Gradius II – Gradius Portable Guidebook Interview

Takatori Toshiaki

Joined the Gradius team in the middle of development as a new employee. Since Salamander he has had a central role in the series, and he worked as the main programmer on Gradius II. His major works include Salamander, Life Force, Gradius II, Xexex, and others.

Stage 1 – Artificial Sun

The Volcano stage was actually the first stage we completed, and the Artificial Sun stage was done in the latter half of the development. However, it had a lot of visual impact so we decided to make it the first stage. Being an arcade game, it was very important that you grab the player’s attention. Nowadays it might not be considered anything special, but at the time, arcade hardware wasn’t very powerful, so that made Gradius II’s graphics all the more impressive when compared with other games of its time.

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Phoenix

Fire dragons come out of the artifical suns… that was used in Salamander, but there you only had a single dragon, so this time we thought we’d fill the stage with them. (laughs) It wouldn’t do to make the boss a dragon too, so we decided on a phoenix. Of course, its a mystery why the phoenix, an immortal creature, can die here. (laughs)

Stage 2 – Alien

This was one of the earliest stages we finished. Maybe right after the Volcano stage? People often say that this stage was inspired by Contra, (laughs) but we weren’t really thinking about that when we made it. By the way, the designer of this stage was a woman. Our team back then had some weirdos who liked stuff like this. (laughs)

Big Eye

In stage 2 of Gradius (stonehenge), there’s sections where you use your ship to break through the walls. I thought it would be interesting to reverse that idea, and make a boss who shoots bullets that form a wall behind you, gradually decreasing your space to manuever.
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Stage 3 – Crystal

I think we made this stage somewhere in the middle of development. In terms of gameplay, its a stage that focuses on “dodging.” The movements of the crystal shards as you break them apart is tricky and hard to read, and even with laser they’re tough to destroy.

Crystal Core

With this boss, from the start I wanted to design a very risky safe spot–nothing ventured, nothing gained! Its supposed to be a kind of lure to the player, like “come on in here!” There’s many safe spots in Gradius II, but most of them were put there intentionally.

Stage 4 – Volcano

Starting with the second loop, the terrain for this stage changes. Before this we had simply changed the enemy algorithms for the later loops, but this time we thought we’d experiment with changing the terrain itself.

Death Mk II

This boss was originally in Salamander. Actually… the truth is, we didn’t have much time to make an original boss, and so we just added this guy. (laughs) But his second form with the huge laser was something new. I had never seen a laser that big in an arcade game before.

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Stage 5 – Revenge of Moai

We decided to add this stage during the initial development plans. The stage name is “Revenge of Moai”, and in the middle of the stage when the Moai turn red, its supposed to show how angry they are. And they really do get pissed. (laughs) The Jumping Moai are mad as hell! (laughs) At the time, the image of the Moai was already firmly associated with the Gradius series, so we took pains to make sure we didn’t betray the fans’ expectations with this stage.

Stage 6 – High Speed

People often think that the source of inspiration for this stage was the high speed escape sequence from Salamander, but actually isn’t. Our inspiration here was Scramble–the origin of Gradius. By the way, using the force field to pass through walls was a technique we anticipated players would use.

Big Core Mk II

The Bacterian army is always getting their Big Core ships destroyed, right? So this boss was supposed to represent a powered-up response to that. (laughs) This is another boss where we designed a safe spot from the beginning. It was supposed to be a challenge to players: “see if you can align yourself with this red line!” (laughs)

Stage 7 – Boss Rush

The Boss Rush stage was the very, very last thing we did–I mean, literally, the last. I think Gradius II was probably the first game to have a boss rush in it, where you fight previous bosses from other games all in a row. However, we actually re-did all the programming and the graphics for the bosses, rather than just reusing the code. We gave the Golem boss to a new employee to program as training (laughs), and I actually think he did a better job than the original Golem from Salamander.

Covered Core

In our initial design plans, Covered Core was actually supposed to be completely covered with armor, but… because of a progamming mistake on my part, there’s an opening through which you can shoot him. (laughs) I messed up the angle at which the cover is supposed to stop rotating. He was supposed to be completely covered at first, and you couldn’t attack him during that period… but, I guess it turned out to be a fun boss anyway. (laughs) The upper right safe spot was intentional. Our design philosophy with safe spots was twofold: first, it was something that could rescue you from danger. Second, like a hidden character, it was meant to be something you had fun searching for, and there were players who enjoyed that. Its also one of those techniques where people watching you play would say “Aaaa!”, like watching a street performer or something. (laughs)

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Stage 8 – Mechanical Base

Naturally we wanted to follow in the footsteps of Gradius’ last stage and make a final base stage here too. Personally, I think the way you destroy the entrance hatch and invade the base looks awesome. I actually would have liked to make the hatch have more internal parts, so it would visually crumble away as you shot it, but we ran out of time for that. (laughs) In the section where the sheets peel off the wall and fly at you like Salamander’s last stage, we designed it to be barely dodgeable without a speed power-up. Fine-tuning the recovery checkpoint here took longer than any other in Gradius II. The section with the rising walls later in the stage shows one of the design themes we had for Gradius II, that the terrain would evolve and change as you played. The Big Eye boss from stage 2 and the bullets that form a wall behind you was an example of that, as was the dragons in the Artificial Sun stage, who were meant to evoke the prominences in Salamander’s fire stage.

