Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Gradius Series (Konami)

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Responsible for plenty of attributes to the shmup genre, notably the space aesthetic, but the most significant thing I remember about the title “Gradius” is how often people mispronounced it.  Okay people, I’ve confirmed this with Konami, the pronunciation is “grah-dee-us”, not “gray-dee-us”, “grah/grey-die-oos” or any other awkward pronunciation.  It’s pronounced simply how it is spelled.

The Gradius series has withstood the test of time with the first technical iteration in 1981 and the most recent actual game released in 2008 (Gradius ReBirth on Wii).  In that time the series has graced almost every console and portable that has come out, although recent iterations have been predominantly collections.  Not only that, the series is responsible for a few offshoots including my favorite shmup of all time, Salamander (Life Force in US), and the Parodius series.  Despite critics rightfully complaining that each new title in the series seems to harken back to the original, I feel it is the series staples that keep dedicated fans and strong sales.  I grew up knowing this series on the NES, although I am told that in Japan and Europe it has a more significant presence on the MSX.  Like all shmups, it does bury its roots in the early days of the arcade and to me is still on that short list of video games you must play before you die.  Nowadays the list of titles is quite long, but after recently playing the series over last week, I still find the original title (not necessarily first in the series) to be the most significant.

What is Scramble?

Even I was surprised to see that many consider Konami’s 1981 critically acclaimed arcade title Scramble to be the genesis of what would later become Gradius.  Those hoping to find yet another excuse to purchase something in Game Room on Xbox Live and PC will be pleased to find that Scramble is available via the service.  The gameplay has you piloting the spaceship Jet through rocky tunnels and landscapes avoiding rockets coming up from the ground, planted space stations and enemies flurrying across the screen.  You can fire single bullets with each button press, a la other Gradius titles, as well as firing missiles at the ground, another series staple.  If you manage to pilot your ship through all six “stages” (it’s one continuous level) you will eventually end up by a tall building with the word “Konami” across the top and your goal is to destroy the core within.  After completing this mission the game restarts, this time enemies are faster and more difficult, and continues in a loop.

Scramble did originate in arcade form but also found ports on the C64 and Vectrex and is significant for a number of reasons aside from the obvious Gradius connections.  It was one of the earliest arcade games to integrate dual core processing, using two Z80s and dual sound chips.  In addition it was responsible for a strong court decision on intellectual property (IP) in Stern Electronics, Inc. v. Kaufman, 669 F.2d 852, where it was determined that IP protected sounds and images instead of simply the code.  As for the connection to the Gradius series, it appears even Konami can’t seem to make up its mind about the title’s place.  Its sequel was a helicopter game, Super Cobra, that was on just about every home console/computer in the 80s.  According to Gradius Galaxies (GBA) and Gradius Breakdown (an amazing documentary on the Gradius series found only in pre-ordered versions of Gradius V), Scramble is the first title in the Gradius series.  Then in Gradius Portable, a book published on Konami shooter history, Scramble is listed separate from the Gradius series.  Regardless of the roots or actual history, Scramble is no doubt an important title for both shmups and gaming.

The Vic Viper is Born

If you were in the arcades in 1985, you may not have been familiar with Gradius as the title for the classic game, you may know it better as Nemesis.  Although it was exported from Japan with this new name, by 1986 the game was back to being called Gradius and thanks to several home ports with the same name it was one of the easiest name transitions of the era.  The title is not a mistranslation of “Gladius” as many think, but rather the planet that the conflict takes place on (which for whatever reason the planet is also known as Nemesis and the names are interchanged in the series).

Chilean Moai heads, a staple for the Gradius series

You control the spaceship named the Vic Viper against a horde of enemies.  Each boss would have a central “core” that would glow in various colors (usually blue) and require you to shoot at in order to defeat.  Levels would progress with a few checkpoints followed by an ending boss battle.  Gradius is also known for its level design that included obstacles within the level attempting to defeat you along with the enemies.  The first level is well-known for the twin mountains that fire rock at you from below the ship, a difficult spot to hit, and is seen as probably the deadliest enemy of that stage.  This series also has a reputation for extremely easy final bosses, usually justified by the brutal final stages that attempt to block your path.  Of all the features in levels this series is best known for, the most prominent is probably the presence of the Chilean Moai head statues that appear in every game.  The reason for the structures is never explained, but they are strategically mounted in positions within a wall/floor/ceiling that make them difficult to defeat.  By Gradius III the Moai heads even become the theme for an entire level.  Over the years the Moai has upgraded to become a sort of mascot for Konami in various games from the Famicom title Wai Wai World to Kojima’s classic cyberpunk game Snatcher.

