Every classic game series has to start somewhere, but with a handful of exceptions (like Super Mario Bros.) the first entry in a long running franchise tends to be the weakest. Sure the basics are there and you can recognise the classic gameplay, but all the super enhancements you took for granted in the various sequels are nowhere to be seen.
While Konami has made quite a few shoot-em-ups over the years, the 23 year old Gradius franchise is undoubtedly their most enduring entry into the genre. With a unique weapon upgrade system that is still used in the modern titles, the first Gradius broke the mould with its catchy music and well crafted shooting action.
Sadly while Gradius remains enjoyable to play and isn't actually all that different from many of it's sequels, the simple fact is that the game is stupidly hard. You're given just three lives to complete the game and most players will struggle to even get past the second level.
Luckily there are various overly long joypad cheats you can enter to give yourself more of a chance, but it becomes irritating having to remember to enter a code at every game over screen to enable you to continue. In fact even with all the game's myriad cheats turned on Gradius is still unfair, and the frequency of annoyingly cheap deaths will test even the calmest of players' patience.
As good as Gradius was on the NES in 1986, it has been rendered completely obsolete by the slew of superior sequels and remakes made over the years. Even the Game Boy Color version of Gradius, released as part of Konami Collection Volume 1 is better then this. In fact apart from the equally frustrating NES sequel Life Force/ Salamander I honestly can't think of a game in the Gradius series worse then this.
This doesn't necessarily mean that Gradius NES is terrible by any means. It's just very underwhelming when compared to its illustrious sequels. It's not even the best Gradius game on the NES as Europe and Japan received a commendable port of the spin-off game Parodius.
Possibly the biggest nail in the game's coffin is that Wii owners can now download the excellent WiiWare "re-imagining" Gradius Rebirth which is about a thousand times better and features many of the same enemies and levels that were in the NES game. In short it's like being given the option between Megan Fox and Megan Fox's mum. Now while I'm sure Megan Fox's mom is delightful no sane person would choose her over her daughter, and the same is true of Gradius and Gradius Rebirth - go for the younger model. You won't regret it.