Crab

Dodging his legs by staying in the dead center at the far right edge of the screen was not something we initially planned during development, but we realized it during the pre-release playtesting and decided to leave it in. It was the same with the upper right Covered Core safe spot and the Mechnical Base midboss safe spot. With techniques like that, I would say about half of them we designed ourselves, and half we noticed by chance and intentionally left in. The way the very last wall before Gofer closes was one of those Gradius trademarks. We added it in at the last minute, but we made it too slow, so it doesn’t really pose any threat to the player. (laughs)

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Gofer

We knew the name “Gofer” from the start, but it took a long time to decide on his design. The word Gopher/Gofer is English slang for tsukaippashiri 2 … it means something like “hey you, go get me a yakisoba pan bread.” (laughs) We used it to mean that Gofer was ordered by someone higher-up: “The Vic Viper is becoming a problem. Eliminate him.” But since the subtitle is “Gofer’s Ambition”, he probably outgrew the initial scope of his orders, and in act of hubris against the Bacterian Empire, decided to pursue his own ambitions. (laughs) In terms of game play, we first thought he would fire lasers out of his eyes, but there was an argument about this, and it was decided he just wouldn’t attack at all. But you know, as I was making him, I really wanted to give him some kind of attack! I felt sorry for how pathetic he was.

Length of Development

Gradius II took us about 5 months. There were two new employees who had been working as clerks, who were drafted to help with the programming. Other than that, the main crew was three programmers and three designers. The development period was short, but it was a highly competent and focused group; most of the team members had been at Konami for a long time, so we only needed 5 months. The pressure was intense, just from it being “Gradius II.” Now that I think of it, though, we only had 3 months for Life Force… that was even more hellish. For Gradius II, we did the location tests at a game center in Okayama. We stealthily set up the pcbs on cabinets there and did it all in secret. (laughs) So when we suddenly announced it later at the AOU show, I think everyone was surprised.

Story Connections between Gradius, Salamander, and Gradius II?

The truth is, Salamander was initially planned to be Gradius II. There was a big controversy over whether to make the sequel to Gradius a vertical or horizontal scroller. It was decided to do both, and that game ended up being Salamander. So even though Salamander has different gameplay, in terms of the story, its connected to the Gradius universe. Having Golem and Tetran in Gradius II was therefore a natural progression. You may have noticed that in the ending to Salamander, an enemy escapes from the planet just before its destroyed. We added that because we explicitly wanted to leave room for sequels. However, we hadn’t made an enemy sprite for that ending scene, and since we were using mask roms, we were told it would be impossible to add. But we didn’t give up, and took a completely different, pre-existing sprite and changed its size and color data so it would appear that way. We also wanted to show something escaping at the end of Gradius II, but we just didn’t have the time to make it. (laughs)

MSX Gradius 2

I wasn’t aware of the MSX Gradius 2 development. It proceeded on an entirely different schedule, and since the department was different, the staff were all different too. Same for the Famicom Gradius and Salamander.

Famicom Gradius II

I’ve played it, and I think its a wonderful port. At that time, the arcade staff really had a lot of pride in our work, and we worked hard to make something you couldn’t play at home on consoles. So… I’m not sure how to say this, but we weren’t very cooperative with the console port team. (laughs) That made the console team work even harder to create something worthy of an arcade title, and since the Famicom version of Gradius II actually turned out to be great, all of us on the arcade team felt like, “Damn, they got us!”

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Gradius II enemy concept art,
from the X68000 version.

A New System: Choosing your Weapons

This was one of our very first design concepts for Gradius II. I think Gradius II was the first STG to allow players of different skill levels to select their own ship. At first we had many more weapon selections, and you could freely select your weapons like in the Edit Mode of Gradius III. But as we went along, we realized there were weapons that were useable and weapons that were junk. To keep a proper balance we decided to create four different setups. Getting the overall balance took a really long time, and we swapped weapons in and out of the selections often. In the end, there turned out to be some selections that were weaker than others, but we still felt each could clear the game.

Changes to the original Gradius Laser

The hitbox for the original Gradius laser was extremely wide and powerful, so we reduced it two pixels for Gradius II. The ripple laser, by the way, came from the Salamander development. We were trying to think of what could replace Double. The name “Ripple Laser” was created by one of the overseas staff, but in our team we called it the “Hamon Laser.” 3

Playtesting

Our playtesting was very thorough. After all, if you can’t confirm yourself that it can be cleared, then you can’t release it for sale. Of course that doesn’t mean everyone could clear it on our staff… we did very focused playtesting with skilled players. Some were on our team, and some were not. They discovered a great many things, like safe spots we hadn’t intended, or places you could move through a wall with the forcefield equipped. During the test play we limited it to 3 loops even for the skilled players, but we figured there would be players who’d score 10 million and above. Its truly amazing how good some players are. It always surprises me!

