Untold Tales of The Arcade: The Mighty Sword Against The Bacterians, The Story of Gradius The Almighty

By Francesco-Alessio Ursini / May 2, 2008


Talking about Gradius is at the same time an honor and a burden. I can't think of a series with a wider base in the niche genre of shooting games. Well, maybe R-Type with all those H. R. Giger-rip-off Bydo thingies. It's funny; the two most recognized series in this damn genre are horizontal, don't sport a convoluted scoring system, and hail from the '80s. It seems like their fame comes from their strong nostalgia factor.

But let's talk about Gradius. Unless you literally lived on Mars, hidden behind an obscure and forgotten Martian rock, you MUST have played Gradius. It's the official Famicom shooter in this regard, and every single human being with a NES had AT LEAST one copy of the game. True, I never had a NES (!), nor a copy of Gradius (!!), but at least I had the decency to play it in the arcade.

You remember me, my uncle's arcade, my long and lost memories of the past? And there was this game, Nemesis -- I mean Gradius (at least I remember playing the European version called Nemesis) -- which was one of those games that took you violently and glued you to the screen, unless you hated the genre (and I sure as hell didn't). Do you remember? The Options, the cool backgrounds, the tricky power-up system, the vocal samples, the... ancient statues from Easter Island called, um, Moai? And, wait a second, are these giant brains? Volcanoes erupting above my head and below my ass? What the hell?

Yes, Gradius, and its cheese.

It was the '80s, and Gradius was a part of that cheesiness. Not because of its mechanics, which were a few light-years ahead of everything. Except for the charge shot (which came courtesy of our other milestone series, R-Type), everything in shooters, at least in their basic form, comes from Gradius. Power-ups? Gradius. Ground weapons? Gradius. Multi-tapping with the weapon or auto-fire? Gradius. Rank? Gradius.

But this is one of those cases where mechanics isn't the only and most important factor behind a game. If you remember me, you may think I've gone crazy. No rant about the heights of scoring technique behind a game? No dissing of anything which doesn't have hardcore rules for billion-point scores? No. Because Gradius is, in some sense, pure science fiction made game.

Let's start from the last chapter, Gradius V. The boys at Treasure received a call from Konami and were asked to develop a new Gradius sequel. It was, to say the least, ironic. Treasure was formed by a group of Konami employees who didn't want to succumb to sequelitis. After a few years, Treasure (or Konami, officially) gave us Gradius V.

Gradius IV had been a bit of a disappointement. I only played it a few times, ages ago, while I was lost in the mists of stupidity. It was about the same time as G Darius, actually. All I thought about Gradius IV was, "Ah, bah, Gradius in 3D, but without any new things. And Moai are so cheesy now, damnit!". Hiroshi Iuchi must have thought this as well. "Moai? What are they supposed to represent? No, let's stop with this bullshit and let's make Gradius what it is supposed to be... pure, undiluted science fiction."

And in the first stage of Gradius V I hear a few notes from Hitoshi Sakimoto, and the Vic Viper launches up in the sky, and the planet Gradius slowly appears in the background, in its absolute grandeur, much like the Mars of Border Down. The entire cosmos stretches before my eyes, and suddenly I remember what Gradius is. Suddenly I'm somewhere else, where the old charts of the stars originate. The lasers of my Vic Viper sweep across the vast infinity of Space, with a capital S. And suddenly an old friend (and foe) appears. Do you remember? The first Gradius boss. The ship that appears at end of the first stage, and all other stages as well, except the last one. You know it. Everyone knows it. It's part of our collective gaming consciousness, no?

Gradius is about the epic fight. The almighty spaceship Vic Viper against the evil fiends of Bacteria. The powerful Gladius of Justice in the face of cruel, greedy creatures.

Back to 1985. Do you remember the simple yet incredibly catchy theme of Gradius? I do. I can't think of a song that has a deeper, more moving effect in me, evoking the vast, infinite fields of Beyond. Maybe this is what I always liked about Gradius, the feeling of otherness and infinite freedom that comes from this fundamental melody. Gradius was about that catchy theme, "The Beginning of Our Story", followed by the hypnotic beauty of the first stage's theme. It was also about sweeping the screen with Options, and the kid that I was, a long time ago. It was about learning how to use the weapons at my disposal, in an elegant way (I would learn even more about that with the Giant Fishes' saga, but that's another story).

Gradius was my first hori love, a love of space and big mysteries. But my heart has a weak spot for the other side of the coin -- the bug-eyed monsters from the dark nebula. On one side, science fiction is all about otherness of place, the distant stars and mysterious worlds. On the other side, there is otherness of person: bizarre Giger-esque creatures. After roughly one year, Konami decided that the other side deserved a game as well. Hence, Salamander (or Life Force).

