Gradius III: From Legend to Myth
Based on: How to spur longing for 1988...in 1989.
Article by Nicola Nomali | September 19, 2008
Structurally speaking, games aren't terribly complicated. If nothing else, the lazy man's review template has proven how easy it is to dissect them into blatant categories like "graphics" and "sound." Yet game design as a whole is deceptive in its specificity. Anyone can play a game like Super Mario Bros. and sense its internal harmony, but it takes scholars to explain precisely how the scenery and colors and music and physics and stage layouts and coins and secret beanstalks come together and complement each other so very, very well. And that's just analyzing a product that's already been completed! Imagine how mystifying it must be to try planning a compelling system of balanced elements from scratch. Or, worse, imagine already having a great game on your hands -- and then having to make the sequel.
Not too hard, right? Just stay faithful to the design of the predecessor, add a new mechanic or two, and spruce it all up with some new audiovisual assets. Be done in time for lunch.
That might be enough, too, if you were allowed to be complacent. But what if you were working on the latest in a series regarded as the herald of an entire genre, at the height of its popularity and expected to evolve the genre itself with each successive installment? In other words, what if you were making Gradius III?
Well, if you're Konami in 1989, you completely choke.
Again, they didn't have it easy. While not the first entry in their horizontal shoot'em-up series, Gradius? defined a new standard over that of Defender, just as Xevious? had advanced Gradius' Y-axis cousins beyond the single-screen scope of Galaga. Both games rightly received high praise, but while Namco never offered much in the way of Xevious sequels -- originally at the insistence of its creator, Masanobu Endoh -- Konami treated their baby like the star it was. After experimenting a little with Salamander? (and Life Force, the spin-off of a spin-off), they built on Gradius's earthen foundation a glittering spire called Gradius II?. With more inventive stages, more varied weaponry, and greater spectacles all around, it offered a huge leap for just a single iteration.
So when Gradius III came along with an introduction following the rise of the series while a synthetic choir chanted in the background (not to mention the grandiose subtitle "From Legend to Myth"), fans were assured that Konami had prepared a sequel well-suited to a brand that had come to command such gravity. Unfortunately, past the disarmingly pious opening sequence, it quickly became apparent that Konami was fresh out of ideas.
The creativity of the prior game is nowhere to be found, and most attempts to recapture it are just badly-disguised rehashes of what's come before. Keeping traditions like the volcano stage alive is fair enough, but then the volcano stage unexpectedly takes you underground, where you get to...shoot a path through dirt. Just like how you shot a path through rocks in Stage 2 of Gradius I. Remember that stage in Gradius II where you shot down huge crystals into increasingly smaller fragments? Well, you do it again in Gradius III, but now the crystals are bubbles! The regenerating organic matter from Salamander? Present. And so on.
Unfortunately, stagnation is only the least of the game's issues. Not only does Gradius III not care whether or not you like it, but it aggressively hates you. Even with the DIP switches set for maximum forgiveness, it remains one of the most relentlessly punishing games ever made. Modern shoot'em-ups, with all their bullet-hell curtain fire, at least have some kind of method to their mayhem; amid the purple tide of enemy fire, carefully-designed safe spots and combo chains are waiting to reward any player tenacious enough to suss them out. But that philosophy was still prenatal way back in '89, and Gradius III's idea of difficulty is downright old-fashioned: waves and waves of bullets, coming from everywhere, to kill you forever.
This insanity manages to spoil what few new concepts are on display. Stage 7, for example, is sustained completely by a constant barrage of falling meteorites; they can be destroyed, but doing so only breaks them up into smaller, faster, more plentiful chunks, which cannot be destroyed. And should you try to peacefully dodge the big rocks, enemies will soon flood the screen with bullets just as numerous. Stage 9 forces you down tight corridors with sharp corners while formations of crystal cubes fly in from the right to seal your exits. Stage 4 is a pseudo-3D affair akin to Space Harrier, slapped right in the middle of the game, where you do nothing but collect power-ups and dodge walls that zoom in from an absurdly low draw distance. This is tough, but more importantly, it provides the most damning evidence that Konami had no idea where to steer the series at this point.
