“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
― Neil Armstrong
Happy Birthday, dear Super Nintendo! Recently the greatest system ever made turned 25. They grow up so fast. We remember the SNES for its dominance, accessibility, astounding and massive library with Nintendo franchises and third-party brilliance, and its 16-bit perfection. It was “super” by all definitions of the word.
So to honor the Super NES, let’s talk about Gradius III. Known fully as Gradius III: From Legend to Myth, this game is important because it was one of the handful of launch titles at the SNES’s release. I know. It was overshadowed by Super Mario World.
Gradius III (G3) predated the SNES by a single year and it existed as a side-scrolling space shooter in Japanese arcades, published by Konami. Ported as a launch title in 1990, G3 can also be played on the PS2 and PSP. It’s not complex or engrossing, or even as iconic as other space shooters in my opinion, but it possesses all of ornamentation of arcade games and everything that makes those coin-op relics of the past so delightful.
In a galaxy far, far away where floating ground-clouds inspired Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, the story for the SNES version is as follows:
In the darkest quadrant of space there churns a vortex of Bad Vibes. Bacterion, it has been called, is a malignant mass that has spawned all that is wicked in the universe. Feeding on the suffering of the innocent, it moves like a germ throughout the Galaxy, manifesting itself in unspeakably hideous forms. In the past, Bacterion has only had the power to rear its ugly head on a few isolated occasions. That is, until now.
Being a good Gradian, your history class in primary school was the first place you heard of the ancient Heroic Missions to fight Bacterion. You even got a toy Warp Rattler for your fifth birthday. Those were the days when it was just a chapter in your history book.
History is important to the people of Gradius, as is all the higher pursuits of knowledge, art and music. Gradius has reached a renaissance. Your people are known throughout the universe as a good and peace-loving nation. Who could have known that it would come down to this.
After a heart wrenching journey through the Gradian Desert Lands, you have come to terms with your fate. It is your mission to save all that is good in the universe. You must defeat the diabolical entities that plague Gradius and the surrounding planets. Fare thee well, brave warrior.
Pilot the Vic Viper starship and wage endless war against the spread of Bacterion. Right away we recall that the point of G3 is really just to blow crap up. The names are just place holders in a narrative that doesn’t need to make sense. All that matters that is you put in another quarter. Even this SNES port carries over that sense of game-time over narrative.
Shooters like G3 can be very demanding. They require you memorize enemy attack patterns and develop some efficient reflexes. You also lose your upgrades when you die. That doesn’t mean Gradius III is impossible. It just means it will challenge you. Which is a good thing.
Most everything in G3 wants to murder you and not give you a hug. That includes the walls, the floors and the ceiling. Then there are still the hundred-million other things that are out to get you: Sandlion-worms, bipedal Mechs, Space Bubbles, Flame Snakes, Squidward’s House on acid…
Chief among G3’s awesome weirdness are its bosses. They’re the best part of the game, waiting for you at the end of each of the ten levels with their barrage of projectiles and handily glowing weak points. Often massive freakish machinery or hideous mutant-aliens, defeating the bosses requires pattern recognition (again) and determination. Dying on a boss sets you back but now you know what not to do next time.
There’s a lesson to be learned from Gradius III. Practice makes perfect. Determination yields rewards. Fortune favors the bold. Fair heart never won fair lady. Blow crap up.
The 8-Bit Review
Visuals: 4/10While no longer as spectacular as they once were, the intro to Gradius III at least still shimmers with the glittering lights of space in a dynamic takeoff scene. The rest of the game though doesn’t shimmer so much. While the bosses are detailed, most of the many enemies are tiny sprites. They’re so small, some of them, that you won’t be able to tell if you’re looking at a space flea or a jellyfish. The backgrounds, particularly in the cavernous stages, are downright ugly and tiled. There were better examples of what the SNES could do at launch, but gameplay takes precedence over visuals in G3.
