Author: John Legendoffzelda
Someone on the Twitter account of Internet personality Egoraptor detrimentally called Konami’s Super Nintendo beat-em-up games “quarter munchers”. Okay, they aren’t wrong, but that person kind of misrepresents a key idea about the way Konami made games back then. Konami wasn’t like Nintendo or Capcom back in the NES and Super NES days; their games weren’t heavy on innovation, with the exceptions of classics like Castlevania or Axelay. But what they lacked in innovation, those games made up for in rigor. Each game had one idea, repeated over and over in a way that promoted longevity – if the player was good, they were really good, and if they weren’t, they just kept playing until they got better.
Konami was a video game version of Frito-Lay, creating big bags of corn chips that the player could keep on eating. Gradius III, released in Japanese arcades in 1989, may have been a literal “quarter muncher”, but when ported to the Super Nintendo in August of 1991, it was as good of a Konami video game as any. While not totally great like Axelay or U.N. Squadron, it was still a good shmup, and more to the point, there was importance in being what it was. Back during the Super Nintendo’s North American launch, when the players’ interest had to be held tightly, a big bag of corn chips was what was needed.
One thing to admire about Gradius III is its straightforwardness. The game has just a slight pretense of a story, where the intrepid Vic Viper starship must destroy the evil Bacterion Empire (again), and from there doesn’t treat itself as anything special. The game sequences the action in a pattern recognizable from the first Gradius; the Vic Viper roams through space, against peppy synth music and a funny backdrop of colored pixels that make outer space look like a Windows 95 screensaver. The Viper enters a series of what could be alien planets, designed like tunnels and given strange topographical motifs, and flies forward until it encounters the boss. The boss is defeated, the planet then vanishes, and the adventure continues.
With each new game the action is preceded by a weapon-select screen. Here the player outfits the Viper with a series of alternate weapons, including missiles, lasers and little orbs of energy called “options”. They function as alternate ships, and can supply multiple streams of missiles and lasers. The player can choose a select package here or, new to Gradius III, customize their additional weapons themselves. There’s an eclectic assortment of enemies to blast through; from standard enemy spaceships to more memorable organic ones such as long, bendy dragons, giant bubbles, and (oddly enough) malevolent Moai heads. The Vic Viper controls well, which is expected, since it’s not very big in-game. It handles especially well with the speed booster power-up on. With all power-ups activated, holding down the fire button can make the player near-unstoppable.
The Viper collects its additional weapons one after another by collecting spiky power-up items and activating them from an on-screen menu, eventually becoming a force of firepower – until a stray projectile or so makes the player lose a life, in which case they must try to ascend the ladder again. Right here is the corn chip factor in this game: collecting all these weapons and having to recollect them contribute to continuing through the levels in different ways – one by making the player all-powerful, and the other by getting the player to get all-powerful again. It’s obvious, but also kind of ingenious.
But the one part of Gradius III that stands out the most would have to be its graphics – more specifically, the color scheme. Man, does Konami love blue and orange. Blue and orange is one of three main pairs of complimentary colors in the color spectrum, and their inclusion in Castlevania and this game would have to cement it as Konami’s favorite. Nearly every image in the game pops out thanks to this color scheme. There’s the cold, menacing blue of a laser, a cavernous enemy spacecraft with a nefarious slanting maze and large collapsing corridors, or the watery walls of an aquatic planet. Beside it is the warm, fiery orange of a projectile, an option, or the rippling flame walls of a fire planet; the pale orange of desert sand or the rich, angry orange of an erupting volcano. It even extends to power-up items; the orange ones activate weapons, and the blue ones eliminate all inorganic enemies on screen. The game is worth playing just for this beautiful color scheme being put in action.
The big knock against Gradius III has been that it was a very early Super Nintendo game, and is susceptible to slowdown. But it’s been over 20 years now, and I’m kind of tired of these complaints. Gradius III, as well as U.N. Squadron and Super R-Type, is just a game where the action needs to slow down sometimes. I say it heightens the player’s senses, and makes them more aware of their surroundings. Pac-Man Championship Edition does this thing where the action goes into a bullet-time mode when a monster gets close to Pac-Man, so that the player can come up with some sort of escape. I like to think of the slowdown in this game as a sort of prototypical bullet-time, to achieve the same purpose; yes, it may be clunky and probably unhelpful, but when life gives you lemons try and make lemonade.
No, Gradius III isn’t the best shmup game, not even for the Super Nintendo. It doesn’t have U.N. Squadron’s intricate mechanics (or sense of novelty), Axelay’s technological marvels or Super R-Type’s attention to detail. But it deserves a fair shake anyway, least of all because the simple color scheme is fantastic and the game controls like butter. It’s just an endearing, arcade-style game made the way Konami normally made them; easy to master and time-consuming to finish. Even if it was just to attract people to the Super Nintendo until more obvious classics came along, it did the job well. I say it did the job better than expected, but I just like corn chips.
Four out of five stars.
HAVE AN OPINION?
You can submit reviews for games on the Submissions page.