Shackled to cruel twists and "gotcha" moments, the scenes that regress to past games can't even offer comfort through familiarity. In one of the final stages, for instance, the infamous crab walker from Gradius II returns in miniaturized form. It's still invincible, and it still walks back and forth trying to crush the Vic Viper, but now it's too small for players to maneuver between its legs. The only refuge is to duck into tiny alcoves in the floor or ceiling of each corridor -- recesses so small, with hit detection so merciless, you may as well be playing Operation! for how perfectly you have to keep positioning the Vic Viper to avoid a violent death by wall-grazing.
Should you get past that, you'll soon find another charming curiosity of the series, the impotent final boss, actually making the effort to cough up fireballs. Surprisingly, touching these warps you to a recreation of the first stage of either Gradius or Salamander! Oh, but the fan service is just a fiendish ploy to distract from the fact that they're unnaturally vicious recreations. Oh, and all your power-ups have been removed. Oh, and dying doesn't punt you back to the boss, but to the last checkpoint -- just before a gauntlet of rebounding organic death-boulders.
Surviving, incidentally, does the same thing. All victories are empty in Gradius III!
Fair enough: lesson learned. Next time, get to Bacterian, avoid nostalgia's temptation, and beat the game. Well, now he's dead, but why aren't the credits rolling? Ah, that's because Gradius II's "High-Speed Zone" has been relocated behind the last boss. And no longer a streamlined system of branching paths, it's been riddled with awkward and intrusive right angles that mean certain doom for those without superhuman reflexes and the exact right number of Speed Ups. And when -- not if -- you die, it's straight back to those death-boulders. As the game's last and most vicious punishment, this is nothing less than spiteful.
Konami probably realized what they'd done (there's no way to make something this malicious by accident, for one thing), so they at least provided a "Beginner" mode. They couldn't resist pinning a catch even to that, though: Beginner is over in just three stages -- less than a third of the way through the game.
The real saving grace of the game's reputation (undeserved, bastard that it is) is that it received a much more sensible port to the SNES in 1992. Either by design or necessity, the screen-wide conflagrations were mostly toned down (and when they weren't, slowdown made them). The Stage 7 meteorites could now be destroyed, and Stage 9, the crystal cage, was removed entirely. In an impressive show of restraint, the Space Harrier nonsense was also excised, eschewing the SNES's renowned scaling abilities for the good of humanity. The High-Speed Zone was moved back and made its own stage, where it swallowed its shame and just ripped off Gradius II wholesale. The Boss Rush, the enemy base, and Bacterian's lair -- originally an uninterrupted odyssey into horror -- were also divided into separate stages. Edit Mode, which allowed players to design their own power-up meter, was expanded...and in an overall easier game, it was no longer meaningless. A wild innovation called "continues" were incorporated.
Furthermore, we in the West had never played Gradius II. (The arcade version was localized as Vulcan Venture, but only in Europe, and the Famicom port was a no-show on the NES.) In other words, we went straight from Salamander to this. For all we knew at the time, it was as progressive as Gradius II had been in reality.
Despite redeeming itself somewhat, the Super NES version of Gradius III marked the beginning of a long hiatus for the series. Its next major title was Gradius Gaiden? in 1997, and it didn't return to arcades until Gradius IV? came out in '99, a full decade after III's original release. Was it dwindling interest in the shoot'em-up genre that called for such a lengthy time off? Had Street Fighter II? successfully herded arcade-goers away from spaceships and Shooting the Core? Or was it that the arcade scene itself was falling out of vogue, never to return?
All wrong, as you should know by now. Yes, there were no sequels because there wasn't an audience. But there was no audience because Gradius III had scared them away.
Prelude of Legend