Gradius Portable Guide – Interview Collection
These five interviews all come from the Gradius Portable Guide, which was published in March 2006 alongside the PSP Gradius collection. Along with the Cave STG History, it represents the gold standard in game developer interviews. I’ve only included a portion of the concept and development art in these interviews, so the original guidebook is definitely worth purchasing if you love Gradius.
Kengo Nakamura (Designer)
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.
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)
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)
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
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.
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.
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 realized 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
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)
Toshiaki Takatori (Programmer)
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.
Fire dragons come out of the artificial 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)
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.
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. With the boss, Crystal Core, 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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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 errand boy … 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”, it suggests that he 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!”
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 distinct setups. Getting the overall balance took a long time, and we swapped weapons in and out often. In the end, some setups turned out to be 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.”2
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!
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.
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)
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
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.
As such 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 Komon3 revealing his inro each episode. “Ahh, there it is.” (laughs)
Stage ideas that didn’t make it
Regarding the sand stage in Gradius III, we also had that idea for Gradius II, but it 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. We had 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)
Yoshitaka Itou (Programmer)
Takemasa Miyoshi (Designer)
Junichirou Kaneda (Sound)
Stage 1 – Desert
Miyoshi: In our original plans, this stage was going to be two vertical screens wide, and you could scroll between the sky and ground sections. But this design made it difficult for the player to encounter the enemies because there was too much open space, and it interfered with the interesting ideas we had intended to include, so reduced it to a single screen. Also, the boss for this stage was originally meant for the lava stage, but our hardware was upgraded during the development and we ended up having to change the bosses and stages around. Everything had to be restructured and re-placed. I think this stage changed the most, as a result.
Kaneda: I remember people told us that the dragon coming out of the sand was too cute looking, and we should change it. (laughs)
Miyoshi: They said the same thing about the sand lions. (laughs) At first I thought we’d have to remove them, but I thought to myself, if you look at it from the perspective of the game difficulty, weren’t they perfect for the easier first stage? So we left them in. As for the antlion boss “Goliath,” that was a very straightforward design.
Stage 2 – Bubble
Miyoshi: The Bubble stage didn’t change much from our initial plans. Although the setting and the enemies are different, our concern from the beginning was, in terms of gameplay, how to differentiate it from the Crystal stage in Gradius II.
Itou: For the location test version, I remember the first stage was the desert, but I don’t really remember what stage 2 was.
Miyoshi: The main thing with location tests was seeing how the enemy placement was working, so we didn’t really pay much attention to the order of the stages. After the stages had been completed to a certain degree, we’d have a general meeting with everyone, but I don’t really remember clearly saying this was going to be stage 2 then, either. As for the boss, Bubble Eye, our first idea was that he’d be a huge ball of liquid, and as you shot him, he’d break apart into innumerable smaller bubbles. But we felt that just destroying some ball of liquid wouldn’t really give the player much sense of accomplishment, so we came up with the idea of an eyeball in the core that was feeding like a parasite off all the liquid bubbles. This added a grotesque organic quality to the boss. Its important that bosses are memorable, you know. (laughs)
Stage 3 – Volcano section
Miyoshi: In a word: long. (laughs) You might think we made it long because it was the final stage for the beginner’s mode, but that wasn’t our intention. As for the beginner mode itself, we added it because we realized the game had become something incredibly difficult, and we wanted people to be able to clear the game, at least in a limited fashion.
Itou: I seem to remember adding the beginner mode after the location tests. I think it was the very last thing we added to the game, actually.
Miyoshi: The response from the players at the location test regarding the difficulty was pretty critical, so we added it to appease them.
Itou: Yeah, there was no beginner mode during the development, it was only added at the end.
Miyoshi: Graphically speaking, there’s no differences between normal and beginner. And the difficulty is just as unforgiving for the beginner mode stages. (laughs) I believe some fans treat beginner mode as a score attack nowadays.
Stage 3 – Underground Base section
Miyoshi: We’d had the idea digging through walls with your shot since the original Gradius, but for Gradius III we wanted to give the player freedom to carve his own route through the stage. But if you shoot too much, boulders will suddenly fall on you and block your path, and we thought this would add to the fun of choosing your own path.
The godorei4 characters that come out at the end of the stage was my personal touch. (laughs) I added them since I really like the Iron Maiden enemy from the original Gradius. My original idea for that enemy was to have them lying in wait, camouflaged by the boulder that covers their upper half, and then they’d suddenly fly out and surprise the player. But in the end we just made them act the same way as they did in the original Gradius.
The boss for this stage, Big Core Mk-III, is my personal favorite… I love the visual impact and presence he conveys. Due to memory limitations we had to shrink him down for the Super Famicom version, but in the arcade version we could do it properly, with an imposing, heavily armored exterior. But the reflecting laser didn’t quite work right for the arcade version… we corrected it for the SFC though. I’m glad we had the SFC version to correct all those bugs we couldn’t fix for the arcade.
Stage 4 – High Speed
Kaneda: The idea for a 3D stage came from a conversation about what new ideas we could bring to the Gradius series, right?
Miyoshi: In Gradius II, there was a horizontally scrolling high speed stage. But just repeating yourself is meaningless, so we opted for a 3D high speed course this time. And we had never done a 3D stage with Gradius before. In the planning stage, however, we wanted it to be full 3D, with totally free movement. But due to various circumstances we had to abandon that.
Itou: It was really difficult doing 3D graphics with the hardware back then. It was all 2D, but we tried to give it a pseudo-3D look.
Stage 5 – Moai
Miyoshi: For the “rolling moai,” I remember the Director coming to us one day and saying suddenly “Let’s add this!” (laughs) The stage was originally envisioned as your typical Moai stage, with lots of Moai spewing out ion rings… then somewhere along the way those Moai spinning in space appeared. (laughs) By the way, our lead designer at the time had never seen the rear side of a Moai head it seems, (laughs) and he was really stressing out over how to draw it correctly. Finally I think he built a real physical model of a Moai and used it to make an animation model. About the totem moais, those were based on the winning entry from a Gradius III idea submission contest we published in Gamest. There were lots of similar ideas from that contest, but we selected this one, revised it a little, and added it in.
Stage 6 – Cell
Miyoshi: As the theme for this stage was “cell,” we wanted it to be fully saturated with that fleshy, organic feeling. In the planning stages, this was originally going to be a stage like the artificial sun stage of Gradius II, with infinite vertical scrolling and humongous cell bodies floating about like planets. However, if we did that right after the Moai stage, it would mean you’d have back-to-back infinite scrolling stages, so we changed it to be like the cell stage from the original Gradius, where you shoot and dig your way through the cell walls.
The boss Gregol is of the brain golem family seen in Salamander, but the Golem boss in Salamander moves slowly, right? I worked hard to make this one more active, with its snakelike body, to make the player feel more pressured. I wanted it to look like some grotesque frankenstein of organic parts.
Stage 7 – Lava
Miyoshi: With all the flying enemies and lava shrapnel, we wanted this stage to be all about dodging. The last part where its really narrow is especially difficult.
Kaneda: The Wyvern boss for this stage was originally the boss of the desert stage. He looked a bit cuter then too. (laughs)
Miyoshi: A different designer was leading this section, so I wasn’t very involved in the particulars. (laughs) The truth is the dragon boss was designed with the image of the desert stage in mind, and when, in the middle of development, it was decided to add a lava stage and use this boss, I was like, “What!?” (laughs) But having him be in the midst of all those burning flames was pretty cool, so I guess it was the correct decision after all.
