My 10 Favourite Gradius Soundtracks
Konami's Gradius series is well-known to many gamers, although for some reason it never achieved legendary status. Maybe 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 hard at times, many players ended up abandoning them prematurely.
For me, I mostly play Gradius games using the Konami code. (Oh alright, I always use the code) And I persevere no matter how frustrating it gets, simply because the music was so good. So addictive. As with Castlevania, Konami composed a long list of unforgettable tunes for this space shooter. Here are 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 upbeat and spirited arrangements. For each entry, I include both a Youtube link to the original track, and to a remix version. Do check out both versions. Some of the remixes are truly great.
PSP Cover Art for the Gradius Collection
10. Gradius V: Universe
A lot of gamers loved Gradius V. I was lukewarm to it, because I felt it had an absurd design flaw (Limited weapons, till you beat the game once?!), and I wasn't impressed with most of the BGMs, Of all the tracks, the only one that I liked was Universe from the first stage. It had a focused, futuristic feel, making it a little different from the usual Gradius soundtracks and arrangements. There's also a steady build-up, which follows the intensification of action on the screen. If only the rest of Gradius V tracks were 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 too all sorts of imagery about alien lifeforms and strange worships. Moai heads being the legacy of alien visitors to Earth, that sort of thing.
This track summarises those feelings.The choral effect and bag-pipe sounds are also very appropriate, because that's what Gradius Moai stages are. When you fly through tightly packed platforms with filled with Moai heads shooting and hopping at you. it is akin to charging into the heart of an infernal contingent. Just imagine the enemy ranks at the back playing battle music, or chanting hateful curses. That's the imagery this Gradius sountrack invokes. The reason why I loved it so much too.
8. Gradius II: Air 1 Tabidachi
If you've played Gradius II, you'd understand how this short tune grows on you. It's such a spirited opening for the stages. There's also that sensation of adventure and battle, and the clear message that it's a reward. Moments after you thrash the boss of the previous stage, those two emphatic opening notes sound, like an official acknowledgement of your triumph. It certainly get 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 think it sounds so ... naughty? 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 one of the bosses, which 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. Standard feature in all Gradius Sountracks: Aircraft Carrier
Strictly speaking, this isn't a song, more like a motif. Over the years though, it became the signature warning of Gradius games. When you hear this Gradius sountrack, beware! Enemies would soon be materialising all over the screen, with the nefarious intention of zerg-ing you to death.
By Gradius III, "Aircraft Carrier" was also very much the standard opening for the Parade of Bosses stage. Again, the cue for you to sit up and grip your controller, for things are going to get frenetic! Lastly, kudos to Konami for the symphonic arrangement in Gradius V. The grandeur of that truly brings to mind the dread of an entire alien armada appearing before your eyes. You know distinctively you are flying into your deadliest fight.
5. Gradius III: In the Wind
Like today's games, retro shoot-em-ups were about death duels and mass annihilation. But there was also always this underlying theme of exploration and fantasy. For example, all the Gradius games had very exotic stages. Deserts, organic bodies, crystal fields ... One of the thrills with 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 invoke the kind of upbeat feeling you'd have when exploring a fantastic new place for the first time. In the Wind is a good example of that. The slight key modulations in the track also remind that exploration always comes with danger. It's 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 too; it felt too much to be 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 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 that I heard on my NES. The reason for this, as I've been told, is something to do with the Asean version of NES games and consoles. Somehow, the music comes out slower. Gameplay itself is also, at times, slower.
What I'm saying is, imagine yourself listening to this track at a slower tempo. Without the rush and bluster. Doesn't it give the impression of cruising by a million twinkling stars? Isn't it, relaxing? That's how I felt when I first heard it in 1987. Relaxed, but still alert enough to decimate all incoming enemies. 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, was about uplifting the player, encouraging him or her to press on and on. BGMs were also rewards. Something you could relax a few moments to, after you thrashed that nasty boss in the previous stage. How I wish this returns to games. I can then start playing with the volume jacked up again. If only ... ...
1. Gradius II: Overheat
It's hard for me to explain why Overheat is my favourite Gradius soundtrack. All I've mentioned for other entries applies. In addition, 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, perhaps when exercising, or when intensely doing something on your comp. 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 all the talented musicians on Youtube, who made such wonderful remixes of Gradius soundtracks. You guys keep the magic alive.