My 10 Favourite Gradius Soundtracks
Konami's Gradius series is well-known to many gamers, although for some reason it never achieved legendary status. Perhaps it's because there was so much competition back then. R-Type, Thunder Force, etc. Or maybe it's because the Gradius games could get so hair-pulling, finger-cramping difficult at times. Many players just ended up abandoning them prematurely.
For me, I mostly play 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 music was so good and so addictive. As like the case of the Castlevania franchise, Konami composed a long list of unforgettable tunes for this space shooter, several of them nowadays regarded as classics of the retro era. Hereby, allow me to share my ten favourite Gradius soundtracks. This list includes tracks from the Salamander/Life Force titles too, and is in ascending order of "like-ness."
Note: I'm decisively retro and opinionated when it comes to music. Most of these Gradius 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.
PSP Cover Art for the Gradius Collection
10. Gradius V: Universe
A lot of players loved Gradius V. I was lukewarm to it as I felt it had 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 enjoyed the one for the opening stage. Emphatically titled as Universe, the track has a focused, futuristic feel, making it somewhat different from the usual upbeat Gradius soundtracks and arrangements. There's also a steady build-up, which closely follows the intensification of battle on screen. Here, I can only say, if only the rest of Gradius V tracks are as good as this. But, I guess I should be glad Gradius V at least had one track that I liked. A track I could enjoy right away too, just by turning on the game.
9. Gradius Gaiden: Moai (Ruins of Silence)
Back in the 80s, I was mesmerised by the Moai heads in the Gradius shooters. Such an unusual feature in a space game, don't you think so? Brings to mind all sorts of theories about alien lifeforms and strange worships too. Moai heads being the legacy of alien visitors to Earth, that sort of thing.
This track summarises those impressions, with the choral effects and bag-pipe sounds additionally emphasising how you are charging through a sinister army. If you’ve played any Gradius Moai stage, you’d know all of them are akin to flying into the heart of an infernal army, with the heads shooting laser rings at you from everywhere and miniature versions hopping frenetically about. Just imagine the enemy ranks at the back playing battle music too, or chanting hateful curses. That's the imagery this Gradius soundtrack invokes. The reason why I love it so much too.
8. Gradius II: Air 1 Tabidachi
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.
7. Gradius Gaiden: Boss Rush Part 1
This is my favourite Gradius boss fight music. Don't you agree it sounds so ... petulant? So ... arrogant too. 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. Classic Composition in All Gradius Soundtracks: Aircraft Carrier
Strictly speaking, this isn't a song, it’s more of a musical motif. Over the years, though, it became the signature warning of all Gradius games. When you hear it, beware! Enemies would soon be materialising 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 frenetic real quick! Lastly, kudos to Konami for the symphonic arrangement in Gradius V. The grandeur 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. Gradius III: In The Wind
Like today's games, retro shoot-em-ups were all about death duels and mass annihilation. At the same time, there was also always this underlying theme of exploration and fantasy. For example, all Gradius entries featured exotic looking stages. Deserts, organic bodies, crystal fields ... One of the highlights of each release was to discover what the new stages are.
The music reflects that. Most Gradius soundtracks have an "awe-d" factor in them, and correspondingly invoke the kind of upbeat feeling you'd get when exploring a fantastic new place for the first time. In the Wind is a great example of this. Apart from the breezy sensation, the slight key modulations in the track also remind that exploration frequently comes with danger. Adventure is seldom just jaw-dropping fun all the way.
4. Salamander II: Sensation
To be honest, I didn't like Sensation that much when I first heard it. Actually, I didn't like Salamander II that much either; it felt too much a re-hash of the NES classic. It was only until I played Keyboardmania III, and heard the new arrangement there, that this Gradius soundtrack 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 kiddish, arrogant days ... And the joy of awed eye spectacles watching you do magic on the console ...
3. Salamander: Starfield
I have a problem here. I can't find the version of Starfield I heard on the NES. The reason for this, as I was told, being something to do with the ASEAN versions of NES games and consoles. Thus, I can only implore you to imagine yourself listening to this track at a slower tempo. Without the rush, without the bluster too. Heard that way, doesn’t the soundtrack generate the sensation of cruising by a million twinkling stars? That's how I felt when I first heard Starfield in 1987. Relaxed, but still alert enough to decimate all incoming enemies. I was the intrepid explorer flying by a thousand stars.
2. Gradius III: Cosmo Plant
A while ago, I played various Gradius soundtracks to some young gamers, and they went like, WTH?!?! What kind of BGM is that? Well, "that" is the sadness of games today, in which BGM is all 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. They were also rewards. Something you could relax to for a few moments after you thrash the nasty boss in the previous stage. Oh, how I wish this culture returns to games! I can then start playing with the volume jacked up again. If only. If only.
1. Gradius II: Overheat
It's difficult for me to explain why Overheat is my favourite Gradius soundtrack. Apart from the usual merits like upbeat feel, motivating, 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 intensely doing something on your computer. If you share the same feeling, please do tell me about it. I much look forward to reading your comments.
Thank You, Talented Musicians, for All the Wonderful Remixes
Final note. A big thank you to the talented musicians on YouTube and their wonderful remixes of Gradius soundtracks. You guys keep the magic alive.