Varied stages, an innovative power-up system, and Moai heads: This must be Gradius, the seminal and influential game that spawned one of the most recognizable series in the shoot-em-up genre.
The original Gradius is actually somewhat simple compared to its numerous sequels and spin-offs. You only have one weapon configuration, whereas in subsequent games you could choose between several layouts or even customize your own. Most stages end with the exact same boss, the classic Big Core. Yet, you can also see the innovations Gradius made compared to other scrolling shooters before it. Stages are unique and well designed, the power-up system requires some strategy, and the graphics are very detailed.
Another thing that the original game has in common with other games in the series is the high challenge level. Even on the easiest setting, the game has no problem throwing legions of enemies at you, and filling the screen with bullets. This, of course, leads to “Gradius syndrome,” where if you get blown up, you lose all your power-ups, and that puts you at a severe disadvantage. However, the game’s difficulty does change on the fly depending on how powerful you, and it eases up a bit when you have to start over.
One really odd feature about the arcade version of Gradius, as well as other Konami arcade games from around this time, is that while you can insert extra coins to continue where you left off, you’re only allowed to do it a certain number of times before the game forces you to start all the way back from the beginning again. It was around this time that arcade games were making a transition from score-based games that looped (theoretically) infinitely, to games that had actual endings and could be beaten. Manufacturers were probably wrestling with the idea that beating a game meant that the player would no longer be interested in playing. Yet, at the same time, the desire to beat the game would encourage the player to keep putting in quarters. So, limiting the number of continues was probably meant to be some weird compromise between those two approaches, but they’re really kind of at odds with each other. Ultimately, credit-feeding would become the arcade standard. The irony is that while Gradius does have an ending, it still loops, so the game doesn’t really end.
Most people are probably familiar with the original Gradius from its NES port, which was actually the first time a game contained the famous Konami Code, but it has appeared on numerous other platforms over the years. In recent years, you can find the arcade version in the Gradius Collection on the PSP, and Konami Classic Series: Arcade Hits on the DS, the latter of which was played for this article. It’s also available on numerous download services.
So, grab Gradius and power-up, because those cores will not destroy themselves! Well, actually they will if you waste enough time, but you won’t get points for it.