May 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of Gradius, the progenitor of Konami's most successful shoot 'em-up series. Though it commands only minor recognition from the English speaking audience, it ranks next to Namco's Xevious as one of the defining games of the Japanese arcade shoot 'em-up scene.
The story of Gradius actually begins with Konami's 1981 game Scramble, which is probably better known internationally thanks its follow-up Super Cobra. It's a side-scrolling shoot 'em-up where the player must destroy enemies, fly through caverns, and destroy fuel tanks in order to restore their dwindling energy supply.
In 1985, a team led by Hiroyasu Machiguchi was in charge of creating a sequel to Scramble. But rather than iterate on the previous title, the developers ended up creating a completely new game under the name Gradius. (This interview on Shmupulations details the origin of the game.)
The star of Gradius is the Vic Viper, a white-and-blue star fighter tasked with saving the galaxy from the evil Bacterian Empire. The defining element of the series is a power-up system that lets the player customize their abilities. At the bottom of the screen is a status bar that indicates all of the available power-ups, from left to right. These include the ability to increase the ship speed, equip different weapons, call upon "Options" that provide extra firepower, or activate a shield.
Every time you collect a power orb, typically dropped by orange colored robots or by destroying waves of enemies, you advance the status bar by one spot. It provides an extra layer of depth by allowing the player to prioritize -- is it better to gain four power ups and get a laser, or grab two more in order to equip a shield for a little more safety?
Another hallmark of the Gradius series is its recurring, themed stages. The first stage takes place in an outer space cavern, variations of which appear in many subsequent games. One of the most popular reoccurrences are the Easter Island Moai heads, which appear spitting donut shaped lasers from their mouths. These became an unofficial mascot for Konami, appearing in many, many games. Almost every level has the same boss, a large vessel known as the Big Core, named for the orb within the center of the ship. Many of the bosses in subsequent Gradius games borrow this type of enemy weakness as well.
Gradius for the Famicom (the Japanese NES)
For its overseas arcade release, Gradius was renamed Nemesis, a title kept for the game's European personal computer ports. However, it kept its original name in all territories for the NES port -- which despite some graphical downgrades, plays faithfully to the arcade game.
Rather than following up Gradius with a direct sequel, Konami tried something different with Salamander, released in 1986. In many ways, it differs greatly from Gradius. However, it does borrow some of its elements, primarily that it stars the Vic Viper (and introduces a second red ship, the Lord British), and uses many of the same weapons. Its defining elements are the two-player simultaneous play, and levels that alternate between horizontal and vertical perspectives.
From here, the story of Salamander gets a little confusing. The first stage has a biological theme similar to the film The Incredible Voyage. When the game was localized for overseas audiences, the developers decided to expand the theme, so that the entire game took place inside of a gigantic planet-devouring monster. As a result, some of the backgrounds were redrawn and some more voices were added. This revised version was renamed Life Force. Then Konami took the overseas versions, changed even more of the graphics, added a Gradius-style power-up system, and brought the game back in Japanese arcades -- also called Life Force.
This was then converted to Nintendo's 8-bit platform. It is known under its original name, Salamander, for the Japanese Famicom version; the NES version is called Life Force. However, they are both the same game, and use the same Gradius power-up system as the third arcade version.
Konami returned to the Gradius name with Gradius II, which saw release in 1988, using improved hardware for more impressive sound and visuals. It also brings two major improvements over the first game. There are four different weapon layouts that let you choose the type of missiles and lasers, as well two different shield types. Also, each end of level boss is now unique, ranging from a flaming phoenix to a gigantic spider-droid.
Curiously this game was absent for a long time from North American shores. The arcade version was released in Europe under the name Vulcan Venture. Despite being hyped up in previews in English-language magazines, the Famicom version was not released outside of Japan for unknown reasons.
Gradius III was released a year later, but the improvements over the previous game were minimal, and the difficulty level was astoundingly high, so the arcade release was something of a flop. It is more internationally recognized due to the (substantially easier) Super Nintendo port being released during the system's launch window. The high levels of slowdown made it a poster child for the SNES' reputedly slow CPU.
This was actually the last arcade entry in the series for a decade. 1991 saw the release of Xexex, but unfortunately this was around the same time as Street Fighter II demolished the market for almost anything that wasn't a fighting game.
The next Gradius game was developed for the PlayStation in 1997. Known as Gradius Gaiden, it features two-player simultaneous play, fantastic sprite-based visuals, and the ability to customize your power-up bar. While initially scheduled for a North American release, to be bundled with ports of the Salamander games, it was eventually cancelled.
Gradius returned to the arcades with two separate titles -- a 3D Gradius game called Solar Assault, which features some impressive visual effects but not much else, and the more traditional Gradius IV, which unfortunately rolled back some of the advancements of Gradius Gaiden, resulting a game that felt rather stagnant. Gradius IV was bundled with Gradius III as a launch title for the PlayStation 2, while Solar Assault remains un-ported, and is partially emulated in MAME.
The next game, Gradius V, was released in 2004 for the PlayStation 2. Developed by renowned shooter developer Treasure (Ikaruga), it discards many of the traditions of the series -- there is no Moai stage -- and adds in various option controls that let you, for example, shoot your lasers in any direction. These changes help make the series feel a lot fresher, especially compared to the previous game.