Stage 8 – Plant
Miyoshi: At the earliest stages of development, this stage was made up solely of plantlife. But, as we worked on it, we felt it was very difficult to give the right sense of danger because the stage design was based on the mild, gentle color of green. We tried to use the cell stage of Gradius as a reference, but it was very difficult to get the image right. So finally we changed it: we made it so there aren’t many plants in the beginning of the stage, but as you get deeper into the stage the plantlife starts to encroach more and more, until you finally encounter the cause of it, the stage boss.
Itou: The plant stage was the very first we completed, right?
Miyoshi: That’s right. We first worked on those stages (Sand, Bubble, and Plant) that we thought had new or different gameplay elements. We then put them together to display at the game show. (laughs) Normally in a STG, you die by colliding with a bullet or enemy, but we wanted to showcase some of the surprising moments in Gradius III, like the way the plant boss tries to suck you in, or the ivy that tries to snare and entangle the Vic Viper. The fact that it feels easy for such a late stage is probably due to our overreliance on such gimmicks.
Stage 9 – Crystal
Itou: The motif for this stage was a certain puzzle game that was popular at the time. (laughs)
Miyoshi: This is a stage the Director was saying he wanted to include. The root of the idea came from a non-3D high speed stage we were initially planning. But it would be different from Gradius II: this time mechanical parts and debris would fly at you and form together to make the stage map as you went. You’d have to quickly decide on which route to take. That idea for things flying at you and piling up had been around for awhile, and it led to the Crystal stage.
By the way, I remember after we released Gradius III, I saw a player during the final cube rush stay on the edge of the screen and let the cubes accumulate there. It was the first time I had ever seen that, and I thought, “ah, that’s one way to do it!” (laughs) During development we had intended for players to dodge each cube individually.
Itou: We deliberately made that part in an attempt to kill the player. (laughs) We wanted to make them dodge the entire time. Our intention wasn’t for the player to hide while the cubes piled up, but rather as the cubes piled up, you’d have no choice but to keep moving forward, and the dodging would get harder and harder.
Miyoshi: People have said that this stage isn’t actually clearable, but as developers we tested each stage and confirmed it could be cleared. So no matter how difficult it might get, I’m confident that it is possible.
Kaneda: I could never get past the cell stage. (laughs)
Miyoshi: At the time I was pretty confident about my STG abilities so I played a lot. I felt like if I concentrated and applied myself, I could manage most any game. Though if someone asked me to repeat my performance it might not go so well. (laughs) For the Lizard Core boss, since it was a crystal stage, the boss had to be a crystal boss. Its the traditional “core” type boss, with an updated tentacle and attack pattern.
Stage 10 – Boss Rush
Miyoshi: On this stage all the bosses from Gradius II reappear. They’re all pretty weak, but we thought that would make the boss Bellinger Core (known as Dellinger Core, but during the planning we called him Bellinger) appear stronger by contrast. Also, this stage is something of a fan service stage, so I think we didn’t want to make the boss rush too challenging.
Itou: Though I would like to add, I believe it was an accident that Covered Core doesn’t actually use his cover. (laughs)
Miyoshi: By the way, when Dellinger Core emerges from the crater, the image I wanted players to have was that they’d arrived at the planet, and this planet itself was the Mechanical Base of the next stage. Its meant to feel like that boss comes out of the base to challenge the Vic Viper and stop him from entering. As for my design ideas for Dellinger Core, I wanted a boss whose appearance and attack patterns would evolve as the fight went on.
Stage 10 – Mechanical Base
Miyoshi: The part with the Gaameido laser cannon enemies who leave their wreckage behind when they die was meant to be the ultimate pattern memorization. Deciding what weapon to use and when to kill them in order to make a clear path is tough, but… therein lies the fun. (laughs) With the rotating laser area, the fixed rotation makes it easy to dodge, but it gets difficult if you cause slowdown with your shot. That was done on purpose.
Stage 10 – Final Boss
Miyoshi: We wanted Disrupt to be the biggest, most complex midboss the series had seen. For Shadow Gear, the truth is, we designed him with flexible joints and wanted him to have more organic movement, but the programmers said it was impossible due to schedule constraints. (laughs) And up till the end we were really stressed about what to do for the final boss. Finally, without thinking too deeply we just asked ourselves plainly, “what IS a bacterian?” And our answer was that organic, repulsive creature.
Itou: The truth is, Gradius III was meant to be the conclusion of the Gradius series.
Miyoshi: Yeah, the original subtitle during the planning drafts was not “densetsu kara shinwa e”,5 but rather “saigo no shitou”.6 In any event we were going to end the Gradius series here and start to work creating a new series. So we wanted to give a clear explanation of the Bacterians, who had been described pretty vaguely up till then. Of course, new Gradius games keep coming out, so… (laughs)
Regarding the final high speed area, we thought that just escaping unscathed after you took out the final boss would be unrealistic. (laughs) Also, the ending scene shows the Vic Viper exiting through an escape hatch, so we wanted to link up with that too. I remember the Director realized that hatch was in the ending and immediately went about updating the stage map. (laughs) There’s a lot of vertical movement required in that sequence so if you don’t have enough speed its impossible, but I think that was done intentionally… I mean, we did test it and make sure it could be done. (laughs)
Hidden “Gradius” and “Salamander” stages
Kaneda: I remember suddenly being told to add these stages in the middle of the development?
Miyoshi: I knew someone was working on it, but didn’t they just use the code from Gradius and Salamander?
Itou: I have a feeling they just ripped the stage character data from there. I believe the Director was saying he was going to make these stages.
Miyoshi: He kept saying he wasn’t doing it as a joke, but that he was trying to faithfully recreate them. (laughs)
The Concept for the 3rd Gradius
Kaneda: I think I remember talking about how Gradius III was meant to be a summation or compilation of the Gradius series?
Miyoshi: When we first decided to make Gradius III, the team was only the director, two designers, two sound engineers, and one person on the hardware side.
Kaneda: We also only had one programmer to begin with.
Miyoshi: Yeah, I wasn’t around during the initial planning stage either. I was on the console development team, and we were talking about what to make for the newly released Super Famicom. Then we talked about porting Gradius III, which was stil in development, and it was decided that it would be easier to port if I had firsthand experience with the arcade development. So I was hastily put on the arcade team. (laughs) But we had heard this was the “final Gradius,” so we proceeded under that belief.
Itou: It took about 12 months to finish the master program, I think. I recall that the producer had a wedding, and he kept moving the deadline around so he could make his wedding date in time. (laughs)
Kaneda: Yeah, that was a lot of pressure.
Itou: He had a long honeymoon planned after the wedding, so I remember he kept asking us “are we gonna make it?” while we worked. (laughs)
Miyoshi: The designers have to finish before the programmers can start, and I remember our schedule being very short. On top of that, Konami was very involved in publicity efforts with game magazines, so every month we had to update them with our status reports. It was really tiring.
The Gamest Reader Idea Submission Contest
Miyoshi: We didn’t have to use the winner’s idea exactly as it was submitted. We were free to use just the gist of it and expand or add to it as we saw fit. So it was actually difficult to decide on whose idea and exactly how much of it to incorporate.
Itou: We had a notebook with all of the submitted ideas, but we didn’t just use them as-is.
Kaneda: Yeah, we used them more as seeds from which to develop an idea.
