Holy crap was this game hard.
I used to have this ritual where every time I finished reading an article or wrapped up a review or proofread some part of a feature, I would play a bit of some game on SNESbox before getting back to work. It was a nice little break from the usual deluge of written words and granted me a chance to go back and play some of my favorite games from my childhood. This is where the Platform Nostalgia series was born. Over the course of weeks of mini game sessions, I would beat classics like Aladdin, the Donkey Kong Country games, and many more.
Then, just for shits and giggles, I loaded up Gradius III. What a mistake. What a god damn nightmare.
What a bloodbath.
When I first started playing, Gradius III started out pretty high on the Top Games list over at SNESbox. I’m talking somewhere around the top 20. And while the rest of the list has remained most unchanged, Gradius III now sits on the sixth page, hovering around the 80th most popular or so. I think people finally started to realize what a hard game it was and, you know, stopped.
But I didn’t. It took me well over a month of spitefully turning those little two-minute game breaks into hour-long ragefests, but Gradius III, a game I’d previously only sunk in about 20 minutes of my life, was finally defeated.
All those times I forgot to look ahead. All those times I crashed into a wall. All those times I felt cheated by a game clearly meant to be memorized and solved. All those hair-graying moments wiped clean by victory. My pride is healing up quite nicely, in fact.
After (and during, I guess) that ordeal, it dawned on me that some people—those arcade dwellers—had to exactly what I was doing but in one fell swoop. In its original 1989 incarnation, Gradius III did not have a continue option upon losing every life. They had to start over every single time, right from the beginning with a ship that moved like frozen gravy and shot out what felt like impotent Fruity Pebbles. They had to not only remember what killed them the last time and understand how to fix it but they also had to do that for the thousands of other deadly predicaments that come before it. You might as well try to build a house of cards in a room full of monkeys.
But that is somewhat unfair to the game as it is actually quite fair. Gradius III is extremely fair, in fact, just unforgiving. Even those times I felt cheated by shrinking walls and boss patterns that were inescapable unless you lucked out or you knew what was going to happen, they could have been avoided altogether with incredible ship speeds and similarly incredible reaction time. And if you can handle that, you can handle the rest of the game, but I can’t. After just three or four speed upgrades (one of which was necessary to beat the boss that sucks you up), I found the simple act of navigating the game absolutely harrowing. I did not even meet the minimum requirements to beat the game without a Home Alone-style blueprint.
In that way, Gradius III may be the purest example of a video game challenge I’ve had of late. It’s different from bullet hell games in that the difficulty doesn’t come from a ludicrous amount of hostile objects providing a narrow path that must be precisely navigated nor any sort of requirement of shooting accuracy but instead is born from its puzzle-like nature. It presents a predetermined set of obstacles that can mutate and warp but is always solvable given deliberate and deft movement. It’s not about precision (though it does require it); Gradius III is about crisis management.
You’ll have to determine how best to move to use your tailing power orbs to destroy other ships or absorb hits. You’ll have to figure out which things need to be blown up before other things. You’ll have to figure out when a laser and when a double blaster best suits your needs and if you can earn enough power-up balls to get back the other. Do you purposefully take a few hits so you can renew your shield or do you save up for the screen-clearing bomb? Like I said: crisis management.
The opening moments of the game are most obviously like a puzzle to me—more like chess, really. As previously mentioned, you move pretty much like molasses stuck in molasses without any speed upgrades and shoot water from a crimped garden hose. Your opening gambit will then be a question of firepower or evasion. I always opted for using the first two rows of enemies for speed and then dumped everything into weapons. That usually served me well up until 30 to 40 seconds later.
Eventually I had to give up on the ridiculous notion of not abusing the emulator’s save/load state feature. With just the built-in continue option (the 1991 SNES version saw fit to grace home players with such luxury), I was inching my way forward. It eventually became highly reminiscent of playing modern Call of Duty games on Veteran where through a lengthy series of trial and error, you eventually deduced the exact movements and shots you had to take to get you to the next checkpoint. It was the same here, but waaaaayyyy slower. So after getting through two bosses over the course of two weeks, I was done. I just wanted to beat the game. Load, save, load, save, load, save. Eventually I was fully decked out with weapons, shields, and those glowy ball friends and had amassed a sizable stockpile of additional lives.
And Gradius III still kicked my ass.