Figs 01: The History of Gradius

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Welcome to the first installment of Figs: a recurring column that looks at particular series, eras, or quirks in gaming history. If it's historical or interesting, Figs just might cover it! Is there anything you want to see in future installments? Let Brandon know.

01: The History of Gradius

I n our age of fancy 3Ds and 4Ds there's a kind of game not many people seem to pay much attention to anymore: shooters. Classically referred to thusly, but colloquially over the last few years as "shmups" (short for shoot 'em ups), these games are products almost wholly of a bygone era: the one when "arcade-perfect" actually meant something in a home conversion and you could measure the amount of entertainment you'd have at the mall by the size of the lump of quarters in your pocket.

But while the genre's been recently undergoing a somewhat innocuous revival at the hands of the hardcore in shmups lovingly placed into the shooter subsection called "bullet-hell" (a classification sure to be dealt with in a future column), shooters of the old-style have gone almost completely by the wayside. You see, before you could subsist solely on your pocket of quarters, ensuring that with enough money you would obtain certain and swift domination of whatever arcade game you happened to be standing in front of, a particular company set out to make you feel like you were fighting an enemy with finesse instead of brute force. A player with a single quarter had a chance as great as one with a handful. That company was Konami, and those games were Gradius.

To put it more truthfully, those games were Gradius to some of us. In other parts of the world they were Nemesis. Ever heard of Life Force? Salamander? In actuality, all of these games are Gradiuses! Or Nemesises. Nemises? To be sure, the Gradius series has one of the most title-shifting and confusing pedigrees in gaming history, marked by releases, name-changes, pseudo-sequels, spin-offs, conversions, and ports spanning two decades from arcades to Japanese home computers to the PS2. Even Scramble, the (arguable) forefather of all traditional multi-level side-scrolling shmups, is now officially part of the Gradius series according to Konami.

Scramble (1981)

Scramble hit arcades in 1981, the same year as Frogger, Pac-Man, and a little game you might be familiar with called Donkey Kong. While all these games went on to become incredibly popular, they shared something in common: all of them took place on a single, static field of play. Scramble was different because of what it pioneered: it was the first multi-leveled shooter, with different "levels" seamlessly sliding past your jet (Jet, I guess, since that's what your ship's called in-game) as the screen endlessly pushes you forward.

What Scramble does that virtually no other shooter following it (or preceeding it) does is provide a fuel system, meaning that you get ten points for every second you stay alive since once your "fuel" runs out you die. The only way to rectify this is to shoot little fuel tanks peppering the landscape. In that way the game provides the player with options: keep your Jet high and avoid the ground-launched missiles but run out of fuel, or play break-neck daredevil style and risk certain doom in the hopes of staying alive. They're crude, but the foundations of the Gradius series can be seen here (which is probably why Konami retroactively declared it the first in the series in 2001).

An assortment of Scramble gameplay shots.

Gradius/Nemesis (1985)

The real game that started it all came four years later in 1985. Gradius (known upon its original release as Nemesis in the United States and Europe) pioneered the hallmarks that would follow the series through its lifespan and influence many other outside games. Chief among these is the weapons system, which allows the player to upgrade the Vic Viper (the classic Gradius ship) as he or she sees fit. Every "capsule" collected advances the slider one notch, with more capsules pushing the indicator to better power-ups. Through this system players who value speed over all else can upgrade that first, players who want spread-fire can go for that, shields wait at the end of the bar to protect the ship from incoming fire.

Another innovation here is the "option" system (called "multiples" outside of Japan). "Options" are small orange orbs that follow your ship, serving as invulnerable dispensers of extra firepower. These compound the ship's attack strength and range without adding extra liability (as in earlier shmups like Capcom's 1941, where your "option" planes could be destroyed.

Nemesis title screen, a gameplay shot, and the Gradius title screen.

The Great Split: Salamander/Life Force (1986)

It's at around this point that the Gradius chronology begins to become a little tricky to follow. Konami of Japan first released Salamander to arcades there as a follow-up to Gradius with a few marked changes. First of all, the scrolling bar power-up system from the original game was replaced with a simpler upgrade system where options and lasers could be acquired simply by collecting them, no capsule system necessary. In addition, the game added vertical-scrolling levels that would come between horizontal levels. Salamander was also one of the first shooters to feature two-player simultaneous play with a second-player buy-in.

For whatever reason, when Konami decided to release Salamander in the United States later on that year, it was re-branded Life Force and the palettes and stage backgrounds were recolored to fit the game's new, American storyline: you are a small ship travelling through a human body to eliminate a giant tumor.

But it doesn't end there! Not content to let this exciting new premise pass them by, Konami of Japan took the American Life Force, re-drew the previously mechanical, robotic graphics to make them look more organic-styled, and re-instituted the original Gradius power-up system (the upgrade bar). This could then probably be deemed the most "definitive" version of Salamander, what started as a lightly Gradius-inspired experiment ending up as a game cohesively cut from the Gradius cloth.

Salamander, Life Force (US), and Life Force (Japan).

Gradius II: GOFER's Ambition (1988)

After Salamander, Life Force, and a numbered spin-off (see inset), the Gradius series continued on in the arcades with this true sequel. Never released in North America until its inclusion on a compilation disc for the PSP nearly twenty years later, Gradius II: Gofer no Yabō (which, even more confusingly, was released and known as Vulcan Venture in Europe) retained the classic gameplay of the original Gradius while adding the ability to choose from four different upgrade bars at the start, each including slightly different power-up arrangements.

