So back in 1985, Konami released a really fun game called Gradius. For awhile it was actually a really big thing, but we haven’t seen a proper new one since Gradius V ever since Konami became well…What it has been for awhile now.
Thankfully at least one fan out there remembers the good old days, having created what is essentially a freeware, non copyright infringing tribute to one of the best vertical scrolling shooters of all time! I give you…
GENRE: Horizontal Shooter/Gradius Tribute
GET IT HERE (For Free!): https://suppon.itch.io/spolous
So, brief history lesson on Gradius, cause you kinda need it for context here.
Gradius is a sidescrolling 2D shooter (or shmup) that started out in 1985, unique due to its powerup system where you have a gauge at the bottom of the screen showing all of the possible powerups available to you. By grabbing Power Capsules, you advance one space on this gauge. Pressing the powerup button activates whatever powerup is highlighted, and your highlighted slot is no longer highlighted, meaning you have to start from the very beginning next time you get a capsule. This basically means you had a choice in what upgrades you got when, with the more powerful upgrades requiring more capsules as they’re further down the gauge. You had speed increases, an anti surface missile, an upward firing second gun or piercing laser (you can only have one of these at a time), a defensive shield, and…The Options. Options being copies of your ship that can’t take damage, and copy your movements and weapon firing, effectively multiplying your firepower. Gradius’ gameplay revolved around this system, with the player having to learn what powerups to prioritize when, and how to use your Options to deal with bigger threats that require more firepower, as your Options are immune to damage and thus can be used very creatively. On top of this, you have several loadouts, each with their own form of weapons and Options that all behave very differently, with several Loadouts having to be purchased with the points you accumulate playing the game.
And then Konami stopped doing anything with this series, with no new Gradius game released since Gradius V on the PS2. No, re-release collections don’t count. Then, thanks to one ShmupJunkie on Youtube I discovered this free gem created by Japanese indie developer Suppon, which came recommended to anyone who enjoys Gradius.
And boy can I see why it was recommended. Spolous is essentially a love letter to the Gradius series as a whole, providing an absolutely insane amount of content for a free shmup, as well as some decent difficulty options that will let even less skilled players enjoy it to the fullest.
Starting up in this game is relatively simple. First, you choose a Course (A series of levels) of which five exist, each one with its own distinct levels and bosses, and a lot of inspiration from a particular Gradius title. Next, you choose a loadout which determines what powerups will be on your Powerup Gauge. And then you get shooting! Like most shooters, the idea is the same: Blow things up, don’t get blown up, grab powerups to make it easier to blow more stuff up without getting blown up, fight a boss at the end, repeat. It’s a simple gameplay formula, but that’s what 2D shooters are at their core, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That said however, Spolous isn’t afraid to do a few things somewhat different from its inspiration: In particular making a “loop” of the powerup gauge a reward. In most Gradius games, getting a powerup when your gauge is at the final slot simply wraps it back around to the first slot. In Spolous, doing this gives you bonus points, and the amount increases for each consecutive “wraparound” you do, essentially rewarding you for grabbing but not using powerups. This adds an additional level of skill to the game, as you can opt not to go for a Shield (something you usually keep highlighted to re-activate when you lose your current one) and instead risk it by doing loops of the gauge for ever increasing points. One oddity one may notice though is that Options don’t all behave like the Gradius versions: Some only use a regular gun and can be levelled up to use a stronger version, others loadouts may not even use an Option at all! Just know if you’re a Gradius veteran going into this, you’ll need to unlock the more “Traditional” Options you’re used to, and you may have to use the Option powerup more than you’re used to as well.
What makes Spolous (And Gradius, its inspiration) so great and unique though is that it’s not just the enemies you worry about, it’s the level itself. This is what some might call a “Terrain shooter” because the terrain of a level is as much a threat as the enemies you’re blowing up, compared to shooters where it’s just open space and your enemies. Weapons also play into this, as most missile weapons are designed to cruise along or hit surfaces directly, so you don’t have to fly low to strike them. Similarly, some weapons and your Options (A sort of drone that either flies in a formation or copies your movements, and cannot be damaged) allow you to shoot at angles so you don’t need to risk flying close to a floor or ceiling, because yes, hitting a surface will make you crash and burn.
Levels also feature their own unique gimmicks with terrain or environmental hazards. Sometimes you’re having to literally dig through a level by blasting through parts of it to open paths. Other times you’re shooting giant crystals that bounce off each other to create a would be asteroid field you need to get through. One level has flowing magma that large rock chunks float on, with the magma flow changing shape as you go through, and affecting anything floating on it, meaning the level is essentially moving around you as you try to navigate it. One even has you essentially dodging Tetris blocks, with a hilarious troll moment at the end that made me groaning, yet laughing. If you know Gradius, a lot of the gimmicks you see will have you going “Yeah, I remember this!” If you haven’t played Gradius games, you’ll be in for some treats, let me tell you.
So, what sets Spolous apart and makes it more than just a simple clone of Gradius? Well, that would be in the ridiculous amount of features you get for a free game. As I mentioned before, there are several unlockable loadouts, some inspired by Gradius, and some inspired by completely different genres of 2D shooter! Some vertical shooter inspired loadouts from Raiden and Rayforce are prime examples of loadouts that very much change how the game is approached, as well as a few from other horizontal shooters like the Darius series. Working towards a new loadout just to see how it plays is one of the joys of this game, as even if you don’t win a run, all the points you’ve scored are put into a pool you can spend to buy new weapons for future runs, as well as unlock new gameplay features via the Options menu.
The game also has several difficulty options which really help make the game fun and approachable even if you aren’t the best 2D shooter player out there. For one, every course has Normal and Hard versions, with Normal being good for a warmup, and Hard, being, well…Hard. But you also have a feature that is great if you aren’t so skilled, called Easy Start. Normally, when you die in Gradius (or this), you lose all your powerups. With Easy Start, your Lives are instead more of a “Life Gauge” as you don’t explode and lose your powerups when you take a hit, though you do lose a Life from your total. When you run out of lives regardless of Easy Start mode, you’ll lose your powerups, but also make a special powerup appear that you can shoot to spawn more, helping you recover if you opt to use a continue. This greatly helps reduce the notorious issue of dying in the late game of Gradius resulting in you being stuck because having no powerups makes things way too difficult. The Easy Start option in particular makes death feel less punishing and lets casual players approach the game, while not using Easy Start will retain the punishing loss of powerups Gradius veterans are used to. I’ve played a fair bit of Gradius, and even I enjoy using the Easy Start option now and then just because I want to have a chill time and blow things up.
And if it’s dying that’s your problem, just keep at it! The longer you play, the more continues you rack up, eventually hitting unlimited continues, so you’ll always be able to see things through to the end! Even if you go through an entire planet’s supply of fighter craft to do it.
At the end of the day, there’s really no reason to pass on this game if you’re any kind of Gradius fan, or horizontal 2D shooter fan in general. With an asking price of “pay absolutely nothing” you’ve got nothing to lose trying it. Even if you aren’t a huge 2D shooter fan, I’d argue it’s worth a look just to see a great tribute to a great series that has been long ignored since the PS2 era, not counting a few spinoffs (one of which didn’t even leave Japan). So go on, go grab Spolous EX and see why a single space fighter taking on an entire army/fleet is so darned fun!