Gradius III – Gradius Portable Guidebook Interview

Itou Yoshitaka: Programmer. Worked on all aspects of the player ship in Gradius III. He is known for Asterix (AC) and other games.

Miyoshi Takemasa: Designer. In charge of backgrounds and player, enemy, and boss designs. His representative works include Gradius 2 (MSX), Pardious Da! (AC), and Gradius III (SFC).

Kaneda Junichirou: Sound Director. In addition the boss music, he also contributed to the sound effects. His other works include Gradius NEO and the Pop’n Music series.

Stage 1 – Desert

Miyoshi: In our original plans, this stage was going to be two vertical screens wide, and you could scroll between the sky and ground sections. But this design made it difficult for the player to encounter the enemies because there was too much open space, and it interfered with the interesting ideas we had intended to include, so reduced it to a single screen. Also, the boss for this stage was originally meant for the lava stage, but our hardware was upgraded during the development and we ended up having to change the bosses and stages around. Everything had to be restructured and re-placed. I think this stage changed the most, as a result.

Kaneda: I remember people told us that the dragon coming out of the sand was too cute looking, and we should change it. (laughs)

Miyoshi: They said the same thing about the sand lions. (laughs) At first I thought we’d have to remove them, but I thought to myself, if you look at it from the perspective of the game difficulty, weren’t they perfect for the easier first stage? So we left them in. As for the antlion boss “Goliath,” that was a very straightforward design.

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Early concept art for the stages in Gradius III.

Stage 2 – Bubble

Miyoshi: The Bubble stage didn’t change much from our initial plans. Although the setting and the enemies are different, our concern from the beginning was, in terms of gameplay, how to differentiate it from the Crystal stage in Gradius II.

Itou: For the location test version, I remember the first stage was the desert, but I don’t really remember what stage 2 was.

Miyoshi: The main thing with location tests was seeing how the enemy placement was working, so we didn’t really pay much attention to the order of the stages. After the stages had been completed to a certain degree, we’d have a general meeting with everyone, but I don’t really remember clearly saying this was going to be stage 2 then, either. As for the boss, Bubble Eye, our first idea was that he’d be a huge ball of liquid, and as you shot him, he’d break apart into innumerable smaller bubbles. But we felt that just destroying some ball of liquid wouldn’t really give the player much sense of accomplishment, so we came up with the idea of an eyeball in the core that was feeding like a parasite off all the liquid bubbles. This added a grotesque organic quality to the boss. Its important that bosses are memorable, you know. (laughs)

Stage 3 – Volcano section

Miyoshi: In a word: long. (laughs) You might think we made it long because it was the final stage for the beginner’s mode, but that wasn’t our intention. As for the beginner mode itself, we added it because we realized the game had become something incredibly difficult, and we wanted people to be able to clear the game, at least in a limited fashion.

Itou: I seem to remember adding the beginner mode after the location tests. I think it was the very last thing we added to the game, actually.

Miyoshi: The response from the players at the location test regarding the difficulty was pretty critical, so we added it to appease them.

Itou: Yeah, there was no beginner mode during the development, it was only added at the end.

Miyoshi: Graphically speaking, there’s no differences between normal and beginner. And the difficulty is just as unforgiving for the beginner mode stages. (laughs) I believe some fans treat beginner mode as a score attack nowadays.

Stage 3 – Underground Base section

Miyoshi: We’d had the idea digging through walls with your shot since the original Gradius, but for Gradius III we wanted to give the player freedom to carve his own route through the stage. But if you shoot too much, boulders will suddenly fall on you and block your path, and we thought this would add to the fun of choosing your own path. The godorei 1 characters that come out at the end of the stage was my personal touch. (laughs) I added them since I really like the Iron Maiden enemy from the original Gradius. My original idea for that enemy was to have them lying in wait, camouflaged by the boulder that covers their upper half, and then they’d suddenly fly out and surprise the player. But in the end we just made them act the same way as they did in the original Gradius.

The boss for this stage, Big Core Mk-III, is my personal favorite… I love the visual impact and presence he conveys. Due to memory limitations we had to shrink him down for the Super Famicom version, but in the arcade version we could do it properly, with an imposing, heavily armored exterior. But the reflecting laser didn’t quite work right for the arcade version… we corrected it for the SFC though. I’m glad we had the SFC version to correct all those bugs we couldn’t fix for the arcade.

Stage 4 – High Speed

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Some enemy designs that didn’t
make it into the final version of Gradius III.

Kaneda: The idea for a 3D stage came from a conversation about what new ideas we could bring to the Gradius series, right?

Miyoshi: In Gradius II, there was a horizontally scrolling high speed stage. But just repeating yourself is meaningless, so we opted for a 3D high speed course this time. And we had never done a 3D stage with Gradius before. In the planning stage, however, we wanted it to be full 3D, with totally free movement. But due to various circumstances we had to abandon that.

Itou: It was really difficult doing 3D graphics with the hardware back then. It was all 2D, but we tried to give it a pseudo-3D look.

