as Iíd like to delve into a rant on the state of affairs in gaming today, more pressing matters are afoot! Itís time to blast off and save the universe. Blast the waves of weak spacecraft and collect those valuable power ups. From deep space and the theme that accompanies it, we fly full tilt into the earthly environs of level one. Dormant volcanoes line the ground, until at last, one volcano proves to be active, and violently so. Hide, and pray, and shoot, and survive the angry magma to fight Gradius' only boss (outside of the final one, snicker. More on him later). A nondescript ship faces off with you on the right of the screen and moves up and down, loosing volleys of slivery blue lasers. The same pattern is necessary for every level when he greets you. Take his eye out for the first time in level one, knowing that it wonít be the last.
The same black space backdrop that began the game will act as a segue between levels. Once again, weak-willed spacecraft will attack in linear formation, and once again, youíll reap the benefits. This level is much different than the open concept of level one; platforms are everywhere, decorated deviously with gun placements. It seems to me that the Laser weapon here is more potent than in other Gradius games and sequels; it seems to slice through whole waves of enemies, cutting swaths through entire vertical planes at a time with the greatest of ease. For the first two stages, the Double gun will be truly outclassed by the Laser, but that will change shortly, and decidedly. If the orb ships that appear out of thin space donít convince you more 'offensive coverage' is needed, level three most certainly will.
Moai heads. Another trademark of the prolific series makes its first appearance. The heads are even more difficult to destroy here, than say, in Gradius III. Without the Double gun and some decent speed, youíre in deep trouble. The heads arenít the trouble of course; itís the blue cheerios that they fill the screen with that will give you fits. At times there will be more rings on the screen than in a Sonic the Hedgehog bonus round.
You may turn your room upside down, tossing once beloved items around in frustration, but it wonít prepare you for level four, which is essentially a much harder level one, turned upside down. Volcanoes jut out from the ceiling, and those stage one guns that could be wiped out so nonchalantly by banking down to their level and hissing your Laser at them, are now much quicker to fire, and fire much more prolifically. If youíre slow about pest control, youíll be forced into and limited to damage control mode. The pre-boss challenge is the same as level one, only inverted. Finding the safe spot will prove a lot harder this time Ďround though, in the face of hot, falling, rather than flying, rocks.
Stage five is a bit of a let down. The slowdown is incredibly advanced, and cripples your movement. At times it will appear to help you out by simulating actual slow motion as youíd effect on a special controller, but then an enemy will leave the screen and things will speed up without much warning. That slow moving, far off bullet will suddenly be working its way down your throat. On the bright side, itís vaguely pleasurable to see the inspiration for the level one boss from Gradius' sequel, Life Force. Yes, the colourful brain with the segmented, bullet spewing arm is here, though in miniature form, and in droves. Strangely, they are the only enemies in the whole mostly forgettable level.
Let me relate something to you. I played the aforementioned Life Force and thought it was pretty hard as Gradius games go. Harder than Gradius III and IV, for instance. Level six of this original Gradius has given me quite a new perspective. Itís hard. Carefully constructed crystalline networks confine your movement while blue and red amoebas dart about, creating havoc. Oh, youíve got a Laser, two options, a shield and good speed? Youíll still find it hard. Wait, youíve got nothing? Well then, the only thing easy will be finding the reset buttonÖ
And thatís Gradius' only flaw. If you get through hard bits like most of the Moai head level, and the ice level, youíll probably breeze through the rest of the game, remaining fully powered up. Youíll meet level sixís mesh of plant life and ice and positively shatter him. Youíll find it a decent test of skill to navigate the narrow passages of stage seven and deal with a incredibly copious bullet count. A decent test of skill, but no more. And youíll laugh out loud at the last boss! Really, you will. But donít forget what came before.
Donít forget what fate you narrowly evaded! And thatí s dying at an importune moment. Die in the wrong place, and your adventure is as good as finished. Thatís because when you die, itís an absolute bitch to get back up to speed - literally! This is especially true of the Moai head stage, as youíll be bombarded by rings while you struggle gamely but vainly to attain velocity sufficient to dodge, watching your craft move painstakingly slowly like a crippled mosquito in gummy contact cement.
It's the ultimate irony that the game's only notable drawback (the slowdown is mostly negligible) lies in its greatest strength: the power up system. Itís innovative and so functional in so many ways, but if you die, you lose everything that you worked so hard to gain, and often the game isnít as kind as it should be in restarting you at a point where you can get going again. It speaks volumes that when I usually clear Gradius, I donít die at all. I do the deed with one ship. When I play and die, even once, it threatens to jeopardize my entire mission, depending on the place of death, even though you're provided three lives. This isnít good. Still, the game is incredibly enjoyable when you learn, after a time, to play it perfectly, and doing so isnít as hard as one would think.
Gradius looks crisp and sufficiently colourful even today, but more impressive on a presentation level, are the tunes. Every level sounds beautiful and memorable. Shooter fans must own this title for posterity, for a near perfect (if your playing is near perfect!) shoot-em-up mission, and for some of the sweetest tunes in a shooter or otherwise. Try Gradius. Youíll remember Gradius.
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 03, 2004)
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