While Gradius V is the last proper game in the series, the Gradius name was resurrected in the Rebirth series. Developed by M2 and released as WiiWare titles, the Rebirth series were original games developed in a style similar to Konami's golden era of 16-bit titles. While lacking in originality by design, Gradius Rebirth does include a whole ton of Konami fan service, many of it referencing the company's library of games for the 8-bit MSX computer -- it was a powerhouse developer for that system, which was popular in Japan.
Unfortunately this marks the end of the Gradius series proper. However, its games have appeared in assorted compilations. The Gradius Collection for the PSP includes all of the main games in the series up until the fourth one, marking the first time Gradius II and Gradius Gaiden were released in North America. Gradius also appears in Konami Arcade Classics for the DS.
As with many long-running series, the Gradius name and influence goes way beyond what Konami considers the mainline titles.
Gradius 2 (MSX)
The series evolved uniquely on the MSX. While the first Gradius for that system is a port of the arcade game, the other two are different games: Gradius 2 (not to be confused with the arcade Gradius II), and Gofer no Yabou Episode II. There is also another port of Salamander that takes elements from the arcade game, but changes so many of the levels and bosses that it's practically an original title. Though these titles are well regarded among the MSX community, they're a little difficult to play nowadays due to the incredibly chopping scrolling, due to the hardware constraints of the platform.
There are a handful of portable versions, including two for the Game Boy, released under the Nemesis moniker, as well as Gradius Galaxies for the Game Boy Advance, and Gradius Neo for mobile phones. While not to the level of their arcade and console releases, they are nonetheless solid titles.
Gradius spawned a whole separate series called Parodius, a portmanteau of "parody" and "Gradius". Beginning on the MSX, it's a comical take on the shoot 'em-up genre, where ships include characters from other Konami games, like the penguin from Antarctic Adventure, Goemon from Ganbare Goemon (also known as Legend of the Mystical Ninja in the West) and Popolon from Maze of Galious. Later games in the series integrated TwinBee from Konami's other shooter series of that name, as well as Kid Dracula from the similarly lighthearted Castlevania spinoff.
Mechanically, Parodius plays very much the same as Gradius, though beyond the first game, each of the numerous player ships offer a bigger variety of weapon loadouts than seen in the Gradius series. The goofy setting allows for a wider variety of stages, a change from the stark sci-fi setting of Gradius. One of the most popular foes is a flying pirate ship with a gigantic kitten face attached on front, which mews when hit and blows up like a Looney Tunes villain when destroyed. Later Parodius games feature the same cat head bolted onto a submarine, and then a train.
Poking fun at recurring themes in Gradius is one of Parodius' fortes. Many levels and enemies are referenced, albeit in comical form -- the phoenix from Gradius II returns as an Uncle Sam-themed bald eagle wearing a stars-and-stripes hat; the spider robot from the same game is now a lumbering, larger than life Vegas dancer. With the silly theme comes a (relatively) lower level of difficulty, allowing for more casual shooter fans to enjoy the humor without getting too frustrated.
There are five games in the Parodius series -- the original for the MSX, its sequels Parodius Da! and Gokujou Parodius for the arcade, Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius for the Super Famicom/PlayStation/Saturn, and Sexy Parodius, again in the arcades. All of these have been ported to several platforms, particularly Parodius Da!, which appeared on the Famicom, Super Famicom, PC Engine and Game Boy. Parodius Da! and Gokujou Parodius also appeared in Europe (the latter under the name Fantastic Journey) though they bypassed North America totally, probably as they were judged as being a little too weird. A compilation package of the two games was also release for the PlayStation and Saturn in that territory, as well as in Japan.
The more recent spinoff is Otomedius, a portmantaeu of "otome" (the Japanese word for a young girl, typically translated as "maiden") and "Gradius". Released in 2007, it was developed to capitalize on the moe phenomenon in shoot 'em-ups -- an offshoot of that general trend in Japanese manga and anime fan culture.
As a consequence, the main characters are wide-eyed, bright haired girls, who sit inside of flying ships called Riding Vipers, all of which reference previous Konami shoot 'em-ups. It carries forward some of the comical elements of the Parodius games, with level themes ranging from modern Japanese cities to the pyramids of Egypt.
There are two games in this series: the original Otomedius (and its Xbox 360 port Otomedius G), as well as an Xbox 360 exclusive sequel Otomedius X. The latter was released in North America as a special edition that includes a body pillow cover, which clearly indicates the audience these games were meant for.
However, the quality of the games leaves something to be desired. The stages are often long, boring, and poorly balanced. Moreover, the Xbox 360 versions have a substantial amount of downloadable content, which makes them feel somewhat exploitative.
Unfortunately, Otomedius marks the last true entrant in the Gradius legacy. Like many classic Konami properties, it mostly lives on through pachinko machine tie-ins and downloadable re-releases. Thankfully there are a number of homages from other developers, like Locomalito's Hydorah and Astro Port's Satazius, that keep the spirit of the series alive.