(Gradius, December 1986, Konami)
HELL TO THE FUCK YEAH! A genre I've been anxiously awaiting to reach like a kid on Christmas morning, the space shooter. No, Action 52 doesn't count as even being a game so don't even try that shit. Today's title also holds the distinction of being the very first to utilize the most famous game cheat in history, Let's take a look at Konami's NES cherry being popped before our very eyes with Gradius.
Even if you don't know your own parent's birthdays, you KNOW "The Code"
First, a gander at Konami and how they came to become one of the most recognizable gaming companies in the world. Founded in 1973 as a jukebox rental company of all things, Konami (a portmanteau of founders, Kagemasa KOzuki, Yoshinobu NAkama, and Tatsuo MIyasako) began creating what they labeled "amusement machines". Initially one of the slowest developers in recorded history, it took 5 years for their first games to release. Wih their 1981 classic Frogger, Konami's years of experience and growing confidence started to show at a blistering pace with many memorable titles being cranked out such as Super Cobra, Gyruss, Track & Field, and Rush N' Attack among others. I cannot tell a lie, I am chomping at the bits to poke tons o' fun at Gyruss for how many waves it takes to Uranus but that will come in due time. In 1985, they developed a shooter so frantic that balls to the wall cannot describe it. Dicks to the bricks would be far more apropos. The game was given the name Nemesis and when ported to our good friend, Mr. NES, it decided that after it's divorce from the arcades that it would legally change it's name to Gradius. Konami still has their hands in just about everything from casinos, toys, and anime with a revenue of over three billion dollars so I think they are doing just peachy since their humble beginnings. As with my earlier Capcom reviews, I will delve more into "The Code" during a time when a Konami game doesn't contain as deep an origin.
Power-up enough and you can get some SERIOUS firepower happening.
In this first title of the long-running series, you play the role of an unnamed pilot behind the controls of a spaceship named the Vic Viper. I'm personally torn whether that is the dumbest name for a ship or the most bitchingest. The Vic, as I shall name it henceforth, is tasked with destroying waves of enemies before they can attack the pilot's home planet of Gradius. At the start, a pathetic little pea shooter is given and Vic moves like it is on quaaludes but send enough of certain types of enemies to hell and powerful add-ons will be dispersed. What makes Gradius badass is that you can customize how you make Vic stronger. Want to throw everything you get into speed making Vic rival that forsaken blue hedgehog? No problem! Prefer missiles to lasers and only have the power-ups for one? Then have a blast shitting bombs all across deep space! It presents the aura of strategy that the other shooters at the time were lacking as with time you slowly grasp what weaponry you'll need to unleash in what situation.
If you see these fuckers and you have no extras to shoot them with, the game is pretty much over. You'll have an easier time getting Ellen DeGeneres to participate in a bukkake video.
Comprised of seven of the most unforgiving levels this side of Axelay, Gradius is one tough mammajamma. Volcanos will spit out boulders while a wave of ships is screaming towards you on your right and mobile cannons are peppering the screen with fire on your left. In short, this game does not fuck around for even a second. As previously stated ladies and germs, dicks to the bricks. If you make it past the deceptively simple first few levels, just wait awhile and the Easter Island heads pop up out of nowhere and just simply make life untolerable. Of course, you have "The Code" at your disposal if you want to breeze by. I had this game when I was younger and thought it was defective as I damned near sprained my thumb trying to get "The Code" to work to no avail. My mistake was thinking you had to input it at the title screen like Contra, not while it was paused. In short, I had to beat this beastly fatherfucker legit so any of you that questioned my Silver Surfer victory awhile back that I made a hoop-la about, as hard as that was, it isn't as bad as Gradius. Take it from someone who has been there. What is more difficult for me to fathom is that the arcade version is even harder, with less power-ups and an extra button you had to press when you wished to fire missiles.
Man, Mother Brain sure gets around doesn't she?
Now onto the chili of the dog, the presentation. The titles that the NES offered to this point (with the exception of Metroid) have been fairly vibrant, colorful little numbers. Of course, that wouldn't do for a space shooter so it starts dark and stays dark. The ships are bright and far easier to see so there isn't the issue of 1942 where you're trying to shoot green planes down against a massive green backdrop. Black spaceships barrelling towards you in deep space would no doubt release that fateful "FUCK THIS SHIT" hormone back into any logical brain. What I dig the most is the claustrophobia that you'll encounter at times where the shit gets even more frantic. One moment, Vic is tearing it up in open space, free to maneuver the whole of the screen, and the next the walls start to close in where your freedom is taken away and it's blast your way out or die trying. There isn't much in the way of cheap death either as the controls are tighter than an asshole introduced to freezing water. The sound was a pleasant suprise as this was the first instance where the tunes the NES provided were superior to the arcade. The song selection isn't very large but the few present tunes more than sufficed and the sound effects didn't make me want to claw out my inner ear. My only real gripe would be the boss battles. One one hand, it was basically the same boss at the end of each level and on the other, I gave Super Mario Bros a 10/10 and it also had the same endstage boss. Perhaps it is because of the genre that the same showdowns felt more like one gigantic level than seven smaller ones. The final boss, once you figure out to get the fuck past the indestructible wall as quick as possible, is a joke. What was with Konami's hard-on for featuring enormous human organs as the final boss in their games anyway?
FINALLY! Someone used the proper grammar at the end of an 80s NES game!
THE FINAL VERDICT
9/10 Gradius set the bar for epic space shooters that wasn't matched for years. The setting feels alien and otherworldly, the sounds kick the piss out of the arcade version, and the challenge keeps you coming back to see if you can make it just that much further. Today, it is a great time killer and a way to temper yourself before playing any other shooter you may deem as difficult. In 1986, it was just about as perfect as you could get.
See if you can figure out how to rack up massive points at this spot like I did.
Unlike other popular Konami franchises, the Gradius legacy still lives on. If it has ever been your desire to run into a series sequel structure more confusing than the Legend of Zelda series, look no further. Gradius actually had a Gradius 2 AND a Gradius II that were different games! Enjoy wrapping your head around over a dozen sequels, spin-offs, and ports, not the least of which is a Nintendo title that I will ruin things for now by saying that when its time comes in the Quest, it gets an easy 10. Don't spoil it fuckers....
....I'll drop a tiny hint myself