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Gradius III

The early days of the SNES saw many arcade ports, most of which were somewhat designed to show off the power of the new console.  Gradius III was one of those early games that managed to do just that while also falling flat on its face.  Despite that it still manages to be a good game with some major and minor differences from the arcade to make it worth a look for fans of the series.

Gradius III was released for the SNES in Japan in 1990 and the fall of 1991 for the US.  The Vic Viper returns to battle the forces of the Bacterion Empire.   Featuring a number of improvements over Gradius II in many ways it still borrowed or recycled elements from that game, disappointing some.  The SNES port was largely the same as the arcade game but better balanced for home play making it a better game in my opinion.  The arcade game was never released in the US until its inclusion as part of Gradius III & IV on PS2 and the Gradius Collection on PSP.  This would be our first taste of the game.

The first things you’ll see upon booting up the game are your weapon selections.  Split between Type Select and Edit Mode, there are exclusive weapons for each making the choice not as clear cut as it would seem.  Edit Mode is something fans long wished for and lives up to its name, with decisions broken down into six categories with plenty of choices. It definitely lives up to its promise with an insane amount of choices to mix and match.

Honestly, Edit Mode is the way to go. You have access to the overpowered Energy Laser and probably the single greatest weapon, Reduce, which reduces the size of the Vic Viper and acts as a life bar of sorts; each hit received only brings you closer to your original size.  Between the rotating options, the crusher laser that can act as a functional shield while charging, and reduce you are practically invincible.  At least that’s how I play.  The unbridled freedom to mix and match is a Gradius fan’s dream come true. Regardless of your choice of armaments, you’ll need them for the brutal journey ahead.

Comprised of 10 levels, the trip to fight the Bacterion leader will take you through all manner of environments, from the Sand dunes of the first planet to the underground portions of level 3.  Each level has some form of gimmick or environmental hazard to contend with, be it the multiplying bubbles of stage 2 or the break neck pace of the Speed Zone of stage 8.  Despite your vast array of weapons it’s very easy to develop tunnel vision and only focus on what’s directly in front of you and die by an otherwise easy to dodge projectile or enemy.  The variety of the levels is the game’s greatest strength as you jet from one set piece to the next.  The Moai level, the Plant zone, even the boss rush towards the end, no two levels are the same.

While it has been rebalanced Gradius III still puts up a decent challenge.  You only have a few continues and the game is long by shooter standards.  If you die on a boss or an unfortunate section of a level you are all but screwed since you’ll have nothing but the standard pea shooter and maybe one or two power-ups to defeat the bosses.

Some of the flashier elements of the arcade game were excised when bringing the game home.  The third person bonus stage is gone although to tell you the truth it wasn’t all that great to begin with.  What does suck are the enemies removed from the game, such as an enormous fire dragon on the fire level that acts as a mid boss.   The SNES port does feature better graphics than the arcade game in many respects, with additional background scrolling absent from the arcade’s levels and many stages increasing in length.  Many of the bosses truly show off the SNES’s increased power over its younger brother; bottom line if you wanted to showcase just what your new console could do this was one of its stronger games at launch.

The one major dent in the game’s presentation would be the slowdown.  There’s no sugar coating it, it’s bad, man.  The game will slow to a crawl at least once per stage which you could see as a bane or boon, depending on the situation.   This was a frequent problem in early SNES software, something that would largely disappear in the years that would follow.  The soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, with an orchestral arrangement rather than the standard pseudo rock tunes that accompany many shooters.

I’m not even the biggest fan of the shmup genre and I still love this game.  If the slowdown bothers you Gradius III & IV on PS2 and the PSP collection might be your cup of tea although it is a straight port of the arcade game and lacks many of the changes here.  Regardless every shooter fan should play this and those that aren’t might find something they like.

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