The Many Weapons of Gradius III
Itou: I believe we ended up including almost all the weapons from our planning documents. Even then I remember discussing if we couldn’t have more, and searching through the ideas submitted from the Gamest contest. (laughs)
Miyoshi: Personally, I like the twin laser. Its a rapid-fire laser and it looks nice on-screen. I always select it without thinking whenever I play. (laughs)
The [!] in the Power Gauge
Miyoshi: As you might expect, we added the [!] to the power gauge simply because we wanted to add some new kind of power-up. I think the most useful was the one that lowers your speed when you’ve taken too many speed power-ups.
The mega crush can be useful too, but usually you just die before getting to use it. (laughs) The speed down is useful on the Plant stage, for instance. If you have 3 speed ups, you can easily dodge the plant tendrils, but after that its dangerous to have too much speed.
Kaneda: I don’t believe we did a complete run-through of every stage in our playtesting, did we?
Miyoshi: For bug checking, we preferred to let the person who designed the stage see if he could clear it or not, so you become a specialist regarding your own stage. But since each stage was checked individually, with each person saying “its all good!” if they could clear their own stage, I don’t know if anybody checked it all from stage 1…?
Kaneda: I don’t think any of us even could. (laughs)
Miyoshi: I remember someone bug checked the complete playthrough by credit feeding.
The Drama Track from the CD Soundtrack
Kaneda: Its 100% a true story… more or less. (laughs) The characters were based on the actual staff of the time. I completed it pretty quickly because the story came from actual experiences of mine, like the time I wrote the Kuchuusen intro melody for Gradius but forgot to put it in the game.7 (laughs)
Knowing this was a shooting game, I wanted the music to be upbeat and rousing. And since there were many stages, I wanted each one to have a distinct feel. The composers who had worked on the previous Gradius games told me they wanted to do something different this time, like choir vocals for example. The songs I wrote were fukkatsuthe boss theme, “Dark Force,” and the music for the Gradius and Salamander stages. I also wrote the intro for Higashino’s “Try to Star.” I also remember that I thought the ranking theme I had written was really great, but there was another sound director there who didn’t like it much. (laughs) He said it was too short and too bright, and wouldn’t fit… so it was rejected at first. I think this soundtrack cd has so many catchy tunes, its great to listen to just as normal music. 5 years ago a new employee at Konami came up to me and asked me to sign his copy. I signed it and told him he should go get everyone’s signature. (laughs) I have a lot of personal memories surrounding this cd.
The Super Famicom version
Miyoshi: I know the fans wanted a 100% arcade accurate port, but the team we chose for the SFC development didn’t have the same level of skill as the arcade team. There were also limitations with the hardware which made some things impossible. But we were able to include things we couldn’t do with the arcade hardware, and we did fix certain bugs.
Looking back at Gradius III
Miyoshi: There are parts I’m embarassed about, and things that concern me in terms of gameplay. But there’s people who like those aspects of Gradius III all the same, and whenever I’d notice a player at a game center storm off from the cabinet saying “this game is impossible!”, another person would quickly take his place. (laughs) Several years later, when I had returned to console development, people would tell me “You made Gradius III! I love that game!” (laughs) At times like that I’m very grateful I was able to be a part of it. There’s imperfections, but you can still feel that its a part of this beloved series. And since I also worked on the SFC port, I feel a sense of satisfaction and completion regarding Gradius III.
Kaneda: What I can say first and foremost is that Gradius III was a project you look back on and say, I’m glad I was a part of it. Its the Gradius series, so it was a great honor to be doing work that would reach such a wide audience. However, I don’t ever want to see another sunrise from the company office windows… although it would happen many times after Gradius III. (laughs) I was in my 20s then, and it wil always be one of the fond memories of my youth.
Itou: My work prior to Gradius III wasn’t that stressful, so this was really challenging. Our schedule was very tight and I remember being very stressed out. On Monday morning I’d change into my work clothes, and work would continue straight through Friday with no breaks. I worked on difficult projects after this, but I feel this was the most taxing. But thanks to Gradius III, I came to learn how to say “I can do this!” even in the face of the most difficult work.
Toshiaki Takatori (Programmer)
Stage 1 – Liquid Metal
Ashida: For Gradius IV, we didn’t think about the order of the stages while we were designing them. So when it came time to choose the most suitable stage for stage 1, we went for something with a lot of visual impact, and that was the Liquid Metal stage.
Yoro: Also, I think Gradius IV was the first in the series to use polygons. We were searching for something to show off those new possibilities when we came up with this stage.
Ashida: The emphasis on visual impact made it resemble Gradius II, and I think it turned out to be a bit of fanservice to Gradius fans. By the way, when we decided to make the liquid metal planetoids have a reflective surface, it turned out we couldn’t use the effect on very large or irregular polygons. So we ended up with the small, very round planets. As for the stage 1 boss, he’s the type that changes his shape during battle. We decided in the beginning to make 3 separate transformations, but we argued about what they should be until the very end. (laughs)
Yoro: Yeah, we had ideas like a turtle, a seahorse, some spinning thing…
Ashida: Also, we deliberately made the strength of the boss change depending on what he transformed into. I think the green one was the easy one. I seem to remember the white turtle was strong.
Yoro: I think that idea came from me having a pet turtle. (laughs)
Stage 2 – Plant
Ashida: This was one of the first stages we made.
Yoro: That’s right. Our theme for Gradius IV was “interactive.” So the tendrils move in a unique way and react when the player shoots them.
Ashida: They snap back at you, if you shoot them too much.
Yoro: Yeah. We wanted players to be able to interact with the game in that way, where they’d be uncertain what would happen as a result of their actions. The plants are one instance of that idea. Only when the player is shooting does he interact with elements in the game world, so we had a discussion about how we could visually present this “interactive” motif, and the plants came out of it. We also argued a lot about the spore mist that appears in the latter half of the stage. At first we made it so thick that you couldn’t really tell where bullets were coming from.
Ashida: For this boss, we tried to make his attacks unpredictable, but it turned out that they have a pattern that can be memorized. (laughs)
Yoro: We messed up the game balance with his arm that extends out and attacks the player. Its instant death if you’ve never seen it before. It was really too powerful.
Ashida: We created that boss according to the “Gradius theory” of boss design: each boss has a combination of a weakspot, something that defends that weakspot, and something to attack with.
Stage 3 – Bubble
Ashida: This stage is difficult because there’s an element of luck involved. Gradius had been known as a pattern game, but changing it from a pattern-based game to one that relied more on player’s reflexes was one of our fundamental design ideas for Gradius IV. That choice is reflected very strongly in this level, and because of that, I think its a particularly hard level for longtime fans of Gradius who were used to memorizing patterns.
Yoro: Yeah, the fact that you’d need to execute a slightly different strategy each time you played was an intentional move on our part.
Ashida: In addition, I wanted to create something that looked soft and fluid. In Gradius III there is also a bubble stage, and though the bubbles look soft and “bubbly,” there’s also a mechanical aspect to them that looks unrealistic. Using polygons, I wanted them to break apart more finely and realistically. I especially wanted to show how a bubble shrinks and contracts when a smaller part breaks off.
Stage 4 – Magma
Ashida: I remember saying “We have to include a Volcano stage!” (laughs) But we wanted the tone to be more realistic, and for the rocks to have a rugged, craggy feel. We also changed the color of the stage to distinguish it from the Plant stage.
Yoro: Yeah, and the magma doesn’t come till the second half of the stage. I remember we kept revising the way the lava looks and acts up to the very end. Making the terrain move with the waves of lava gave us a lot of trouble.
