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Gradius Arcade Soundtrack :: Review by Chris

Gradius Arcade Soundtrack Album Title: Gradius Arcade Soundtrack
Record Label: Konami Music Entertainment
Catalog No.: KMCA-155/6
Release Date: April 24, 2002
Purchase: Buy at CDJapan


The Gradius series was Konami's first great success in the games industry and influenced many other shooters. The main games for the series were released on Arcade — 1985's Gradius, 1988's Gradius II Gofer no Yabou, 1989's Gradius III, and 1998's long-awaited Gradius IV. An iconic feature of the series was its upbeat melodic music to accompany its various stages, composed by Konami legends like Miki Higashino and Motoaki Furukawa. The series has featured a steady evolution of synth quality and has incorporated rock, pop, electronic, and jazz influences over the years. However, strong distinctive melodies have remained the main feature of the music. While the series has a hefty discography, most albums didn't do its original music much justice — with albums featuring sound effects laden medleys or dissatisfyingly short total playtimes. This changed in 2002 with the release of the Gradius Arcade Soundtrack featuring well-presented original scores for the four main games and bonuses including a creative arranged section. Let's take a closer look...



The original Gradius, released in 1985, was scored by Miki Higashino. She created much of the stage music to "send pleasant pulses to gamer's shooter brains" through emphasis on catchy melodies. The scores begins with the classic "Morning Music" for the bubble starting screen. It charms with its sedate melody and classically-oriented harmonisation. The four second "Coin" insert fanfare follows, emphasising that the score is indeed a complete one. "Beginning of the History" uses the soundtrack's trademark upbeat arpeggiations to motivate the gamer before the stages begin. With the first stage theme "Challenger 1985", jovial melodies soar above largely arpeggio-based accompaniment and endear despite the modest sound chip. The fourth stage theme also fulfils Higashino's original intention with its emphasis on catchy melodies.

Considering the other stage themes, "Beat Back" and "Blank Mask" feature attractive motifs, but are rhythmically unsettling to add variety and tension to the game and score. Unfortunately, the latter's erratic development adds to the lack of polish created by the lack of a consistent time signature, creating the weakest point in the score. Fortunately, The fifth stage's "Mazed Music" is stable rhythmically, but still quite tense due to the way the lead chip persistently leaps between two notes and always resolves with uncertainty. The same intervallic leaps are used in the subsequent "Mechanical Globule", but there is far more elaboration and development, making it another outwardly enjoyable theme. The "Final Attack" music for the seventh and final stage hybridises features from the other stages, having a pleasant melody in addition to stimulating ascending runs and tense passages.

There are several other additions to the score. After the stage music is complete, "Boss" is offered. Much like the Salamander boss music, it's been immortalised with numerous arrangements in subsequent scores, but isn't impressive in its exposition. That's largely because it repeats the same nine second chord progression again and again. "Game Over" then dazzles with eight seconds of music intended to stimulate the listener to put another coin in the arcade machine. For the few who complete the challenging game, the "Ranking BGM" is another catchy if underdeveloped addition to the soundtrack. Overall, the soundtrack to Gradius is successful in stimulating listeners and adding to their enjoyable of the game. However, it doesn't stand on its own as impressively as later scores due to the fact all the music is underdeveloped and often loops abruptly. It still nicely defines the series' music while leaving room for improvement in later scores.

Gradius II Gofer no Yabou

Konami rock fusion artist Motoaki Furukawa made his Arcade debut with the score for the official sequel Gradius II Gofer no Yabou and is joined by Shinji Tasaka, Kenichi Matsubara, and Seiichi Fukami. The select scene "Equipment" features mordents from a triumphant well-synthesized flute against a thick accompaniment of percussion and synth. It makes clear that the soundtrack is far more technologically advanced than its predecessor and also well-supported down below. The "Title Demo" theme feels very cinematic during its 34 second playtime while the unforgettable dogfight themes "Tabidachi" and "A Shooting Star" provide the first touches of light rock to the series; both delight thanks to their warmly characterised and extraordinarily lyrical melodies. Nevertheless, themes like "Game Over" and "Ranking" exemplify the naive Gradius style is still fondly remembered. "Take Care!" is quite an effective and catchy theme for transient boss encounters, but is too brief for stand-alone listening.

