Thursday, March 4, 2010

Gradius (NES)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
7 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1986

One year after debuting in the arcade scene, the spaceship known as Vic Viper found its way to the NES in one of the first ports of Gradius, a landmark in the history of scrolling shooters. In order to lure more players into this new venue, the North American NES cover proudly stated the game had sold over 1.000.000 copies in Japan. Such marketing strategies weren't really needed after all - the NES, as well as other video game consoles available at the time, was still in need of new, fresh titles, especially shoot'em ups. And for the great 8-bit game it actually is, the NES version of Gradius ranks very high within the NES shooting library, or any NES collection for that matter.

The reason Gradius for the NES plays so well relates to how clever Konami was when scaling down the original game to the hardware constraints of Nintendo's console. The game is simplified in such a way that it rarely pushes the platform beyond its limits, and as a result it competently retains all the key aspects that make it a timeless classic. It's a better approach than, let's say, what was done with R-Type and Sagaia on the Master System, two ports that suffer from well-known graphical problems (especially the latter).

I was spending a Saturday afternoon reorganizing my collection when I stumbled upon this game and thought to myself it would be nice to try and top my previous high score on it. So there I went blasting big cores, moais and tentacles. Since recently I was able to beat the supposedly arcade-perfect Sega Saturn version, this time I could measure how much relatively easier the game is on the NES. Before someone starts complaining, remember that I said relatively, OK?

1st stage action against bouncing droids and exploding volcanos

The gameplay remains the same, as does the always familiar power-up bar. Get orange icons to cycle the positions in the bar and activate it to get the power-ups. As usual, the most important of them is the "option", the glowing orb that follows the ship around and here can be accumulated up to 2 instead of 4. This is probably the main difference from the original game, but other noteworthy ones are: (1) the laser weapon is not a continuous series of laser streams anymore, being replaced by short laser-like shots with the same destructive effect; (2) stages and enemies are substantially scaled down (mirror stage is much simpler, big cores are smaller, the large cage in the final stage is missing); and (3) the shield now protects the whole ship against enemy shots, not only its front. Everything considered though, the most important aspect of all in the NES Gradius is that it runs smoothly with almost no flicker at all, and the only bad thing one could bring up about its performance is in stage 5, when having more than one tentacle on screen almost brings the game to a hault. Well, given there's no built-in autofire and it's so damn hard to kill those tentacles, the slowdown sort of helps to at least avoid them.

Exclusive to the NES port are some special secrets, from which the strangest one is the stage warping. Depending on certain criteria that's met when playing some stages, the next stage is skipped completely after a shower of indestructible but easily dodgeable spinning moai heads goes by. A quick Internet research will tell you the criteria for all warps:
  • Stage 1: to activate the warp to stage 3, each of the four hatches that appear on this stage must be destroyed when the thousands digit of the score is even (of the four hatches, three are on the ground level and one is on the upper portion of the screen)
  • Stage 2: to activate the warp to stage 4, the Big Core must be destroyed within two seconds of the core turning blue (only possible with very well placed shots from lasers)
  • Stage 3: to activate the warp to stage 5, ten or more moai statues must be destroyed (this is the easiest one, almost unavoidable actually)

Vic Viper warps from stage 3 directly to stage 5 on Gradius for the NES
(courtesy of YouTube user qhoang85)

Some sources will even say that the stage 2 warp rule applies to any big core boss in the game, later levels included. I couldn't verify that myself though. Actually I personally dislike these warps, since they take away a lot of the scoring you normally get from playing the game as a whole. But wait... That isn't the end of the secrets! Hidden 1UPs and bonuses of 5.000 points are scattered all around, just take a peek at the Strategywiki page on Gradius to see where they're located and how to get them. On a side note, regular extra lives are awarded with 20.000 points and then for all hundreds afterwards.

All NES owners deserve themselves the fun provided by Gradius, shmuppers or not. It's more intense than the average 8-bit shooter, with the right level of challenge thanks to the option-based rank, smooth scrolling and fair hit detection. The next shooting experience to be had after this is Gradius II.

My new high score is an improvement of 50% over the last one (this time I managed to reach stage 2-6):


  1. Excellent classic! Very nice your review and great tips.

    The Saturn version is more hard?

  2. Tks!
    The Saturn version is a lot more difficult. In fact, Gradius on the NES is sort of a breeze after you've been exposed to the Saturn port, which is Arcade perfect according to some people.

  3. Thanks for the review of gradius on NES, it's one of my favourite game!

  4. In fact the game DOES have autofire in it. You have to activate it by wrapping the powerup meter when the thousands digit is the right number (i think it's 0, but i'm not sure) WHen it's 5, wrapping the meter gets 10k bonus points.

    1. Wow, that's valuable information!
      What do you exactly mean by "wrapping the power-up meter"?

    2. Probably collecting a capsule when the "?" is lit, so it goes back to Speed Up.

    3. That's another bit of very awesome information.
      Many thanks, Mr. Harris!