While writing my recent post about the music of Gradius, I felt the need to experience the music in context. I’ve spent at least some time with each game in the series, but Gradius III has my favourite soundtrack and was the one I really wanted to sink my teeth into. Who could have known that such easy listening would accompany such a difficult game?! Gradius III is one of the hardest, most gruelling games out there, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Beyond a staggering difficulty, Gradius III sports some utterly baffling game design. But there’s a solid core of enjoyable gameplay in all the Gradius games and, thanks to that steady foundation, I was eventually able to “complete” it.
Why “complete” and not complete? While it’s the same game, completing Gradius III at home on a PS2 is very different to the arcade. For one, I can turn the difficulty down – pretty much the first thing I did! The other benefit is not having to shell out real money on each play attempt. If that were the case I would be out of pocket to the tune of… well probably my annual salary. Long story short: you’d have to be rich, sadistic, and stupid to pay to see this one through to completion in an arcade. Oh, and Japanese too, since the Gradius III arcade game never left Japan. Outside of Japan, Konami released Gradius III for the SNES, a conversion with greatly reduced difficulty. Konami finally brought over the arcade original as one half of a 2000 PS2 release: Gradius III and IV.
The PS2 version sports a nifty stage select. It can’t be used to skip ahead to stages you’ve not reached legitimately (unfortunately), but it lets you resume the game from any checkpoint previously reached. While I still could never beat the arcade game on its own terms, I am proud of myself for conquering this game (in a fashion), and I think I’m now well placed to judge how bizarre this game truly is.
Received wisdom (and good business sense) is that arcade games are front-loaded; they put their best content at the start to pull in players, and the later stages tend to look worse by comparison. Gradius III is really long, and there is an insane amount of fresh content in its second half. Take the music for example. The music starts strong but some of the best pieces come close to the end of the game. As I mentioned in that music post, Gradius III contains one of the single best pieces of videogame music ever: Cosmo Plant. And yet somehow this track doesn’t play until the eighth stage (out of a total ten). What were they thinking?
That’s strange, but how about that notorious difficulty. As noted, there are ten stages of varying length. While the difficulty does vary somewhat from level to level, obstacles and bosses consistently outstay their welcome. Basically this is one relentlessly unapproachable game that wants to ensure you die…
There are egregious chokepoints throughout. Things really ramp up with the second boss, a weird bubble/eye boss who never goes down, seemingly. It stands out because the first boss goes down quickly. Shooting the boss’s weak spot is easy but as the fight goes on it shoots out balls, faster and faster, that bounce around the screen. The balls can be shot, except that they can pass through the eye, where they are unhittable and invisible. It even takes this expert player, with options and weapons at full power, a full 90 seconds.
Skipping to late in the game is the ice cube stage, level nine. It’s a fantastic, original level concept; a one-off with no mid-way checkpoints. That’s no problem early on, but it goes off the deep end at the end, when ice cubes start flying at you. OK, no sweat. Just wait it out. But then it never stops. While it seems this can be beaten legitimately, I could only do it by cheesing it. Even that is very challenging! You have to create a shield for yourself out of ice cubes, BUT! You absolutely have to ensure you are able to free yourself from it at the end of the onslaught. The level starts scrolling for a second afterwards, because… because… because no other reason than it’s a dick of game.
Finally, I want to shoutout an odd easter egg at the very end of the game. The final boss, as per Gradius tradition, is ludicrously easy. Leave him alone and he shoots out three slow moving blue flames. It’s the easiest thing in the world to dodge after the prior endurance test – a complete joke, in fact – but if you let yourself touch these, you don’t die. Instead your ship is warped to one of two bonus stages, the initial level of the first Gradius or Salamander. Very cool, but weird that this comes at the end of such a grueling challenge.