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Level 1
Gradius (Level 1)
By Cyril Lachel     |   Posted on March 04, 2010   |   Episode 3 (Show Archive)  


Welcome to Level 1. Every Thursday we are going to look at a random game's very first level. It doesn't matter what kind of game it is or what system it's for, we're here to dissect the game's first level and see what it tells us about the rest of the game. I promise you an eye-opening experience in each episode! This week we're moving away from the character driven action games into our very first shoot-em-up. They say that in space no one can hear you scream, but my neighbors can hear me yelling at the TV screen every time I die in Gradius. Find out how this influential shooter began when you join us for Gradius: Level 1!

Gradius (Konami)
[ Release: 1986 - Console: Nintendo Entertainment System/Arcade ]
Gradius (NES) Cover
Gradius may not have been the first 2D shoot-em-up ever to hit the arcades, but it was certainly one of the most influential. This 8-bit Konami spectacle introduced us to entire worlds we had never seen before in an action game, an innovative power-up system that let you choose your arsenal and boss fights that are still being imitated. Gradius was also a phenomenal console game, finding its way to everything from the Nintendo Entertainment System to the TurboGrafx-16. It was the console market that make this one of Konami's most enduring franchises; a series that is still seeing remakes and sequels.

In a lot of ways Gradius lays out the blueprint for the modern 2D shooter. Even with its outdated graphics and sound, Konami's shooter holds up remarkably well. Because the game created so many of the genre's cliches, there's something comforting going back to this game a quarter century later. It goes to show that shooting down alien fleets in space is a timeless theme, the kind of set up that requires very little story or character development. So clear your head and let's expertly navigate our way through the first level of Gradius ...

Deep Space: I'm deep in space. All around me is nothing, just bright stars and space debris. I am apparently the one man who can save the world from an alien attack. From what, you ask? According to the instruction manual "the planet Gradius is now under attack from an old nemesis, beings from
Ghouls 'N Ghosts - The Graveyard!
Gradius - Deep Space
the sub-space star cluster of Bacterion." It's up to me to swoop in and save the day. It's a good thing I am flying an experimental rocket full of useful weapons. Unfortunately the people that designed my ship inexplicably forgot to load the extra bombs and lasers, so I'm forced to battle aliens and hope to pick up floating power-ups. We'll see how that goes.

Ready to power-up my spaceship, I fight the first group of bad guys I find. They happen to be four circular characters that meant me no harm. They weren't shooting and me and were flying in formation. I feel bad for shooting them down, but at least they gave me a power-up. I add speed. Even though I'm wracked
Ghouls 'N Ghosts - Magician's Curse!
Gradius - The Cave Entrance
with guilt, I shoot down another two groups of alien ships. This gives me access to a new weapon, a bomb I shove out every time I fire a shot. I can see how this will be useful.

The Invasion of Planet Volcano: Before long I fly right into the middle of Planet Volcano. I have to watch myself, because I'm flying through a narrow cavern and will blow up if I get too close to the ceiling. This cavern is full of large volcanic rocks, including a few that seem to be floating in mid-air. More crazy alien creatures attack me, but they are slow and easily avoided. There
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Gradius - The Disconnected Volcano
are alien bases on the ground and the ceiling, so I better take them out before they spawn even more slow flying ships. I also need to watch out from the cross fire, as bad guys are shooting at me from every direction. I quickly learn that one shot and I'm a goner.

After miraculously re-spawning, I get back in the thick of it all and battle my way a little further into the cavern. Up ahead I discover a very special volcano, one with its top floating way above its base. It just sits there waiting for me to fly through it. I do, only to discover a hidden 1up ... the game's special way of making up for killing me a few minutes ago. The
Ghouls 'N Ghosts - Vomit on Stormy Mountain!
Gradius - The Floating Rock
nice thing about this cavern is that there are plenty of power-ups. In fact, I have collected so many that I now have a very special helper that is called an "Option". This character fires when I fire and drops bombs when I drop bombs. It's the perfect little friend. I suspect that if I save up my power-ups I can get a second one. I would try and find out, but up ahead is the end-level boss.

Boss - Two Cruel Volcanoes: After flying my craft through a cavern, I'm ready to take on two erupting volcanoes. Wait ... what does that even mean? How can a simple laser weapon destroy lava? That doesn't even make sense. There's nothing in my arsenal that can stand up to a volcano, I'm better off just getting the heck out of this situation. Wait, why isn't the
Ghouls 'N Ghosts - Boss Fight!
Gradius - Boss Fight
screen moving? I'm in a space ship, shouldn't I be able to warp my way out of this. You know, "ENGAGE!" and stuff. This is terrible; I'm having to dodge dozens of lava balls. I didn't train for this ... get me out of AHHHHHH!!!!!!

What Have We Learned Today? Gradius is REALLY hard. It's not messing around. Even though it starts out slow, the difficulty ramps up in a hurry. I also learned that cavern volcanoes are even worse than your garden variety outdoors volcano. At
Ghouls 'N Ghosts - Level 2 Boss
One day soon Konami will give Gradius the next-gen sequel it deserves!
least when a volcano erupts in Hawaii you don't have to worry about hitting a ceiling. I also learned that a volcano is an incredibly ridiculous boss. What does a volcano have against me? Not a damn thing! And it's not like I want to spend my time fighting a volcano, I'm here to kick some Bacterion ass. What's next, the earthquake boss?

What Did We Miss? While we don't have to face an earthquake (at least not in this installment), Gradius is ready to show us things we have never seen before in a shooter. For example, in level three we go up against a bunch of Moai heads. And let's not forget about fighting bad guys in a desert and another volcano world. Man, Konami has a thing for volcanoes.

The Letter I Intend to Write to the Creator of This Space Ship: "Hello Sir, I recently bought one of your top-of-the-line spaceships and I have a few complaints about its performance. I don't know if you are the single worst spaceship engineer or just plain stupid, but only a moron would make leave out all of the most powerful weapons. You realize that I'm going to war, right? It's just me and this ship, nobody else is helping me out. So what am I doing out in the middle of space with only a pea shooter? Do you want me to die?!? Sincerely, the guy your spaceship nearly killed!"


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