Shoot the core: Looking back at Gradius

Konami’s Gradius reaches its quarter-century this year. Here’s our look back at a classic 2D shooter…


There was a time when an entire universe could be suggested with a handful of slowly moving pixels. In the late 70s/early 80s days of nascent computer technology, games such as Galaxian consisted of an inky black void punctuated with stars, a handy method of hinting at the depth of space with the most meagre of resources.

If you were an unsuspecting Japanese arcade dweller in 1985, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Konami’s then brand new shooter, Gradius, was simply more of the same. Shortly after shoving a coin into the cabinet, the game opens on the tiny, dart-like Vic Viper scrolling through a familiar backdrop of flickering stars.

As though leading the player through their new world by degrees, Gradius builds slowly, as a simple tunnel approaches, bearing more than a passing resemblance to its similarly influential predecessors, Scramble and Defender.

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But as the successive waves of bobbing, weaving enemy sprites come and go, the landscape becomes more ambitious and unpredictable, the thin bands of pixels that give the impression of an unending corridor giving way to huge outcroppings of rock, and then the game’s first, brilliantly unexpected set piece: a pair of vast, magma-spewing volcanoes.

Played in 2010, it’s hard to imagine just how unusual and clever this moment was. Where every other shooter of the period simply scrolled on ceaselessly across an almost unchanging backdrop, Gradius abruptly stopped players in their tracks.

The triumphant music that had been blaring away on a loop suddenly fades, and another, more ominous melody kicks in. And then the volcanoes begin to spit chunk after chunk of deadly lava, assaulting the player in what could well be the first ‘bullet hell’ scenario to appear in a Japanese shooter.

Assuming the diminutive Vic Viper survived this barrage (which, eagle-eyed players would immediately realise, could be achieved by hiding in the top-right corner of the screen), the makers of Gradius had another surprise up their collective sleeve.

No sooner has the volcano scrolled back out of view, when along comes a vast enemy ship, among the largest sprites then seen in a videogame. Firing huge lasers back at the Vic Viper, players had to slowly chip away at the boss’ defences, arranged like the long teeth of a whale, until the huge, eye-like core was exposed. It was a pulse quickening moment, and required patience and timing to defeat.

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And this was merely the first level. In an era where most game developers would happily offer up the same level repeatedly, with a few extra enemies to defeat in each, Gradius broke the trend by creating seven very different stages (though level four cheekily flipped level one’s terrain through 180 degrees), each with their own unique threats and layouts.

Gradius was among the first games to offer something more than a stultifying difficulty level to keep players interested. It inspired a genuine wish to see what nightmarish situation would scroll along next.

Later stages were populated by strange, laser-spitting Easter Island heads, a swarm of randomly spawning blocks, and huge brains with tentacles.

Then there was Gradius‘ weapon power-up system, which allowed players to customise their Viper to their own style of play. Collecting the glowing tokens at the start of each level posed a number of strategic possibilities. Some would argue that two or three speed-ups were vital for survival, while others immediately collected enough orbs to select the powerful, yet focused laser. Still others preferred the double, which was less powerful than the laser, but could fire a second shot off at a 45 degree tangent, extremely useful for taking out emplacements above the player’s ship.

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The Option was another innovation. Perhaps inspired by Galaga‘s drone ship, which doubled the player’s firepower, Gradius‘ multiples followed the Vic Viper around, firing when the player fired, and in larger numbers (up to four could be collected) created a barrage that the enemy could seldom counter.

Irem’s R-Type, another heavyweight of 80s 2D shooters, would have been a very different game without the innovations of Konami’s trailblazing Gradius. And while R-Type is by far the flashier game of the two, with sprite designs that remain icons of the era even 20 years on, it’s clear that its creators were heavily influenced by Gradius, with its flexible weapon system and varied levels that tested memory as well as reflexes.

Gradius‘ popularity was such that it was ported to just about every computer and console you can think of. The ZX Spectrum version was infamously bad, but the ports to the Nintendo Entertainment System and PC Engine were excellent, with the latter almost arcade perfect.

For a truly accurate recreation of the original coin-op, however, look no further than the Gradius Deluxe Pack, released in 1995 for the Sega Saturn and Sony PlayStation, or Gradius Collection for the PSP, which throws all the Gradius games, apart from the fifth instalment, on one disc.

Its 2D shooting action may seem antiquated now, but Gradius‘ influence on gaming culture can still be felt even today. Konami’s Otomedius series offers largely the same gameplay as its 1985 predecessor (albeit with far flashier graphics), and there’s every possibility that developer Treasure may one day produce Gradius VI.

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One final sign of Gradius‘ enduring appeal: the fantastic homage to the game that appeared on LittleBigPlanet, which recreated the entire iconic first level with boxes and bits of string…