Ashida: Another example is the enemy sets… we couldn’t get them to work right. Even after we placed the Duckers and other enemies on rock platforms, the lava moved too much for them to be very effective. Even with placing the flying zako enemies, the constantly twisting terrain undermined our efforts to arrange them in the way we wanted. For the really violent movements in the latter half, we actually created that part according to a pattern. We first figured out how the player ship should navigate the section, and then afterwards we added the terrain movement and enemies.
Yoro: We strived to make it feel like you were battling with the terrain.
Ashida: And of course, having the boss be a dragon who enters in the middle of the screen is one of those promised Gradius conventions we had to honor. (laughs) Since the eyes were his weakpoint, we decided to encase the head in that armor.
Yoro: We worked hard on this design so the weak point can be clearly distinguished. Same for the turtle.
Stage 5: Moai
Yoro: There was a lot of disagreement about the Moais.
Ashida: The way the Moais work in the Gradius series is already firmly established, so I think all the arguing was kind of pointless.
Yoro: As a tradition in the game, they were pretty much worn out by then. We felt like we were beating a dead horse.
Ashida: In Gradius II, we made the Moai stand up and spin around, and in Gradius III we made them really large. So we asked ourselves what we could do for Gradius IV, and the idea of infinitely respawning Moai is what we came up with.
Yoro: That was something we tried towards the end, just to see how it would look. But it turned out to be really fun so we used it for the vertical Moai as well.
Ashida: Yeah, it felt like it would be too easy to clear with only horizontal Moai, so we decided to add vertical ones too.
Yoro: With a fully powered ship it was just too easy to get through it. To make it harder we made the ion rings from the revived Moai force the player to move further and further forward, making it increasingly hard to dodge. We did that because by this time, there were too many expert STG players. We had to make it so they could enjoy the the game too!
Ashida: For the boss, we were pretty much left to our own devices. They told us as long as there’s a big Moai and small Moai, we could do whatever we wanted.
Yoro: We wanted a new weapon for the Moai boss, something very strong, so we came up with the little “Moai henchmen”. They let us add whatever we wanted, like the lasers coming out of the little Moai’s eyes. (laughs)
Stage 6 – Cell
Ashida: This was the last stage we made.
Yoro: That’s right. Our image for the stage was “blood vessels.”
Ashida: The Gradius series always has breakable walls. Most players who have made it this far will be fully powered-up, so we designed it to be very difficult if you just thoughtlessly destroyed everything. Instead, you’re supposed to veryyy carefully advance without spraying bullets everywhere. (laughs) We also made the weakpoint harder to shoot for the rampaging tentacle enemies that appear later in the stage.
Yoro: We had been wanting to make something grotesque for Gradius IV. (laughs) I wanted it to be a little eerie and disturbing, too. The way this stage reacts violently to you when you attack it was also part of the interactive design we were going for. As for the boss of this stage… well, that was our attempt to make a Golem style boss. (laughs)
Ashida: I remember this boss being relatively easy to design and explain to the staff. I designed it so you could get inside the space between the small tentacles near the eye, but that it wasn’t a “safe spot”… I worked hard to get rid of the safe spots on this boss. When he dies he fires off a bunch of lasers, but there’s a pattern to it and its dodgeable.
Stage 7 – High Speed
Ashida: The high speed, boss rush, and fortress stages all appear at the end of the game here in quick succession. For the boss of stage 7, I wanted to add some kind of shield to his front and rear, but it wasn’t working right because of the way he moved. We deliberately wanted to make a boss who could rotate so naturally and easily, unlike previous core bosses in the series.
Stage 8: Boss Rush
Yoro: The zub rush was very popular with the staff at Konami. (laughs) So we definitely wanted to add that.
Ashida: We had never shown a boss coming out of a space cruiser the way you see in the Gradius poster, so we wanted to show that in-game here (and in the attract mode, too). Also, when we decided we would add a boss rush to Gradius IV, we thought we’d feature a series of original new bosses rather than rehashing previous ones. I especially wanted to make Vanishing Core’s searchlights, the way it shoots at you if you’re caught in them. (laughs) We really enjoyed making Big Core MK III Kai, too. We made his movement very smooth, and he can change the angle of his reflecting laser. We gave Covered Tetran normal bullets and mine attacks. Mixing bullet types like that is a common feature of Gradius bosses. For Berserk Core, we didn’t expect players to find that safe spot. The idea with Planet Core was to make him a stronger version of Covered Core.
Yoro: Planet Core was the most difficult for us…
Ashida: I feel like our design ideas came from it being round.
Yoro: I remember saying it was big, so we’d make it like a planet…
Ashida: Ah, that’s right. And the little guys he spits out were supposed to be moons or satellites. (laughs) And there you have Planet Core.
Stage 9: Base
Ashida: The base stage is another Gradius mainstay, but I think flipping the orientation vertically in the middle of the stage was a first.
Yoro: At first the programmers told us it couldn’t be done, but we just made them do it anyway. (laughs)
Ashida: We knew we wanted to do that pretty early on, but it took a long time and actually ended up being late.
Yoro: Gradius is always a horizontal scrolling shooter, so they were like, why in the world are we making this vertical…
Ashida: Well, we did want to surprise everyone. (laughs)
Yoro: I remember making it rotate smoothly was a challenge.
Ashida: With the midboss Bloody Gate, we intentionally left the safe spots in. Safe spots are a part of the Gradius series, after all. There are things in Gradius we wanted to change, and things we wanted to keep the same.
Yoro: We probably made him red because we wanted him to look intimidating. (laughs)
Ashida: And those spinning weights that come after that midboss were definitely part of our “interactive” theme. Doesn’t the Crab boss appear after that?
Yoro: We were really worried about his movements looking too comical. I remember we also were stressed out about the last boss.
Ashida: We were. (laughs) If he’s going to be an organic being, how do we portray him? I remember we tried to make him embedded in a test tube at first. In the end we made a model that showed his face, though.
Yoro: Yeah, he would have looked really weak if we put him in a test tube. (laughs) His face looks a lot different than Gofer from Gradius II.
Ashida: And yet, his name is Gofer. (laughs)
The meaning behind the “Fukkatsu” subtitle8
Yoro: In arcades it was the era of fighting games, though there were less and less of those games as well. Music games were starting to dominate everything, and in the midst of that we wanted to signify the “revival!” for shooting games.
Ashida: Games in general were all starting to be polygon based. And for Konami too, they had released very few traditional 2D arcade games by then. But the title also conveys the meaning that Konami still was dedicated to arcade games, and we wanted to make that clear with the title “fukkatsu.”
Yoro: It really has a lot of different meanings. There was the revival of Gofer, the revival of arcade games generally… and there was also meant the revival of the stoic STG, in contrast to danmaku games, which were the majority of STGs at the time.
The Gradius IV concept
Ashida: Other than the interactive quality that we’ve mentioned already, visually speaking we had wanted to make a 3D Gradius game. But the truth is, that idea would have really fettered the traditional Gradius gameplay because Gradius is about navigating your ship through 2D spaces and bullet patterns. We also considered using the 3D to show enemies approaching from far away, but we wanted to keep the gameplay itself simple, so we abandoned that idea. We ended up deciding to keep the gameplay 2D, but add depth to the visuals with 3D. When bullets are in 3D, it just becomes too difficult to determine hitboxes. So we ended up really diluting the 3D aspect we had originally envisioned, and even the terrain ended up being relatively flat so as to allow the player to better judge collision detection.
