It’s hard to believe now, when a new system is just a $600 barrier to prevent playing Final Fantasy: The Next Generation, but back in 1991, the launch of the Super Nintendo was practically a religious experience. The Nintendo Entertainment System had redefined gaming, and, while there had been about 7,000 different Atari iterations, the NES, to my childish mind, was a system that would be the same forever. Little gray cartridges, gently blown, would be slotted into that equally gray box until the end of time, and Mega Man 34 (featuring Sad Man) should be coming out this Christmas. You have to remember, the NES went from barely being able to support an arcade port of 75% of Donkey Kong to pumping out the gothic masterpiece that was Castlevania 3, so there was no reason to believe there could even be a ceiling to the little system that could: we’d just play NES games forever.
But, no, for the betterment of all mankind, Nintendo (Power) announced the Super Nintendo Entertainment System, a video game console with an unfathomable 16-bits of processing power (whatever that means), a new controller with double the buttons (L & R? What the hell?), and a cartridge slot that didn’t make that unfortunate creaking noise (not widely advertised). As one may expect, I begged my parents for the latest in entertainment, because, surely, this must be the apex of gaming, nay, civilization, and I would never need anything new ever again… aside from the myriad of new SNES games, of course. But still! I mean, how could I live without the SNES? It had a new Mario Bros. game, for crying out loud!
So, Christmas, 1991, I received a new Super Nintendo and three new SNES games, because I was spoiled like last month’s milk. Super Mario World was a given, as this was the golden era when video game systems actually came with games, as opposed to demos (later), download codes (much later), or absolutely nothing (I hate you, N64). The other fruits of my bounty were Final Fight (the only single player game that I received/a sin against God) and Gradius III. I had actually used Final Fight as an example of the kind of amazing games that would now be available at home (I spent a lot of time at the arcade, so I did my best to convince my parents that this system/game would be an investment that would save them money/gas), so it was no great surprise when that arrived under the Christmas tree. Gradius III, however, was a complete mystery to me, and, to this day, I’m not certain as to why it was chosen for that precious third slot (which, as my birthday is in late April, would be the last I’d see a new game until Spring). Aside from a clerk just recommending whatever stock he wanted to deplete, the best I can figure is that I already had Gradius for NES, and my parents had seen me playing the game, so they decided to pick up the sequel.
Only problem? I hated Gradius.
Gradius belongs to the space shmup genre, and the record will show that I enjoy that genre very much. Now. Back then, however, Gradius was practically my kryptonite. A to jump, B to run? I could finish that game in an hour. A to jump, B to shoot? Nothing to it, I’ll see an enemy base exploding by nightfall. Even something weird like that top-down elf simulator with the old man handing out swords was doable after a few a stops and starts. But Gradius? And similar games, like Abadox or Life Force? Forget it. I distinctly remember renting Abadox as a child, and never making it past the second level even after playing it continuously for three days. I, just now, pulled up a video of Gradius and… let’s see here… yes, I don’t think I ever consistently made it past the third, Moai based level. And I know I never beat that game, as I never forget a giant brain. I owned Gradius as a child, which makes it one of those rarified NES games I played constantly (because I’m pretty sure there were something like 68 hours in a day when I was a child), but I barely ever made it past level three.
I was good at other video games. I could beat other video games. Clearly, the problem was with the game.
So, let us return to that fateful Christmas. I distinctly recall that, by Christmas Dinner (about 5 PM, my holidays were always carefully regimented as a child), I had to be torn away from Super Mario’s World, where I had already reached Star Road 5. After the meal, I would see Special World conquered before Boxing Day. Final Fight was a game I was “saving” for my best friend and neighbor with whom I had trounced Double Dragon II, and, two player or not, Metro City had been saved before the new year. But Gradius III? I’m completely certain my SNES never saw that game’s ending, but saw its Level 1 more times than I ever booted the Virtual Boy.
