There are just two ways to handle this game: admit defeat or carry on playing until your fingers bleed!
The plot doesn't dominate this game yet there is still a small back story. You play as the spaceship, Vic Viper and are the last hope for the people of Gradius (your home planet) as you have to confront the invading forces of amoeboid bacterions. Amorboid Bacterions you say?! - basically aliens.
This side scrolling shoot em up was originally brought to arcade machines in Japan in 1985 and was later released internationally in the same format but under the name 'Nemesis' although later it retained its original Japanese name. Over the years it has been released on many different consoles, more notably the NES, Sega Saturn and under the series collection on the PSP.
In traditional retro gaming style once you click start you are thrown into the game expected to know what to do - or learn quickly. It's a game that doesn't hold your hand, instead throws it back at you in disgust if you lose. And boy you will lose. Seriously, when I downloaded this game a few years back I was like 'pfft, it was only hard back then because I was a kid, now I am an adult - I'm better'. Oh how the game shoved my pretentious remark back in my face and made me suffer. It took me a good mumbles a number of times to actually get better as Gradius and at times, I still have struggled in certain areas.
Now it's not the controls fault, they run so smoothly and are rather basic: the D-pad to move around whilst the action button is to shoot. At the beginning you start off with a slow ship and weak shooting range, which won't target all, if in fact any enemies and will only get better when you collect the upgrades, usually left behind when killing a combination of enemies or passing through tight spots. See, it as a reward for your troubles. Each power up gets better and better (naturally) making the levels a little easier. A personal favourite of mine are the blue missiles that fall out of the bottom of the ship taking care of the enemies below, who, in my opinion are the worst. Why?
In two of the levels there are tripod guns that constantly aim and shoot at you and are usually placed next to a big silver pod that spurts out about five enemies at a time, who target you whilst firing white bullets. As the tripod shooters are easy to shoot at from the ground as they can't aim horizontally at you, only diagonally, you would think the best tactic is to shoot them that way. Half right. It works, however speeding up from behind you is either a bouncing cylinder which forces to you jolt upwards into open fire and enemies or a creature that moves faster than other enemies giving you literally zero chance to get away. Now you can see why I prefer the blue missiles.
Although the aliens aren't exactly difficult to defeat the sheer number of them attacking you at once are. Even on stage one you are passing through the rocky surroundings and encounter so many varied enemies on the ground, above you and coming straight at you in the middle. There is some variety in regards to standard cannon fodder but a lack of varied bosses, although I do think this may have been intentional as it may be sticking to the storyline.
At the end of almost each level, you are faced with this (I cannot describe it) a sidewards fish-ship?! A combination of a blue and white trimmed spaceship in the shape of a piranha! These bosses spurt out four white missiles whilst panning up and down the screen. They become rather mundane to face almost every level. One enemy that I did like were these orbs with beaded tentacles who proved to be rather challenging but fun as the camera eagerly pushes you towards a few who are clustered together in one area as they flip their tentacles up and down to prevent you from taking them out.
As an individual you have to think tactically and quickly to decide on how you are going to dodge the white bullets flying towards you at all angles and avoid the on coming alien traffic. Just one hit by an enemy and their attacks blows the ship up completely and from around the area you died, you have to start it again and avoid the mistakes you made. Not only this, your surroundings hate you. If you even just skim the ceiling or the ground - you die. So it's really a test of skill and patience and pattern learning more than anything. typical retro fare really.
Accompanying the consistent onslaught of enemies, is the camera that will constantly pan forward so that you have to keep up with it. In a way its forgiving, if you happen to fall behind it will push you like an eager parent pushing you through the school gates on a Monday morning rather than swallowing you up and classing it as a death. Despite there being a lack of cut scenes to intrigue you the colourful gameplay and upbeat music is enough to have you hooked, with the one and only cut scene being the ending - where the ship flies away from a distant explosion and you are greeted with the text 'congratulations'. Although it doesn't seem like much of a reward for the hard efforts that you put in, you bloody want that achievement as you fought so hard for that!
