To say that the original Gradius was influential on the evolution of the side-scrolling shoot 'em up would be a gross understatement. When the game hit arcades in 1985 it was lauded for its amazing level designs and simple, yet wildly playable, power-up system. This NES release was one of the first home ports of the game and has become a staple of the shmup genre for over a quarter century, so it's nice to see Konami still making the game available for the various download services, if only to remind more modern gaming fans of how things began in a genre that's been enjoying a bit of a resurgence in recent years.
You won't find a lot of fancy fluff in Gradius, but that's to be expected given the game originated in arcades during the mid-80s. What you will find is a host of lengthy levels, each ripe with enemy and terrain challenges that will still test any seasoned shooter fan. Your goal is simply to navigate your way through the challenges of each level and tackle the boss at the end of each level. And it won't take you long to figure out where the popular saying "shoot the core!" came from.
Gradius starts you off with nothing more than a standard cannon and pushes you to destroy enemies that drop power capsules. These can be picked up and used to level up your power meter, which soon gives you a wider range of cannon fire, not to mention a wealth of missile and speed upgrades. And while you can coast through the early levels with minimum upgrades, you're not going to want to head into later levels with anything less than the best offensive firepower you can lay your hands on.
While rather basic by today's shmup standards, you have to appreciate the simplicity of the play controls in Gradius. Most of your button mashing time will be spent on the fire button, with only the occasional press of the power up button to bring up any new weaponry at your disposal. Your ship is a bit sluggish at first, but this only amplifies how useful the speed upgrades are, especially once you begin weaving your ship in and out of danger.
Don't expect a lot of eye candy when it comes to the visuals in Gradius, as the game tends to stick with the basics when it comes to the scenery you'll be traversing. The vibrant colour palette does keep things exciting and there are some really cool bosses in the game to see — at least until they kick into action and force you to get moving.
The musical score is similar in that it uses the standard chiptune tracks that were used in the arcade release, but this is Konami, so there's a nice selection of musical tracks to keep you humming along even after you crash your ship for the thousandth time.
There's no denying that Gradius is beginning to show its age, but for gamers who grew up stuffing their allowances into coin-op quarter slots, there's nothing like taking a trip down memory lane and reliving the type of legendary and influential arcade experiences that Gradius still offers. Now that you can take it on the go with you on your 3DS, you have little excuse not to test your shooter skills and take a peek back to where the genre began to really take shape.