Genre: Scrolling Shooters
Original Release: July 13, 1991 (Super R-Type), December 11, 1989 (Gradius III)
Developers: IREM (Super R-Type), Konami (Gradius III)
Publishers: Nintendo, IREM, Retro-bit (Super R-Type), Konami (Gradius III)
Platforms: Super Nintendo, Arcade Cabinets (Gradius III)
Played on: Super Nintendo
Both Gradius III and Super R-Type were massive parts of my childhood. I’ve mentioned that my brother had a SNES in the garage and how my introduction to video games was Turtles in Time, but I also have vivid memories of both Gradius III and Super R-Type. In fact, those memories are so vivid that I can’t really talk about one without discussing the other as well.
See, my brother had some interesting titles in his collection. The two that caught me eye the most as a kid were Super R-Type and Gradius III. Want to guess why? Here’s the box art for both of them.
Yep. Giant space monsters. That’s the kind of thing that’d speak to any six-year old and I wanted to try it so bad. Both of the games thoroughly curbstomped me as a kid and believe it or not they still do today, even on their easier difficulties. But I find it’s worth examining the similarities and differences in both and where each one feels stronger than the other.
Both Super R-Type and Gradius III put you in control of their iconic ships: The R-9C and the Vic Viper, respectively. The controls are incredibly similar as well, but where Super R-Type has clearly labeled power-ups that do different things (speed increase, missiles, etc.), Gradius III handles this through the collection of universal power-ups. As you collect them, a different selection in the menu at the bottom of the screen will be highlighted, depending on the number you’ve picked up since you last banked them. This can range from speed increases to missiles, to lasers and more. Both have their merits and I can’t say I like or dislike one over the other. In fact, I’m actually working on my own game now and it’s essentially a clone of Gradius III, but I’ve been playing both titles daily to try and determine what I like from each. I think I have my answer, but let’s start by discussing gameplay.
Based on the above video, if you were to ask me which game I prefer based solely on gameplay, it would be Gradius III. Super R-Type is fine, but it’s hurt by the lack of control you have over when you acquire certain power-ups. You’ll notice that I hesitate before picking up the speed power-up. I took a moment to check with myself and try to determine the number of speed-ups I had already picked up. As you can tell, The R-9C gets much more difficult to move precisely the more-speed-ups you acquire. Gradius III’s menu, meanwhile, gives you more control over how fast you move (within reason, the lightning round needs at least two speed-ups active to get through it) in addition to letting you choose when to activate your missiles, options, or shield. More player agency is generally a good thing.
If, however, you were to ask me which game had better art direction, it would be Super R-Type.
Here’s the music for the starting level in each case. First up: Super R-type’s Solo Sortie.
Compare that to Gradius III’s first level: The Desert.
I can’t be too critical here, Gradius III was originally an arcade title, after all. It saw a re-release on the PlayStation 2 alongside Gradius IV, but I’ll cover that in its own piece.
Funnily enough, Super R-Type was also something of a port. Four of the seven stages were borrowed from R-Type II, so it’s more of a semi-port than a port proper. It also removed the checkpoint system, meaning that if you died, you started all the way back at the start. It wasn’t completely unforgiving though, unless you got a game over, you would start with your indestructible shooting attachment, called a Force. It wouldn’t have any special weapon variants right out of the gate, but being able to launch it ahead or behind and let it destroy anything coming your way could give you some much-needed breathing room.
Sadly, I don’t have my Super Nintendo hooked up at the moment for more screenshots, but it’s okay. I’m going to give both Super R-Type and Gradius III my recommendation. They’re both really solid games that approach the idea of a scrolling shooter differently, and both approaches have their merits. I’ve said my piece, so now I leave it to you to determine which one you like better for yourself.