This classic side-scrolling space shooter was one of the first on the NES and is easily one of the best games on the system.
What makes Gradius unique is the custom power-up system that it uses. Rather than just giving you an upgraded weapon or shield, the power-ups that you collect can be used to basically purchase whatever enhancement you want for your ship, the Vic Viper. A row of options is displayed on the bottom of the screen, and when the first power-up is collected the leftmost option is highlighted. Each time you collect an additional power-up, the indicator on the row of options moves one space to the right. When the desired enhancement is highlighted, it can be activated and the process starts over.
You can have multiple enhancements at the same time except for “Laser” and “Double”, which are mutually exclusive. The “Option” enhancement is basically a little escort that mimics your movements and shots, doubling or tripling (the limit is two “Options”) your firepower.
In many shooters, when you get killed your power-ups scatter around the screen for you to re-collect, but once you die in Gradius you have to re-start the power-up process from the beginning. The key to Gradius being a truly great game is that while it is extremely challenging, it isn’t riddled with cheap deaths. Every time you die you learn something, which motivates you to keep playing the game and improve your performance.
Gradius was the very first game in which the “Konami code” (up, up, down, down,…) could be used, giving the player a ship with a full set of power-ups. Because the code doesn’t give players a multitude of extra lives and therefore doesn’t significantly mitigate the game’s difficulty, the code has never really been associated with the game to the extent that it has with Contra.
Perhaps because it was Konami’s first NES game, Gradius’ sound effects and music aren’t on par with games like Contra and Castlevania, but this is more than made up for by the games detailed graphics, varied environments, and spot-on gameplay.