Moving on to stage themes, the first "Burning Heat" provides another upbeat rock anthem immortalised by its frequent arrangements across Gradius albums. "Synthetic Life" offers more intensity and dynamism despite its adherence to the verse-chorus form of the other pieces. It's impressive how, in both this theme and "A Way Out of the Difficulty", relatively simple scalar and arpeggio figures collectively assemble into expansive and elegant melodies. "Crystal World" does not focus on conveying mystical imagery of the crystals in favour of reflecting the Vic Viper's destruction of them with hard rhythms and punctuation. "The Old Stone Age" is a two-tiered piece to represent the Moai level — the first half is accompanied with slow and formidable orchestral forces and the second builds up into a demanding rock theme. The sixth stage's "Maximum Speed" is another definitive Konami classic thanks to its killer rhythms and melodies.

The majority of the rest of the soundtrack features the battle music. For the boss rush stages, Gradius's repetitive normal boss theme and Salamander's more effective counterpart are reprised in technologically enhanced form in conjunction with "Fire Dragon". The final stage trio take the album to a fulfilling climax. "Into Hostile Ship" initially seems to be another naive melodious theme but takes some unexpected dark turns during the development. "Shoot and Shoot" is a frenzied piece with irregular rhythms inspired by Gradius' lesser stage themes while "The Final Enemy" is a slow series of chord progressions that presents a hostile image of the final boss. The original version concludes with the enchanting ending theme "Farewell", beautifully synchronising high-pitched synth melodies with light rock accompaniment. Overall, Gradius II's score fleshes out the style of the original and exposes the rock-based style that made Konami's early scores so popular.

Gradius III

Miki Higashino returned to lead the score for Gradius III alongside Seiichi Fukami, Keizo Nakamura, Mutsuhiko Izumi, and Junichiro Kaneda. While more developed and cinematic than its predecessor, the title theme "Prelude of Legend" focuses on catchy melodic figures to keep the charm of the series alive. Subsequent tracks like "Invitation" and "Departure for Space" are stylistically continuous in many ways, but feature altogether richer melodies. Such tracks evolve the sound Higashino crafted for Gradius rather than maintain the rock-oriented direction of Gradius II. Nevertheless, there are still fun rock tunes like "Try to Star", perhaps thanks to the influence of Fukami or Izumi. The boss themes didn't evolve much in this instalment, though. There are simplistic reprises of the Gradius, Salamander, and Gradius II boss themes compiled into one track and a generic pile of orch hits in "Dark Force".

There are more stages and hence stage themes in Gradius III than other titles in the series. "Sand Storm" lives up to the standard of other opening stage pieces by mixing a bold main melody with buoyant light rock accompaniment. There are several other iconic themes on the soundtrack, such as "Try to Star" with its unforgettable opening chords, "Dead End Cell" with its triumphant edgy melodies, or "Cosmo Plant" with its memorable pop-influenced bridges. Many of the stage themes take experimental approaches inspired by their visuals. Remarkably synthesized for their time, the second stage's "Aqua Illusion" blends watery synth and hypnotic jazz while "Crystal Labyrinth" suspends mystical conventional components above typical upbeat melodies. Though more subtle, "High Speed Dimension" embellishes the graphics of the 3D level well by offering complex and rounded features.