Option Hunter

We actually added the option hunter just one week before the deadline. (laughs) It didn’t appear during the playtesting or location tests, either. It wasn’t that we had thought of it earlier but ran out of time; rather, the idea for the option hunter simply occurred to us at the very last minute. By this time in the world of STG, there was a huge gap in skill between good players and beginners. If you made the game accessible to beginners, it was boring for advanced players. Conversely, if you made it for advanced players, it was too difficult for beginners. It was when we were trying to solve this dilemma that the idea for the option hunter came to us. Since we were rushing to add him, his sprite doesn’t have much animation. (laughs) We explained the idea to the designers, and they had very little time to create him.

Voice Samples

At that time, arcade games were starting to use voice samples more frequently. But the data for voice samples ate up a lot of memory, so we added very few samples given the space limitations. We would have liked to add more speech, though. By the way, when we played the game during development, we would all scream “BUMOUUU!” together whenever Intruder died. (laughs)

Enemy Names

The names were decided by everyone together. However, we did all that after the fact, not during the main development. During development everyone just called the enemies whatever they liked. We also weren’t working from conceptual illustrations; we simply created the pixel art from scratch. So when it came time for promotional artwork in magazines and such, only after the development was finished did we do illustrations and think about names. (laughs)

Delayed Timing Suicide Bullets

The delayed timing of suicide bullets at higher loops was something we did to make the game harder for expert players. Back then there were many players who could clear the later loops of the original Gradius, so we wanted to give them a real challenge here.

Working with the Composers

Gradius II arcade OST.

For each stage, we would make requests to composers for songs based on our concepts and ideas. Then they would compose several demo tracks and give them to us. We’d listen to them together as a team and then give the composers our collective feedback: this needed to be faster, or more rhythmic, or this wouldn’t work at all, and so on. Accordingly there were a lot of demo tracks recorded, and plenty of tracks that never made it into the game. Personally I like the boss theme, as it has the melody from the Gradius boss theme in it. (laughs) For the boss rush with Golem and Tetran, we specifically requested the Salamander boss theme. Nothing else would do! (laughs)

Hi Score Screen

The hi score screen enemy animation changes depending on your ranking. Its surprising this was made given we only had 5 months. (laughs) Most of the ranking screen was done by a new employee. Since he was new, he had a lot of free time compared with us, and he finished it very quickly. So he decided to add in other characters for fun and make them march like that. He said he wanted to see the Duckers dance. (laughs)

The Overseas title, “Vulcan Venture”

The first Gradius’ title overseas was Nemesis, which means the Goddess of Vengeance. And in roman mythology, Vulcan means God of Fire. So the title Vulcan Venture came from one of our overseas staff, who thought of it after seeing the Artificial Sun stage and the title screen. By the way, making the title offset to the left, rather than just straight in the middle like most arcade games, was a little detail I added. (laughs) I said “Let’s do something visually attractive with the center of the screen!” I believe that kind of title screen layout was a first for an arcade game.

Volcano and Moai Stages: Establishing a Tradition

The Volcano and Moai stages are very familiar to the Gradius series, so its easy to say they’re mere cliches. However, I think that if the design ideas are strong enough, you can bring out something different in them. On the other hand, they’re also a promised element that fans expect to see, much like Mito Komon 1 revealing his inro each episode. “Ahh, there it is.” (laughs)

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More Gradius II enemy concept
art from the X68000 version.

Stage ideas that didn’t make it

Regarding the sand stage in Gradius III, we also had an idea to do that for Gradius II, but the idea didn’t make it. Same for the Plant stage from Gradius III, which was in our initial draft. Though we hadn’t thought of making the boss for that stage try to suck you in, of course. We also wanted to do an internal organ stage for Gradius II, but it was a little difficult given the abilities of our hardware at the time, so we abandoned it. We returned to that idea in Xexex. (laughs) Xexex had different members, but almost all of the Gradius II staff participated in it.

The Origin of Gradius: Scramble?

Yes, that’s right. Its really the origin of horizontal scrolling STG in general, I think. It influenced many games in various ways. And Gradius itself was originally developed as the Scramble 2 project. Then came the power-up system, which was Nakamura’s idea. He used to show me his notepad, with all his ideas written on it. That notepad was a thing of beauty–it had so many great ideas in it, and we referred to it constantly.

If you were to make a new Gradius…?

I would love to make one. Though its impossible to do an arcade STG game today… sadly they just don’t make enough income for the operators. Partly that’s because, with the exception of Salamander, they’re exclusively one player games. I’d love to do a Gradius game with online networking capabilities. I think that could be really interesting.

What was Gradius to you, Takatori?

That’s hard to sum up in just a paragraph. (laughs) I was a gamer kid myself, and I loved going to the game center to play STGs. It was my dream then to make those games, so the fact that I actually got hired by Konami and was able to make Gradius II was like winning the lottery. It makes me extremely happy to know that so many people have enjoyed my games and that they still enjoy a good reputation today. Even now I can look back on those times and say “I did that!”, and that makes me a happy man. (laughs)