Gradius I & II are the simply the best arcade shoot-em-ups ever created. With the iconic weapon selections, the Vic Viper ship along with a great soundtrack and varied environments you have a killer gaming series.
You are the last hope of the gentle people of Gradius. You’ve just lifted off to confront the all-out attack of the amoeboid Bacterions. Your hyper-space fighter is armed with the greatest arsenal in the galaxy. Air-to-surface and double beam laser cannons for incredible firepower. Powerful force fields for protection. Time and space warps for fleeing the dimension. You’ll need it all just to survive. Because at the heart of the Bacterion Empire lies the Xaerous Superfortress – the nerve center of the all-knowing, all-seeing Bacterion Bio-Computer. It’s a duel to the death, while the entire galaxy watches, waits, and hopes!
I’ve not managed to track down what would be called a traditional review (it lacks any kind of scoring system) but C&VG did feature arcade games in the magazine. Here are a few excerpts;
Speed, quick reflexes and non-stop action will keep you on your toes for as long as you can stand the pace…
Nemesis is one of the most addictive games I’ve seen for a long time. Defender fanatics have the upper hand as they are already used to the style of play but anyone can learn it easily.
Eh? Defender? It’s nothing like Defender it has more in common with Scramble…
And here’s one for Vulcan Venture from the magazine TGM;
…like an old friend it’s a more than welcome coin-op in this age of beat-’em-ups and never ending race games. Packed with everything: great graphics, superb sound and second-to-none arcade action, Vulcan Venture is a worthy sequel…
Personally I think that Konami produced the best arcade shoot-em-ups and the Gradius Series including the spin-offs Salamander & Parodius are amazing games. I said in my opening that Irem’s R-Type is considered by many to be the pinacle of arcade shoot em ups but I disagree and here’s why!
Gradius has a very unique weapon power-up system where you collect the orange orbs that enemies leave behind. The more you collect the further along the power-up selection bar you move. Once you have reached a power-up that you want you jab the select button to gain that power-up and the bar is reset to nothing. While this power-up system was copied in other games it’s Gradius that did it first and does it best.
The variety of stages is excellent. You start each stage in open space before moving into the main area. The first stage is a mountainous planet with lush forests and volcanoes. Your movement on this stage is limited to the single screen area which you travel along but the second stage is where things get more interesting as your not confined to travelling along a ‘tunnel’ you have full freedom of movement and the screen scrolls up and down as you move the Vic Viper around.
Stage three is a personal favourite – the Easter Island Moai Statues. A very tricky stage as the spit out lots of nasty glowing circles of death. It is fortunate that you can actually shoot these circles or you’d have some major problems. Again you have full freedom of movement.
There are a further four stages in Gradius that add more variety although the fourth stage is just a copy of the first but it’s been flipped upside down and it’s much harder than stage one! Stage five sees you battling though pink tentacled aliens, stage six is a bio-mechanical themed stage and the final stage sees you battling though the superfortress of the Bacterian army.
At the end of each stage you face a rather large and nasty enemy that must be defeated before you can progress to the next stage. This is done by destroying the core. Sounds easy? It’s not as the Boss enemy has superior firepower than the minions and the core is protected by layers of shielding. It’s worth noting that these big bosses do die of ‘old age’ assuming that you last long enough and aren’t that skilled in taking the boss down. The boss at the end of stage six is a much more menacing looking bad guy that appears to have been grown into the structure of the stage. As for the final boss, I won’t spoil it so you’ll need to play the game yourself!
Without a doubt Gradius was brilliant and still stands out as a classic and very playable shoot em up. But for me it was the sequel that raised the bar for shoot em ups, 8 stages of pure shooting genius. While the core gameplay mechanics are the same there some notable differences that lift Gradius II into the realms of the arcade hall of fame.
Weapon Power-ups – In Gradius II your not just limited to one set of weapons you have a choice of four different sets and a choice of two shields. The classic weapon set and shield from Gradius is there but the addition of the glowing, fiery force shield is a genius touch as it provides all over protection for the Vic Viper rather than just the frontal protection offered by the classic shield.
The stages are some of the most imaginative I’ve seen and along with the varied end of stage bosses it really made the game stand out.
