Review by Overdrive

Reviewed: 05/06/05

The game hasn't aged all that well, but its legacy has!

If there is one fond memory I have of Gradius and its hordes of sequels and spin-offs, it is simply the way that all the levels meld together to form what appears to be a single, constantly-shifting juggernaut of a stage. That just gives Konami’s main contribution to the world of shooters a certain flow that’s lacking in many games of the genre, where you tend to be randomly teleported from one locale to another — leaving you to guess exactly how all those diverse regions are connected.

But it’s not like that in Gradius. You start the game in the vastness of space. A few easy enemies accost you in simple patterns, allowing you to (hopefully) snare some power-ups and enhance your ship. Soon, space gives way to what appears to be a craggy cave. Things start to get a bit trickier for the novice player, now. Enemies attack from both the top and bottom of the screen, sometimes lurking behind mountainous outposts. Endure all of this and you’ll soon be confronted by two rock-spewing volcanoes. Dodge their deadly onslaught and you’ll be able to exit this cavernous region and return to the welcome void of empty space.

After fighting a boss ship, you’ll soon find yourself locked in confrontation with the same sort of ships you opened the game with, leading you to believe you’ve traveled full-circle. Well, yes and no. You see, each level starts with a brief area like this (although they do increase in difficulty as time passes), but the bulk of your work will be done in settings that vary a bit more in appearance.

In this, the second level, you won’t move on to another mountain-filled cavern — instead, you’ll find yourself blasting through and darting around rocky obstructions while disposing of cleverly placed cannons. Future levels send you against the infamous army of the Moai statues (a staple of many Konami shooters), into an organic cavern populated by tough amoeba-like creatures and through a gauntlet of clawed minibosses that grasp for you even while launching another salvo of bullets your way.

All of this sounds pretty cool, but virtually every element presented here has been done in far more impressive fashion since the 1986 NES port of the original arcade game was released. Sure, you can feel the excellent mechanics that have ensured that the Gradius, Salamander and Parodius series all became mega-popular among discerning shooter fans, but this game is just too primitive to keep me interested anymore.

It’s not that Gradius is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination — it’s just that future endeavors by Konami added enough cool features to make the original obsolete. Your ship, known as “The Vic Viper”, comes with a small number of additional weapons obtained with power-ups, including missiles, double fire, a laser and “option” ships that vastly increase your killing capacity. It was a nice, simple arrangement that just didn’t have the same impact when future games in the series upped the ante. The SNES port of Gradius III has a total of four different weapon assortments to pick from, while the same system’s Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius has about a dozen different vessels, each with its own combination of weapons and shields (along with the ubiquitous speed boosts).

This NES port of Gradius also is extraordinarily bland when compared to future Konami efforts. While it might be stating the obvious to mention the shoddy graphics of an early Nintendo effort, I just have to admit I found this game to be quite boring in appearance. Even a couple of similar NES-era titles (Life Force and the Famicom’s Gradius II) could at least boast a variety of diverse, colorful settings, as well as massive bosses that were impressive to gaze upon. Here, you have little in the way of eye candy.

The cavernous section of the first level looks much like the empty space areas of each level if you added jagged walls on the top and bottom of the screen. And if one trip to this region wasn’t enough for Konami, those graphics are repeated on the fourth stage....except they’re flipped upside-down (variety is the spice of life, I guess). At least the Moai level and the eerie, bluish organic cave in the sixth stage provide some sort of diversity — without those two areas, this game would have no visual charm whatsoever.

With two exceptions, mini-bosses and bosses are plain and small by shooter standards, generally taking the form of unimpressive and undetailed (but deadly) spaceships. Sadly, even the two that look good have their problems. The gigantic....thing at the end of the organic cave seems to be an awesome opponent to wage war against, until you realize there is no way to tell if you’re causing damage to it. All I could do is settle myself across the screen from is and repeatedly blast lasers into it, hoping that my efforts were leading to its demise (it’s hard to tell when all bullets seem to simply vanish an instant before coming into contact with their target). As for the final boss, it looks cool, but is arguably the most anti-climactic battle ever.

The gameplay does a great job in making up for the bland graphics and lackluster sounds, although it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. This is one of those games where you lose all your speed-ups and optional weaponry upon the loss of one life. In many cases, one death at the wrong time can pretty much end a person’s game as their neutered ship neither has the speed nor firepower to overcome the hordes of enemies and their waves of bullets. While the early-game enemies are fairly passive, as you progress through the levels, you’ll find that not only are the enemies more determined to shoot you down, but also that you tend to have less and less room to roam.

All in all, the Gradius experience can be pretty enjoyable, as simple and addictive gameplay that gradually gets more and more frenetic tends to lead to a fun game. But it’s just hard for me to be too enthusiastic about recommending this particular game, as its theme has been re-done many times by Konami over the past couple of decades. With those more recent games boasting a wider assortment of power-ups and more flexibility in customizing your ship, as well as the addition of appealing visuals, Konami’s original Gradius just seems like an antiquated relic ready to be banished to the far reaches of a gamer’s closet.

Rating:   2.5 - Playable

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