Konami's classic arcade-turned-NES shooter Gradius owed plenty to older shooters like Defender and Scramble, but Gradius brought to the table a unique weapon-upgrade system that would be a defining element in every successive Gradius game. It also had a singular art style that filled deep space with abstract robots, volcanoes, and those gigantic Easter Island heads. Through its nostalgia-tickling Virtual Console system, Nintendo has released the NES version of Gradius for the Wii, and it's a pitch-perfect emulation, right down to the texture flicker. Its structure can also prove to be screamingly difficult, and despite being only six, relatively short levels in length, it's a serious challenge to get to the end.
As you cruise from the left to the right in the stylish Vic Viper spaceship, Gradius bombards you with waves of bullet-spewing enemies that are more concerned with your destruction than their own survival. You start off with a simple peashooter, but by shooting entire strings of certain enemies, or shooting specially color-coded enemies, you'll get a power-up. The twist here was that the thing you pick up doesn't immediately result in you gaining a new ability. Instead, it will light up one of six abilities on a menu that resided at the bottom of the screen. You can activate the selected ability with the press of a button, though if you collect multiple power-ups without activating an ability, you'll get access to more advanced abilities. Most of these abilities--which include faster ship movement, missiles, doubled firepower, lasers, shields, and the "options," which are glowing orbs that follow you and mimic any weapons you have equipped--can be stacked, letting you gradually arm the Vic Viper with a formidable arsenal. Though the use of a text-based menu feels a little clumsy, the power-up system still works really well. It constantly forces you to decide whether you want to take a lesser power-up immediately or gamble on your abilities and see if you can upgrade to a more powerful power-up.
Each of the six levels in Gradius has a fairly unique style to it, though you'll see many of the same enemies repeat throughout the game. Also, there are sequences that bookend each level that are almost identical from level to level, though they become increasingly difficult as you progress. It was a tough game in 1986, and by today's standards it's actually kind of mean. Whenever your ship gets shot down, you'll restart further back in the level, and without any of the sweet power-ups you might have earned, often leaving you even less prepared to deal with whatever killed you than the first time through.
You can make strategic use of the famous Konami code to automatically arm the Vic Viper with several power-ups or to give yourself an additional continue when you run through your three-life allotment. There's no 30-life luxury like in Contra, which means you'll just have to suck it up and get real, real good at Gradius if you want to see the end. It's a decent deal at 500 Wii Points ($5), and if you're up for the challenge, Gradius offers some solid, old-school shooter fun.