Gradius I – Gradius Portable Guidebook Interview

Nakamura Kengo

Designer. Participated in Gradius from the planning stage.
Responsible for the basic world setting and enemy characters.
His major works for Konami include Contra,
Ajax, and Kyuukyoku Sentai Dadandaan.

Creating the World of Gradius

Originally, we had the basic idea for Gradius that you would warp to a different dimension for each stage. As we talked about what the theme for each stage would be, the idea came up for ancient ruins and mysterious fantasy worlds. From that we got the image for Moai or Stonehenge floating on a continent in outer space, and everyone thought “this is cool!” That was the origin of those creative stage designs.

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Stage rough drafts.

Stage 3: Moai

At first the Moai were just part of the background, and I remember it wasn’t very interesting. But I personally thought the Moai were memorable characters and I really wanted to add them. (laughs) I said we can’t just leave it like this, and so I worked hard with the background designer, suggesting they shoot rings from their mouths and can be destroyed. Though now when I think of it, I don’t really know why I thought they should be shooting rings from their mouths. (laughs)

Stage 4: Reverse Volcano

One day we were testing the vertical inversion hardware feature, and we tried inverting the volcano stage as an experiment. When we did that, we realized that having everything “upside down” conveyed a certain feeling of discomfiture, in a good sense. It also looked like you were in outer space, and the gameplay was fresh too, so we used it as the “Reverse Volcano” stage. In the end, Gradius wasn’t developed by just following pre-existing rules and specifications; rather, many of our insights were the result of experimentation, and we wasted a lot of time, but that’s how the game was created. The programmers did complain a lot though. (laughs)

Stage 5: Tentacle

We thought the game would be too plain if the stages were only ruins. We wanted something weirder, so we decided to make a stage with organic cells squirming all around. I think that Tentacle stage was completed more by the determination and technical expertise of the programmers than the designers.

My boss, who was both programmer and director, had been saying that he really wanted to include an organic stage in Gradius. But we were very worried whether our hardware at the time could properly convey the right popping, writhing organic feel for the cells. Then one day, the director told us “make a character that looks like a pachinko ball.” Then, after about two days I believe, we came up with the creeping movement of the tentacles. We made each little pachinko ball (cell) in his arm move individually, and everyone was amazed at how, in a short time, the design had become so realistic, disturbing, and gross. One problem we had was that, while it looked visually impressive, it was very difficult to incorporate into the game. At first it didn’t go toward the players, and it didn’t shoot bullets either, so it was a pretty useless enemy. (laughs)

Stage 7: Base

Well, this will be nothing but excuses, but… we were working on this stage up till the very last minute and had no time at all, so it was almost entirely a rush job. The magnetic barrier poses almost no threat, (laughs) since you can just avoid it by going to the edge of the screen. We actually had wanted to make you go inside the barrier and dodge a bunch of things. The reason the last boss is a brain is because none of us could come up with any other designs. The idea was that you’d get so excited seeing it, like “huh, what the hell is this!”, that you’d get nervous and run into it, losing a ship! Well, that would only work once of course. (laughs) By the way, the reason the final boss doesn’t fire anything is because we felt it was hard enough just getting to this final point, so let’s just give the programm–I mean, the player, a break… (laughs)

Big Core

Since Salamander, we’ve had different bosses for each stage, but we had no plans for that with Gradius. The character design for Big Core underwent numerous changes, however. It was a process of trial and error. One of our earlier designs looked like the manbow fish. (laughs)

Protoype Gradius

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Early enemy sketches, after
the switch to a mecha design.

Actually, at the beginning of development, Gradius was not the mecha game you see today. Everything was entirely organic. Enemy designs were all organic, like the Ducker enemy, who was a cockroach. (laughs) The fact that the enemies in Gradius are mechanical, but move more like organic creatures, is a remnant from that early design. But one day, there was an internal evaluation of our work, and it turned out the other teams really didn’t like the characters in Gradius. So our director said we had to redo all the designs. Personally, I really liked them, but… (laughs) It was very discouraging and difficult. So we decided from there to change everything to a mecha design, but the problem was, I couldn’t draw mecha designs at all. (laughs) One of our colleagues who knew a lot about mecha stuff lent me some of his anime and sci-fi collection, and I spent day and night copying and tracing those designs.

That took me about a month, and during my studies my boss came over and berated me. “What have you been doing! These character designs haven’t changed at all! When are you going to finish these?!” (laughs) But he was a good person, and even though he said all that he gave me another month. After about 2 months then, I finally began drawing the designs you see today, and after several weeks of living at the office, I finished them. Looking back on it now, I wonder what was the point of all those organic designs that took me 4 months! (laughs) But either way, I’m very thankful to my coworker (and adviser) who lent me his materials and saved me from that hell.

