Gradius has the honor of being one of the first (if not THE first) side scrolling shooter to grace the NES platform. While there were a few of these titles like this out in the arcade (including Vs. Gradius.), this was the first scrolling shooter to make a big splash back in the 8-bit days. While not as pretty as its arcade brother, Gradius on the NES brought the intense arcade action home. Here we are, roughly 22 years after the game’s first release. Does Gradius still hold up?
Ah, the Vic Viper…it has been quite awhile since I have been in the pilot’s seat of you! I remember our days of “shooting the core” and hardcore twitch gaming. I couldn’t help buy have a rush of nostalgia race over me when I download Gradius. I have followed the series for a long time now, but I can’t remember the last time I played the original. Gradius on the NES is devoid of a few classic inclusions that come into play later in the series, including the infamous “shoot the core” catchphrase. These (yet to be included features) by no means make the title a bad one, they just show how old it truly is. Enough of my reminiscing, let’s get down to what the game is about.
Gradius has two main features that form the entire game. The first thing that will jump out at you from level one is the difficulty. Gradius is not for babies. It’s true that if you have spent a lot of time with the series, you may be able to jump back into the Vic Viper no problem. For those of you who aren’t big scrolling shooter fans, Gradius will give you a hell of a time. This game can be downright brutal. Yes, you most likely will die within the first level a couple times. In my opinion, this is all part of the fun. These old-school shooters are all about pixel-perfect accuracy. They want you to learn where enemies are positioned, what to shoot for power-ups, and follow the patterns of the levels. Once again, those who aren’t used to this genre may find it a very daunting experience from the start.
The other big part of Gradius games is probably their most well known feature. Along the bottom of the screen is a power-up bar with 6 slots. The slots read speed, missile, double, laser, option, and a question mark. Each time you defeat a certain enemy, or group of enemies, you can collect a power up icon. Each power up icon highlights one of the 6 slots at the bottom, starting at the left, and working to the right for each power up icon you pick up after. When a slot with an item you would like has been lit, you press the B button. Let’s say for instance, that you want to have a super fast ship. Each time you pick up a power up icon, the first slot lights up, which happens to be the speed slot. If you press B, it clears that power up slot, and gives you a slightly faster ship. You can continue to pick up power up icons and hitting B each time to add more and more speed. Your ship will eventually max out on speed, and you can start to upgrade other items such as weapons. The choice is completely up to you. You can keep collecting power up icons until you reach the question mark box, which will give you a special weapon, one I won’t ruin in this preview. The power up slots add a huge layer of strategy into the game, making it that much more fun to learn what to shoot to grab power up icons.
The only issue with this system comes when you are dealing with the difficulty of the game. You are rewarded for powering up your ship early, and keeping you super ship until the end. The longer you go without dying, the more powerful of a ship you can build. If you do die, you lose all the items your ship had, minus the slot that was filled on your power up bar. Now you have to rebuild your ship from scratch, which can be very tough considering what level you are on. Levels do have checkpoints, but they usually throw you right into the middle of the action.
Gradius has a layer of strategy that most games in this genre do not have, it also has a difficulty that may intimidate more than a few gamers. If you are up for the challenge, Gradius can be a very rewarding experience. The game isn’t all that long, but it is always fun to go back and test how your gaming skills are holding up as the years pass on. Gradius is proving to be quite the lesson for me; I haven’t played a game like this in awhile! I am enjoying the learning curve, as well as the intense nature of the game. If you are a fan of scrolling shooters, you can’t go wrong with Gradius. If you aren’t into this type of game, proceed with caution…and the knowledge that you will get your ass kicked early on.