For the past several weeks I’ve been in thrall to the Gradius series. The strategic power-up selection, the challenging levels, and the reward of downing a powerful boss – it’s a joy to play these games. Alongside Gradius there are also spin-offs that share the same DNA, most notably Salamander/Life Force and Parodius.
This post is dedicated to these games’ amazing tunes, all courtesy of Konami’s esteemed composers. Konami are perhaps best known music-wise for the Castlevania series. but Gradius is a neglected well of wonderful melodies and beautiful tunes. It’s unfortunate that Konami neglected the series after the mid-2000s, and that Gradius never had a talent like Michiru Yamane attached to the series to expand and extend its unique musical identity into the present era.
What makes the music of Konami’s shooters so special? TV Tropes has a great phrase that explains:
The bulk of Gradius’s most crowning songs accurately convey some sort of cosmic wonder.
This is a great way to kick us off, so I suggest we see how this bears out in practice! Continue?
First off, a special shoutout to the game that inspired me to write this post in the first place: Salamander 2. Released in arcades in 1996, Salamander 2 is a good game with a fantastic soundtrack. As I mentioned in my previous post on the Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus for the Saturn, my favourite track from this game comes from the second level. It’s a rousing track in typical Gradius style that sounds effortlessly cool whilst also tugging on the heart strings. I love how this piece builds and develops throughout to a sort of “chorus”, almost like a great pop song would – not a quality you usually find in short, looping videogame music.
Salamander 2, Sensation (stage two)
Salamander 2 is awesome, but I want to go deeper into its inspirations and roots in this post, starting with the very first Gradius game. Let’s dive back into history then, starting with…
SERIES BEGINNINGS – Gradius, Salamander/Life Force (1985-7)
The first Gradius for the arcade has some great tunes, composed by Miki Higashino, but many of them are marred by implementation problems. Technically, it’s a bit more “advanced” sounding than the NES, say, but there’s a harshness to the sound and some pitches are off. The quality of the melodies though is readily apparent in arrangements of the pieces. My favourite by far is based on Beginning of the History, a piece that plays during the game’s attract sequence.
Gradius, Beginning of History – PS1/Saturn arrangement (staff roll)
This track (arranged by the composer Miki Higashino herself) is so beautiful, in fact, that it has been known to inspire tears in listeners – not just in me, but also, memorably, on episode 69 of the Super Marcato Bros VGM podcast, when one of the hosts cried listening to it.
Next up in the series was Salamander/Life Force, a game I covered alongside Salamander 2 a little while ago. While it isn’t without its merits (it introduces a certain iconic boss theme that reoccurs through the main series), sorry to say the music in this early spin-off didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Oh well. At least they fixed the pitch issues from the original Gradius.
MATURATION – Gradius II, Gradius III (1988-9)
Things get more interesting with the 1988 release of Gradius II. Released three years after Gradius and two years after Salamander, Gradius II showed the incredible speed of technological advancements in the mid to late 80s. With far more expressive and percussive music than its predecessors, this game gave the Gradius series an iconic sound to accompany its already iconic tunes.
The tone of the music is peppy, but also frantic. It certainly has a harder edge to it than the original, with hints of tension and stress. It captures the emotions of the player well, since this game is rock hard.
Gradius II, Burning Heat (stage one)
Gradius III is, in my opinion, an obvious contender for the best game in the series. Technically, the music sounds like Gradius II, but further refined with echoes and other space-y sounding effects. There’s a weird vocal sample used throughout the score which works surprisingly well as a ghostly vocal accompaniment. Gradius III is a jam-packed game, with ten stages, some of them with multiple songs. The consistency in tone and re-use of samples means that some of these tunes can blur together; having said that, the quality is top-notch throughout.
The difficulty is hearing the songs in their entirety in-game – this game is even harder than Gradius II. Despite that, the music is the most uplifting it’s ever been in the series.
Gradius III, Cosmo Plant (stage eight)
A common feature of arcade games is that the best content (music included) is found in the first level. Gradius III bucks the trend, with possibly the best track in the entire Gradius series appearing no earlier than the eighth stage: Cosmo Plant. With its call and response chorus, this sounds like the inspiration for Super Mario Galaxy’s soundtrack. I utterly adore this track, and with it Gradius III’s music as a whole.
REVIVAL – Gradius Gaiden, Gradius IV, Gradius V (1997-2004)
Gradius went on something of a hiatus after III. Spin-offs like Parodius and Salamander saw new releases but Gradius was silent until 1997’s Gradius Gaiden. This was a Japan-only console exclusive for the PS1. Gaiden means side-story, so in theory this should be an offshoot of the main series. In actuality, Gaiden is an ambitious, classic Gradius title. It’s styled on the arcade games, which means high difficulty and limited continues, but the difficulty curve is much gentler than its arcade predecessors.
In terms of music, Gaiden is not as iconic or consistent as Gradius III – there are quite a few purely atmospheric tracks for a change – but there still some great new tunes here. I like the production quite a bit although some may regard it as cheesy – it’s less modern sounding than Salamander 2, at any rate.
Gradius Gaiden, Speed (stage nine)
I really enjoy this track. It accompanies a “speed” stage, a Gradius staple where the scrolling becomes extremely quick and you have to scramble for speed-ups to survive. The intro to this track builds slowly until the main riff kicks in, right when the scrolling speeds up. It’s a great technique, and when you die and reappear in the midst of the action, the track restarts at the main riff! Nice touch.
Let’s close off the main Gradius series. Next up we have Gradius IV, released in 1999, which I have little to say about currently. It seems to be an alright game, despite inconsistent 3D visuals. One second it looks good, the next it looks crap. As for the music, it departs from tradition with jazzy arrangements and lots of noodling. It’s a bit odd and, sorry to say, sounds naff to me. Maybe it’s a grower – I haven’t spent too much time with Gradius IV.
Gradius V took a more successful new direction in 2004. Developed in collaboration with Treasure and released for the PS2 exclusively (with a PSN re-release), Gradius V is great, expanding on Gradius Gaiden’s more ambitious ideas. For the music, Konami brought Hitoshi Sakimoto onboard who basically did his own thing. There are nods to classic Gradius tracks, but most of the soundtrack is original and betrays Sakimoto’s distinctive, bombastic style. As a fan of Sakimoto’s style I like it, but I can’t say I love it.
Gradius V, Battleship (stages two and eight)
SPIN-OFF SEASON – Parodius series (1988-96)
Now to backpedal and finish off as we began, with a Gradius spin-off title. As noted earlier, Parodius plugged the ten year gap between Gradius III and IV, with numerous games in the series released. Parodius originated on the Japanese computer, the MSX, where its musical style was established. The story goes that for the first game, the composer was given just a month to create a soundtrack. As a result, he opted to produce remixes of public domain music (with a few Gradius remixes thrown in for good measure). Remixing classical music quickly became just one of the Parodius games’ distinctive elements, alongside wacky visuals and an obsession with evil penguins – what is it with penguins?
I’ve not listened through all of the Parodius soundtracks, so I won’t be able to do justice to this quirky series. In the absence of expertise, here are my picks from my favourite Parodius game, Sexy Parodius. (More info on the musical remixes and arrangements included in this fascinating series can be found in this excellent dedicated Wikipedia entry.)
Sexy Parodius, The End, Hallelujah! (final stage)
Well, that wraps it up for this extremely lengthy post. Congrats, you made it through to the end alive! (Unlike in the games. Ha…) Hopefully you enjoyed this look at some of Konami’s best music over the years. What are some of your favourite Gradius tunes? Did the original Gradius piano arrangement make you cry too? Leave a comment below!