Six Different Ships
Ashida: In Gradius III there was an edit mode, but that made the game difficult to balance. We decided to avoid that from the beginning and thought of various workarounds, but we had a hard time coming up with new weapons. Gradius II was a fairly balanced game in this regard, so we decided to expand on that game and add two more equipment types and put the new weapons there. Those were the vertical mine and the flying torpedo.
Yoro: For armor piercing, I designed that by starting with an idea of what the weapon’s hitbox would look like. Then I extrapolated outwards from there as to what kind of weapon would fit that hitbox, and created visuals for it.
Ashida: One thing we worked at was making sure each weapon setup had advantages and disadvantages. We often hear that vertical mine is very strong, but armor piercing is very weak, and that was done intentionally.
Length of Development, Size of Team
Yoro: Our staff was changing a lot at the time, so I can’t say exactly how many were working on it.
Ashida: There was a period in the middle where the project was put on hold. More than half the staff was changed when it resumed. So the length of the project really depends on where you draw that line… for our group, I think we took around 10 months?
Yoro: I think that’s about right. It was a bit longer for me.
Ashida: I actually was invited to join as Director later in the project. They were like, “Hey, you know Gradius, right?” (laughs)
Your Personal Favorite
Yoro: Gradius II for me.
Ashida: I worked on Gradius II. I was a new hire at the time, and they told me: “We may be making Gradius II, so why don’t you just get started on it now?” (laughs) They handed me Salamander and Gradius as references and I remember playing those for about 2 months. On Gradius II I drew the stage backgrounds. And so Gradius IV probably has a lot of influence from Gradius II. There were a lot of staff members that loved Gradius II also, and we would have discussions about whether we should make such and such like Gradius II, or whether we should do something different.
The Redesigned Vic Viper
Yoro: I think the Vic Viper was revised more times than the stages. I forget how many months we spent on it, but I do remember people saying they didn’t like it. (laughs)
Ashida: Its slimmer than the previous incarnations. We asked ourselves, what was the real charm of the Vic Viper? It has a sort of grey-ish color in-game. In the original Gradius, its design was sharp, in Gradius II it gets sharper, and in Gradius III it looks smart and stylish. Since we were redesigning the Vic Viper in 3D polygons, we decided to emphasize that sharp appearance. My original image for the Vic Viper in-game was a little more round… the tail area should look a little more weathered and rough. But our design really highlighted its sense of speed, I think.
Ashida: The overseas version of Gradius II had allowed continues, but none of the domestically released Gradius games did. We decided to add them this time, and I remember saying “Even if you continue in Gradius, you still have to perform a checkpoint recovery!” (laughs)
Yoro: There are players who really enjoy checkpoint recovery. Everytime I go to a location test and see the players I’m impressed by how good they are. (laughs) So we wanted to make a game that would be fun for them, too. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean you can just abandon new users, and for that reason we added continues to Gradius IV. The game center operator could decide whether to turn continues on or off, so it was only an option.
Yoro: The second loop playtesting was limited to players who were already very good.
Ashida: We checked the first loop to make sure recovery was possible from every checkpoint. In the second loop and after, there are slight changes in the terrain and background, so we checked those very closely. We also decided during playtesting to use the “Parodius” rank system: dying once lowers the rank, and dying twice lowers it further. We wanted to give players a chance before Game Over.
Ashida: Since we made Gradius IV, its often been said that the Gradius series is a kind of puzzle game. That puzzle flavor was especially strong in Gradius III, and I think for a certain kind of Gradius fan, its one of their favorite features.
Yoro: Yeah. For fans who didn’t like our system, I don’t think it was so bad that they completely abandoned the game, but our concept for Gradius IV was that it would be interactive. If you moved like this, the enemies would respond like this, and we designed it so each time it would be a different experience. Of course, a lot of it can still be reduced to patterns and memorization. (laughs)
Ashida: For the second loop and beyond, the instructions we got from staff was pretty much “do whatever you like.” (laughs) So we had a meeting with the team about loops, and the question came up: just because its a Gradius game, do we have to keep doing these loops? But it was decided that having them would make certain players happy, so we ended up adding a really challenging second loop.
Ashida: I named all the bosses, but I don’t remember who named all the other enemies. I basically said to whoever created an enemy, “name him what you like.”
Yoro: Alpha and Omega [[Aa and Muu in Japanese]] were named after the person who made them, Ayumu. He might get mad if he sees this. (laughs)
Ashida: Yorogaton Kimera was named by Yoro and another developer. Everyone said it was an awful name. (laughs)
Stage ideas that didn’t make it
Yoro: In the end we didn’t do it, but weren’t we planning to make a water stage?
Ashida: Now that you mention it, I remember that too.
Yoro: When we brought up the idea of a water stage, someone asked “how should we do it?” and the response was “yeah, what should we do…” And the idea pretty much died on the table there. (laughs) There was an idea to do a stage with a lot of waterfalls, I remember.
Ashida: I remember someone asking “what happens to the Vic Viper when its in the water?”
Yoro: Yeah, someone asked that. But we thought it would be weird if the ship died by touching the water, so we’d have to make it a background feature only… and if that was the case, we said we might as well abandon the idea. I think some of those ideas were used in the bubble or magma level, though. Let’s see, what else was there…?
Ashida: I don’t know if I really want to reveal this, but… there were talks of adding a puzzle game feature where you’d shoot a globe or ball, and you’d have to make it roll by shooting it.
Yoro: Another idea we had was a “fake” Vic Viper that would appear and fight you one-on-one. We thought “this will be awesome!”, but when we actually tried it, it was really boring. (laughs) I know this idea was suggested for Gradius III too, and when they tried it, the enemy ship was too hard to hit and it wasn’t very fun. Later, I remember discussing what we should do about the Moai, and there was a very busy day when we had to sleep over at Konami. I was sleeping, when suddenly Ayumu came up to me and said, “Yoro, I’ve got it! Bagworm Moai!” (laughs) I said “what the hell is that?” and he said “I don’t know”… and we went back to sleep. I think he must have been dreaming of a meeting or something.
Ashida: He must have meant the Moai should be hanging or suspended from something.
Yoro: Probably… but it would have been dumb anyway, I think. (laughs)
Memories of Gradius IV
Yoro: For me, this was my first important project. It was the first project I’d participated in from the very beginning. So in that sense it was a difficult experience, truly.
Ashida: I don’t really remember the day-to-day details. We were just too busy. One reason my memory is blank is that we would usually write all our ideas on a whiteboard, and everyone would use that as a reference while they worked. (laughs) So now that its been erased, I don’t remember much.
Yoro: There had been many Gradius games before this, so there was a lot of pressure on us to create a worthy “IV.” I have mixed feelings about it: I feel a sense of pride and superiority in some of the things we accomplished, and with others I wish we could have done something different.
Ashida: Since I joined as director halfway into the project, there were employees who looked at me in a negative way: “what are you doing here?” (laughs) That was really difficult. I think everyone has their own sense of what Gradius should be, and how a Gradius game should be made.
If you were to make a new Gradius…
Yoro: I think the possibilities would be overwhelming. (laughs) What to do, how to make it new… I really enjoy bringing my ideas to life, but I think with the arcade format its especially difficult. Maybe if it was a console Gradius. But yeah, I could get lost in it…
Ashida: I’d like to make a new Gradius–as long as no one complains or cares if its a commercial failure. (laughs)
Yoro: There’s no way that will happen. (laughs)
Ashida: I know, but if someone gave me that level of freedom to really radically reconstruct Gradius, I think I’d like to try it. When you’re told its ok to break the rules, that’s when new things happen; but if you’re told to make something new AND honor all the old traditions, its extremely difficult. If I made another Gradius, I’d want to break some of those rules.