Moving to the darker pieces on the soundtrack, the maoi stage's "Easter Stone" features formidable orchestra and chorus work with cinematic aspirations. "Underground" creates a sense of enclosure with its tight spacing of the instrumental parts while "Fire Scramble" is ideal for a frenzied and perilous journey towards the end of the game. The final stage theme "Mechanical Base" returns to the jovial and melodious sound of the score before "Final Shot" provides a threatening but repetitive depiction of the final boss for synth orchestra. After the exciting escape themes, the soundtrack eventually comes to the upbeat ending themes, "King of Kings" and "Return to the Star". However, it doesn't quite end there. The secret stage theme "A Long Time Ago" is a cleverly constructed medley of several Gradius themes. The final track in the Gradius III section is actually an enhanced selection of several Gradius and Salamander tunes.

Gradius IV Fukkatsu

The soundtrack to 1999's Gradius IV Fukkatsu is included in full, though it differs from the game's own Original Game Soundtrack in that it has been beautifully remastered and loops are restricted to two per theme meaning shorter track times overall. The trademark Gradius arpeggios of "Demo BGM" provide a promising start to the CD, though the very brief flash of semi-orchestral clamour that follows isn't indicative of the rest of the score's style. The "Select BGM" track sounds like it has been composed by Motoaki Furukawa in his rock-jazz fusion style; so much so that it sounds more like Furukawa's style than his own Gradius II Gofer no Yabou's "Equipment" music! Sometimes the score lacks its own individual character as a result of Atsuki's influences from this title, but there is greater jazz touch here and some riveting melodies. The tributes tend to be more stylistic than melodic, though exceptions include the "Game Over" and "Ranking BGM" track that make a surprise return from Gofer no Yabou 12 years later.

The secondary themes covered, time to look at the highlight of the score. The navigation themes "Apollon" and "Feiton" are great fun; their gliding light rock electric guitar melodies is well-supported by straightforward accompaniment to stimulate the listener. The initial stage themes, "Hydra" and "Demeter", are busy but crisp; their constant sense of ascension elevates any listener's mood, the former being especially good. The music for the bubble stage "Oceanus" integrates some novelty sound effects of bubbling and, after a somewhat boring introduction, becomes dominated by delicious sleak jazz synth work. In contrast, "Cronos" and "Hades" for the magma stage are quite beat heavy and rhythmically jagged, having erratic tendencies like some of the intermediate Gradius stage themes; I think these are some of the most musically rich themes on the score, though they're not as melodically juicy. The fifth stage's percussive "Uranus" and the sixth stage's dissonant jazz fusion "Hera" are also quite experimental and inaccessible, but preserve the Gradius sound.

The manic but repetitious "Dupon" restores the optimistic sheen of the score and brings it towards its climax. After the two 'boss rush' pieces, the two themes for the final stage are offered. The infamous Gradius "Boss" theme and Gradius II Gofer no Yabou "Take Care!" are arranged here to accompany the penultimate 'boss rush' stage. It's amazing how far one ascending chord progression and a few repeated decorated orchs hits have gone. The main boss theme, "Titans", is styled in a similar way but is an original creation. "Prometheus" is a fast-paced jazz piece with a melody perfectly suited for air guitar parties. "Athena" doesn't feel especially climactic, but is probably the best of the jazziest pieces and the melody from 0:35 is just pure gold. Overall, the stage themes are either downright enjoyable or respectable from a creative perspective. The overall quality of the Gradius IV score is very good, particular highlights being the navigation and stage music, even if it represents stylistic continuity rather than evolution unlike the two previous instalments.

Gradius Arrange Version

The numerous Gradius arrange versions are a variable lot, but the one featured in the Gradius Arcade Soundtrack is more than a pleasant bonus. It opens with Miki Higashino's lovely piano arrangement of Gradius' "Challenger 1985", "Hope & Joy, Peace & Love". The arranger initially reconciles airy arpeggios with exposition of an enchanting melody. The development of the theme is beautiful, including passionate chordal sections and contemplative quieter passages, always feeling emotionally driven but hardly forceful. This sadly constitutes Higashino's final contribution to the Gradius series and Konami in general. The other series veteran Motoaki Furukawa also contributes here. The jazz-rock fusion arrangement of Gradius II Gofer no Yabou's "Farewell" is aural gold if you're into the style. Like many of the musician's arrangements, it is almost entirely led by smooth electric guitar melodies and solos with fluid jazzy backing created by piano and synth.

