The shoot-em-up, or shmup, is a genre of video game that has existed in some form for almost as long as video games themselves. Defender, from 1980, is one of the earliest examples of something resembling a shmup. When you think of the term today, though, you tend to think of an autoscrolling game where you control a space-fighter on a 2D plane, blasting away alien hordes.
Released in 1986 by Konami, Gradius is the first of a long-running shmup series. This being a port of an arcade game, the plot doesn’t matter, but it boils down to “An alien race called the Bacterions is threatening the universe. Climb into your spaceship, the Vic Viper, to stop them.”
You’ll do this by flying through seven levels. With a couple of exceptions, the levels can be broken up into four sections. First, you’ll fly through space, collecting powerups. After thirty seconds or so, you’ll enter the level proper, dealing with various themed enemies and environmental hazards. One stage, for instance, has you flying through a mountainous area; in another, you’ll contend with hyper-aggressive Moai statues. At the end of the level, you’ll fight the boss, which tends to be a number of the deadliest thing in the stage coming at you in quick succession. Finally, you’ll take on a rival spaceship, whose core you have to destroy to blow it up and repeat the cycle on the next level.
I mentioned powerups in the first section, and Gradius offers a variety of them to help even the odds against the Bacterion menace. You can increase your speed (Up to nearly uncontrollable levels, if you so desire), and acquire Missiles to take out ground-based foes. Two mutually exclusive powerups, the Double (Fires an additional shot at a 45-degree angle toward the ceiling) and Laser (Turns your shot into a, well, laser), come next. You can acquire up to two Options, basically drone ships that follow you around and fire when you do. Lastly, the Force power protects you from bullets for a time.
You’ll have quite an arsenal at your disposal, and you’ll need it. Gradius is not an easy game at all, in part due to something shmuppers call “Gradius Syndrome”. Gradius Syndrome can be expressed as “I have no idea why this game bothers giving me more than one life”. While there are checkpoints when you die, and collecting enough points will grant you additional lives beyond your starting three, it doesn’t matter. There are no continues, so it’s all the way in one play. More critically, dying means you lose your powerups. All of them. Your firepower, your speed, it all gets obliterated, the remains flying off into the blackness of space when you die. When you re-spawn, you’ll find you’re severely underpowered for the task at hand, and the rest of your lives will disappear quickly. Then you’ll get to do it all over again.
This method of design makes sense when you consider that this is a port of an arcade game. The unforgiving difficulty and lack of continues do their part to cover up that there’s not a lot of length to be found. Once you make it through the entire game, you’ll realize that you only spent about fifteen minutes from start-to-finish. Of course, part of the fun is getting good enough to make it through the game, which will take substantially longer. And like many arcade games, Gradius loops after you beat it, meaning you can keep going indefinitely, pushing your score higher and higher if you’re good enough.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not what one would call a shmup connoisseur, so there are undoubtedly games of the genre (Like Life Force!) that have built on and improved on Gradius. Still, this is worth playing for the history, and to see exactly what it was those game were building on. While Defender came first, this is one of the first games to truly resemble what a “shmup” means to modern day gamers. And despite the difficulty, it still holds up pretty well as a fun game on its own merits. If you’d like to experience it for yourself, it was ported to numerous platforms. In particular, the NES version is now available on any of the Nintendo Virtual Consoles, and the arcade version is available as part of the Gradius Collection for the PSP. Either way, it’s cheap enough that you should give it a try.