Length of Development

If you include our early period of experimenting with ideas… I don’t think it was over a year. Maybe about 8 months. When I joined, I spent 4 months on those organic designs, and having to redo them naturally caused the programming to be delayed as well. After the location test, it took about 2-3 months to finalize everything. Because we had so much time early in development to experiment with new ideas, Gradius had a rather long development period when compared with games from that time.

The Gradius Team

There were 5 of us in the main team, including myself. 2 programmers and 3 designers. I did all the character designs, and the other 2 designers handled the backgrounds. The sound and hardware people were from another division in Konami.

The “Gradius” Title

The provisional title for Gradius at the planning stage was Scramble 2. It wasn’t until a half year had passed and the basic structure of the game was nearly finished that we decided on the “Gradius” title. We were saying that if we didn’t have a title, we couldn’t make the instruction sheet, so we chose it then. Actually, the person who came up with the “Gradius” name is the same coworker who helped me out with all those mecha designs. At a naming meeting, where we were all submitting different possible names, he suggested “Gradius”, whihch was an alteration of a certain sci-fi movie title. There were other candidates as well, but I remember that this title was easy to say, and we really wanted a title that would stick in a person’s memory. Also, we also wanted to have a “ga/gi/gu/ge/go” consonant in there somewhere… we just thought that would be cool. (laughs)

The “Gradius” spelling

Although the word Gladius means short sword, we didn’t intend that meaning at all, and its just a coincidence. Several years later someone said to me, “doesn’t the title refer to a Gladius?”, and that was the first time I realized it. Even though it was just a coincidence, I remember being really surprised. (laughs)

History of the Vic Viper

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Early versions of the Vic Viper.

The motif for the Vic Viper design originally came from the ships that appear in a certain sci-fi movie. I mean the way the ships wings are divided into two pointed ends… I’m sure there’s people who, hearing this, know what movie I’m referring to. (laughs) The origin of the name came from two things: first, the way the ship and the options appear in formation looked like a V shape, so I called it “Vic.” Second, when the options move it looked like a snake, so I named it “Viper,” and together its “Vic Viper.” I came up with the name myself. By the way, Vic does

not refer to “Big.” 1 (laughs)

About the Graphics

During the development of Gradius, I was especially aware of the amazing and popular vertical scrolling games that had been released. For their time, they could represent light and shadow in a very concrete, three dimensional way. You couldn’t help but be influenced by the sophistication of those worlds. For Gradius, we kept that example in mind while trying to create our own unique world, and we put a lot of effort into the light, shadow, and use of color. Also, this is a rather detailed point, but we made sure the stars in the background that were more distant moved slowly, while those closer moved more quickly. Its easy for space scenes to seem rather flat and one-dimensional, so we laboured to make it as 3D as we could. The director and I often went to the game center after work, and we took notes on how the enemies and ships in other shooting games moved and acted. We did a lot of boring work like that back then. (laughs)

The power-up meter system

Our initial idea for Gradius was to use a system like Salamander, where you immediately get the power of the capsule you just took. But we thought that had been done before, and we wondered if we couldn’t create a system where the user could select his weapons more freely and intentionally. Also, in our initial version, you only got power-ups from the red enemies, but we later changed it so that you’d get a power-up when you defeated a line or formation of enemies, as a kind of reward. But this caused there to be too many power-ups, and just taking one could break the balance of the game. So we were wondering how to let players use these power-ups that they’d taken risks to accumulate, and it was these concerns that led us, through continual test plays, to the system you see today.

The Laser

From the start we had a vague idea about creating a laser that resembled a beam weapon from the movies, something that hadn’t been done in arcade games yet. It was our director who poured his all into creating that laser, and just as with the creation of the tentacle enemy, we designers just stood back and watched. (laughs) It was really amazing for its time, seeing the laser go “pew!” across the entire screen. It was awesome, and we all got goosebumps seeing it. However, we had to make the laser interact with all the options, and it turned out to be a real struggle due to both game balance and slowdown.

The Options

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Concept art for the power-up capsules.

In an early development version, the Vic Viper design looked like a seahorse. The options then looked like children, and the whole thing made you think of a duck and its little ducklings. (laughs) Personally, I thought it was really unique and rather liked it… but from a gameplay perspective, I realize that design had problems; if the options looked so concrete and material, then when they hit against the terrain, you would naturally expect them to disappear. But that would be too difficult to implement, and the option system would lose its appeal as well. So for that reason we designers changed our beloved little options to the ones we have today that look like pure energy. We did a lot of testing to determine what would be best: options that trace the ship’s path, or a system that allowed the player to freely change the formation of the options. We had about ten different systems, and eventually settled on the one you see today.

Why is the Shield power-up designated with a [?] ?