The levels are on going and instead of cutting at the end of each boss battle to load up the next stage you just carry on progressing like its one long level and each one gets progressively harder, with more enemies and more enclosed killer surroundings in which it gets difficult to navigate through. Let's discuss the levels for a second.
Each one is highly colourful, combined with plenty of death traps. All the levels start off in a wide open star encrusted area before swiftly changing into a treacherous environment. The graphics are certainly a treat. Once the game is started, you are treated to the starry background of space with a foreground that constantly changes into vibrant pixelated locations, all in all this was the best it could probably be based on console hardware limitations.
Some of the most notable levels are the second level which is an obstacle course of white bricks and breakable red dots. Hard to navigate through however somewhat rewarding when you destroy the red dots as it delivers a satisfying noise that sounds almost like a balloon squeezing. Another personal favourite of mine is the third level, which consists mainly of green rocky platforms where Maoi statues lay slanted on the ground, shooting blue hoops at you. Once battling through them you are treated to a different and slightly easier boss of luminous floating membranes which separate into four upon being shot at. This brings me to the sound quality.
As it's a NES game you can kind of expect the background music and effects that will run throughout play. High pitched music of adorable motivation (which you are going to need) combine with the crisp sound of your attacks, although there was one thing I picked up: upon each start-up level only the music can be heard over your silenced attacks and enemy deaths but suddenly changes moments later in the start-up levels. That's one thing that is quite strange.
On one player mode, the estimated game play can range from anywhere between half an hour to infinity depending on how pro you are at handling the navigation through an alien death trap maze full of incoming space crafts and missiles in a toxic environment. However, if for any reason you get bored of playing by yourself and ever feel like sticking it to your friend, the game uses a 2-player option where you can take turns in testing their skills and whoever achieves the highest ranking score - wins. So expect a lot of rivalry and competition. Trust me, my dad gets no better satisfaction than displaying his smug face and bragging at the high score that he has set me to beat.
All I can say, is thank god, that newer consoles have brought out collections of the classic games, otherwise it may have been somewhat difficult to obtain Gradius. Fortunately, online sites offer the psp Gradius collection for around £10 and you can download it from the Wii shop (I suppose that's a perk of the console), however actually owning a physical copy of the original NES cartridge may take some further searching. From my trawling of the the wide web, there are a few of the original for PAL format which cost anywhere between £10-£15, but majority are of the NTSC format from overseas or are the third installment of the series (Gradius 3) so I guess it takes some looking into in regards to getting yourself a straight up legit copy.
Verdict:- Like a rather spicy curry, it tastes so good but it burns. Yet instead of admitting soul-destroying defeat you would keep feasting on this as it 'tastes so good'- and you probably paid for it. Gradius is that spicy bowl of Rogan Josh.
No matter how many times you have your arse handed to you on a platter, you still go back for more. My only vent is that the game is so difficult. In a contradictory rant, I praise the game for being challenging yet rip on it for that exact same reason.
Although its not exactly a 'one-of-a-kind' side scrolling shooters of the space kind, with games like R-type taking resemblance on the sega master system Gradius is quite an entertaining play for those who owned the NES. Even up to this day there is still a lot of playability behind this game due to the addictive determination to beat the game or/and to beat your previous high score.
The controls and the colourful graphics are complimented by the sharp and very beautiful sound effects which will leave a lasting impression in your ear drums. If you are a fan of putting your reflexes to the test I suggest giving this classic a go.
Second Opinion:- Transbot has never been so confused by a game...
Firstly why does this have more than 2 areas? What kind of space shooter needs that many parts, overkill Konami, total overkill. 2 levels is da best! #truefact
Secondly why is this so damn hard? It's a good job that i'm a robot or I may rip out hair I don't have playing this. A gamer has to have the skills and the patience to even attempt beating this or bouts of real gamer rage will occur, trust me on this one.
Once you get to grips with it though what's there is a real masterclass of a software title and is a perfect example of a time when gamers had to work for those rubbish end of game congratulations messages, this is old school at it's finest in forms. If shooters and games that test you are you're thing then meet the best thing you may ever see in the genre for Nintendo's 8-Bit monster console.
Transbot Scores:- 8 out of 10