Originally released as an arcade game, and later ported to other platforms. In some areas, Gradius was released under the name Nemesis. In Japan, a special version of the game exists for the Famicom. It was given away as a prize by ArchiMENdes, a ramen noodle company. The Vic Viper would power up using cups of ramen noodles rather than the usual pods. The cart itself is quite rare, and considered a collector's item.
The player controls the trans-dimensional spaceship, Vic Viper, and must battle waves of enemies through various different environments. Gradius is the first shoot 'em up to use the selection bar power-up system.
When gameplay begins, the Vic Viper is relatively slow and has only a weak gun. This level of capability is generally insufficient for fighting enemies, but the Vic Viper can gain greater capabilities by collecting and using power up items.
Gradius was the first shoot 'em up to use the selection bar power-up method, which has since been adopted by many other scrolling shooters. While most arcade action games utilize distinct power up-items that each correspond to a specific effect on the player character, Gradius has a single power-up item. The effect of this power-up item is to advance the currently selected item in a power up menu that appears at the bottom of the screen. When the desired power up is highlighted, the player can obtain it by pressing the power up button, returning the menu to its initial state in which no power up is highlighted.
- SPEED UP: This power up increases the speed of the Vic Viper's movement; usually needed at the beginning of the game or when restarting an area after the Vic Viper has been destroyed, because the initial speed of the Vic Viper is much too slow to comfortably avoid enemy attacks. This power up may be triggered multiple times to achieve greater speed, but there is a danger in increasing the speed too much, resulting in a lack of precise control needed to avoid collision with terrain or enemy characters. There are sometimes ways to counteract this. In Gradius III, the player could select "Speed Down" as their "!" power-up. In Gradius V, after five Speed Up's, you are given the option of InitSpeed which returns the speed to its original state.
- MISSILE: This power up adds a secondary projectile weapon. Arcade versions of Gradius games usually have a separate button for firing this projectile, while home console and computer versions usually use the same button for both this and the primary projectile weapon. In the original Gradius, the weapon is a missile that fires downward and to the right, travelling along the ground. Most Gradius "missile" weapons are a variation on this concept.
- DOUBLE: This power up adds a second projectile weapon identical in power and firing rate to the standard gun. In the original Gradius, this second gun fires at a 45 degree angle up and to the right. In later Gradius games, it may fire in a different direction depending on a choice made by the player before the game starts. The Vic Viper cannot have Double and Laser at the same time. If Laser is chosen while Double is being used, Double will be lost.
- LASER: This power up changes the standard gun into a laser weapon that fires to the right. The laser weapon does substantially more damage than the standard gun, and can be controlled to a certain extent while it is being fired by moving the Vic Viper vertically; this can be used to quickly destroy a group of enemies. The Vic Viper cannot have Laser and Double at the same time. If Double is chosen while Laser is being used, Laser will be lost.
- OPTION: Options are glowing elliptical entities that mimic the movement and attacks of the Vic Viper, resulting in greatly increased attack capability. Furthermore, Options are invulnerable, making them additionally useful in certain situations. All attack power ups possessed by Vic Viper are also possessed by each Option. In most Gradius games, up to four Options can be obtained.
- ? (SHIELD): This power up adds a projectile-blocking shield to the front of the Vic Viper. The shield is destroyed after a certain number of absorbed projectiles. In later Gradius games, it is also usually labeled with an appropriate power up label instead of the less than informative question mark. Later iterations of "?" include Force Field (360° protection against 3 hits), Shrink, and Limit (temporary invulnerability).
- ! (MEGA CRUSH): This power-up has appeared in several Gradius games, but only appears on the gauge in Gradius III. In all Gradius games, it comes in the form of a blueish version of the Power Capsule used to power up Vic Viper. Upon picking up one of these blue capsules, all onscreen enemies are immediately destroyed. In some Gradius games, it also wipes all enemy projectiles or "bullets" off the screen as well. In Gradius III, it appears as both a blue capsule, but can also be used by highlighting the ! slot on the Power Gauge, in this case, the pickup merely wiped out enemies, while the Power Gauge version did this, destroyed all enemy bullets, and the player earned points for enemies destroyed.
Home console and portable versions of Gradius spawned the now-legendary Konami Code, considered by some to be one of the defining elements of Gradius. The code (traditionally Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A; variants also exist), when entered while the game is paused, grants the player most of the available power ups. While this is essentially a cheat code, the player is only allowed a limited number of uses, suggesting that this is meant only as a limited adjustment of the difficulty. In most cases, the limit starts at one use and an additional use is granted for each completed level. An interesting exception to this rule is Gradius III for the SNES/SFC, where entering the original NES version of the code destroys you, rather than powering you up. Substituting L and R for Left and Right will grant the proper effect, however.
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