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Arcade Archives: Gradius III (PlayStation 4) artwork

With the release of Gradius III on the PS4, this currently sets the Arcade Archives Gradius count to four; seven if you're a stickler about adding Super Cobra, Scramble, and Life Force. It's also chronologically the most recent by original release date, and you think that, logically, it would be the most advanced and impressive of the bunch. In few ways, yes, and in many regards, no. Konami's flagship horizontal shoot 'em up series has various memorable aspects, but two defining features, the first of which is a power-up selection bar. With every power-up obtained, the highlighter will shift to the right until it reaches an ability you want to activate; odd, but it does add an extra bit of tension to hectic situations. The other feature is its difficulty, as the series is not afraid to hound players with grueling enemy placement and projectiles, forcing twitch skills in stress-inducing encounters.

Having said that, the developers apparently thought each new Gradius title should be harder than the last, and this sequel is no exception. Unfortunately, this also makes the arcade version of Gradius III one of the most unbearable experiences in the series. Usually, the first stage in a game is a "gateway" designed to let players learn mechanics, how enemies move and attack, and understand distinct traits. This game, however, presumes you know how to play a Gradius game, and not only that, its starting stage is structurally-designed as if you're playing the second or third stage of a previous title. So you have a scenario where, in the first stage's desert surroundings, enemies are speedily moving along the ceiling, floor, center, and from behind with projectiles. If you die even once mid-way through here, you might as well perform a reset.

In prior titles, you spawn from checkpoints after losing a life, along with being deprived of all power-ups obtained. In the original Gradius, the game is designed in such a way that you actually have a chance to recover from your loss and beat the stage. The second game is somewhat similar until the final stages, where checkpoint placements feel more like punishments, putting you right in the middle of enemies already attacking your ship, making it near impossible to survive. This third game, for some inane reason, has decided to honor the asinine checkpoint placement of its immediate predecessor. So if you die in this title, you better hope it's at the start of each stage where they hand out power-ups; anywhere else is going to surround your depowered, slow Vic Viper with swift enemies. It's normally game over at that point.

"I can do it," you might be thinking, wanting to "dominate" the game by playing it the intended way. The first stage is the least of your worries; it's just that you need to maximize your ship powers for the following. What awaits in stage two? Bubbles. Specifically, a nonstop horde of giant bubbles that clog the screen. You can't dodge most of them, especially with enemy ships and turrets still firing, so you shoot the giant monstrosities. Unfortunately, they break into smaller pieces, which then break into even smaller pieces, clogging the screen yet again... This horrible sight keeps going for the entire duration of the stage, and the devs had the gall to make you fight a boss after all that. Die once and you're doomed. The second stage.

But if you somehow persevere, the subsequent stage is "traditional" fare that's reminiscent of the original Gradius mountain stage. However, normal enemies have become more aggressive since III's introductory stage, literally filling the screen with tiny projectiles that you must somehow dodge with a pointy spaceship. You can try reducing the numbers by destroying ships and turrets as they appear, but the devs thought about that and counter with enemies that spray projectiles in multiple directions. Simultaneously. From behind your ship. In groups. Worse, all this happens in the first half; stage three is one of the two longest stages in the game. The other? The finale.

The amount of reflex and mental duress intentionally placed on you is insane. Because not only do you have to wildly dodge and obliterate... well... everything on screen, but you must do this while already knowing enemy placements, the intervals between their fired shots, and the slowdown that constantly comes and goes. Imagine weaving through a wall of death pellets, all while predicting when the slowdown will end, forcing you to immediately compensate for speed... just to take out a lone turret or two. That may seem very insignificant, but a bullet coming from said turret could be your undoing. Speaking of slowdown: in any other game this would seem horrible, but it's actually the biggest advantage you have surviving onslaughts. And in some cases, that's still not enough.

Now... if for some reason you still want this, the Arcade Archives rendition has several "interesting" features. When you arrive at the AA menu, you're greeted with four versions of the game to suffer through. Unfortunately, the superior SNES port isn't here due to its status as a console title. Firstly, there's the original Japanese version presented in all its masochistic glory, along with an apparent newer version that doesn't seem all too different; if there are changes, they're incredibly minor. The Asian version acts like an "easy" mode due to its removal of certain enemy placements, as well as only removing one power-up per life lost. That might not sound like much, but it's very helpful in the early stages when you're trying to ease into the pain instead of leaping right into it.

The Custom version sounds the most promising by name alone, but you're just given a bunch of trivial options that won't make playthroughs more tolerable, with the only exception being a stage select feature. You're given this option instantly which, hilariously, makes this the best conversion of the arcade title; in the PS2 and PSP ports, you'd have to either complete each stage or the whole game to unlock access. Here, you don't need the life sucked out of your body trying to master a badly-designed game to experience it in full. Though, it's not really a "reward" when you realize these stages are brutal as the early ones... If anything, this begs the question: did the devs seriously expect players to make it through ten strenuous stages with basically a single life and no continue system?

Probably the most upsetting thing about Gradius III is how it could have been enjoyable. Starting with a space desert stage is a neat idea, especially with sand dragons and lions leaping from dunes; the bubbles should have been handled better, and does with a Gradius IV stage; then there's the maze section that forms as you're traveling through it. But these concepts are stuck behind an odd notion that crafting a game to be irritatingly hard will make it great by default, and that's just not how a game, a good one, should be made. The only real comfort to take away from Gradius III's inclusion in Hamster's Arcade Archives is that you have other, balanced games to choose from; the original Gradius and Life Force, for instance. Now if they could just get around to releasing the charming and entertaining Parodius spin-offs.


pickhut's avatar
Featured community review by pickhut (January 18, 2021)

Unfortunately, the last time SNES Gradius III has been available for download purchase was on the Wii's Virtual Console.


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