Press “M” to Power Up: A tale of Gradius on the MSX

How many buttons does a PS4 controller have? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know it’s a lot more than I had on the Quickshot joystick that was connected to my Toshiba MSX computer in the mid-80’s. Back in those days, you could survive with a single button, and most games performed well using this very simple control setup.

But what happens when a single button just isn’t enough? I found out the hard way when I started to play Konami shoot-em-up Gradius.

Gradius is known for its “power up” system, a mechanic that allows you to choose which weapons to upgrade whilst playing the game. It’s a brilliant system to use but it is fatally flawed when using a single button controller as that one button can only ever be used to do one thing – fire at the bad guys!

After my first play of the game, I remember looking at the manual to work out how to increase my firepower. Imagine my dismay to learn that I needed to press “M” on the MSX keyboard, whilst simultaneously flying my ship (one hand on the joystick) and firing at baddies (the other hand on the fire button), and all the while I needed to be looking at the TV to avoid collisions with bullets, baddies and the landscape. This needed a third hand.

Gradius MSX

Fortunately, I found that extra hand, attached to the arm of my next door neighbour. For countless hours, we played 2-player Gradius, each taking it in turns to be the others “power up buddy”. As I flew around the screen collecting power-up orbs, my buddy would have his finger hovering over the “M” key, waiting for me to shout “POWER UP!” at a moments notice. This worked a treat and allowed us to reach the end titles on more than one occasion.

A few years later, I had an idea that my 3-button Sega Megadrive (Genesis) controller might work on the MSX. I was overjoyed to learn that it did, and that my days of pressing “M” were behind me. Sadly, a gamepad was no substitute for a proper joystick when flying the Vic Viper, and having power-ups to hand simply wasn’t enough to make the switch permanent.

New gamers today have little idea how lucky they are to be sat on their couch, staring at 40″ screens, playing games without wires and with enough buttons to do anything the developer desires of them. Back in those days you had to hire help to power up!

Hayden Yale

Child of the 80's. Born, raised and living in the Cheshire countryside, England.Lover of fan art, especially if it is based on my childhood heroes from Masters of the Universe, Thundercats, Transformers and TMNT. Penchant for almost anything retro, especially movies, games and art.

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One thought on “Press “M” to Power Up: A tale of Gradius on the MSX

  1. They do make a number of 2 button msx joysticks (try ones for the “zemmix” korean game onsole for example), as well as at least 2 different genesis joysticks, plus the atari/genesis controller plug was a de facto standard of the day, so there’s a good chance that controllers for other systems would work as well.
    I had never heard of MSX until a few years ago, but have been playing it via emulator for some time now. The gradius games are msx are fun, but quite hard, harder I think than even most of the othergradius games (which are not exactly known for being easy).

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