Another addition was the choice of shield type; players could pick either the front-shields from the first game, which absorb numerous hits from the front but leave the rest of the ship vulnerable, or a new force-field option which absorbs shots from any direction but can only take three hits before dissipating.

Gradius II title screen, power select, and gameplay.

From Legend to Myth: Gradius III (1989)

Gradius III hit arcades in December of 1989 and was reportedly considered so difficult that it was pulled from them not too long after the new year. The chief reason for this difficulty is primarily regarded as the lack of any continue feature whatsoever; after losing your initial lives you are forced to start over at the beginning of the game. Even through arcade operator dip-switches there is no way to enable continuing, though default life allocation can be increased. The Japanese release featured a special "beginners" mode that allowed the player to take on the first three levels at a decreased difficulty level—this option was removed from some other releases but offset with a slightly easier level of play.

The game did introduce a series of interesting additions, though: a new edit mode allowing the player to customize their upgrade bar makes its first appearance here, and the fourth stage of the game is a peculiar "third-person" stage where the view shifts to behind the ship in a sort of 3D mode and the player has to avoid coming into contact with the sides of the passageways.

Ultimately, Gradius III is widely regarded as being so difficult that many players consider the home port for the Super NES to be the superior version due to its much more forgiving difficulty and introduction of a continue system, despite two levels (one of them the 3D level) having been removed from the game.

Gradius III title screen, Edit Mode, and gameplay.

Salamander 2 (1995)

Perhaps still wary since the relative failure of Gradius III, Konami took their sweet time before issuing another installment of the already storied Gradius franchise. When it finally did come out in 1995, it wasn't even Gradius IV as might have been expected, but instead Salamander 2, a sequel ten years removed from the original Salamander and the fifth game (discounting the Life Force revamps) in the main series thus far.

Like the original Salamander, Salamander 2 foregos the traditional capsule upgrade system of Gradius in favor of upgrade-specific icons that can be collected. Options can be consumed to shoot single high-powered lasers, and collecting repeated upgrades to weapons enable temporary high-powered attacks (lasting no more than a few seconds in duration).

In marked contrast and perhaps due to Gradius III's inordinately high difficulty level, Salamander 2 is one of the few games in the series to re-start the player exactly where they died in the event of a ship being lost instead of starting them over at a level check-point ala Gradius. This contrast makes Salamander 2 one of the easier games in the Gradius saga, but the title is still notable for its graphics, which were quite impressive for a side-scrolling shmup at the time of its release.

Salamander 2 title screen and gameplay shots.

Revival: Gradius IV Fukkatsu (1999)

Much like Salamander 2 before it, the next official installment in the main Gradius series didn't arrive until ten years after the closest predecessor, in this case the infamously challenging Gradius III. While Gradius IV doesn't do anything markedly different from previous Gradius games, it is notable for actively reversing some of the trends that Gradius III started, most specifically elimination of the power-up bar's Edit Mode and difficulty.

In addition, and perhaps to offset the removal of Edit Mode, two new preset power-up configurations were introduced to bring the total to six selectable choices. New weapons were also implemented, from fire-pillar style bomb to an armor-piercing round that penetrates multiple enemies at once. The game's subtitle, "Fukkatsu," while being a relatively unfortunate branding decision for English-speakers, translates to "revival" and signifies the series return to relevance. It is perhaps a trifle peculiar then that we don't see the series true revival by way of the next installment in the series for another five years.

Gradius IV title screen, power-up select, and gameplay.

Treasure and the Future: Gradius V (2004)

The first main-series Gradius to never get an arcade release (officially due to a lack of time but perhaps also because of the wavering arcade scene) also happens to be the most innovative and critically acclaimed since the inception of the series. Gradius V, produced from a joint collaboration between Konami and Treasure (well-renowned for their experience with "old-school" shooting and ironically originally founded by former Konami employees in 1992) signals a self-instituted "new direction" for the series, much more receptive towards the changing tastes of long-time shmup fans.

The game introduces for the first time player-controllable options, with a series of configurations allowing the options to be angled, aligned, or even rotated around the Vic Viper. It also marks the series' first foray (save for the relatively unknown Solar Assault) into full 3D; though the graphics are entirely rendered in 3D the perspective remains traditionally two-dimensional. This rendering method allows the camera and backgrounds to swing around the ship and push scenery in and out of perspective, offering new play experiences. In what is perhaps a bit of a throw-back to the classic Gradius titles, Gradius V is also exceedingly difficult, though not due to any lack of a continue system (extra "credits" are unlocked as time is logged on the title, a nod to the old coin-drop system of arcades).

Gradius V gameplay.

Most interesting about Gradius V, however, is its leanings towards the "new-school" bullet-hell styled shooters, with huge series of enemy bullets being tossed at the player, who is required to carefully navigate through it. To accommodate this change the Vic Viper's hitbox has been shrunk, much like other bullet-hell shooters where player craft will sometimes only register hits if enemy fire crosses a single pixel or slightly more. Does this design philosophy signal a new direction for the future of the Gradius series?

One thing is certain: despite being one of the original two-dimensional shoot-em-ups with ancestry running all the way back to 1981, Gradius is poised to remain just as relevant and entertaining as it was all the way back then. Hopefully Konami ensures that there will always be a niche carved out for the gamers that remember the Gradius series fondly (and with any luck, future installments will come to pass with far less confusing name changes).