Review by Ryan Harrison
Solid horizontal shmup that makes the grade[-ius].
The decade of the 80s in video gaming was dominated by side-scroller action games when it came to the NES, but space-shooter themed video games were also a dime a dozen at that time. Konami's Gradius, one of the 'silver box' releases first out for the system in 1986 and in my native Europe in 1988, is by most standards, a solid, standard horizontal 'shmup' game with a handful of unique traits to set it apart from the others. I have played my fair share of horizontal shooter games, and first impressions upon playing Gradius were that it does the job quite well all round, and while the game does have plenty of positive critical acclaim, I wasn't really quite able to see enough in it that would place it in the 'best of the best' category.
What I will admit is perhaps the fact that I don't have the nostalgia factor to influence my opinion of this game; given its current age, chances are most who rate this very highly would have grown up playing it, or can remember it from back in its day. I personally never played Gradius until earlier this year, so did not have it in my collection as a youngster, nor even knew anyone that did.
One of a fairly large number of console ports based on a game originally first seen in arcades, Gradius on the NES sees you assume control of the infamous Vic Viper, a space fighter jet assigned to protect the titular fictional planet Gradius from invading alien life forms - a little standard, but serviceable plot nonetheless. You travel on a continuous path from left to right, from the beginning to the end of the game, with the environments and enemies encountered occasionally changing, before penetrating to the core of the invading life form to destroy it altogether.
Coming a year after the first wave of the NES' original 'Black Box' launch release games, Gradius shows some clean, fairly well-drawn graphics. While the game has an unmistakable outer space look and feel to it, I was a little let down by the graphics going with the cheap and easy cop-out of a plain black background with white dots peppered everywhere to make it look like space - something seen all too often in so many of these two-bit, bog-standard space shooters. Otherwise, there are some nicely-drawn environments with a good few different colours and a few nice details on some of the larger things like the mini-boss spaceships or head-shaped mountains found spitting objects at you. While the NES system's graphical capabilities and potential were still yet to be fully realised by 1986, I reckon the graphics of Gradius are a good step up from those of the Black Box games, and were good for their time.
The game's musical score is a respectable one, with a small soundtrack of simple beats with a quick tempo to give the game an adventurous feel. It's a little too high-pitched at the beginning for my own personal liking, but it does well to capture your attention and set the tone as you begin to plough on through the game. All the music is quite well done and though I was somewhat let down by how a lot of the music is constantly recycled throughout the game, it still fits in well with each area, with tempo changing accordingly when you venture into new areas or encounter some tight situations.
Sound effects are of a good standard, though as usual, nothing to really write home about - there's a decent variety to go with the various actions that happen, like the firing of your weapon, collecting power-ups, enemies taking hits and the resounding crash sound when you take the fatal hit and the Vic Viper vaporises. They're all simple though serve their purpose well, very loud, crisp and clear.
The control of the game is solid and simple to understand. Horizontal shmups don't take a whole lot of brainpower to understand on how to pull off the controls; the D-Pad will make the Vic Viper levitate accordingly in the corresponding direction(s) either vertically, horizontally or diagonally. The ship's movement in response to the pressing of the D-Pad is precise and instant, and the movement speed is precise enough to be able to guide your movement precisely, which comes in very handy when navigating through some very tight spaces or quickly evading enemy fire.
Other controls are simple enough to understand also; namely the switching attributes to level up when you gain power-up artefacts, and firing your current weapon with the use of the B button. The levelling-up system was a nice, unique trait I hadn't come across before; the Vic Viper has a number of attributed displayed at the bottom of the screen, denoted by various bars. Any time you gain power-up items, the highlighted box will switch over to the next one along, and you can press the A button to level up the highlighted attribute, or save it to the next one, but when you do use your power-ups, the meter will start again at the beginning. The ship will start out with a slow speed, weak weapon and armour, but the more artefacts you use and collect, you can upgrade to a double cannon or missile, increase movement speed, or gain a shield that protects the nose of the ship from damage - as many as 5 hits.
The rest of the gameplay is by and large your common shooter; enemies come in from the right-hand side of the screen and will continually attack from all angles, so you must blast away at them and keep away from their projectiles to avoid being hit yourself. You will find, however, that not long into the game you'll be constantly bombarded with showers of bombs and lasers with only very tight spaces to squeeze through, so when it comes to movement and positioning, a lot of the time there's practically no margin for error and you can quite easily find yourself suffering many a cheap death over and over again!
The game, as mentioned, is one long continual adventure that is broken down into a handful of different environments that represent the game's 'levels', as there are no between-level breaks to speak of. It rolls along at a nice, balanced pace - not too slow as to be sat on your hands for ages while waiting for the next part of the area to come into view, nor too quick so as to not be able react quickly to provide plenty of space to manoeuvre, and to see what is coming next and provide ample time to move or shoot accordingly.
Boss battles are quite underwhelming, unfortunately; while there are a few different types that move and attack differently, I never really found any of the bosses or mini-bosses to be inspired nor memorable. It does also kind of suck that the same mini-boss is simply recycled over a few times at certain parts and follow the same basic fighting strategy of simply moving up and down to keep out of its line of fire, all the while shooting away at the exposed weak spot in its centre until it is beaten. While the challenge and gameplay enjoyment come out of grinding your way through to the heart of the alien life form, a disappointingly anti-climactic final boss battle doesn't really cap the game off on the high note it should have.
Like many of these early arcade-style games Konami brought onto the NES in the 80s, Gradius has a merciless challenge factor, and losing several lives in order to have the player returning time and time again to keep trying is perhaps this game's main source of replay value. If tough-as-nails old-school games aren't your cup of tea, the fabled Konami code (if you don't know, look it up) will come to your rescue and ease up on the difficulty. Memorisation plays a big part in succeeding at this game, without a doubt, though once you've spent a bit of time at this, Gradius does then become a solid, enjoyable horizontal shooter game. Understanding each enemy's movement and fighting pattern is key, and making good use of your power-ups when and where you think you may need them.
If horizontal shmup games are thing, Gradius is a title very much worth taking the time to check out, be it picking up an original cartridge if you still own an NES, or for those with the more modern systems such as a Wii, Wii U or 3DS, downloading from the Virtual Console. Casual fans may want to avoid if not a big fan of shooter games or put off by games with high difficulty levels. Otherwise, Gradius is a recommended purchase and a staple part of any gamers' collection of NES games.
I did enjoy and appreciate Gradius, and while I'm not the biggest buff in the world on shmups, I may still consider a few titles on the same system, and others, to have more to offer in terms of fun and content than Gradius, including its sequel Salamander (aka Life Force), and the Thunder/Lightening Force games. It pretty much does everything right that a game of this type is supposed to, but I just wasn't really able to see what made this game stick out from so many others. It has great control, good gameplay and acceptable looks and sounds, though it suffers with the linearity, lack of variety between most levels and the bosses, and a somewhat short amount of time it takes to get from the beginning to the end of the game.
While it may not hold up as well today as it would have done in 1986, Gradius is still a nicely-designed title, and a nice early Konami game that will fit in quite nicely with most gamers' NES collections, and set a standard that later games in its series would continue to build upon. Check it out if this is the kind of game that sounds good to you, and any shmup fan who hasn't played this already, should! All the best in saving the people of Gradius from the invaders!
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Gradius (EU, 11/30/88)
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