In this interview Kouji Hiroshita talks about the level design, weapon changes, and difficulty balancing of Gradius II. The interview took place in 1988, the same year the game was released, so its a different perspective from the other Gradius interviews.

This interview was found at the GSLA, a Japanese a website that, among other things, preserves game developer interviews from older, now-defunct print sources. The GSLA often redacts the original interviewer questions, so the text ends up reading more like a narrative than an interview.

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1988 Gradius II – Kouji Hiroshita Interview

(Publication Unknown)

Kouji Hiroshita
Joined Konami in 1981. Has worked on Megazone, Twinbee,
Jackal, A-JAX, Contra, Super Contra, and others.

After Salamander had been released, we started plans for a third game in the Gradius series. We were all waiting for a chance to make it, and of course the requests from fans for us to make it was a big motivation. For STGs, if you just continue making sequels with no break, there’s a fear you’ll fall into the same patterns. That was why we didn’t start making Gradius II immediately after Salamander… we wanted to take some time and develop more ideas. During that time the fans continued to clamour for a sequel, so we finally got started on it.

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A visual history
of Gradius ship design.

The development period was extremely short, only about 5 months I think. We were looking towards this year’s AOU show, and we started designing it just after last year’s AM show. Being such a tight schedule, it was very hard on the staff.

Gradius II is the 4th game in the series, following Gradius, Salamander, and Life Force. The difficult part was that it needed to resemble the Gradius series, but at the same time, it couldn’t just be an exact copy. So we tried out all our new ideas, while trying to keep things “Gradius”-ish, and I think we succeeded in making a game that will be difficult enough for fans of the series–one that even skilled players can enjoy.

On our Gradius II development team, we have people who joined Konami because they played Gradius in the game center and liked it. Hearing their perspective on the series brought out a variety of ideas. One person remarked that the essence or appeal of Gradius is that its a smart, stylish game. I think that probably comes from design of the character ship and the enemies. The power-up system also gives it a distinctive flavor. There are many people on the Gradius II staff that personally like the STG genre, and there was a sense that we’re all here to make STGs. Lately there’s also been an increasing number of skilled players, so we want to make it difficult for them. So naturally there was a sense of wanting to provide a challenge from the developers to the players.

At first we only had one selection for power-ups. That was the first one (speedup, ground missile, double, laser, option, shield). That was the selection from the original Gradius, but we later added more choices. Various ideas were suggested, and we decided that we should let people freely select their own power-ups. We had a lot of ideas then, regardless of whether they could actually be achieved in the programming or not. Things like a ground laser, or homing missiles. Eventually we settled on the current scheme of 4 separate power-up selections. The goal for our staff was to make each option about the same power, so that in the end, after trying out each one, you’d return to the first selection you had gotten used to in the original Gradius. But it didn’t really work out that way. The 4 choices were meant to be equal, but the 2-way missile option was considerably stronger because it could fire upwards, I think.

The reason the laser is weaker for Gradius II is that we thought it was too strong before, so we made it a little less powerful. In Life Force you can select the Ripple Laser or the normal Laser. But most players only selected the Laser, so by making the Laser weaker this time, the Ripple Laser should now appear stronger. Another way we strengthened it was when the Ripple Laser hits an obstacle now, it gets a little smaller, but continues onwards. Each of the 4 weapon selections has their speciality, and I think for each stage there’s one which is more advantageous than the others. Our goal was to allow players to freely choose the weapons they like and develop their own strategies. For skilled players, after they clear the first loop with one of the stronger weapon selections, they can challenge themselves with a different setup.

The Moai stage was the first stage we made. We did that because the Moai are a mainstay in the Gradius series, and their character design is already established. The idea for the stage was to stuff it with as many Moai as possible. After that we made stage 1, the artificial sun stage. The point of that stage is to give the player a chance to power up. But if you just give the player a bunch of power-ups, it will be boring, so we wanted something where skilled players could get powerups easily, and where the more you tried to power up the more dangerous the enemy attacks would become.

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Giger, Contra, and Salamander collide.

We created the second stage somewhere in the middle. At first it was an organic “internal organs” stage like Salamander, but we changed it later to its current form. The second half of that stage is just like a Contra stage. For this stage we had a female designer on our staff, and she designed almost all of it. We’d see her drawing these outrageous characters and cackling to herself, and the other staff members were always saying “What is going on in your head???”

For the crystal area of stage 3, we programmed it so that the ice would have a certain chance of either drifting toward the player’s ship or rebounding and moving away from it. We also added some randomization to that–its not completely random though. That way, although the ice always appears in the same set location, depending on how the sequence of programming events unfolds, it might get dangerous for the player and cause him to change his route. We made this stage in such a way that the spread bomb would be good for it.

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An interior view of the Vic Viper, from
concept art for the X68000 version.

Originally, the game ended after the boss rush in stage 7. But we felt we needed to have a base for a Gradius game, so we added the final stage. Also, the last stage we created was the Volcano stage. We also felt here that if its Gradius, you’ve got to have a Volcano stage.

Personally, I don’t think Gradius is that difficult of a game. If you can make it to the end it does become difficult though. By the third loop its like, this is no game. (laughs) But our intention was to make the first and second stages easy to clear. A lot of games recently are very difficult right from the start, and we wanted to go against that trend.

I think the special quality of the Gradius series is that you feel the enemies are somehow watching you. There are almost no enemies that just move on their own, unresponsive to the player.

We also thought it was boring if players always follow the exact same routes, so we’ve added a certain degree of randomness to things, including bullet patterns. The most obvious example of this is in the crystal stage, I think. In addition, its often said among our team that Gradius is a strategy game. If you use your head and think about what you’re doing, you’ll progress. That also means that each person will have their own individual strategies. Our Gradius II team is the same, with each person having their own individual route through the stages. I felt that way seeing people play at the location test as well… ah, this route is also possible… oh, someone has completed a new route here… and so on. Our development goal was that if a route or pattern worked in one place, it shouldn’t work in the next. We were surprised when players figured out a route for the section just before Crab in the last stage, and for the safe spot on Covered Core. Our staff watched a video of that and everyone was shocked.

The important thing for games is that they allow you to lose your sense of time. The better a game is, the more it does this and makes you feel like you’ve been playing a very long time each credit. I don’t say this because short play times are best for earning income, but I’d like to make a game where the degree of satisfaction is the same for those who only play a short while and those who played a long time. Of course, this isn’t the end of the Gradius series, and we hope to continue making dense games that allow you to fully forget the passage of time. And we want to continue making games that fulfill the wishes of our fans.