Stage One is set in the midst of the massive blazing suns with fiery dragons bursting from them. It is one of the most impressive and unforgiving opening levels in any game. The end of stage boss is a massive fiery phoenix (shoot it in the head!). Truly outstanding.
The second stage is influenced by the art of H.R. Giger and the first Alien film. It is a creepy bio-mechanic stage with lots of alien growth that needs to be destroyed along with reaching arms that can’t be destroyed only pushed backwards. You’ll also encounter what can only be described as Face-Hugger look-a-likes. Creepy! At the end of stage two is a massive bio-mechanical eye (shoot it in the eye!) that is protected by two huge arms that rapidly shoot at you. It is a relief that these can be shot, however the evil eye periodical shoots out a rather large object of it’s own that must be avoided.
Moving onto Stage Three and we have a Crystalline level. This is a very tricky stage. While many of the Crystal Asteroids can be shot they don’t just disappear, they break into smaller chunks! You can eventually destroy them once they have reached the smallest chunks. Along with coping with the floating chunks you still need to contend with the usual array of nasties and also unbreakable asteroidal chunks that many of the gun turrets rest on. At the end of level you find a really nice (it looks nice) Crystalline Ship.
Stage Four is a Gradius series staple and brings back the Mountainous terrain from the opening level of Gradius. Once again you have the lush forests and violent volcanic eruptions. It’s brilliant. Assuming that you have reached this stage and have all four of your Options (Multiples) you’ll be attacked by the most evil creation in any game – the Multiple Snatcher. A rather loud siren signals his arrival from the rear of the screen and he mirrors your movement before launching himself at you. If you don’t get your timing right the evil fiend will steal your multiples. You could loose just one, but you could loose all four – EVIL!!!!
Stage Five is another visit to the Moai statues of Easter island complete with three huge Moai Heads as the end of level boss. Stage Six takes the speed up a notch as you are accelerated through a mechanical maze complete with dead ends, closing doors and pink orbs that need to be blasted through.
Stage Seven shakes things up by having you fight a series of bosses. These bosses are taken from Gradius, Salamander and Lifeforce (Salamander & Lifeforce take place in the Gradius universe but aren’t direct sequels to Gradius I). A very difficult stage but things get even harder with the final stage.
Stage Eight sees you fly into the superfortress once again but this time they are some nasty new tricks. In the first half of the level the floor and ceiling rip apart and fling themselves at you with terrifying speed. This is extremely tricky and takes lightning reflexes to stay alive. Half way through the level you reach the Gun Wall. One core, 8 deadly laser turrets, 2 walker generators and you. I have seen three different tactics for dealing with the Gun Wall, two are quite similar as they involve keeping out of the way of the lasers but one, the figure of eight, is the most jaw-dropping piece of control I have ever seen in a game and nothing, NOTHING, will ever come close to matching this. Starting the centre of the screen you move round in a figure of eight and this has got to be near perfect or the lasers will get you. Jaw-dropping!
After you beat the Gun Wall you move onto the second part of the level, again more nasty tricks as parts of the floor and ceiling move to try and block you in or smash you as they move. Following this we get ‘the final enemy’ a huge full screen pink six-legged spider like machine. While this doesn’t fire at you it does walk across across the screen and then walks back the way it came and you must fly between its legs while dodging the walking turrets. Tricky isn’t the word. After that you finally get to the end and like the end of Gradius I am not going to spoil the surprise but it is similar, but bigger!
All the musical pieces are quite short so instead of providing individual tracks I will present a medley of tracks from each game. Enjoy;
Insert Coin – Power-up Rush – Level 1 – Boss
Insert Coin – Equipment – Power-up Rush – Level 1 ‘Burning Heat’- Boss
As an interesting bonus below is an audio recording of the soundtrack that a couple of my friends and I made back in 1989. This was recorded in Software Superstore, Stockport as my friend ‘B’ played the game. All we had was a C60 cassette tape (a what?) and a tape recorder (eh?). We held the cassette recorder close to the arcade cabinet speaker while the game was played. Yes this isn’t a great recording but as a piece of gaming history /nostalgia it’s fab. If you listen carefully you can here me for a brief second right at the start and towards the end a brief bit from ‘B’ who was playing the game. I hope that you do enjoy this audio recording even though it will lack the emotional connection that I have with it…. aaahhhhh the memories!!