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Monday, March 31, 2014

NES Replay: Gradius

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Released: December 1986
Gradius was the first classic shooter for the NES. It's got an awesome progression system, it's challenging even if you have every possible weapon upgrade, and it's relentlessly interesting. It also looks fantastic.

So what's so great about each of these parts? Let's pull them apart and look at them.

1) The powerup system.

In most early shooters, a power-up will automatically improve your ship. In Gradius, picking up a power-up fills a meter at the bottom of your screen. If you have only one power-up banked, you can upgrade your ship's speed. If you have more bonuses banked, you can apply the bonus to things like a missile that attacks below you, extra drones that fire along with you, and a shield that protects you from damage temporarily.

There's a risk/reward dynamic involved in this system. In order to get the really good upgrades, you have to keep picking up bonuses and not using them. Can you survive long enough with some of the vanilla powers? Or will you give in and take that speed power-up instead of getting the extra drone? It's a really well-made system that Konami would use in other shooters.


2) The challenge.

Even if you have every upgrade, your skill in Gradius will determine your success. While having all the upgrades will certainly help you, bullets are flying, enemies come from all over, and one false move will get you killed. Balancing everything together will keep you alive.

3) The varied environs.

Yes, Gradius is a typical side-scrolling shooter where you're flying from left-to-right and destroying everything in your path. However, the way the challenge is framed is constantly changing. In one level, you're killing weird moai statues that regurgitate blue discs, in another you're fighting for your life against raging volcanoes, and in another you're blasting through barriers that are surrounded by turrets.. There's always something different, which keeps Gradius fresh.

4) The graphics.

Konami did something fantastic with Gradius. Remember, the NES could only have so many sprites onscreen at once. However, Konami still wanted to have lots of bullets and enemies onscreen. How could they get around the limitations of the NES?

Brilliantly, Konami used sprite flicker to their advantage. By making the bullets and missiles flicker on purpose, they could alternate bullets and missiles and have the screen filled with danger without sacrificing graphical fidelity. Since old CRT TVs held on to images for a split second after they were displayed, the flicker would be barely noticeable for most people.

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So Gradius did a lot of things right, but there's one final stroke of genius that deserves mention. Gradius is very hard, obviously. The player is only given three lives to do the impossible. How would they do it?

Konami included something by accident, a secret code that would gain ubiquity. During the making of the game, a programmer found that Gradius was too difficult for him to play through. To get around this, he included a secret code that accidentally slipped through production and ended up in the final game.

Long after our civilization is destroyed by marauding Slagafarian Raiders in the Great Umber Wars of the 32nd century, a lone wanderer will be searching a cave for supplies when he will see etchings on the wall. Peering closely, he will angle his torch to see mankind's greatest triumph, a simple sequence that will bring tears to his eyes:

↑↑↓↓←→←→BA

He will pass this information down from one generation to the next, eventually rebuilding the world in this image. Finally, we shall see the stars. Finally, we shall ascend the path to transcendence, all thanks to one little code.

Final Rating: