Virtual Spotlight: Gradius

Virtual Spotlight: Gradius

Get ready for Gradius to shoot your core! By which I mean "crush your self-esteem."

I know, I know. You think you're pretty good at video games. You have a Twitch channel where you "go online" in the "Modern Warfare" so you can "pwn" the so-called "newbs." You make a living off your foe-crushing DOTA2 streams. You're just so awesome.

But who cares? Can you get past level three of Gradius? Because frankly, that's the true test of video skill. It's all well and good to crush humans online, but conquering Gradius' merciless programming takes a whole other level of skill. Han Solo had it wrong: Good against the living isn't nearly as impressive as being good against remotes -- at least not when it comes to Gradius, anyway.

You're just a tiny little ship against the endless alien hordes. Now, this tiny little ship has a cool name, at least -- Vic Viper! -- but that's about all you have going for you. The enemy approaches in ever more aggressive waves, attempting to smash you, shoot you, even smother you with volcanic debris. Anything to keep you from making it to their base and shooting the core of their leader, or whatever the thing you're supposed to blow up at the end is. Not that it matters. You won't make it that far.

I don't mean to make it sound like you're totally helpless, here. You can shoot a couple of bullets at a time. Some enemies will drop little orange capsules when you shoot them (or more likely, successfully wipe out an entire formation of them), and you can collect these and save them up for spend them on power-ups. Each capsule you gather advances the power-up meter at the bottom of the screen by one step, and by building up a bank of capsules you can unlock new abilities like Speed Up (essential, but deadly if you overdo it), Missiles, Shields, and the invaluable Option.

How did these Easter Island heads end up in space? It's a mystery. Maybe the answer is at the end of the game. Too bad you'll never know.

Eventually, you can build up quite a little assault machine, spewing projectiles in three different directions from not only your ship but also from the little Option tagalongs, all the while protected from enemy fire. Fully loaded, the Vic Viper actually is a match for the evil hordes. But you know, surviving long enough to build up a full collection of weapons and Options takes time and skill. You probably can't do it.

And anyway, even if you get that far, you'll eventually screw up -- say, by flying too close to a Moai head and exploding against its surface -- and when that happens, you're knocked down not just a peg or two but rather the whole way. Reduced to zero. And then you have to start over. But the bad guys don't. They're just as deadly as they were when you were fully powered-up, and somehow you have to avoid their enormous fields of fire while scrounging for more of those precious capsules. Good luck. If you die after the first level, you can practically count on your future lives being poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Honestly, you might as well just start over.

Supposedly this is what the last level looks like. But for all you'll ever know, it's just something someone made up. What, you don't really think you're going to make it that far, do you?

Of course, there's always the ace up your sleeve: The famous Konami code. Here's where it started (legend has it that the guy who had to program the NES conversion of the original arcade game was so overwhelmed by Gradius' difficulty that he added the code for his own benefit just so that he could see the later stages in order to properly test them). Pause the game and press up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, then unpause. You're full powered-up, instantly. Not bad! Problem is, the cheat code only works once per game. So once you (inevitably) die, maybe because you let your shields run down without queuing up enough capsules to replace them immediately, you're just as screwed as ever.

At least you've got save stages on Virtual Console, right? Maybe you can save and reload once every screen or so, progress by inches. A death by a thousand papercuts for the Bacterions. That's not going to impress the kids who idolize your Twitch streams, though. Better keep your Wii U offline.

Don't feel bad about how much you're going to suck at Gradius. Everyone does. I was a video game Rainman in the NES days, and I sure never beat Gradius. You're not really meant to win this game; it's one of those impossible aspirations, a test of character. Gradius isn't about winning; it's about seeing how dignified you are in defeat. So chin up. Die like a grown-up. Make Vic Viper proud.


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