Friday, October 26, 2012

Gradius III (SNES)

Checkpoints ON
3 Difficulty levels
10 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1991

Within the famous Konami series the original Gradius III is regarded as an absolute experience in pain. Very few shmups have the honor of being straightforwardly classified as "pure hell" or "downright impossible" by so many people. My time with it so far consists of a few hours with the Gradius Collection on the PSP, and suffice it to say I didn't get past the bubble stage... Gradius III on the SNES is a completely different story though. Famous for some massive slowdown, this port leaves no doubt about its watered down difficulty and it’s not nearly close to the arcade version as far as its legendary challenge goes. Nevertheless it’s still a valid option for those who want to have an idea about how the series evolved from the already tough as nails Gradius II.

In a nutshell, the SNES port of Gradius III is nothing but a simplified version of the arcade original. Stages are shorter, lack a few key enemies and are occasionally rearranged. Bullet count is considerably lower as a consequence of the softer rank progression. Even the weapon configurations available in Edit mode have been messed around a little. All things considered, the game probably offers a good entry point for Gradius neophytes due to the lower difficulty and the faithful graphics conversion. The soundtrack does take a hit, but since the compositions are so good it still retains the magic that makes this series so loved among shmup fans. It’s awesome, I know there's no relation at all between both franchises but I can't help but feel a vivid Sonic the Hedgehog vibe in the BGM for the volcano stage.

Damn, won't these Moai stop opening their mouths?

Giving the player a higher degree of freedom was Konami’s main innovation in Gradius III. Dressing up the ship at the start of a credit determines half the game’s difficulty, and doing it wisely is paramount if you want to have better chances at winning. Besides the four default configurations seen in Gradius II, an all-new “Edit mode” allows the player to select every item in the weapon array from several choices available (some of them exclusive to Edit mode). Since I tend to stick to the classic configurations it was hard for me to start editing my weapon array, but the “reduce” shield is just irresistible. It shrinks the hitbox and is able to absorb two hits before Vic Viper gets back to its normal size. A new slot in the weapon array under the exclamation symbol makes it possible to activate speed-down, full options (sacrifices spare lives for options), force field and mega crush (a smart bomb). Mega crush is the default item in the extra slot for all standard configurations.

Gradius III starts out nicely on a sand stage guarded by an insect boss. The absence of the sand lions is a bit disappointing but the great initial atmosphere isn’t affected. However, it’s clear that the rest of the game doesn’t excel at being a step-up from Gradius II in the same way the previous chapter did when compared to the first game. The arcade version did that only in terms of difficulty, whereas the SNES port throws the challenge boost out the window and presents itself as a softer ride that totally fits the console format. Expect staple levels such as the volcano, the moai, the high speed scramble and another boss rush comprised of several bosses from Gradius II. New to the adventure is a plant stage, two levels reminiscent of Salamander (the flaming rocks + the organic walls) and the bubble field in the second stage, which is actually a revamped crystal level.

Missing from the port is the Tetris block stage, the awkward 3D intermission, the maze after the volcano tunnel and the final escape after the last boss, as well as the most demanding enemies such as the huge moai heads, the fire dragon, the spinning boss from Salamander and the walker in the fortress stage (replaced by two destructible mechanical spiders like the one from Gradius II). The organic level is now the last one, and the number of secret areas was increased from 2 to 5. I only ventured to get into the first of these bonus areas – they come with very few enemies and lots of items, including 1UPs (green capsules) and bonus points (faint yellow capsules – don’t let any of them pass and they’ll be worth 1000 points each). If you go into a bonus area and die you get sent back to the regular stage and can’t access the bonus area again, if you succeed you bypass the boss and reappear at the next pre-stage section.

Gradius III for the SNES played on EASY
(courtesy of YouTube user Ataristic)

Subject of frequent mockery, the slowdown in this game is often used to showcase the SNES bad fame of being a slow console. With the exception of the subterranean volcano walls, where the screen slows down even if you don’t shoot a single bullet, it isn’t really that much of an issue. It does make the journey easier, that’s a fact, and probably plays a pivotal psychological role in the general consensus that the game is a bit too long. Anyway, after a while I wasn’t bothered by the slowdown anymore. I won't complain about the length of the game either. Ten stages of lighter Gradius goodness might be something people take for granted these days, but I definitely miss the Konami of old.

After tampering with several weapon configurations I settled with regular missiles, double shot, crushing laser, regular options, reduce and speed-down. I wish I could have the regular laser as well, but it’s not an available option in Edit mode. The mega crush was tempting, but I like to have my speed reduced after I get past the plant boss, the high speed section and the boss rush. Gradius III is often regarded as an easy shmup (for Gradius standards, that is), but that’s only true as long as you don’t die in later levels. You can build a respectable life stock with the 1UPs inside bonus areas and the merciful extend scheme (20.000 points for the first extend, further ones at every 70.000 points), but don’t even think about dying inside the fortress. Depending on the checkpoint you’re at it gets really tough to put things back together. As usual, in the second loop enemies fire faster bullets and drop suicide bullets when destroyed.

I reached stage 2-7 on my best scoring run on NORMAL. Do I feel prepared to try the arcade version of Gradius III on the PS2? Probably not, but that’s the beauty of this genre. We’re never ready but we go on anyway.


  1. I've never played any Gradius games. I have no idea how that's possible at all but somehow it just passed my by completely.
    The original Nes Gradius has just released for the virtual console on the Nintendo 3DS. Will be picking that up with certainty any day now.

  2. So there is a higher hidden difficulty in Gradius III. If you go to the options menu and spam the A button on the difficulty setting, it will change to "ARCADE" if you can hit it fast enough. Arcade mode is kind of neat in that the ending is slightly different - a B&W still after the Vic Viper flies away from the destroyed fortress, and an interesting Engrish message afterward.

    The next loop is, of course, even more insane.

    1. Thanks, Peter.
      I knew about this "arcade" difficulty, but wasn't aware of the new ending.

  3. Easy by gradius standards? Certainly if using reduce (which just looks ridiculous imo). I enjoy this most with the preset weapon arrays and force field, for the extra challenge it provides. Seems some people struggle to keep perspective due to it being easier than the AC version, even had some matei subscribing casual on twitch trying to tell me blazing lazers is harder

    1. I'll concede that reduce just sounds... weird.
      And cheap.
      And yet using it doesn't turn the game into a cakewalk. At least that's how I remember it. :D

      I think both games are quite different from each other, but the comparison to Blazing Lazers could only apply if we were talking about final stages. Gradius III is overall more polished imo, whereas BL all of a sudden decides to get very hard in the end for no specific reason - which is baffling and slightly degrades the fun factor.

  4. Of course by 'some people' I wasn't referring to yourself, especially since this is such a great blog.

    The reduce is fun, imo it would have made a good unlockable, while keeping emphasis on the traditional gradius dimensions/balance. Overall I'd put the difficulty mid range for the series and roughly on par with Gradius II arcade: harder than the first arcade/pce, salamander AC, the GB/GBA or any NES entries, but easier than it's arcade parent and IV onwards

    My experience with BL was that 1cc attempts came after just a few sessions. I narrowly failed at the last check and never picked it up again due to finding the first half of the game tedious. I've 1cc'd Gradius III, but compared to BL, I found building up to serious G3 1cc attempts took significantly more practice than for BL.