Probably the most distinct feature of any Gradius title is the signature power-up system, which looks like this:

Each time you capture a power-up the next item in the list highlights, once highlighted that ability can be unlocked.  Every time you unlock an ability, the meter starts over again and you can unlock more.  Here are the powers for reference:

  • Speed Up – increases ship movement speed, can be upgraded 3 times
  • Missile – air-to-ground missiles help clean up enemies below you
  • Double – a second bullet at a 45 degree angle is added, replaces normal shot or laser
  • Laser – a laser beam with larger strength, replaces normal shot or double
  • Option – a glowing invincible ball trails you that fires the same shots as your ship, up to 2-3 can be added (depends on version)
  • ? – adds twin shields that absorb bullet fire to the front of your ship

You keep all weapons until you die, which is why games in the Gradius series have been nicknamed “single life playthroughs”.  This means that if you can’t beat the game in one life, it becomes exponentially difficult.  At this point I usually quit most iterations, especially the first game, if I lose a life.  Later titles offered a bit more flexibility to recover after a death.  Below is a video showing this great title in action (note: this is being played on the hardest difficulty; while a very tough game, Gradius isn’t this hard on normal):

Ports

Gradius released on just about everything that was available at the time including computers like C64 and MSX (as Nemesis) and console ports on the NES/Famicom and PC-Engine (no US TG16 version was made).  In almost every home version of the series missiles shoot on their own while the arcade had them controlled by a different, and honestly unnecessary, fire button.  Of these versions my favorite still is the NES version, which differs only slightly from the original arcade and has some of the best graphics among the versions.  In addition I also appreciate the new unique soundtrack, although it is still quite similar to the arcade, and the fact that the Konami code (up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A) unlocks a fully upgraded ship, but only once per game.  The PC-Engine version is a bit closer to the arcade, allows you to unlock 3 options (NES only allows 2) and doesn’t suffer from the consistent slowdown that all Nintendo ports of Gradius games seem to suffer.  The NES version is available on the Wii Virtual Console and PC-Engine version is on the PSN.  Here are some videos of those versions:

NES

PC-Engine

Sequel?

Gradius II: Gofer No Yobo (translated “Ambition of Gofer”) is a bit more of an anomaly, especially because the series was quite scattered by the time it came out.  A spin-off, named Salamander worldwide and Life Force in the United States (as well as a “remix” named Life Force in Japanese arcades) was introduced prior to this title.  While Salamander is technically considered the true sequel to Gradius, my love for the various versions of the game and the sequel, Salamander 2, will be reserved for a different series posting.  More importantly, in the United States we never got one single version of Gradius 2, arcade or otherwise.

Probably the most significant change to the series is that Gradius II allowed you to select from 4 different setups for your power bar, including the traditional setup from the original, one from Salamander/Life Force and two new setups.  It also included “boss rush” levels, which contained nothing but boss battles.  I have played this game myself and find it to be an intriguing remix on the concept began in the original and I also found it a bit easier.  Those that have played Life Force on the NES will find some parts of these levels familiar.

Ports

A Famicom version of the game was released, which pretty faithfully re-creates the arcade version above with the slight necessary graphical and sound tweaks of the original on Famicom/NES.  It never released outside of Japan, although I do have a copy (I still prefer Nintendo ports of these titles) and play it via a converter.  Another very faithful port came four years after release on the Super CD for the PC-Engine in Europe and Japan.  Aside from offering the near-arcade experience this version also included an extra level that resembled the final stage in the NES game Life Force.  This is probably the best version found on home consoles and was surprisingly released to the US Virtual Console for 900 points (as Gofer No Yobo).

In addition, the MSX version of Gradius 2 (not a roman numeral like the rest) actually has you controlling a different ship, the Metalion, and tells a separate side story after Salamander.  Each boss battle ends with the ship flying into the boss and a brief mini game is played where you avoid obstacles.  If you crash in this mini game, you merely lose a bonus instead of losing a life.  Gofer No Yobo Episode II was released later on the MSX, which is a port of the Gradius II arcade game.

Gradius III

The third title in the series features level design choices from the original game, including a recreation of the first stage from Gradius as the third stage.  Multiple power bar tracks are yet again featured, including the ability to custom build your own, and another set of unique alien bosses end each level.  This game was brutal when I played the arcade version, only released in Japan, and included a 3rd person on-rails fourth level.  This game also introduced the Option Stealer, an enemy that appeared behind your ship and could steal your trailing options – by far my most hated enemy.

