Box Shot
Platform: NES
Publisher: Konami
Designer: Konami
Genre: Shoot-em-up
Players: 2 (Alternating)
Published Date 1987
Reviewed by: Kurt Kalata

Even though shoot-em-ups have been in existence almost as long as arcade games (Space Invaders, Galaga, etc.), to my knowledge, Gradius is one of the first games of these type that featured side scrolling action and actual levels. Based off the Konami arcade game Nemesis, Gradius sure does look and sound very old, but can still provide an enjoyable experience.

The storyline isn't worth much of a mention...bad things happen, courtesy of an evil empire known as the Bacterions, and you pilot the Vic Viper to stop it. It's only a one player game at a time, with three lives (you get more if you score well) and no continues (but there is a code.) There is also a cheat code that gives you full weapons in the level you help you out. Normally (without shields), one hit and you die. Plus, you are usually sent back a bit when you die, instead of resurrecting where you left off, losing all of your power-ups. Frankly, its a bit annoying to die right at the boss and then have to start over totally, but at least you can power-up your ship a bit, so you're not really weak.

Gradius introduced an interesting weapons system. Instead of just picking up various weapons along the way, it features a little bar at the bottom of the screen containing various cool things. Each little power-up will advance the weapons bar by one. The first thing on the weapons bar is a speed-up, so if you get one power-up and hit the B button, you'll gain a speed boost. Since the laser is the fourth object on the bar, get four power-ups and you can obtain the laser. There are also missiles, a double-shot gun, options (invincible doubles of your ship that fire at the same time you do, essentially doubling or tripling your firepower) and a shielf to absorb hits.

The game progresses as so: there is a "navigation" scene before each level that takes place entirely in outer space. After a bit of flying and gaining power-ups, you'll enter the actual level (which usually has a floor and a ceiling, plus obstacles to dodge.) There are plenty more things to shoot, and more bullets to dodge. Various enemies will also yield power-ups which advance your weapon bar. At the end of each level is a little obstacle that you must survive (the first level has two volcanos, the second level has a gamut of little orbs that attack, etc.) before moving onto the boss of the level. It should be noted that the boss in exactly the same at the end of every level. It consists of a really big ship that can fire four lasers, and the a few shields that protect its inner core. Destroy all the shields, then fire at the core a few times, and it's gone! Onto the next level!

As you can tell by the graphics, the game is very pedestrian. The Vic Viper has almost no detail, and all of the enemies look downright pathetic. Please, don't mention the music. Although I have played the PC Engine of Gradius, which had decent music, the tunes in the NES versions just sound awful. The instruments are very high pitched and are just plain bad. Even the bits that are somewhat good (the navigation theme, the first level theme) not only sound irritating, but much too upbeat and cheery for an outer-space shooting game. The sounds are equally as annoying. However, the game controls very well, as the Vic Viper moves as it should (although getting too many speed-ups could prove deadly, as its difficult to manuever.) Still, hit detection is a bit edgy around terrain, so occasionally you can do something stupid like manuever into a wall by accident. My only complaint is the button placement...A fires while B selects your item, which is the opposite of Life Force. Picking a control scheme and settling with it would've been nice.

Your tolerance of Gradius depends on whether you can handle such an old game. Life Force is much better detailed, has a two-player mode, and just seems to be a more interesting game due to its varying stages. Still, Gradius is a very fun game for those times that you want to shoot things and make them go boom. See, Life Force often concentrated too much on manuevering the Vic Viper through obstacles very carefully, while in Gradius, the focus is more on shooting and dodging, like it should be. Worth a look definitely, as it is a classic. It also denotes the first appearance of Konami's obsession with Easter Island moai heads in this game.