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Gradius (Nemesis): Classic space shooting

Gradius is a classic arcade port on the NES, up there with Pac-Man and Galaga. Released with the title Nemesis in American arcades at the end of 1985, it established a new sub-genre: the side-scrolling shooter.

Konami brought it to the NES a year later (under its original Japanese title) with an outstanding port. Some compromises were made, such as removing the vertical-scrolling in some stages and the laser not going all the way across the screen, but it still looks and plays beautifully (flickering sprites notwithstanding). Nintendo's promise to bring fantastic arcade games into your living room was fulfilled.

Left: arcade; right: NES

In Gradius you control a space fighter jet called the Vic Viper that blasts away spacecraft, dodges myriads of bullets, and avoids obstacles. The gimmick of the game is that you choose which power-ups you want. Whenever you pick up a power-up icon, your menu option shifts to the right. The first option is speed-up, an essential first pick as the Vic Viper is just too slow otherwise. The next option is missiles. It's tempting to get these next, as they give you a second attack that shoots downward and then crawls along any surface until it finds a target. In the arcade, missiles had their own button, but since the NES only had two, they launch with your normal shot. This is a rare example of a necessary compromise improving the game, since it spares a second finger from having to mash a button.

The next item available is the double shot, a second shot that shoots upward at a 45-degree angle. This isn't that great, so I wait for the next item: the laser. Instead of shooting one bullet at a time, the laser mows down all enemies in a line. It's not as good in the NES version because it doesn't go all the way across the screen, but it's still strong. The item after the laser is called "multiple" in the arcade and, weirdly, "option" on the NES. Whatever you call it, it's powerful, as it gives you an orb that mimics you, shots and all. You can have up to two of these on the NES and a whopping four in the arcade. (Our little grey box can handle only so many sprites at once.) Lastly, the anonymous item on the far right is a protective shield that can absorb a lot of damage. A more defensive strategy is to save up for this rather than getting the laser. Or maybe start with the multiple! The fun is that you get to decide. 

On the other hand, you may not get much chance to decide, for Gradius is hard. Like Ghosts 'n Goblins, this is another one of those games that defines "NES hard." The main reason it's so hard is that when you lose a life, you also lose all your power-ups! You start from scratch at the most recent checkpoint. That's harsh. Without any power-ups, you're likely to lose your last two lives quickly, since whatever killed you before is even more likely to get you now that you're slow and weak.

In the American arcade version you can continue three times. Why they limited it like this, I have no idea. Perhaps it was an act of mercy to make you go back to the first level eventually and collect some power-ups from easy enemies again. In the NES version (like the Japanese arcade), you can't continue at all. Good luck ever beating this game's seven stages! Regardless of version, I can't get past the third stage, which is full of moai heads (think Easter Island) that bombard you with ring-like projectiles.

If you can reach the final boss (a giant brain, naturally), you are a legend.

The game is so hard that the NES developer added what is now the most famous cheat code of all time: the Konami code. Better known for its use in Contra, here it fully powers up the Vic Viper. Now this is fun! You can only use the code once per game, so once you die, it's back to nothing. Better to just hit RESET and start again. The Switch NES Online service has a special version ("SP") that lets you start on stage 5 fully-powered up, something few have ever achieved even with the Konami code.

Every level ends with the Big Core.

The bottom line is that Gradius is fun and looks and sounds great. It's so hard, though, that even with the Konami code you're likely to be stuck playing the first few levels over and over again. For 1986 that was fine, but it feels a bit limiting today. It's also worth mentioning that every level has the same boss: the Big Core, which is repetitive. I think most players would have preferred a mode that lets you keep your power-ups (or some of them) when you die—but then that would not have been as much of a quarter-muncher, would it?

Grade: A

Gameplay: Hours of fun for almost anyone (20/20)
Theme: Interesting concept and characters, if a bit generic (16/20)
Controls: Controls are smooth and let you do what you want (15/15)
Difficulty: Hard to the point of frustration (12/15)
Graphics: Beautiful, well designed graphics (15/15)
Sound: Multiple great tracks (15/15)

Linked Reviews
"There's no denying that Gradius is beginning to show its age, but for gamers who grew up stuffing their allowances into coin-op quarter slots, there's nothing like taking a trip down memory lane and reliving the type of legendary and influential arcade experiences that Gradius still offers."
— Corbie Dillard, NintendoLife, 7/10

"In many ways it was a groundbreaking release for its time, and much of what made it fun back in the '80s remains."
— Damien McFarren, Virtual Console Reviews, 7/10

"The difficulty is high, but this is one battle that's definitely worth fighting."
— Peter Skerritt, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 4/5

"This was far and away the most technically-impressive NES release outside Super Mario Bros. at the time of its debut: a sizzling-hot arcade shooter converted brilliantly."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works

"The Vic Viper's first attack run may have been in the arcades, but the NES brought the popular space shooter home in a near-perfect port."
— Stephen Ng, IGN, #34 of Top 100

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