Actually, with that, we planned to have a variety of power-ups there, not just a shield, so that is why it was a question mark. Though in the end it turned out to be just a shield… there were a lot of things we left unfinished, and I offer my apologies to all the players. (laughs)

Test Playing at Konami

This wasn’t just our team, but in those days we pretty much lived at the company and only went home to take a bath or change our clothes. (laughs) So we did a lot of test playing too. All the employees cooperated on bug checks for each other’s projects, and we’d create a schedule for a 24-hour rotation. One amazing thing was that the employee who found an important bug would get a free VCR! We had a ranking system for bugs (A, B, and C level), and it was like an exchange counter, where you’d present your A-level bug and say “VCR please!” (laughs) In those days a new VCR cost several hundred dollars, and they were piled up in the bug checking room, and everyone was in a frenzy to get them. (laughs) After bug checking for about 8 hours, someone would come in and say “my turn!”, and that person would be like “noooo!!!” (laughs) There were people who got really good by doing that week after week, until even in a sleep deprived state they could dodge the bullets. (laughs) You’d say to them, “this is getting crazy, you need to sleep!” but they just couldn’t step away from that joystick. (laughs)

We never predicted people would get so obsessed with it. There were many employees who would play on their breaks, and it seemed like there was an uninterrupted stream of people sitting at the cabinet. During lunch you’d always see someone there. Even after lunch, when it was time to start the afternoon shift, employees from other teams would be playing it. They had intended to only play a little and then quickly get back to work, but they’d get obsessed with it and couldn’t walk away. (laughs) That happened a lot. For us developers, once we started the test play phase we felt the game really had something addictive in it, and everyone was glad to do the bug checks. (laughs) I remember people like Takatori, our Gradius II programmer, was absolutely crazy about it and would play it whenever he had a spare moment. (laughs)

Response from the Location Tests

We used three buttons for shot, missle, and power-up, and the Twinbee team who was next to us at the time said “there’s no way you can have three buttons in your game.” (laughs) At the location test too, I remember everyone thinking it was a little dicey. At our first location test the speed of the ship was too slow, and there were people who got to the volcanoes in stage 1 without knowing to use a single power-up. (laughs) It’d be game over very quickly, and we saw them kick the table and walk away, as if to say “what a crappy game!” We realized this was a major problem, so we created an instruction sheet that carefully explained the power system. Even then a lot of people didn’t look at those instructions. (laughs) But by and by people came to understand the game system, and good players came and were watched by others. After that the game shot up in popularity. Now that I think back on it, the Gradius project really wasn’t well organized or planned out. (laughs)

Ideas that didn’t make it

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Early stage concept art.

On the cell stage, we had an idea that the small cell enemies would attach to the player ship and slow it down, eventually making it so you couldn’t move. We also wanted to do a crystal stage. That idea didn’t come to fruition, but we were able to revive it for Gradius II. From a programming perspective, if you were to take all the ideas we tried out and abandoned, it would be a massive pile.

A Hi-Score system with Gender and Astrological Sign

The idea for adding gender and astrological sign came from two other designers who were women. We were talking about what to do for the high score entry, and we wanted to try adding something that hadn’t been done. Since the Gradius setting was in space, someone suggested adding astrological signs to the ranking. I had wanted to do it from the beginning, actually. (laughs)

About the Sound

There were several songs that I requested from the staff based on ideas I had. Generally we asked for 80s popular western music, and I remember the Kuuchuusen prelude coming from that. When we’d request something from the sound staff, we’d give them some music cassette tapes as an example, and from there the sound designers would look at the game in action and expand things with their own ideas. The whole development team was really pleased with what the sound and music staff created. I don’t think there were many games back then where the music left such an impression that hearing the opening phrases made you immediately think of the stage. I love each song they composed, but of course my favorite is the Kuuchuusen BGM which I had requested.

Later games in the Gradius series

I played the Famicom versions of Gradius. As for the recent games, I can’t say I’ve played them a lot… though honestly, that’s because my skills are limited. (laughs) But to see how the series has continued to this day without interruption is very moving to me, as if a part of my DNA had been carried on to future generations.

Memories of the Gradius Development

We never thought Gradius would become so famous. Our feeling at the time was simply, “if we’re going to make a game, let’s make something that’s never been done before!” And although it was difficult, I think circumstances at the time allowed us to do something new like that. Despite the many challenges I think the game really showed off the creativity of our programming, sound, character design, and also hardware. For me personally I remember the project as being trying and difficult almost the entire time, but it was all repaid by seeing the players enjoy the game. One night, when Gradius ranked #1 in income, I was out eating ramen with my senior colleague when he said to me, “we were right about our game.” Even now I get teary-eyed thinking about that. Although I still have some regrets where I wish we’d done this or that differently, it was a game we gave everything to. And I’m exceedingly grateful to my colleagues and Konami, who let us do whatever we wanted, even when we didn’t know what we were doing. (laughs)

If you were to make a new Gradius…?

Hmmm… well, its not a game, but if I had the chance I’d like to make a space opera movie of Gradius, where I could depict the world with the proper sense of scale. It would be a live action film of course. But my brain isn’t up to the task, I’m afraid. (laughs)