Games nobody talks about anymore: Parodius

Starting in 1988, the Parodius games brought a riot of imagination to the shooting genre. Ryan looks back to a brilliantly surreal series...

Konami may be most closely associated with franchises like Metal Gear and Silent Hill these days, but the 1980s really saw it on an extraordinary run of creative from. Having made a splash in 1981 with rock-hard shooter Scramble, it released the button-mashing sports game Track & Field in 1983, and bawdy high-school comedy simulator Mikie.

These paved the way for the arcade onslaught of 1985, which saw the release of four games which were each, in their own way, quite brilliant: run-and-stab action game Green Beret, ground-breaking brawler Yie Ar Kung Fu, cartoon shooter Twinbee, martial arts platformer Shao-Lin’s Road, and finally, Gradius.

The latter was a shoot-em-up classic, with its gigantic area bosses, customisable array of weapons, plus graphics and sound which were, for the time, quite stunning. Although Gradius owed a debt to such games as Defender and Konami’s own Scramble, this new breed of shooter had its own gravitational pull. Every shooter which came after it had to have its own spectacular boss battles, exotic graphic design and distinctive weapon system.

Konami wasn’t slow in exploring the possibilities of the Gradius template. A spin-off called Salamander came out in 1986, followed by Gradius II in 1988 and Gradius III the year after that. These were the boom years for the shooting genre, when arcades were overflowing with Konami’s cabinets and rival titles like R-Type and Side Arms. But while the Gradius series was bringing in profits for Konami, the company wasn’t afraid to have a little fun at its own expense. In 1988, as Gradius II was relieving arcade-goers of their coinage, a curious shooting game called Parodius: The Octopus Save The Earth appeared on the MSX. 

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In terms of raw mechanics, it’s just Gradius all over again: a straight vaunt from left to right, glittering stars in the background, and a wave of inbound aggressors to shoot down. But Parodius replaces the Star Wars-influenced alien space ships of Gradius with a bewildering and surreal array of animals (penguins and octopuses featured heavily), creatures from Japanese folklore and other visual non-sequiturs.

With the MSX being a relatively humble system compared to the arcade machines of the day, Parodius lacked the smooth scrolling and huge sprites of the main Gradius series. But it did possess an infectious sense of fun and, freed from the confines of the sci-fi genre, a real sense of creative freedom.

Konami seemed to think it was onto something, because in 1990, it released a souped-up Technicolor for Japanese arcades. Called Parodius: From Myth To Laughter, it took the core concept of the MSX version – a colourful parody of Gradius – and pushed it to new extremes. 

Like the original, you can choose from four characters – the Vic Viper ship from Gradius, Twinbee from Konami’s earlier shooter of the same name, an octopus, or Pentarou, a penguin who’d appeared in Antarctic Adventure. Each character has its own unique weapons and defences, some of them mimicking those in the main Gradius series – Pentarou, for example, takes his weaponry from Gradius III.

The game unfolds in a riot of colour, sound and utter madness. An opening salvo of power-up-giving drones and a starry void suddenly gives way to a clear blue sky, and before you know it, you’re being assaulted by a weird army of penguins, chickens, and giant cat pirate ships. It would be easy to say that Parodius is like a cartoon, but that’s not strictly accurate; certainly the wide-eyed character designs and cheerful use of colour resemble some kind of late-80s anime show, but the net effect is more akin to viewing a demented carnival unfold before your eyes after drinking too much tequila.

The manic atmosphere’s underlined by the theme music – a constant, up-tempo warble of classical music. I seem to recall reading somewhere that the music was chosen because the composer had no time to write anything original to go with the game. Whether that’s the case or not, the tunes fit perfectly with the game’s puckish, cheeky tone.

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One of Gradius‘s main draws was the quality of its visuals, which kept you putting in more coins in order to see what the next level looked like. Parodius takes this to new levels; you simply cannot predict what the game’s going to throw at you next. One stage suddenly sees a colossal Las Vegas showgirl sashay across the screen – a surreal riff on an indestructible mechanical spider from the Gradius series. Another’s populated by sentient cherry trees in full spring blossom. Still another sees you face off against a huge angry puffer fish. 

British gamers old enough to remember the 1980s often talk wistfully about the eccentric imagination of that era’s bedroom coders; the febrile minds who brought us Jet Set Willy, Monty Mole or Sabre Wulf. There’s arguably that same freewheeling spirit in Parodius, and it’s remarkable that a relatively large company like Konami would greenlight something like this, let alone expect it to make money in an arcade. Yet here it is, an artefact clearly made with love and an obsession with weird little details: for example, Tako the octopus will, for one scene only, open an umbrella because it starts raining.

The final stage doesn’t see the designers run out of ideas, but rather shower the screen with yet more of them. The original Gradius‘s cold metal base of operations becomes a kind of whimsical sci-fi zoo; pause the game, and you can see tiny penguins sitting at computers, labouring over a furnace or relaxing in the bath. These are the kinds of details that only exist because the designers had a passion for what they were doing; a complete commitment to their own batty concept.

Given everything described so far, you might be forgiven for thinking that the arcade iteration of Parodius was a one-off – a kind of never-to-be-repeated vanity project. Except it wasn’t at all; the game was ported to numerous consoles, with each containing its own unique levels and little flourishes – the PC Engine edition’s particularly wonderful. 

Then came the sequels: Fantastic Parodius in 1994, Chatting Parodius Live for the Super Nintendo, and later ported to Sega Saturn and PlayStation, and Sexy Parodius, released in arcades in 1996 and later ported to the PlayStation and Sega Saturn. Each game took the series to new demented heights, pulling in references to Japanese mythology and parodies of games outside the Gradius universe. To describe each would take an article in itself; Sexy Parodius, a less mucky game than its name implies, is a riot of soup dragons, kung-fu eggs and, yes, an army of penguins.

After 1996, the sun began to set on Parodius. Released in 1997, Paro Wars was a curious venture into the strategy genre, released for the PlayStation. Thereafter, the series wound up in the realm of the pachinko parlour and never escaped. Otomedius, released in arcades in 2007 and ported to Xbox 360 in 2010, revived the penguins and rocket-riding maidens of Parodius, but the game smacked of rushed fan-service – a concoction sold on its busty heroines rather than the strength of its design.

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And make no mistake, for all the splendour of the series’ audio and visuals, the Parodius games were beautifully put-together; as playable and addictive than the Gradius series. In fact, while the Gradius games soon became crushingly hard for all but the most seasoned shooter addict – Gradius III remains relentlessly punishing – Parodius retained its spirit of fun. 

Pachinko machines aside, the Parodius series appears to be lying dormant – a vibrant footnote, perhaps, in Konami’s history. And given that the central Gradius series has itself remained largely untouched since the stunning Gradius V, it doesn’t seem too likely that we’ll see the likes of Parodius again. But a little bit of me hopes that Konami will look back and see the Parodius series for what it was: a moment when a development team at the height of its creative powers suddenly let its imaginations run riot.

I hope that, one day soon, the floodgates will again be opened, and an army of penguins, pirate cats and soup dragons invades the gaming landscape once again.

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