As for "Maximum Speed", this is a collaborative arrangement from Motoaki Furukawa and Koichi Namiki of Policenauts F/N fame. It retains Furukawa's fusion style and guitar emphasis, but Namiki ensures it's more hard and jagged overall. Subsequently, in-house Bemani and techno artist Sota Fujimori arranges a selection of Gradius themes into a seven minute electronic medley remix. After established an ethereal dynamic sound, Fujimori introduces the arpeggios of "Beginning of the History" at the 1:32 mark and prominently exposes "Challenger 1985" by 2:25 in two feel good moments. Despite the different style, it retains the pleasant sound of the series and integrates a decent number of themes. "Challenger 1985" is heard again a couple of tracks later in DJ Sharpnel's hard techno remix. A more creative choice of tune was needed here given its appearance three times elsewhere, though the remix is still enjoyable despite a few generic qualities.

The Game Boy Advance's Gradius Galaxies (aka Gradius Generation) makes an unexpected appearance here too. The duo caolin and sano arranging the score's otherwise unreleased music into an energetic medley. After an ethereal cinematic opener, it soon moves into a dazzling jazz-influenced stage theme and then through several others. Its strongest point is when a techno beat is introduced at 2:35 and an intense final stage anthem emerges bringing the theme towards its conclusion. The transitions in this medley are quite abrupt as it isn't just a pleasant Easter egg, but also a mini arranged sound story. To conclude the arranged section, the Nazo� Project (better known for Konami 'Perfect Selection' series) create a industrial-tinged guitar-led rock mix of "Dead End Cell" from Gradius II Gofer no Yabou. The arrangement has a very dynamic mood, moving between thicker and lighter sections, helping to make it all the more fulfilling.

Gradius Compilation Additional Tracks

The additional tracks made for the PC's Gradius I & II compilation Gradius Deluxe Pack and the PlayStation 2's Gradius III & IV compilation are also included in the soundtrack. Leading the Gradius Deluxe Pack, Miki Higashino keeps the Konami spirit alive with the slapped basses and jazz fusion influences of "Demo Movie" and the short groovy arrangement of the Gradius first stage theme in "Select". Their are nevertheless new elements introduced to the series with the atmospheric opening of the cinematic or the formidable vocorder use at the end of "Select". However, the clear highlight of this selection is the "Ending" theme, which formed the basis of the piano performance in the arranged section. This version is endearing with its ethereal synth overlays and nicely segues into the arranged tracks.

Akira Yamaoka's influences in the Gradius III & IV are quite pronounced, though again only three new tracks were created. "Demo Movie 1" features eccentric electronica reminiscent of iFUTURELIST's "tant pis pour toi" while "Demo Movie 2" includes industrial noise similar to the original Silent Hill. The use of dabs of Gradius arpeggios in the latter is a nice touch, but the piece isn't enjoyable on the whole because most of the music is eclipsed by in-game sound effects. His best contribution is definitely "Select", which combines the catchiness and wit of the best Gradius series with Akira Yamaoka's maturity as an electronic musician. After one of the only bloopers of the collection, this is a fantastic way to conclude the album.


This album packages four classic shooter scores into one reasonably priced two disc album. This album is the first time that the scores for Gradius and Gradius III received original sound versions with separated tracks and no sound effects. The Gradius II Gofer no Yabou and Gradius IV sections are similar to their album releases but still well-presented. The album also has some great bonuses too. The arrangements are a consistently enjoyable and remarkable addition to the soundtrack, standing strong against even most of the series' commercially available arranged album despite a limited track selection and perhaps a little too much electronic focus. The six additional tracks created for the two compilations are also good to listen to from time to time and provide pleasant tributes to times of old. Simply put, this album is a must buy if you're a fan of old-school game music. There are lots of fantastic pieces presented in the best way possible.

Overall Score: 10/10