Gradius (NES) Review

By Rudy Lavaux 11.11.2012 11

Review for Gradius on NES

The shmup genre (understand 'shoot 'em up') may just be the oldest genre in video games, full stop. Those old enough to remember it may recall the success of the likes of Asteroids and Space Invaders on coin-op machines in the late 1970s and early 1980s, becoming more and more complex as the technology evolved and permitted enemy targets to move in more complex patterns, like in Galaxian and, later, Galaga. The genre then went from single screen game worlds to more visually complex affairs with Xevious and Star Force, among others, which used vertical scrolling for showing backgrounds that changed as the game went, giving a better sense of "flight." Meanwhile, Konami had already gone a different route as early as 1981 with Scramble, which introduced a horizontally scrolling field showing lots of land formations that had to be avoided, first in the form of mountains and later in the form of caves. This was actually the first shmup to ever use the concept of stages (horizontal scrolling had been introduced in Defender but in a more "free to explore" way). The Gradius franchise, along with its brethren Salamander, just happen to be the spawns of Scramble, using more advanced technology. Read on to find out more.

Gradius takes place in space and has players travelling between game worlds, separated by outer space sequences. The action unfolds through horizontally scrolling stages with the ship having to dodge land formations and enemy fire, fighting threatening enemies along the way. Controlling Vic Viper, the franchise's iconic white and blue ship, things start off real slow, with only a basic weapon available: the bullet shooting cannon, used by holding down the A button or rapidly pressing it. Don't worry, though, ammo is, thankfully, unlimited. To increase firepower, one has to collect power capsules that are left behind by specifically coloured enemies, or formations thereof. There lies the distinctive aspect of Gradius -- its option bar at the bottom of the screen.

Collecting an orange capsule highlights the first additional power on the option bar. Pressing the B button will activate the then selected power. The first one, "Speed Up," will increase the speed of the ship. It can be selected multiple times (apparently indefinitely in the NES version), each one increasing the speed even more. Amassing too many of those can render it nearly uncontrollable, so caution should be taken, and in most situations two or three boosts are enough.

Screenshot for Gradius on NES

"Missile" gives the ship the ability to lay down missiles that will then "slide" on the ground until they crash into a wall in the scenery or explode on contact with any enemy unit. "Double" lets the ship shoot diagonally upwards in addition to the original shooting direction, "Laser" allows for shooting long lasers that destroy every enemy the beams come in contact with (technical limitations of the NES turned these long lasers from the Arcade version into shorter ones, though).

One of the most popular powers in the Gradius series is the "Option," also called "Multiple" in the Western Arcade versions. This produces energy balls that follow the ship's every movement and mimic the ship's actions, thus multiplying the fire power accordingly. Most versions of the game permit a maximum of four of those, but the NES version at hand caps it to only two. The last power is the shield (labelled with a question mark "?" on the option bar), which adds two blue star-shaped elements to the front of the ship, capable of blocking a set amount of incoming enemy bullets.

Screenshot for Gradius on NES

The more damage it takes, the smaller it becomes, before it finally turns orange and disappears with the next bullet it blocks. Finally, blue power capsules won't advance the highlighted power on the option bar, but will rather destroy every small enemy on the screen.

These powers will certainly quickly become a necessity as the game is painfully hard, and there are no continues. A cheat code that must be input at the Game Over screen gives another continue but your servitor here has (frustratingly) yet to manage to get it to work! Start off with three lives, scoring a lot of points grants some extra lives along the way. That being said, the 3DS Virtual Console version comes with the Quick Save function, which alleviates all sense of challenge and will make the play-through feel absolutely unrewarding as opposed to a true play-through, following the normal rules. Gradius is not particularly long, with only six stages, and it plays on a loop with no real ending sequence beyond a 'Congratulations' message after beating the final boss, so cheating will only make it even shorter and make players completely miss the point of the game, which is to overcome the difficult challenge on skills alone.

Screenshot for Gradius on NES

A cheat code that does work, however, is the famous Konami code: "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start." If performed while the game is paused, it will instantly grant two options -- missiles and the shield -- which are helpful for starting again after dying in a particularly difficult area. This trick can only be performed once per game, however, so saving it for when there is no other choice is advisable. Like other games of its time, Gradius comes with quite a bit of "hard to pull-off" secret tricks as well that will let the player skip entire stages. This adds a lot to the old-school charm of this game as it was designed to be talked about in special magazines at the time, and between players, at work or at school.

While perhaps not as visually stunning as its Arcade counterpart, Gradius on NES was a quite good looking game for 1986. Its infamous and utterly weird use of the Moai statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as enemies and bosses has become a landmark in the history of video games, and while the NES version may lack the voice clip urging players to "shoot the core" every time a core ship appears on the screen, it's nothing short of 'classicness' and any self-respecting gamer who is a fan of the '80s must make sure he or she doesn't miss out on this game.

