My 10 Favourite “Gradius” Soundtracks
Konami's Gradius series is well-known to many gamers, although it never achieved legendary status. This could be due to the competition during the heydays of the series; there were so many other shoot-em-ups back then such as R-Type, Thunder Force, and so on. Or maybe it's because Gradius games could often get utterly hair-pulling and finger-cramping difficult at times. Many players just ended up abandoning them prematurely.
For me, I mostly played the Gradius games using the Konami code. (Oh all right, I always use the code) And I persevere no matter how frustrating it gets, because the soundtrack is always so great and so addictive.
As like the case of the Castlevania franchise, Konami composed a long list of unforgettable tunes for this space shooter, some of these tracks nowadays regarded as classics of the retro gaming era. Hereby, allow me to share my ten favorite Gradius soundtracks. This list includes tracks from the Salamander/Life Force titles too. It is also in ascending order of "like-ness."
Note: I'm decisively retro and opinionated when it comes to music. Most of these soundtracks are from the 80s and 90s, and are thus upbeat and spirited in feel. For some entries, I have included YouTube link to remix versions as well. Do check out both versions for those entries. Some of these remixes are truly awesome.
10. Universe - Gradius V
A lot of players deeply enjoyed Gradius V, but I was lukewarm to the gameplay as I felt there was an absurd design flaw (Limited weapons, till you beat the game once?). As for the soundtrack, I was similarly inclined and of all the tracks, I only truly enjoyed the one for the opening stage.
Emphatically titled as Universe, the track has a focused and futuristic feel, making it somewhat different from the usual upbeat Gradius soundtracks and arrangements. There's also a steady build-up, one that quite accurately mirrors the intensification of battle on screen. In summary, I can only say, had the rest of the Gradius V OST been as good as opening tune, I probably would have adored the entire game. But I guess I should be glad the game at least had one track that I liked. It’s also a track that I could enjoy right away, just by switching on the game.
9. Moai (Ruins of Silence) - Gradius Gaiden
Back in the 80s, I was mesmerized by the Moai heads in the mid-level Gradius stages. Such an unusual feature in a space shooter, don't you think so? Brings to mind all sorts of theories about alien lifeforms and cultish worships too. Moai heads being the legacy of supreme alien races and cultures, that sort of thing.
This track summarizes those impressions, with the choral effects and bag-pipe sounds additionally reminding that you are facing an entire sinister army when challenging these strange faces. If you’ve played any Gradius Moai stage, you’d know all of these stages require precise and tight maneuvering, with the heads also constantly releasing laser rings and miniature versions of the them frenetically hopping about. In view of that, isn’t this track just like a battle chant, one that’s possibly full of hateful curses too? That's the imagery I visualize when listening to this unforgettable Gradius Gaiden track. It is also the reason why I love this track so much.
8. Air 1 Tabidachi - Gradius II
If you've played Gradius II, you'd know what I mean when I say this short tune absolutely grows on you.
It's such a spirited opening for the stages, agree? Not only is there the sensation of adventure and battle, there’s also the implicit message that you’re being rewarded.
Moments after you thrash the boss of the previous stage, those two emphatic opening notes sound, an official and melodic acknowledgement of your triumph. It certainly gets you high and ready for more shooting. I'd share that when playing this as a teen, I bobbed my head every time those two notes came. It was my pat on my own back.
PS: Tabidachi means “departure” or “setting off” in Japanese.
7. Boss Rush Part 1 - Gradius Gaiden
This is my favorite boss fight music from the series. Don't you agree there’s such a petulant feel in the melody? A certain “arrogant” disposition too?
To me, these qualities are reflective of how a "boss" would feel when approaching you for a duel. At the same time, it is an intelligent composition as well, for the opening triplets mirror how one of the bosses attacks with three identical parts. On that boss, I was stumped by it for a really long time. And I would have given up the fight, had this track not reinvigorated me to try again and again.
6. Aircraft Carrier - All Gradius Games
Strictly speaking, this isn't a track, it’s more of a musical motif. Over the years, though, it became the signature warning of all Gradius OSTs. When you hear it, beware! Enemies would soon be materializing all over the screen. Their only intention is to “zerg” you to death.
