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I've tried inputting it when the Game Over message is onscreen but nothing happens. I've also tried inputting it at the title screen after I return, but that doesn't work either. When specifically do you input the code?
At the game over screen, input the code quickly. I had trouble with this one for a bit at first also. What I was doing was repeating b, a, b, a, b, a ,b, a over and over not keeping track of how many presses I input. If you do the b, a exactly four times without pressing start, you will continue.
I was having trouble with it, too, but have gotten decently consistent at it. What I've found, and why I think I was having trouble before, is you have to enter the code and only the code. So if you do too many B A combos or press start or think you entered the code wrong so try again, it won't work. The hard part is having patience after inputting the code to let the game continue without getting antsy to try the code again or press Start or anything. Also means that you need to be careful after you lose your last life to not press/be pressing any buttons so that you can put the code in. Also think I was panicking/trying to put the code in too quickly. You don't have a lot of time to input it, but enough time to be deliberate and make sure you get all the button presses in. Beat Gradius 2 a couple of days ago and was hesitant to jump into Gradius 1 because I was having trouble getting the continue code in consistently. But now that I've gotten it working, think I'm going to make a go of this (made it to Stage 3 so far).
"Never again is what you swore the time before." - Depeche Mode, "Policy of Truth"