Screenshot for Gradius on NES

Cubed3 Rating

Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

The Gradius series has come a long way since those good old days of the NES. While the subsequent releases may make for some much better entertainment, since the NES original lacks the further refinements of its descendants and ends up feeling more rough around the edges than the others, one must recognise that for a 1986 home console shmup this is certainly one of the best there was. It still holds up pretty well today when compared to practically anything else in the same genre that was available on NES at the same time, perhaps even better than Xevious, which did get a 3D Classics re-release on 3DS with much fanfare while Gradius is relegated to a simple Virtual Console release. Admittedly, though, there would be little depth to be felt from the completely black backgrounds. If a tough challenge doesn't instil fear and the genre is appealing, this shouldn't be missed. Others might find more frustration than pleasure, with limited continues if there ever was any, and the Quick Save feature really does defeat the whole point of playing a shmup if abused by the player. Nevertheless, the original Gradius remains a good game for its time and one that any fan of shmups must have tried at least once.









C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10 (1 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   


This looks a lot like gradius rebirth which I really enjoyed, mainly because of the online leaderboards. Its one of those rare cases like sin and punishment 2 where its a fun game and its also possible to get in amongst the top 20 scores online.

( Edited 11.11.2012 23:36 by JayUK )

I think Rudy's actually also working on a review of Gradius Rebirth!

Online leader-boards should be included with many games, so it always surprises me that high score titles don't always use them! S&P2 is amazing Smilie Can't wait to see what Treasure's 3DS exclusive is! Smilie

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses

Adam Riley said:
I think Rudy's actually also working on a review of Gradius Rebirth!

Online leader-boards should be included with many games, so it always surprises me that high score titles don't always use them! S&P2 is amazing Smilie Can't wait to see what Treasure's 3DS exclusive is! Smilie

Some games just beg for an online leader board. For example Madworld's replayability would have been improved 10 fold with online leader boards and a better scoring system.

Our member of the week

I am indeed in the process of making a Gradius Rebirth review. Please look forward to it Smilie.

JayUK said:
This looks a lot like gradius rebirth which I really enjoyed

Considering Gradius Rebirth is a descendant of the original Gradius, this is hardly a surprise. Gradius is a VERY long running series. You should really check out Gradius II: Gofer no Yabou on Virtual Console if you liked Gradius Rebirth. The VC version is the PC-Engine CD one, which is the best of the bunch in terms of visuals and music. It's well worth it, despite the obvious lack of online leaderboards. I dunno if it's available on VC, but Gradius III for SNES is also an excellent one, though much more challenging (still more palatable than the NES Gradius without continues or quick saves though).

JayUK said:
Its one of those rare cases like sin and punishment 2 where its a fun game and its also possible to get in amongst the top 20 scores online.

This reminds me that I used to be in the Top 20 Smilie... Shortly after its release in Japan that is XD. I got my Gradius Rebirth on the Japanese Wii Shop back then, so weeeell ahead of its western releases.

Kafei206 (or Kafei2006, or Kafei20006) used to be my universal online identity, until I changed it for my actual nickname, due to being essentially on C3 these days. Picture was taken on September 7th 2008, so 5 days after its release on Wiiware.

Cubed3 Limited Staff :: Review and Feature Writer

That's pretty cool! I was the same with an early release of Star Soldier on WiiWare - but sadly 1.) I didn't take a photo, 2.) I got knocked down very quickly Smilie

Adam Riley [ Director :: Cubed3 ]

UNITE714: Weekly Prayers | Bible Verses
Our member of the week

I got knocked down in a matter of days too, haha, and I knew that was going to happen, hence why I took a picture as proof, otherwise no one would believe me now Smilie.

Cubed3 Limited Staff :: Review and Feature Writer

I'm ranked 18 on 'very easy', and ranked 11 on 'easy' might add a photo later. I think they reset the leaderboards because they updated something. That or scoreboards are different in other regions. As the score in the photo would put you at rank 4 on 'easy'.

Our member of the week

Perhaps then yeah. I played it again this afternoon, and have it running next to me right now, to check some facts for the upcoming Gradius ReBirth review. Dunno why I don't rank.

Mmmh when I check Easy at 11th place, I see KK with 352450pts, and PORMAN with 368370pts at 18th place on Very Easy. What your nickname on there ?

EDIT: I got my answer about why the score from back then didn't appear for you, I have both the PAL and JPN releases on my Wii, and online rankings in both appear different on my console, confirming that both regions have different rankings (and possibly the North American version as well, I couldn't tell)

Here's a picture I just took of the JPN Top 10. As you can see, I'm ranked 92nd today, haha.

I also noticed I still have the replay data for that time when I ranked, so I might upload it to Youtube, just for giggles Smilie.

( Edited 13.11.2012 16:34 by RudyC3 )

Cubed3 Limited Staff :: Review and Feature Writer

Heres my scores, image quality is a bit shonky because I used the 3DS. I think I'm gonna start a separate topic for high scores people are particularly proud of. 
Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

Our member of the week

Which region are you in JayUK ? Not the UK for sure, cause I don't get the same rankings over here. They're completely different.

Also I managed to get back in the Top 30 in Normal difficulty on my PAL version, yesterday Smilie.

Although I'm pretty sure I can do better, so I'll keep trying.

( Edited 14.11.2012 15:43 by RudyC3 )

Cubed3 Limited Staff :: Review and Feature Writer

Thats weird I definitely live in the UK lol, maybe its split into smaller regions, although that would be odd. I think there was an update for Gradius Rebirth try checking the wii shop. That might effect which leaderboard you see

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