If you were to ask me, I think they should’ve used the classy front of the soundtrack for the SNES cover art:
Gradius III’s isn’t so much awful as it is lackluster. I was surprised it had a soundtrack album release, since I didn’t really enjoy much of any of the music in the game. Maybe other folks did. It’s just that none of it stood out to me beside for a few interesting riffs. It’s all a variation on the typical, action-science fiction rock n’ roll found in these kinds of games. Doesn’t help either that most of the songs are the exact same tempo with the same percussion.
The action doesn’t let up. After defeating a boss you fly right into the next level. There’s barely any pause at all. The entire set of possible upgrades available to you during the game are chosen before the action starts. This weapons Edit Mode was introduced with Gradius III.
At the beginning of the game, you get to choose the weapons systems you’ll have access to. These range from speed modifiers to shields to varieties of missiles, bombs, and lasers. You can select from preset weapon combinations or create your own custom set.
When playing through the levels of G3, you’ll notice a power-up bar at the bottom of the screen. Each section of the bar is labeled with the name of the upgrade it represents. Only one of the upgrades on the power-up bar is highlighted at any one time. Picking up an item that drops from enemy ships moves your highlighted upgrade on the power-up bar ahead one space to the right, with multiple items moving the selection multiple spaces. At any time you can select the highlighted upgrade and you’ll immediately gain the new ability/weapon. So you collect items until the upgrade you want is highlighted, all in real time, while attempting to not get murdered by the billions of enemies on screen.
The only thing in G3 that’s confusing is its system of selecting highlighted weapons based on the weapon pattern you chose. It’s not something that jumped out to me as intuitive. Maybe that’s because it’s somewhat different than what’s usually seen in shooters? I think of the upward scrolling shooter Raiden II, where you pick up items that instantly upgrade the weapon you have equipped. There are other items that allow you to switch weapons, but the goal in collecting enemy drops is instantly increasing the gear you already have. The system in Gradius III allows for greater diversity and more combinations of attacks allow for greater strategy, but it ends up being somewhat inaccessible until you happen to figure it out.
Yeah so Gradius III is pretty hard. Shooters can be hard in general. Arcade games can be, too, considering their reason for existence is to take all your money as quickly as possible. As a port from the arcade version, G3 on the SNES was slightly easier in my estimation. Only the SNES version allowed you to continue after losing all your lives. But you’re still going to be dealing with dying after being hit once and losing all your upgrades that defines most of the titles in the shooter genre. So yeah, expect a challenge that’s tough as nails. Nails made out of something really hard metal. Like Wolverine’s bones. *rocks back and forth in rocking chair* In my day we didn’t have easy games. All we had were blistered fingers from button tapping with extreme precision and panic attacks from having to command peak reaction times. Whipper-snapper!
The challenge of G3 has been criticized in the past, but to be honest, it’s also one of the things that drives you to want to play it more. Yeah it’s hard, but you’ll want to see if you can get further than you did the last time you played it, beat that boss you couldn’t beat, or manage to find that secret bonus level. Gradius III is designed with replayability in mind with its origins in the arcade.
The only unique thing about Gradius III is its weapons system. Everything else is the shooter genre down to a T, from the gobbledeegook storyline to the insane difficulty to the constant scrolling action to the enemies. Not much is hugely unique, especially considering that we’re looking at the third entry in the Gradius III franchise. Being able to strategize your custom edit for your weapons is a great new element for shooters, however, rounding out G3’s Uniqueness score to a 5.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
Gradius III belonged in the arcade. The SNES version is fun to play at home and all, but only in small helpings. It can get pretty frustrating. There are also other scrolling shooters that I’d recommend above G3, like the Raiden and R-Type series, even Super Earth Defense Force for the SNES or Einhänder for the PS1. Still, if you’ve got to get your shoot on, Gradius III is a more technical and strategic shooter than most. Maybe it’s the thinking man’s shooter? I guess that makes me an idiot because I never found it quite as enjoyable as the other titles I’ve named.
My Personal Grade: 6.3