From Gradius III onwards, Aircraft Carrier also became the standard opening for the Parade of Bosses stage. Again, it’s the cue for you to sit up and grip your controller, for things are going to get intense real quick! Lastly, kudos to Konami for the symphonic arrangement in Gradius V. The grandeur in that arrangement truly brings to mind the dread of an entire alien armada appearing before your eyes. You know without a doubt you are flying into your deadliest fight.
5. In The Wind - Gradius III
Like today's games, retro shoot-em-ups were all about death duels and mass annihilation. At the same time, there was also always a constant unspoken theme of exploration and fantasy. To give an example, all Gradius games featured exotic looking stages. Deserts, organic bodies, crystal fields, the likes of. For me, one of the highlights of each new release was to discover what the new stages are.
This breezy soundtrack from the only title for the SNES reflects the above-mentioned theme. When listening to it, do you not experience the sort of euphoria one gets when seeing a broad new expanse for the very first time? Apart from the carefree sensation, the slight key modulations in the track also remind that exploration frequently comes with danger, excitement, and reward. Adventure is seldom just jaw-dropping fun all the way. But if you persevere, there is always a grand reward waiting for you at every turn.
4. Sensation - Salamander II
To be honest, I didn't like Sensation that much when I first heard it. Actually, I didn't enjoy playing Salamander II that much either. In short, it felt too much a re-hash of the NES predecessor.
It was only when I played Keyboardmania III, and heard the new arrangement in that game, that this Gradius soundtrack finally grew on me. Eventually, I loved it so much, I drilled myself for a week using a real keyboard to perfect my playing, just so that I could play the re-arranged track again and again at the arcade. Ah, those arrogant days at the arcades. And the joy of awed-eye spectators watching me do magic on the Keyboardmania III console! Needless to say, my fondness for the track made me replay Salamander II again and again. Might I brag that I ultimately became quite the expert of that game.
3. Starfield - Salamander
I have a small problem here. I can't find the version of Starfield that I heard on the NES in the 80s. The reason for this, as I was told, is something to do with the Southeast Asian versions of NES games and consoles. Thus, I can only implore you to listen to the below embedded video at 0.75 times speed. Or to imagine the track playing without the rush. Without the bluster too.
Heard that way, doesn’t the soundtrack generate the sensation of cruising by a million twinkling stars? Of you flying into those stars too? That's how I felt when I first heard Starfield in 1987. Exhilarated, but still alert enough to decimate all incoming enemies. I was the intrepid and proud explorer flying by ten thousand suns.
2. Cosmo Plant - Gradius III
A while ago, I played various Gradius soundtracks to some young gamers, and all of them went, huh?!
What kind of BGM is that? They asked in disbelief and thinly veiled dislike.
Well, to me, "that" is the sadness of games today, in which BGMs are mostly about moody tracks and ambient tunes. Game music in the 80s and 90s, on the other hand, was about motivating the player. Encouraging him or her to press on and on, and on.
As I mentioned several times above, game soundtracks were also rewards. Something that you could relax to for a few moments after you thrash the nasty boss in the previous stage. On Cosmo Plant, all I can say is, if only today’s games feature more compositions like this! Most modern games feature superb gameplay and graphics. However, too few contain music that truly speaks to you. Or music that truly mirrors a gamer’s euphoria.
1. Overheat - Gradius II
It's difficult for me to explain why Overheat is my favorite Gradius soundtrack. Apart from the usual merits like upbeat feel, motivation, etc, there's something else too. Something that made this track stick in my head for 30 years, on top of causing me to hum this whenever I'm giddy from doing something.
What is it? The penultimate high when on the verge of accomplishing something? The vague acknowledgement of effort implied by the middle verse?
I don't know. And I'm not going to wonder about it. Instead, I'd invite you to listen to both the original and the remix versions, perhaps when exercising, or when heatedly doing something on your computer. If you experience the same sort of high that I always get, please do tell me about it. I hope too that from this, Overheat will become your favorite “get-it-done” Gradius music as well.
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