Rejoice! It’s horizontal shooter magnificence, after a fashion–it’s Gradius III. It looks amazing, sporting brilliantly coloured and intricately detailed enemies, and vibrant, wildly varying backdrops. It certainly sounds like vintage Gradius. That means all the tracks are quality, and a few of them are even memorable. But aside from the aesthetics?
Rest assured that the Moai heads travelled from Easter Island to the stars to be here in full force. Each level has its own theme so different from the one before it, that the game, while a marathon in its own right (nine stages) always remains fresh. Plain Jane ships from previous incarnations make the trip to the Super NES, doing their usual routine of wiping the screen from top to bottom while firing blue slivers of laser fire for you to slip in and out of. Joining the Gradius staples are most notably, the bulbous plant boss that opens, Venus Flytrap-like and sets about vacuuming you to your doom, and the twin spider bosses whose legs you must stay betwixt as they stomp about, sometimes overlapping one another. Exciting? Indeed!
There is an obligatory boss redux level, which manages to be fun despite the tired notion behind it; a desert level, complete with sandworms; and most intense of all, the grease lightning stage where the screen hurtles along, demanding that you keep up, lest you be crushed in the maze of twisting corridors.
Gradius III is the epitome of shooter excitement. But only if you take it easy. Wipe that puzzled look off your face!
I’ll explain: I don’t usually play shooters on the ‘Easy’ setting, but with Gradius III, it’s different. Playing on this difficulty level, makes for a smooth, extremely exciting shooting experience, if slightly too forgivable to the player, as you might expect. Concerns come to the fore when one tries to play on “Normal” or “Hard”. Upping the ante in this way brings out a handful of negatives that exist just under the surface on the Easy setting. Playing on Hard, especially, shines an uncompromising spotlight on these flaws, and conspires to really ruin what is, at the best of times and in the best of circumstances, an excellent, engaging horizontal shoot ‘em up.
Regrettably, Gradius III, being one of the first shooters to grace the then fledgling Super NES console, is plagued with more than its fair share of slowdown. It’s not so noticeable in the manageable confines of the Easy game, but crank the hard meter up even one notch, and the increase in enemy and projectile activity will create a crawling chaos onscreen. You’ve surely heard the one about how slowdown makes a hard game a bit easier, like an inadvertent dose of slow motion play. This is only a half truth. Because the slowdown is never consistent. What this means, is you may be doing admirably at weaving through a maze of bullets at half the intended game speed, when suddenly, due to the unforeseen departure of a few enemy craft, things speed up again, and without warning. The results are usually a burning hull and audible cursing.
The other problem is one that is more fundamental and certainly a Gradius trademark. Like Gradius and Lifeforce–a.k.a. Salamander–before it, Gradius III utilizes an innovative power up system. Destroying a formation of certain enemies yields a power up. (That wasn’t the innovative part.) What is particularly unique is Konami’s patented ‘buy your upgrade’ way of doing things. A segmented bar along the bottom of the screen lists first speed, then missiles, guns, lasers, options, a shield, and the ‘extra item’ (which could shrink your ship, or clear the screen of enemies).
If you so desire, your first power up icon can be used to buy a speed increase, or alternatively, you may wish to acquire another icon before buying in, and in that case, you would have earned yourself missile firing capabilities. And so on. This system of using your own discretion to decide what you need powered up first makes the Gradius series perfect for those who like to tailor-make their shooting experience. Better still, in this third release in the series, the options screen allows you to configure what kind of guns you want to have slotted in your gun position, and what kind of laser in the laser position, and so on. The bar at the base of the screen just got more interesting and more customizable, creating greater possibilities for replaying the mission.
These things are what make Gradius III a Gradius game. But!! In the strength of the system lies a rather annoying weakness. Should you perish, it becomes very difficult to get back into the action in any real and successful way. Your ship will be exceedingly slow, R-Type slow, inching along amidst very fast enemies, and although the continue points invariably give you the opportunity to earn a few power ups right off the bat, chances are you’ll probably be too slow to earn more than say, two of the four available. You’ll almost certainly need to attribute these winnings to increase your speed, leaving you quite impaired from a firepower standpoint for whatever may be around the corner—especially if you were unlucky enough to die at the pre-boss continue point. Once again, playing on Easy allows much easier powering up, but on the harder difficulty options, dying in a disagreeable area may just lead to a landslide of deaths until your frustration level inevitably, ultimately, buries your spirit.
Normally, such balance problems would really irk me, enough to severely lower the game’s score. But the inordinate amount of excitement that playing Gradius III on Easy can bring goes miles in compensating for problems that can realistically, be avoided all together if one doesn’t have too much pride to make things a little simpler for oneself.