Gaming Journal: Why Gradius 1 is so damn good

If your a old hand at Gradius then this article isn't for you, what I’m writing this for is for people who like me until very recently knew what Gradius is and had even played it once or twice, but other then that dismissed Gradius as old hat, a shmup that for someone who mostly plays modern manic verts, Gradius is a old style horizontal that contains all the things I hated about old shooters, that is no auto fire, speed ups, check points and last but not least cheap deaths, either by the enemies or the scenery. Cheap deaths are the one thing most hated by people who play modern shooters. For those who don’t know what “cheap deaths” are, What I’m talking about is how the games designed, when you a playing a shmup good game design would be no matter how hard the game gets, everything should be doable even if its your first time playing that part. If you're playing a shmup, are playing well and haven’t died yet, then all of a sudden the walls come crashing down or that enemy you let passed shoots a bullet at you after it’s off the screen. These sorts of things a called my many shmuppers as “cheap deaths” traps that you cannot avoid with having experienced it beforehand. Cheap deaths are what makes a shmup usually an old style horizontal, a memorizer as much of the difficulty lies in knowing exatly what lies ahead as the taxing your bullet dodging skills. As I mentioned before there is a large part of the shmupping comunity that plays only modern verts and genrally stays well away from the old school horizontal memorizer.

 Anyway I’m here to tell you guys that cheap deaths and all the other hated design features are not only ok in a game like Gradius, but nowadays I actually welcome them, only in hori shmups mind you, in verts especially manic I still think cheap deaths etc (apart from maybe check points) are a bad idea. You see in the past I’ve been playing Gradius and its hori cousins wrong, it’s no use playing a memorizer casually now and again  like I would any other vert danmaku. No the best way to play them is for completion be it 1CC, 1LC or whatever the important thing is to spend enough time that all the cheap deaths etc don’t matter anymore. You see unless you’re shmupping skills are god like, if you were to try to 1CC any moderately difficult shmup vert or hori, it would take you at least a week or two by that time you will have memorized the stages, bullet patterns and best ways to score, so weather the game has cheap deaths or not it really doesn’t matter anymore.

Stage 1 of the NES version

With this new understanding I found Gradius (in my case the NES version) a lot more approachable. You will probably know this since it’s well documented, that like Xevious for verts, Gradius was for the hori, introducing many aspects that make up memorizer type horizontals. Before Gradius all horizontal shmups played like Defender or Scramble (which was Konami’s previous shooter to Gradius). This makes Gradius a good place to start for anyone wanting to bust his hori 1CC cherry, since although Gradius NES is hard and the arcade original version is even harder, it’s not as hard as some of the later and more sophisticated hori memorizers that are classics. Anyway after a few credits of the game I got sick of always dieing at the stage 1 mid boss the volcano, I thought it best to read a strategy guide of the game. It’s a rule of mine to find out what make a particular shmup tick that I’m attempting to complete, it makes the game so much easier, although I think it’s good to read up on a shooter, I’ll stop at watching videos unless I'm totally stuck. A video can spoil shmups for me as its fun to try to work out routes myself, it’s like looking at the answer page of a crossword.

The boss at the end of most stages, you must "shoot the core"

It was interesting to find out that the NES version had hidden extras the other versions did not that is the hidden score and 1ups and the warps. The warps are that if you fulfilled certain requirements like destroying 10 moahs in stage 3 you would enter a warp where you had to dodge lots of flying moah heads and totally miss the next stage. This warp trick would have been very useful for anyone playing on the original console as a way to make practicing the later stages easier but for me on a emulator I saw it just cheapening the game so I rarely used them.

After playing for a couple of days I found easily get passed the first couple of stages, all I needed to do was to make sure I collected enough power ups so that I was fully kitted out with options and a shield. Even though the rank (difficulty) goes up the more weapons you have, been fully powered up makes the game so much easier but also makes the game allot harder if you die, this is funnily enough called the Gradius Syndrome, this makes the game practically a 1LC with some parts of the game nigh on impossible to get past fully powered down, stage 6 been the worse. This isn’t just a Gradius thing though, but Gradius brought to the genre of horizontal shmups R-type is another classic that excels at it. So while its ok to have a lapse or two of concentration while playing a danmaku, playing a hori you do need to be on the ball all the time, and considering many horizontals have more levels then the average modern vert, playing a hori is a test of endurance as well as a test of skill.