I have more love for this simpler spin-off than for the main series. I can't tell you why -- wait, I can. The action is faster, and less complicated. You can grab a power-up or weapon without wasting time with those pesky yellow capsules, then blast the evil Bydo emperor... er, blast the suckers from the dark nebula, which also look a lot as if H. R. Giger designed them. Yes, I had a sort of fascination with Giger's monsters; I still do, to some extent. So, Salamander and its dark style, filled with lucid organic nightmares and a brilliant soundtrack, attracted me more than Gradius. It's not surprising that I also loved Darius to death that year. There is something about the mix of life and technology that always screams, "This is sci-fi, my friend!".

I think the story of Salamander might have been a fight against the monsters of Acheron. And... some Moai? Hell, I can't remember; Konami had some bizarre ideas. (Let's not even mention Contra.) But I do remember those clear, cold days of winter, the power of the "Anger" theme, and my love for Salamander's fast-paced action. And now, it is again cold, and the sky holds a sad moon shining, but it is "Universe" from Gradius V that accompanies me in this solitary flashback to space, distant stars, and a lone battle to avert the Bacterians' domination. And the stars, my destination, are, as they were twenty years ago, the main drive behind my love for Gradius.

This love was renewed with Vulcan Venture, or Gradius II: Gofer no Yabou. Think of it: remember the first stage, the Vic Viper floating across stars between giant fire dragons, and the immense, superb, epic theme of the first stage, "Burning Heat". This time the plot was about tearing down the ambitions of Gofer, some evil mastermind plotting to control the universe, or something like that. It was nothing more than a stray comment from the magazine ads of the time, but still, in my child's mind, it was the perfect plot for a lone ship against a whole armada of bizarre creatures... and Moai. Gofer no Yabou, if you were there, and if you were of the Gradius arcade brotherhood, was a pure blast. One of those cases were you really could say, "Bigger, better, faster!" (or whatever you say to sound mass-appealing). I think that when I saw this game for the first time, I had to buy a new jaw.

You start playing, and after a few seconds "Burning Heat" and its greatness surrounds you, with giant flame dragons floating around the screen. Then there are Moai armies, an immense phoenix, Alien rip-offs, the massive (#$%&!) ice-cube stage, volcanoes, a boss rush, the high-speed-scrolling zone... and the walker. I mean, if it's Gradius, you need a walker. It's like a marble without its track, or a fisherman without his best bait[1]: Gradius is a walker and then a cheap boss which is a colossal immobile head, damnit!

I remember, as a kid, I sweated, cursed and endured bittersweet progress while playing this game with its fussy ranking system, its superb Moai stage, its various cheap shots, and the majestic walker. I remember the seasons passing as I humbly progressed through the game; and cold winter became warm spring. And when it was about to be hot summer, Gofer was no more.

In the battle for Gradius's survival, I was the winner! Hooray for the Gradius brotherhood!

Then came Gradius III. Ok, we're still speaking of the '80s. Remember the bad haircuts, the crappy dresses, the random lame things. Gradius II was ace, this is unquestionable. Gradius III, however, was just more of the same. Yes, I said it, and I think that you must be warped if you don't agree.

Gradius III is recycle-land. That is not the worst problem, but let's proceed with some order. We've said that Gofer no Yabou was a bigger, faster, nicer, better, whatever Gradius. That's what everyone expects from sequels. But Gradius III overdoes it. Too much of everything is not good. In fact, it's bad. Gradius III is too long, but the mechanics? That's where the true problem lies. I mean, Gradius is about tight corridors, smart tricks to use Options, all that stuff. Picture this done to excess from stage two on. I think that the Konami programmers wanted to pull off something hardcore for no other reason than to prove they could. If you go around the almighty Interweb, most will agree. Remember the times, rummaging across porn sites, when you found comments like "OMG Gradius III is insanely hard?!?!"? Ok, maybe not on porn sites, but the point is still the same: Gradius III is exorbitant in its zeal and length. I agree that epic fights are cool, but there's a balance to meet.

And the bubble stage is insane.

There, I said it. Generations of frustrated gamers shaking their fists at the screen are now feeling relieved by this clear, obvious, but nevertheless necessary epiphany. Ladies and gentlemen, let's say it together:


End of the article. A new sense of collective awareness spreads over the universe. Multiversal peace becomes the norm for the next twenty aeons.

But seriously, Gradius III was the beginning of the end. I gave up somewhere around stage eight. The insane difficulty was too much, and eternal love is difficult when our lovers demand too much of us, no?

And honestly, someone else was courting me. The summer of 1990 provided a new paramour for the broken-hearted Gradius III players. Put together a penguin, an octopus, a Twin Bee ship, and a Vic Viper. An odd ménage à quatre, no? And then let's say that they have to fight giant ballerinas, killer clowns, pirate-ship cats, and titanic sumo-wrestling pigs.