Keiichi Isobe (Programmer)
Takayuki Kobayashi (Designer)
Kei Chigasaki (Designer)
Yukihiro Yamazaki (Programmer)
Norikazu Miura (Composer)
Stage 1: Beyond the White Snowstorm
Kobayashi: We decided to make the first stage something fresh, so we choose a snow stage, which was new for Gradius. In the second loop the snow pushes the player's ship downwards. Some of us were saying that should be in the first loop, actually.
Isobe: But of course it turned out to be too difficult that way, so we left it out. Even so, people who see the snow for the first time always get really nervous: "can that hit me?!" (laughs) So I think we achieved our goal of surprising people.
Stage 2: Requiem for Revengers
Kobayashi: The idea for a graveyard started from asking how we could bring back older characters and bosses from the series as a bit of fanservice.
Isobe: We were talking about how to present them in an interesting way when someone said, "Well, aren't they all destroyed now?" (laughs) In a sense, this stage is a kind of "farewell" to them all. (everyone laughs)
Kobayashi: The forking path ended up being featured only in this stage, but we actually wanted to do that in other stages, too.
Isobe: The boss for the lower path is named "Noobiru" [[Nobil]] because his tentacles extend. (everyone laughs) "That's your idea of a pun?!", they said. I cracked up.9
Yamazaki: During development, his arm extended incredibly quickly. It was crazy.
Isobe: Yeah, with bosses, they're definitely at their strongest right after you've created them. (laughs) While you're making them you just keep thinking "I've got to make him stronger, stronger, stronger!" Then everyone plays it, and it becomes "how can I make this easier?"
Kobayashi: When you add all these different attacks and detailed movement patterns, bosses naturally are quite strong at first. Then you have to find the right difficulty balance for them.
Stage 3: Into the Crystal Cage
Isobe: I put forward the idea for this stage, and I made it, but… I think I tied a noose around my own neck in doing so. (laughs) The way the lasers reflected was extremely difficult to make because I had to consider the placement of all the enemies and the player's ship as well. But I think it was worth the trouble, because it turned out to be a very impressive stage.
Yamazaki: At first we placed the enemies so they would be difficult to hit with the reflecting laser, but when we actually playtested it, it wasn't very fun. So we went in the opposite direction and placed them so they'd be easier to hit with the reflecting laser.
Stage 4: Ruins of Silence
Isobe: After Gradius Gaiden had been released, I looked at the player feedback survey cards and saw so many responses that said "I died on the 4th stage." It seems this is the stage where people think the difficulty suddenly shoots up.
Yamazaki: The idea to have the Moai heads break in half and fall off came from the Playstation hardware's rotation effects, which were now easier to use. I think the combination with that and the laser eyes made for a fun and interesting design. If you shoot them right when they're shooting their lasers, you won't know which way the head will roll, so its wickedly difficult. (laughs)
Isobe: For the laser Moai, we were pretty much out of new ideas for the Moai. Then someone said, "Well, what if their eyes shoot laser beams?" (everyone laughs) They said it as a joke, but we ended up going with it! The boss, Moai Dimension, also came from PS rotation abilities. "We can do rotation so easily, so let's try and make everything spin!" (laughs)
Yamazaki: With the PSX you could do sprite rotation, scaling, and really anything related to size--lengthening sprites, enlarging them, shrinking them, etc. So it was a natural fit.
Isobe: The name came from the idea that you were in a space surrounded and enclosed by Moai, aka the "Moai Dimension." (laughs) We also added a lot more speech for the boss this time.
Stage 5: Organic Fortress
Kobayashi: Chigasaki's background work really shines here with the way the walls undulate up and down.
Chigasaki: Using the PSX's processing speed, I experimented with a slightly different method with the VRAM for that terrain effect.
Isobe: Looking at Gradius Gaiden as a whole, we tended to spend a lot of time trying out new terrain ideas. When I later saw the magma stage from Gradius IV, it occurred to me that maybe we were inspired by it.
Yamazaki: The boss Mad Skin is, in a certain sense, the strongest boss. (laughs)
Chigasaki: Maybe so, in the sense that you can't just memorize and reduce his attacks to a pattern.
Isobe: I often get hit by those gum balls and die. (laughs)
Chigasaki: Since you can't ultimately predict the angle at which the balls will bounce off, dodging this isn't about memorizing a pattern, but rather about kiai.10 I know that's a taboo word… (laughs)
Stage 6: Green Inferno
Yamazaki: The idea for enemies that come from behind in the very beginning was taken from the MSX Gradius 2. (everyone laughs)
Isobe: Yeah, the green plant stage itself was first in MSX Gradius 2, also. (laughs)
Yamazaki: Yeah, Gradius Gaiden is full of homages to past Gradius games. The weapons having two levels to power-up is also from the MSX versions.
Kobayashi: Yamazaki, you made this stage, right?
Yamazaki: Yeah, though as you can see, its really just a cobbling together of other people's ideas. (everyone laughs) I don't even remember how many enemies I created for it. Actually, for the walker enemy, I made both a 2-legged version and a 3-legged version. In the end I had to cut the 3-legged version though.
Isobe: I made the boss for this stage, but it was frustrating how our concept for the boss kept changing. I remember he first went through 3 separate transformations. By the way, his third attack that sucks you in came from the Gradius III plant boss (Choking Weed).
Stage 7: On the Event Horizon
Isobe: This stage is my personal favorite. Early in the development we asked "What shall we do for a volcano stage this time?", and people were like "I guess we have to put one in, its Gradius after all." (laughs) We thought of doing the usual volcanic eruptions, but since this was the PSX, we definitely wanted to revise it with some kind of background or terrain effect.
Yamazaki: Ahh, I love this stage too. Its cool how the music really matches the stage.
Isobe: We made it so only the player ship's missile is affected by the gravity. Some were saying the standard shot should also be affected, but it was like, "then there won't be a game to play!" (everyone laughs) The enemy shots do curve, but lasers are unaffected. That little detail was a nod to our love for sci-fi. (laughs)
Stage 8: Formidable Guardians
Yamazaki: This is an all original boss rush. We felt, and so did the director, that just rehashing all the prior bosses would be boring, so we reworked it a bit.
Kobayashi: Yeah, and all those bosses were buried in stage 2 anyway. (laughs)
Yamazaki: At the end when he self-destructs by turning his dragon lasers on himself, that was meant to show the gallant heart of the samurai: "I will not die at your hands!" (laughs) By the way, in the second loop, you'll notice that destroying the dragon lasers sometimes causes a lot of suicide bullets to come out, and sometimes only one… that was an object overflow problem. (everyone laughs) When he spits out the scattered bullet pattern before, I ran out of allottable objects for the suicide bullets. Also, I originally thought this name was really cool, but now that I think of it "delta" and "tri" both mean triangle… damnit! (everyone laughs) Well, this was an homage to Trigon, so I definitely needed to have "Tri" in there somewhere.
Isobe: By the way, the music after DeltaTri changes because we wanted to signify that you were entering the latter half of the boss rush. Our nickname for it was "bosu bayashi" 11 (laughs)
Stage 9: Fate…
Yamazaki: The way the BGM syncronizes with the start of this stage is so cool. Miura, who was in charge of the music, synced it up for us precisely with the start of the stage.
