I grew up thinking space was infested with monsters, massive killer plants, and Easter Island Heads thanks in large part to the classic shmup (shoot em’ up) series, Gradius.
The Gradius games were spacer shooters developed by Konami that also made space faring hip with its retro tunes and vibrantly deadly depictions of space battles. Playing as Vic Viper and fighting off against the Bacterian Empire, Gradius III was a launch title for the SNES that destroyed my thumbs and had me come face to face with a condition that I’d later learn had a name; the Gradius Syndrome (more on that later).
One of Gradius’ most distinguishing gameplay components is a power meter that functions as a weapon upgrade bar. Using a newly introduced edit mode, players could customize which weapons they wanted to upgrade. For example, with the shields, there are several choices; reduce shrinks your ship and hit box allowing you to get through tight spaces, while a rolling shield creates barriers that rotate around the Viper. The missile configurations can be switched up so that they fire in the direction you’d like; 2-way shoots up and down, while spread bombs are launched below the Viper and ahead. The Options are really important since they are companion drones that mimic the Viper’s actions. They can be stacked for up to four options, meaning fully powered, you can launch five lethal blows against enemies. Depending on which selections you make, you’ll have a very different experience through the stages.
The levels are frenetic as the game’s universe is unkind to lonely starfighters. Everything and anything wants to destroy the Viper. The stages usually open up with a prelude sequence; enemy crafts assault the Viper. They’re easy cannon fodder and leave behind power-ups that can be used to boost your abilities, which you’ll need.
Most of the levels have elemental themes to them, like the volcano stage full of magma or the desert world crawling with massive sand dragons. One of the most visually interesting levels was Bubble World which is full of gigantic bubbles that split apart into even more bubbles in a destruction-induced mitosis. Enemy ships come at you in waves so that it feels like you’re in bubble hell. The final boss is a freakish eyeball enclosed in a massive bubble that you have to perforate. This can take a lot of time depending on your weapon. I chose the Energy Laser, which fires a powerful concentrated beam, though the drawback is it takes time to charge. A few shots of that made mincemeat of the bubble shield and took out the eye. I do remember the first time I played through, I had stuck with the regular laser which, while firing more rapidly, was weaker and made the boss encounter last much longer. Again, the upgrade slots affect the gameplay experience.
Gradius 3 is hard, but if you can stay alive and upgrade your ship to its maximum capabilities, the starship becomes a miniature death star, handing out destruction against the Bacterion Empire and its planetary obstacles. The Vic Viper feels sluggish in its default setting, but several speed upgrades make it much more responsive (three seems to be the best number of upgrades as anything above that makes the ship feel slippery and too responsive). Unfortunately, if you die, you lose everything, setting the Viper back to the default settings. Levels that previously felt manageable suddenly become impossible- which is the Gradus Syndrome I mentioned earlier. This is especially bad if you die in a boss fight and have to go against it with your default weapons (to its credit, the developers do try to give you a few powerups before renewing the engagement).
As an unintended form of assistance, the SNES had a hard time handling so many sprites all at once, resulting in a lot of slow-down. It’s a bug that helps you avoid many of the obstacles by decelerating hostile objects and giving players the time to avoid them. Even with full upgrades, you have to be wary of Option Hunters. These are scorpion-like space creatures that strike when least expected so they can feast on your option. If your shield gets damaged, you either have to get a new shield, or if you’ve selected a full barrier shield boost for your ! setting, replenish it. Strategically, if you have enough power upgrades, you can leave them on the final selection and not get any more as the upgrade selection will cycle to the beginning if you do.
The developers eked out an entire eco-system in 16 bits, like the Moai stage which is full of Easter Island Head statues piled up in columns that spit out rings of death (I wonder how different this stage would have been if the developers had known the heads have bodies below them). The volcano world has been consumed with lava that has to be destroyed for you to cross, and there’s even boulders to obstruct your path. Add in legions of foes, and you’re suddenly swarmed from every direction with almost nowhere to escape. The Biomass stage is teeming with deadly plants and the Bulbous boss tries to suck the Vic Viper into its stomach like a vacuum hungering for spaceships. One of the most difficult stages is a sudden accelerated race through a series of planetary defenses where enemies fire in your direction. There’s also a boss rush where the Empire’s fleet tries to destroy the Viper.
The music throughout is awesome and the perfect groove for a bullet hell shoot em’ up. The final battle against the god of destruction, Bacterian is one of the easier bosses in the game. All the fortifications and stalwart defenses hide a weaker being whose greatest strength was in manipulating others to do its bidding. When the game ends, it repeats at a harder difficulty. The war against the god of destruction never ends. It just gets harder and harder.