Everyone, including me, raised an eyebrow at this back in 1990. The first time I saw Parodius I was like, "... Uhhh?". Not because I had never been exposed to Japanese nonsensical humour before, but because it was the first time that I saw it in a shooter, and a rather brilliant one. I must confess: gone from my heart was the passion for glorious space opera and epic fights, replaced by sunny landscapes, odd creatures, and random penguins. Time passed, and most of my fun came from Parodius and other games, not Gradius. There was still a place in my heart reserved for Gradius, but the years passed. Soon, it was 1994. Another Parodius arrived, but no sign of Gradius IV. And, after a while, I stopped thinking about my first love. After all, a similar inamorata, with a better sense of humor, was right beside me.

And then, as you may or may not remember, the '90s passed. I wasn't there when Gradius Gaiden appeared. I knew about it, but, well, it was before importing was easy, and it was on the PlayStation. I've never been a console person, and I wasn't thrilled with the idea of a console-only Gradius. My love, in spite of this glorious reappearance, had finally faded from my heart.

I wasn't there when Salamander 2 appeared (though I do like the game, same as with Sexy Parodius). And when Gradius, the almighty sword against the Bacterians, was resurrected in the arcades in 1999, where was I? Away from the arcades, fighting other kinds of battles and busy with other passions, like Darius.

Gradius IV: Fukkatsu caught my eye three years after its release one afternoon of 2002, in an anonymous arcade. I don't even remember what I thought at the beginning -- something along the lines of "Oh, what's this, a too-late rehash of Gradius?" I played a few credits and wasn't impressed. It was like meeting an old love after years and wondering why I fell in love with her in the first place. I remember something, sure, but why I did love you? So, I thought, this is the end of an epic love, between me, the stars, and the Vic Viper. Ah, well, all good things must come to an end, no?

Little did I know that Konami had decided to make Gradius V. They had also decided to hire their ex-employees, as I told you. "Hi guys, do you remember Gradius? Can you do us a sequel?" Nothing short of an epic challenge for the ones who left from the company because they didn't want to make endless sequels. I can picture Hiroshi Iuchi meditating upon Gradius.

"What is Gradius?"

Gradius is Space. Maybe not the last frontier, but close enough. It's something epic and primeval. I wouldn't say good vs. evil; that's not my cup of tea. But still, it's something that has to do with the pure, mythopoeic idea of a cosmic fight against prodigious, alien wonders. And again, "Universe" captures me and brings me up in the sky, in the vast, cold cosmos of the winter skies, on the powerful engines of the Vic Viper. I turn back and realize: Konami has stopped making arcade shooters. This is the first Gradius after Fukkatsu, produced in 1999. The last Parodius? 1996. Salamander 2, which was no more than a 10th anniversary title, was 1996 as well. Vertical titles? Twin Bee Yahhoo!, 1995. The glorious times of Konami arcade sequels, sadly, are over.

And then I think back to the first Gradius. I recall its first theme, "The Beginning of Our Story".

"What is Gradius?"

Gradius is space opera, in the most untamed form. Remember Star Trek? Imagine Spock, with his impeccable and logical tone, devoid of any emotion whatsoever, telling Kirk, "Captain, it is logical to launch the Vic Viper against the Bacterians." Scotty says "Och, cap'n, the engine is still not ready for the battle, and the Options aren't at full power!" Bones gets angry, "Jim, what are you waiting for?! This is the most fundamental battle for us; the Moai are close to Earth!"

The amount of cheese was more or less the same, if you compare the old Star Trek series and the old Gradii. Remember the first Gradius: the idea was simple, no? And it's the same cheese that can be found in Gradius V.

No, wait a second:

The first thing that really hits me is the lack of any cheese. It's the same game, but after twenty years it has grown up. Gone are the Moai, the oddities, the bizarre creatures (well, except for stage four), and the oh-so-cheesy '50s and '60s sci-fi. It's different, this time. It's a game of the third millennium (something that I always wanted to say in an article).

No more cheese, just sci-fi, a fierce battle against cruel enemies, the stars and planet Gradius shining in the dark, vast infinities surrounding us. My long-forgotten love has become much more appealing with maturity, like a fine red wine I'd banished to the cellar. I'm finally appreciating something fundamental, unchanged beneath cosmetics.

Maybe the next Gradius will have Moai or dancing ballerinas or whatever. Maybe it will finally reveal to us why there were Moai in the first place, and some epic battle will again unfold. Maybe it will have a more sophisticated scoring system.

Or maybe there's something really timeless about Gradius. And maybe Gradius V is, again, the beginning of our story.

[1] This is a rather silly reference to a quite non-sensical Italian song, in case you are wondering.