And it’s a shame, too, because Gradius III has some really interesting levels. Yes, they’re all just auto-scrolling shoot ‘em up bullet gauntlets, but they’re not just grass world, ice world, desert world, techno world like so many lesser games would have puked out. Some of the stages include some really interesting vistas that even use those old tropes to great effect, like the flaming world that births some particularly nasty dragons. I’d make the assertion that every single one of Gradius III’s stages are memorable, possibly with the exception of Level 3, though that world seems like a loving homage to the original Gradius more than anything else, and includes an underground area, so, really, what is there to complain about?
But, despite my (literally) best efforts, I could barely pilot the Vic Viper out of Moai World’s gravity. I can actually tell you the exact spot that ended my quests so many times, and that’s the plantasaurus rex creature at the end of the vegetation planet, Level 6. Two of my favorite levels follow that boss, and I can’t tell if I genuinely enjoyed those stages as a kid, or if I was just so elated to ever see those worlds after so many wasted deaths. I would have been happy to beat Gradius III, but even more than that, I just wanted to see what the rest of the game had to offer.
I have no idea when I actually finally “got good” at shmups. I want to say it was sometime around when I started playing Death Smiles, a game I purchased because the “special edition” had dropped in value to somewhere around the cost of a gumball. Somehow, I found I was really quite good at the game, and, sometime shortly thereafter, I returned to the shmups that had tormented me in my youth, and blasted all the cores I could find. Maybe I had gotten better at pattern recognition, or my TV had gotten large enough to actually see what was happening, or maybe Bangai-O rewired my DNA. I don’t know, but, coupled with their delightfully limited length, the shmup went from something I feared like the plague to one of my most preferred genres, second only to games that can be described as “Like Mega Man, but”.
Gradius III and I may have reconciled, but I’ll never forget that utter feeling of helplessness when faced with a completely insurmountable challenge. So, the next time you hear someone railing against Nintendo’s love of “super guides”, or tutorials and modern innovations making franchises that used to be difficult “too easy’, remember that there’s a kid out there just trying to enjoy his Christmas present, and hoping that this time, maybe, he’ll finally see Level 7. There’s a great big galaxy out there, why not open it up for everybody?
FGC #66 Gradius III
- System: Super Nintendo, and available on the Wii Virtual Console.
- Number of Players: 2, alternating. Lord British flies again!
- Port-o-Call: There’s also the original Arcade version, which I believe saw release on the Playstation 2 as part of a compilation. It is, basically, an entirely different game, and completely impossible.
- Impossible? If you thought the SNES version was difficult, the arcade version barely makes it to the Level 2 Bubble Boss before it turns into an absolute bullet hell, and then never lets up. And there’s no continues. And option stealers steal all of your options. And every once in a while, a little man exits the arcade cabinet and kicks you right in the balls. If you don’t have balls, he just stares at you in an unsettling manner.
- Favorite Stage: World 8, “Mayors on Parade” aka the Boss Rush. I could play level after level of just nothing but Gradius bosses. Somebody at Treasure, evidently, agrees.
- Favorite Weapon Setup: Here it is.
Is it the reason I couldn’t get anywhere for years? I don’t know, but I do know that I enjoy charging lasers. It’s like Mega Man, but in space.
- Konami Code: I want to say this is the only video game, ever, where the precious Konami Code outright kills you. If you want all your powerups at once, you’re going to have to use those new fangled L & R buttons. I don’t think that permutation of the code ever returned, either. You’re weird, Gradius III.
- Did you know? I want to say the arcade version of Gradius III is the worst cabinet to ever hit the arcade. As mentioned, there’s no continues, but it’s longer than the home version. The end result? 25¢ for a game that is over an hour long. That’s just bad math! Well, okay, it would likely take a million quarters to actually get good enough to do that, but it still seems like poor design. Maybe next time just make the whole thing a pachinko machine.
- Would I play again: Yeah, probably. The nostalgia is strong with this one, and, for all my deaths as a child, it feels oddly empowering to revisit the game and blow all those planets to smithereens. Not like we’re getting any new Gradius games, anyway…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Xenoblade Chronicles! ROB, you rascally child of mechonis, have you been getting jealous of my side projects? Oh well, seems like a good time to hit this one anyway, so it’s Shulk time! Come on, you bunch of jokers, look forward to it!