Ports

Gradius III released as a launch title for the SNES, which is where most Americans got their hands on it, not to mention it was one of few titles to play that wasn’t Super Mario World.  A few changes were made to this version including making it much easier, this is the only game I beat on one life without memorizing the levels.  The on-rails level I mentioned from the arcade appears to be removed and the game slows to a crawl whenever enemies flood the screen, further decreasing the difficulty.  You can also continue on the same level after losing all your lives.  Despite having many changes from the arcade version, the screen centering grid common in most arcade games does appear before the game starts up and the unlockable impossible mode is titled “arcade”.  This is done by highlighting “game level” in the options and pressing A 16 times in a single second (turbo pad helps) or by beating the game on “hard”.  This version can also be found on the Wii Virtual Console.

A direct arcade port was released on the PS2 as a pack-in with Gradius IV that featured some of the extra weapons of the SNES version (although not the version of the game), saved which levels you had beaten and allowed you to load a game on any completed level and eliminated the random slowdown from the arcade version.  You can tweak the game to offer the same slowdown as the arcade for those that had memorized the timing of that version.  It also appeared in the Gradius Collection on PSP, but this is a direct arcade port sans slowdown.

Nemesis

Having not been retitled for the portable release, this Gameboy version of the franchise looked identical on the box and I had no trouble in 1990 discerning from box art and gameplay that this was a Gradius game.  I thought it was a genuine release with little bits from the original NES game, but it turns out this was a hybrid of the first two games on the MSX, the version that seems to be redone time and time again by Konami.

Gradius Gaiden

This is an original title that only released on the Playstation and only in Japan.  It allows you to choose between three different ships – Vic Viper, Jade Knight and Falchion β (from Falsion for the Famicom Disk System) – and features the first ever 3D rendered graphics for a Gradius game.  This game has only been available in the US via the Gradius Collection on PSP.

Gradius IV

Nothing much changed in this edition, which was really intended as an impressive 1999 shmup for Japanese arcades.  This game kept the style of all the previous games intact, but ditched the customizable power-up system.  It offered 6 configurations, the four from Gradius II and two new ones.  There are some clear non-traditional gameplay elements and graphical textures, but it’s essentially the next generation of a Gradius title.  In the bulk of games that released on the PS2, Konami ported Gradius IV and included a special port of the Gradius III on the disc as well.  It’s relatively common and cheap if you want two centralized games in one.



Gradius V

This title integrates the impressive backgrounds and graphical tricks I enjoyed in Ikaruga and Radiant Silvergun, although this should be no surprise because it’s developed by Treasure, who created both of those titles.  As a horizontal scroller, this held larger appeal for me as a Treasure shmup and helped ease me into the more hardcore shooters that are gaining momentum.  Considered by some to be one of the best contemporary shmups, this title is relatively rare and thus captures a $25+ price tag used.  I’d love to expand but I think the gameplay below speaks for itself.

Gradius ReBirth

Developed by M2, known for the ReBirth series on Wii and the recent Gradius parody Otomedius Excellent on Xbox 360 this game does not collect the first three games as originally thought.  Instead it remixes parts of every iteration on the MSX into one consistent game with modern graphical upgrades.  It features the cut scenes that weren’t in non-MSX versions and looks pretty good, although nowhere near the PS2 titles.  Although many have said this $10 game is a good introduction, I feel this is only for true Gradius fans.

Collector’s Cache

If you own a PSP, you can pick up the very inexpensive Gradius Collection that contains arcade ports of Gradius I-IV and the previously Japan only Gradius Gaiden from the PS1.  The digital version on PSN/SEN is a whopping $20, but it’s a mere $7 used at Gamestop.

Coming tomorrow, the much more brief shmup of the day: Fantasy Zone.  Stay Tuned!

Written by Fred Rojas

March 2, 2012 at 3:11 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading your post! 🙂 Great stuff!!

    My favourite is Gradius V on the Playstation 2, but sadly I haven’t managed to complete it yet. To make matters worse, I traded in my PS2 a while ago. Really miss that game, as it is one of the best schmup’s I’ve ever played.

    oldschoolgameblog

    March 5, 2012 at 2:16 pm

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting
    for your next write ups thank you once again.

    Pokemon Crystal Online

    March 29, 2013 at 8:00 pm


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