Ah, good old Gradius! It… Um… Alright, I have something to confess. I cheated. That’s right, I cheated to beat this game, and I’m not even talking about using the Konami Code! You see, the above picture may be the first screen you’ll see upon starting the game, but this following screen is the one you’ll be seeing the most:
See that? See where it says “GAME OVER”? Yeah. That was on the first damn level. Gradius kicked my ass because that’s just what it does, it kicks people’s collective asses. I figured I’d try to get through the game completely legit, but seeing as I’d like to be celebrating the NES’s 25th anniversary with this article, not the 50th, I had to wish for infinite lives from the Game Genie.
You see, Gradius is actually a port of the original arcade game, and that’s a recipe for difficulty. The 80′s and early 90′s was a period of abundant arcade game ports to home consoles, and arcade games what they are, such ports usually ended up being pretty hard games.
Since arcades rely on players paying a small price to play for a short time, games usually featured intense action to attract players and high difficulty to either get them to pay again for another chance, or get them off the game as quickly as possible to make place for more potential customers. Ports usually attempted to retain that degree of difficulty but sometimes, it was actually raised!
Some developers wanted to enter the console market but had mixed feelings; arcade machines earned a lot of money, but they were afraid that selling games that could be enjoyed any time, even for a much higher price, may result in a lower income or even people dismissing arcades altogether. Not only that, but sometimes difficulty levels even fluctuated between regions!
Was Gradius one of those games that were altered for home consoles? Not sure, to be completely honest. What I do know though, is that Gradius is hard… The GOOD kind of hard. It keeps you coming back constantly the same way that an arcade game would. In other words, Konami did a great job with this title, which would later go on to become of the Japanese developer and publisher’s key franchises.
Sorry I’ve taken so long before talking about the game itself, but the fact of the matter is that there isn’t much to say about it; it’s a great example of simple gameplay that defined the entire genre. Gradius is a space shooter starring a ship named “Vic Viper”, which players navigate through various environments while avoiding enemy fire and obstacles. Even back then, it was nothing out of the ordinary.
What did distinguish it from other games of that genre was its power meter. See that blue bar down there? Well, whenever you destroy certain enemy ships or formations of ships, they drop red… things, which shifts and highlights different upgrades on the meter when picked up, which the player can then equip: Speed, Missle, Double, Laser, Option, Shield (marked as “?”). For clarification, “Options” are helpers of sorts, assisting the Vic Viper by firing shots.
It’s this notion of upgrading that makes Gradius unique, and along with its great music, detailed graphics and challenging gameplay that makes it fun. Is it hard? Oh yes, but is it cheap difficulty? Never. Well, except for that one cheap shot just before the final boss… The boss itself doesn’t even fight back, but there’s a door of sorts right before facing it that closes quickly; if you’re not close to the right edge of the screen, you won’t make it through without crashing.