Friday, February 19, 2016

Shmup Diary 1: Gradius (arcade)

Say you're interested in a genre of game that has a long and rich history, and you want to give it a try. Imagine that said genre is full of games that, on the surface at least, appear largely the same. Imagine that its library consists largely of arcade releases, many of which suffered poor home conversions until the 32-bit era, in which many of them were Saturn exclusives - often not being localized in the US at all. Consider that low-print runs and the intimidatingly hardcore fanbase have driven up the scarcity and prices of the games. Consider that the fanbase is hardcore because the games themselves have a reputation for being pretty difficult. Then ask yourself - where the hell is one supposed to start?

Gradius (Arcade, 1985)

Which is how I feel about shmups in general. The massive amount of games, and the difficulty of differentiating (for an outsider like me) between them is a daunting thing. I'm familiar enough with the classics and the minor surface differences (Darius has big fish! Ikaruga is amazing! Cho Aniki is... weird!), but I think it helps to have a basic understanding and feel for the basics of the genre before diving into something hardcore like the 'bullet hell' sub-genre. I'm not sure, after all, that I would be able to appreciate the apparent greatness of a game like Ikaruga (often touted as one of the greatest in the genre) if I weren't properly aware of the basic evolution of the shmup. I don't joke around when I say that, for instance, the only shmups I've played extensively are (of course) Silver Surfer or the old Sega Master System stand-by, Astro Warrior.

Which is how I came to play the first Gradius. It seems like a pointless exercise, to go in detail about the game's history as essentially the grandfather of the genre - others can and have done that better than I could ever hope to. What's important is that, not only is the series as a whole considered one of the finest in the genre, but that the first game itself is a huge part of shaping what the genre is today. What's so surprising is how fun and varied it is today, more than 30 years after its initial arcade release. It surprises me because there are very "foundational" games in any genre that still remain fun to play today; most often they serve as interesting historical pieces whose successors generally out-performed the original in nearly aspect.

And Gradius is a hell of a lot of fun, to be sure. If I didn't know better, I'd probably place it in about 1988; outside of the rather grating, primitive music, its presentation is top-notch and holds up well - fine-looking and smooth-playing. Ostensibly what sets the series apart is the way power-ups are gained, and how they can be distributed towards various upgrades at the player's discretion. I played the PSP port of the game (in Gradius Collection, 2006), which offered a "semi-auto" upgrade system. It didn't seem all that interesting to me, really. This might be true of most shmups, but it seemed even more true in Gradius: dying does not set you back because you lose a life, but because it resets your power-ups. It got to the point where, if I died, I simply restarted the game - that's how valuable the power-ups are, and that's how difficult they are to retrieve. Sure, the beginning of every level offers waves of relatively easy drones in order to beef up your arsenal before diving into the level proper, but naturally this becomes less viable the further you get into the game. So every run, for me, was like a practice run until I could 1cc the entire game. Probably not the way it was meant to be played, but that's how I did it.

And it wasn't nearly as difficult as I've been led to believe. The PSP port, which by all accounts is otherwise very faithful to the original, offers difficulty options, but I stuck with Normal. It also has an option to decrease your ship's hitbox - which I did - but it didn't feel like a cheat because, after getting powered-up in the first level or two, nothing is every going to come close enough to kill you anyhow. It wasn't until the third level that things got difficult - a big level (which also scrolls vertically) full of horizontally-facing, Easter Island-type heads, some of which can't be properly aimed at. Weirdly, it was the most difficult level of the game for me - once I mastered getting past it, I beat the rest of the game in a single go. Getting past that segment is not that difficult, but you're bound to die - and good luck getting back to that fully powered-up status in level 4.


I have to express some mild disappointment regarding the bosses, because the genre is well-known for massive constructs that fill the screen and cause all manner of slowdown. In that regard, Gradius' bosses are pretty tame - worse still, most of them are too similar. They're all easy, pattern-based ships with a weak spot in the middle. I can't hold it against the game too much, of course - but it will never be a talking point for it. But then you come to the final stage, the only one that's truly "indoors," and when you reach the end - a huge power source - you realize that the final stage is a massive boss itself, expanding to the size of an entire level, and that the huge final power source is exactly the same as the weak spots of the smaller bosses. It's a particularly awesome moment in a game that, as fun and satisfying as it is, doesn't have any real series of "wow" moments. That's a minor complaint though - it still remains one of the purest, most fun game experiences released in 1985 - outside of that other game, something about plumbers or some shit. I forget.

I played the game natively on PSP, which means I sourced all the screens, from the arcade original, from MobyGames.

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