Isobe: The previous high speed stages in the Gradius series had a lot of starting and stopping, and some felt this took away from the sense of speed. So we removed those as much as possible. Racing through the successive shutters at the end is a cherished Gradius tradition we had to keep in, though. (laughs)
Yamazaki: Now that time has passed, I can say this, but… the Gunner Wall was inspired by the boss of a certain arcade game that I was obsessed with at the time.12 I'm sorry. (laughs) Especially when comes at you and traps you with the needle bullet pattern.
Isobe: Well, for Gradius, that kind of bullet pattern was something fresh. I also really like the flashy explosion when this guys dies. Yamazaki, you sure put a lot of care into the way your bosses exploded. (laughs)
Yamazaki: Yes, I love explosions. (laughs) I really like the flashy explosions in AJAX. But the truth is, the graphic patterns we had for explosions in Gaiden were rather small, so it was a struggle.
Isobe: The next boss, Heavy Ducker, was created by me. Making his roller dash and the way he attacks from the background was simply my little pet project. (laughs)
Yamazaki: The earlier version of Heavy Ducker was a real bastard! For the attack where he drops mines that shoot pillars of fire, there were many more mines, and it was practically impossible to dodge on sight. (laughs) Though if you observed the timing really closely, you could somehow manage…
Isobe: Even I didn't feel like I could clear that attack. (laughs) The next boss, Sol, was nicknamed Uni. (laughs) Here too, we knew we wanted to pay homage to Crab from Gradius II, but this particular design wasn't decided on till very late. Finally we ended up using the PSX's rotation effects.
Yamazaki: Kobayashi made Sol, and I was impressed as usual with how quickly and effortlessly you completed him. I'm really bad at creating those fine, smooth movements.
Kobayashi: No no, that's not true. (laughs) The director had a lot of ideas for this part, so it was easy to make.
Yamazaki: Kobayashi likes to make spinny bosses. (laughs) Laser Tetran was like that too.
Final Boss: O.V.U.M
Isobe: The last boss, who seems to want to tell you something. (laughs) Man, we were wracking our brains over what do for him up to the very end. His name is meant to be read "Obamu." In English, I believe it means abnormal shape. "The Original Visions of Ultimate Monster" was added later.
Yamazaki: We struggled with him a lot--truly befitting the "last boss." (everyone laughs) The presentation was very abstract, and half of him was just a bunch of sparkling lights.
Isobe: The basic idea was for him to be like an illusion, an existence without a clearly discernible body. As for why he takes the appearance of Salamander bosses, well… our image was of "spirits" that would appear one after the other without much rhyme or reason, and the Salamander bosses were easy to use.
Yamazaki: The small sphere that appears at the very end is his true shape.
Yamazaki: The staff roll is in Japanese. And the font is large! (laughs)
Isobe: I can't help but laugh everytime I see it. (everyone laughs) Why did we decide on kanji for the credits? Its different, but something seems off about it… well, either way, its easy to read! Its good for we Japanese. (everyone laughs)
Kobayashi: I also like the ending song.
Isobe: Yeah, it exudes feelings of liberation and relief… "Ah, my work is done!"
The Gradius Gaiden development
Isobe: The development period was just under a year. We really strived to create a fun, balanced game--not just as an addition to the Gradius series, but as a STG game also.
Chigasaki: The Gaiden staff originally worked on the Gradius Deluxe Pack. So everyone was very knowledgeable about Gradius, and while we were porting the arcade games, there were a lot of strong opinions exchanged about how "I would have done this differently!" and such. (laughs)
Yamazaki: And of course we were very conscious of the fact that this was a console game we were developing. We added more power-up capsules than normal, and made the checkpoint recovery easier than the arcade titles.
Isobe: Unlike an arcade game, you don't need to use up a bunch of quarters to play. We didn't have to follow a "kill the player in the 2nd stage!" arcade philosophy (laughs), and we could pace the difficulty in a more balanced way, with the goal of progressively raising the player's skills.
The Origin of Gaiden
Isobe: We decided on the Gaiden title first, and the story came later. So to be honest, we didn't really think too hard about the story connections with the Bacterian empire and so forth. But that said, we did feel that by using older characters, the bosses' wrecked shells, and other references, that connections would be suggested to the player, while leaving the details vague.
Chigasaki: The truth is that, at first, our team really wanted to make an official numbered entry in the Gradius series.
Isobe: But it actually turned out that doing a Gaiden entry, we could come up with ideas more freely. I think in the end it was very advantageous.
Yamazaki: And by calling it Gaiden, we could avoid the potentially severe critcism from core fans. "Gaiden? You mean its not part of the official series? Ah, but its still so fun!" (laughs)
Isobe: I remember there was a conversation in the beginning about how it was kind of sad that in previous games when the ship changed weapons, its appearance didn't change.
Chigasaki: At the start of development Gaiden was 1 player only, but along the way we added 2P simultaneous play. So for 2 player games, we needed a way to visually differentiate the ships.
Yamazaki: Everyone contributed ideas for the ship names and weapons, and we decided on it freely amongst ourselves.
Isobe: By the way, regarding the Falchion β… after we completed Gradius Gaiden, I learned of the existence of the FDS game Falsion. (laughs) The similar names are a complete coincidence.
Yamazaki: What, really?! This is the first time I've heard that. (laughs)
Isobe: Its true. I thought "Falchion" alone was a little too short for the name of a ship and didn't quite fit, so to give it some weight I added the "β." Then, later I created the story that "actually, there was an alpha version of the Falchion...", and people were like "Whoa, that's cool!" (everyone laughs)
Isobe: The hardest to make was the disruptor. It was way too strong at first, but when we tried to balance it we made it too weak. (laughs) As a result I think the Lord British ended up being the least rewarding ship to play.
Yamazaki: Yeah, but a lot of people like the ripple laser. (laughs)
Isobe: Its true, Gaiden's ripple laser takes the place of Double. It felt like Double wasn't very well received as the Gradius series went on, so we decided to try to improve on it.
Yamazaki: The Vic Viper double that can shoot behind is very powerful.
Isobe: Also, the Falchion β Auto-Aiming weapon was my idea. It came from my own bitter experiences, where I'd aim at something but then an enemy would get in the way. I thought, "theres never been a homing weapon in Gradius that doesn't require you to be horizontally aligned with the enemy, has there?" (laughs) During development there was no limit on the fire rate, though, and it was too strong so we scaled it back.
Isobe: Since we'd gone to the trouble of making 4 ships, we felt we might as well make 4 different barriers. The idea for "guard" came from me being bad at Gradius games and always dying when I hit the walls. So I right away I demanded a barrier for the terrain. (everyone laughs) Limit came from the idea of making a barrier that was about time rather than durability.
Isobe: This was an evolution of the edit mode in Gradius III. "Since we can change the weapons (vertical), why not allow players to change the order (horizontal)?" When we actually tried it out, it was surprisingly fun. (laughs) You know, in Life Force the Lord British ship had a different power-up order. Since they had done it there, I figured it would work out here.
Isobe: We thought that just increasing the enemies and making them tougher would be boring. (laughs) We tried changing the enemy algorithms and increasing their number. It was simply fan service. Also, there were things we regretted removing from the game that we were able to bring back under the guise of a second loop.