 Stages 2 and 3 including the famous moah heads

Trying to clear stage 3 was the first big hurdle I came across because of those infamous moah heads that fill the screen with projectiles, its quite a challenge and one that took a while to get past and I was playing the NES version, the arcade original is much harder as the top and bottom of the screen loops around and there is a extra row of moahs at the top of the screen. This is chopped off in the NES version and makes the top row the safest route most of the time. I found that it’s easier to swap from the laser weapon I had used in stage two over to the double shot in stage 3. Although clearing the bosses is easier with the laser, using the double with the missile (the ground hitting bombs) allowed me to hit the moahs above as well as below, although It does make activating the warp cheat easier since 10 destroyed moah heads activates it, something I would rather not but found myself doing a few times since it makes getting passed the moahs easier. Passed the moahs the stage 3 mid bosses are imo the hardest in the game if you like me most of the time not using auto fire. These ships called mothers would move across the screen one at a time releasing indestructible projectile babies of itself that are tough to dodge. If you are fully powered up the rank really makes a difference here increasing the number of mothers you had to get passed, the shield is certainly your friend here.

Stage four is not too difficult if powered up, it’s a repeat of stage one but upside down with the volcanoes at the top of the screen. Just make sure you have the double or option power ups so you can destroy any stray rocks at the inverted volcano. Stage five and things are easy as well, There’s a lengthy pre-stage, by pre-stage I mean the beginning of the stage where you can shoot those lines of enemies that give up power up icons, this makes the pre-stage area the part you try to collect enough power ups to get yourself kitted out to tackle the rest of the stage. Apart from the popcorn baddies at the pre-stage, stage five enemies are all meteors with tentacles that fire shots at you. If you have the laser its easy enough to destroy the arms or the whole thing, or if you let 2 or more of them onscreen at one time the slowdown kicks in making dodging the bullets easy work, just watch out for when it suddenly speeds back up. Onto the penultimate stage six that can be quite easy or granite hard depending on how powered up you are. The pre-stage is very short making weather you died in the previous level a key factor. What makes this stage so tough are three things; first is that the level is filled with a web / net like substance that similar to the stage to balls that you must shoot to get past. Unless you have all your options you wont be able to dodge very well making the other things trying to kill you so much harder. The second hurdle is these amoebas like baddies that fly towards you and are hard to kill without the laser or auto fire, and third are the turrets at the top and bottom of the screen that fire many shots at you that are hard to dodge with the netting filling the stage. When you get to the boss you had better of collected enough of the many power ups to have at least the shield even better lasers and options arranged above and below you because the boss shoots random bullets at you similar to a volcano. The odd bullet will hit you making this a race to destroy the boss before your shield gives up.

The tunnels of the last stages (arcade version)

The last stage is another level that suffers from the Gradius Syndrome as you are flying in a narrow tunnel inside the baddies base. Here many Duckers those walking turrets move quickly from the left side of the screen to take you out if you play like you would a traditional shooter staying to the back to shoot what’s coming in front of you. Here and in many other parts of the game it’s better to stay at the centre of the screen, watching for sneak attacks from behind as well as been able to pick of the turrets as soon as they appear to the right making sure they don’t get a chance to fire.

This gives your shield a bit of breathing space as the trick here (and elsewhere) is always have an idea how much power your shields have. If they get low then if you have another shield ready to replace it, then its best to fly into bullets so you can quickly fire up a replacement shield and collect enough power ups to buy another asap. That method makes the game allot easier then just letting a shield nearly run out and get hit by a quick succession of enemy bullets before you get chance to press the B button to start the replacement shield. When I got passed the long winding tunnel I enter a large area full of turrets and bullets to dodge, it is here where I came across these gates that quickly closed on me thereby making me crash into them the first time I encountered it. It was a baby puncher as well since it was my last life and took me a length of time before I had managed to get that far as to nip passed the gates before they closed on me.

The are different ports of Gradius, here is the arcade (left) and PCE (right) versions

After the gates you come across the last boss, a brain that doesn’t fire it just sits there and explodes after a few seconds. Gradius’ last bosses are famous for been a push-over, the total opposite to R-type’s last bosses. Although the jury is still out on weather I would call it a boss as it’s more of a cutscene then a boss due to me not having to shoot just wait until it blows. After that you are show a picture of vic viper flying away from the enemy base in its destruction (another staple of the series) and a message spelling congratulations then you restart (without power ups) from the stage one of the game only this time the game is harder then before. This feature is a throwback to earlier shooters like Space Invaders and Galaga that looped on forever and were played for score. With Gradius the game gets harder and harder for the first ten loops and after that stays the same until the game ends after the 256th loop. This allows those who want to take Gradius further then a 1CC or 1LC and play for score or just to see how far you can get. Having loops also changes the game into one hell of an endurance test albeit with a pause button. Atm I’ve only played Gradius for a simple completion but at a later date I plan on playing again only for score as the Shmups forum has leader boards up for Gradius and some of it’s sequels.

I do hope that my rather lengthy journal has made you guys who only play verts to possibly go and give horizontals a try, even better if its Gradius since there’s so many sequels to the game, plus all the different versions of just Gradius alone. Check out this FAQ site and read up about the different versions. Also check out Hardcore Gaming 101 they have a good article about the Gradius series, also check out the Parodius series there, it’s a cute wacky spin off of Gradius and is a lot of fun in itself.