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
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.