A spiritual successor to the studio's earlier 1981 game Scramble (and originally planned as a sequel to it), Gradius puts players in control of the starfighter Vic Viper as they navigate through fantastical, yet hostile, areas in the star cluster Bacterian while defeating alien ships and upgrading their ship using power-ups. The name refers to the planet Gradius, which is being under attack by Bacterian forces commanded by the super space fortress Xaerous.
The game is known for its unique Power Meter, which allows players to choose which upgrades they want for their ship based on how many Power Capsules they collect. Along with numerous sequels and spin-offs, the game received multiple home ports, as well as inclusions in multiple compilations.
The Japanese version of the game utilized the company's proprietary "Bubble System" hardware, which allowed arcade operators to change games using special bubble memory cartridges. International versions were released in standalone PCB format and includes some difficulty tweaks (increasing its overall difficulty while allowing for quicker power-up recovery on new lives). It also received a North American exclusive alternate arcade release for Nintendo's NES-based VS. System hardware (as VS. Gradius).
Ports & Re-Releases
The game was first ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1986-1988 (April 1986 in Japan, December 1986 in North America, and November 1988 in Europe). This version features some minor differences, and is best known for being the first game to implement the Konami Code. This version was also released in arcades by Nintendo in North America as VS. Gradius, using their NES-based VS. System hardware.
This version received multiple digital re-releases as part of Nintendo's Virtual Console series for the Wii (in 2006-2007), Nintendo 3DS (on 2012-2013), and Wii U (on 2013-2014), and was later released for the Nintendo Switch on September 2018 as part of Nintendo Switch Online service (both Family Computer and Nintendo Entertainment System). The VS. Gradius version received a digital re-release for the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch exclusively in Japan on August 2019 as part of HAMSTER's Arcade Archives series.
The game was also ported to the PC Engine exclusively in Japan on November 15, 1991. Like the NES version, this version received multiple digital re-releases as part of Nintendo's Virtual Console series, all exclusively in Japan, for the Wii (in August 2007), Nintendo 3DS (on December 2013), and Wii U (on April 2014).
The game was also included in the Turbografx-16 Mini / PC Engine Mini mini-console on March 2020, making it the first time this version was available outside of Japan. It also features an unlockable bonus version, called "Gradius near Arcade", which attempts to bring the port closer to the original arcade version.
The X68000 version was unique as it was included in the first model of the system, as a way to demonstrate the system's performance.
The MSX version was the only one to receive a digital re-release, exclusively in Japan. Like the NES and PC Engine versions, it was released for the Wii U as part of Nintendo's Virtual Console series (on September 2015).
Compilations & Re-Releases
The original arcade version was included in multiple compilations and digital re-releases:
- It was first bundled with Gradius II: GOFER no Yabou for the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn on March 1996 as Gradius DELUXE PACK. It was also released for the PC on Feburary 1997. All versions are Japanese-exclusive.
- It was included in the Gradius Collection (in February 2006 for PlayStation Portable), Konami Classics Series: Arcade Hits (in March 2007 for Nintendo DS) and Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection (in April 2019 for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC).
- It was digitally re-released for the PlayStation 4 (on January 2015 in Japan and on June 9 worldwide) as part of HAMSTER's Arcade Archives series.
The original arcade version of Gradius has three buttons: Shoot (which fires the main weapon), Missile (which, when the Missile power-up is active, fires a missile downwards), and Power-Up (which, if the Power Meter highlights a valid option, empties the meter and grants the chosen power-up to the player). In most home versions of the game, the Shoot and Missile buttons are combined into one.
Players start each life with minimal speed and a basic cannon shot, and can upgrade their ship by collecting Power Capsules to progress through their six-part Power Meter. Each Capsule progresses through the highlighted parts of the Meter, which determines which power-up players get once they hit the Power-Up button (after which it empties). Collecting a Cell while the meter is maxed brings it back to the first highlighted part (Speed-Up).
These power-ups are, in Power Meter order:
- Speed-Up: Increases the movement speed of the Vic Viper. This can be activated up to five times to further increase the speed, although higher levels can be very unwieldy.
- Missile: Allows the Vic Viper to drop missiles that fall downwards on the playfield separately from its main weapon, similar to the ship in Scramble. If the missile reach a flat surface, it move along it until it reaches an enemy or a wall.
- Double: Improves the Vic Viper's cannon by having it shoot an additional shot at an upwards angle. Replaces the Laser power-up.
- Laser: Replaces the Vic Viper's cannon with a more-powerful laser cannon that overpenetrates enemies. Replaces the Double power-up.
- Multiple / Option: Creates a ball of energy that follows behind the path of the Vic Viper and fires the same weapons (and missiles, if active) as the ship. In most versions of the game, this can be activated up to four times, each of which creating a new energy ball.
- ?: Provides two front-facing shields for the Vic Viper that completely negate projectiles from the front. These shields have limited energy and can be destroyed.