Yamazaki: I was part of the "A Stronger Second Loop!" faction. (everyone laughs) I remember someone yelling out at a meeting, "We HAVE to make the second loop more difficult!" Arcade STGs of the time had two loops, and the second loop was always incredibly difficult. I definitely think that inspired us, well, for me personally at least. (everyone laughs) I liked the idea that players would feel like the second loop was an invitation to a deadly contest!
Chigasaki: Heaven's Gate was made specifically for the second loop. We ended up having some free time in our development schedule, and I think Kobayashi made him. (laughs)
Yamazaki: Heaven's Gate actually has a safe spot, and we knew about it before the game was released. (laughs)
Kobayashi: But if you just fight him normally, he isn't that hard. He reveals all his tricks after you fight him once. Just by staying in the middle you should be able to dodge his attacks, and its very easy.
Isobe: The prelude Kuchuusen melody also changes for the second loop. Originally the composers made two version of Kuchuusen for us, but we all thought the Sky #2 song was better. Though later some people told us it doesn't seem to fit the Gradius series.
Ideas that didn't make it
Isobe: At the idea stage we had the image of a "Sea of Mud." The terrain would be like the Bubble stage from Gradius III, but the ship's movement would be slowed down. But someone said, "would this even be fun?" (everyone laughs), and that was the end of that idea.
Kobayashi: We also thought of having a Crab type boss in the last stage who raise the walls as he walked.
Isobe: Really, we didn't abandon many of our ideas. Almost everything we thought of in the beginning made it in.
Chigasaki: But we did change the order of the stages around two or three times. During the development the internal organ stage was 2nd, and the graveyard stage was 7th. But in terms of color the graveyard and base stages were too similar, so we separated them. We did a lot of changes like that.
Isobe: Also, the high speed stage was stage 6 at first, and separate from the final base stage. We joined them together later. We thought it was cooler if it felt like you descended into the final boss' lair, so we put them together.
Yamazaki: I think it turned out to be a really cool final stage because of that.
2 Player Simultaneous
Isobe: The first thing we stumbled over was how to divide the 4 options between 2 players. At first we made it that whoever got them first kept them, but that way the more experienced player always won. So someone suggested being able to exchange the options. (everyone laughs) It ended up being like a pseudo-competitive system. (laughs)
Yamazaki: You know, I thought it was great. It feels almost like a minigame, but its a good system.
Isobe: I was allowed to name these. (laughs) Every Gradius game, the stages have rather plan names. Just "Volcano" and so forth. At that time a lot of arcade STGs were using fairy tale like settings. I thought that was really cool, so I tried to add something like it to Gaiden. I'm not sure I was successful for every stage though. The black hole stage name "On the Event Horizon" came very easily, since I love science fiction. (laughs)
The Sound of Gradius Gaiden
Miura: At the start, the director told me he wanted me to approach the sound in a way that was distinct from all previous Gradius games. Since the playback method was different from arcade games (the PSX used CDXA sound format), I tried to do things that could only be done on a console system. I wanted to make full use of the advantages of a console port, and I tried out various compositional approaches to that end. I think I really had a lot of freedom in writing the music for Gaiden.
The main theme, Sky #2?
Miura: Officially we never announced a main theme for Gaiden, but Sky #2 was it. It uses the same melodic phrase as SPEED. Originally it was used as the Jade Knight's theme, but we wanted a unique melody to represent Gradius Gaiden--something that you hadn't heard before in the Gradius series--and Sky #2 fit that role. It also features prominently in the original soundtrack as a bonus track.
Looking back on Gradius Gaiden
Isobe: Of all the titles I've worked on at Konami, this is the one I have the most confidence in. I tell people this work represents my heart and soul.
Isobe: I was so lucky to be given this project. I learned a lot from it, and it was the first time I made a game that I myself enjoyed playing. During the development I was really into scoring, too. (laughs)
Yamazaki: It was really fun to create. It was fun to make, and fun to play… it felt like, "should I be getting paid for this?" (laughs)
Isobe: Yeah… that's the ideal game.
Kobayashi: For me, Gradius was a game I had played a ton as a kid, so in that respect the pressure was immense. Even so, I was so grateful and happy to be able to create a new Gradius title.
Chigasaki: Gradius is such an emblematic title in the world of STG, so I too had a lot of anxiety at the time about creating a new entry in the series. But in the end, unlike the Deluxe Pack we were able to fully utilize the abilities of the PSX, and the game is still rated highly by fans, so I'm glad I got the chance to work on it.
Yamazaki: I joined in the middle of the development, but to be involved in a Gradius game was like a dream come true to me. I was so happy. I joined the game industry because I wanted to make STGs, so to suddenly be working on Gradius made me incredibly happy. In many different ways it was a memorable project for me. It was the first time I felt the actual sensation that "this is how games are made!" Looking back on it, being able to come up with ideas and try them out then and there was a development style that you don't see very often nowadays.
Isobe: It was like doing a live show.
Yamazaki: If we thought something was fun we'd just add it, and more and more new ideas got added everyday. It really felt like "this is how you make a good game."
Isobe: Its partly thanks to our director, who wasn't afraid of adventure.
Kobayashi: He was always saying we needed to take on new challenges.
Yamazaki: That's right. He's an extremely prideful person who hates to lose. "I won't do anything that's been done before!" is what he used to say. I think that kind of attitude has a lot to do with creating an original game. I'd love to work on a development project like this again… I want to make a new Gradius game, with this staff! Of course it wouldn't be Gradius VI, but rather Gradius Gaiden 2. (everyone laughs)
Isobe: For those who encounter Gradius Gaiden for the first time on PSP, I hope you don't take the Gaiden title in a negative way. It does many things the main series can't do, in a good sense. Please enjoy it for what it is.
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Japanese fans may have wondered about that because the romanizations for Vic and Big differ only in the voiced consonant at the end.↩
“hamon” means ripple in Japanese. There are no special connotations.↩
Mito Komon is the long-running (1969-2011) Doctor Who of jidaigeki, aka Japanese period dramas. Each episode always ends with Mito Komon, who has been disguised, revealing his true identity as a daimyo by showing antagonists (and the audience) his inro.↩
The “godorei” character is the name for the ships that come out of the ground near at the end of the third stage, just before the boss. They’re called Iron Maidens in the first Gradius, and I’m not sure why they changed the name for Gradius III.↩
From Legend to Myth↩
lit. “the final battle to the death”↩
I haven’t translated the whole drama track, but I may sometime. Its basically an exaggerated parody of a “day in the life of the developers” where everything goes wrong. It begins with a guy explaining a bug he found where the Moai are spitting out dragons, and gets crazier/sillier from there.↩
The Japanese verb for extend/stretch out is "nobiru." Punning in Japanese is usually more complicated, so this was especially silly. By the way, the Gradius wiki entry for Gradius Gaiden has the Grave and Nobil boss names reversed.↩
kiai doesn't really have a 1-to-1 translation. It usually means fighting spirit and is associated with yelling out things in combat; however, its sometimes used loosely to refer to aligning one's energy with an opponent. One gets the sense that the latter meaning is meant here, since a non-pattern based attack requires a certain kind of split-second intuition or "in the zone" quality to dodge. The taboo comment is interesting, and may refer to either the Gradius series or STGs generally: specifically, the preponderance of (and perhaps player preference for) memorization attacks vs. reflex dodging.↩
“bayashi” refers to the orchestral/band music that accompanies Japanese festival marches, so “boss procession” or “March of the Bosses” is an approximation of the joke.↩
Almost certainly a reference to Black Heart of Battle Garegga.↩