Stage 5 – Moai

Miyoshi: For the “rolling moai,” I remember the Director coming to us one day and saying suddenly “Let’s add this!” (laughs) The stage was originally envisioned as your typical Moai stage, with lots of Moai spewing out ion rings… then somewhere along the way those Moai spinning in space appeared. (laughs) By the way, our lead designer at the time had never seen the rear side of a Moai head it seems, (laughs) and he was really stressing out over how to draw it correctly. Finally I think he built a real physical model of a Moai and used it to make an animation model. About the totem moais, those were based on the winning entry from a Gradius III idea submission contest we published in Gamest. There were lots of similar ideas from that contest, but we selected this one, revised it a little, and added it in.

Stage 6 – Cell

Miyoshi: As the theme for this stage was “cell,” we wanted it to be fully saturated with that fleshy, organic feeling. In the planning stages, this was originally going to be a stage like the artificial sun stage of Gradius II, with infinite vertical scrolling and humongous cell bodies floating about like planets. However, if we did that right after the Moai stage, it would mean you’d have back-to-back infinite scrolling stages, so we changed it to be like the cell stage from the original Gradius, where you shoot and dig your way through the cell walls.

The boss Gregol is of the brain golem family seen in Salamander, but the Golem boss in Salamander moves slowly, right? I worked hard to make this one more active, with its snakelike body, to make the player feel more pressured. I wanted it to look like some grotesque frankenstein of organic parts.

Stage 7 – Lava

Miyoshi: With all the flying enemies and lava shrapnel, we wanted this stage to be all about dodging. The last part where its really narrow is especially difficult.

Kaneda: The Wyvern boss for this stage was originally the boss of the desert stage. He looked a bit cuter then too. (laughs)

Miyoshi: A different designer was leading this section, so I wasn’t very involved in the particulars. (laughs) The truth is the dragon boss was designed with the image of the desert stage in mind, and when, in the middle of development, it was decided to add a lava stage and use this boss, I was like, “What!?” (laughs) But having him be in the midst of all those burning flames was pretty cool, so I guess it was the correct decision after all.

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Sketches of stage design.

Stage 8 – Plant

Miyoshi: At the earliest stages of development, this stage was made up solely of plantlife. But, as we worked on it, we felt it was very difficult to give the right sense of danger because the stage design was based on the mild, gentle color of green. We tried to use the cell stage of Gradius as a reference, but it was very difficult to get the image right. So finally we changed it: we made it so there aren’t many plants in the beginning of the stage, but as you get deeper into the stage the plantlife starts to encroach more and more, until you finally encounter the cause of it, the stage boss.

Itou: The plant stage was the very first we completed, right?

Miyoshi: That’s right. We first worked on those stages (Sand, Bubble, and Plant) that we thought had new or different gameplay elements. We then put them together to display at the game show. (laughs) Normally in a STG, you die by colliding with a bullet or enemy, but we wanted to showcase some of the surprising moments in Gradius III, like the way the plant boss tries to suck you in, or the ivy that tries to snare and entangle the Vic Viper. The fact that it feels easy for such a late stage is probably due to our overreliance on such gimmicks.

Stage 9 – Crystal

Itou: The motif for this stage was a certain puzzle game that was popular at the time. (laughs)

Miyoshi: This is a stage the Director was saying he wanted to include. The root of the idea came from a non-3D high speed stage we were initially planning. But it would be different from Gradius II: this time mechanical parts and debris would fly at you and form together to make the stage map as you went. You’d have to quickly decide on which route to take. That idea for things flying at you and piling up had been around for awhile, and it led to the Crystal stage.

By the way, I remember after we released Gradius III, I saw a player during the final cube rush stay on the edge of the screen and let the cubes accumulate there. It was the first time I had ever seen that, and I thought, “ah, that’s one way to do it!” (laughs) During development we had intended for players to dodge each cube individually.

Itou: We deliberately made that part in an attempt to kill the player. (laughs) We wanted to make them dodge the entire time. Our intention wasn’t for the player to hide while the cubes piled up, but rather as the cubes piled up, you’d have no choice but to keep moving forward, and the dodging would get harder and harder.

Miyoshi: People have said that this stage isn’t actually clearable, but as developers we tested each stage and confirmed it could be cleared. So no matter how difficult it might get, I’m confident that it is possible.

Kaneda: I could never get past the cell stage. (laughs)

Miyoshi: At the time I was pretty confident about my STG abilities so I played a lot. I felt like if I concentrated and applied myself, I could manage most any game. Though if someone asked me to repeat my performance it might not go so well. (laughs) For the Lizard Core boss, since it was a crystal stage, the boss had to be a crystal boss. Its the traditional “core” type boss, with an updated tentacle and attack pattern.

Stage 10 – Boss Rush

Miyoshi: On this stage all the bosses from Gradius II reappear. They’re all pretty weak, but we thought that would make the boss Bellinger Core (known as Dellinger Core, but during the planning we called him Bellinger) appear stronger by contrast. Also, this stage is something of a fan service stage, so I think we didn’t want to make the boss rush too challenging.

Itou: Though I would like to add, I believe it was an accident that Covered Core doesn’t actually use his cover. (laughs)

Miyoshi: By the way, when Dellinger Core emerges from the crater, the image I wanted players to have was that they’d arrived at the planet, and this planet itself was the Mechanical Base of the next stage. Its meant to feel like that boss comes out of the base to challenge the Vic Viper and stop him from entering. As for my design ideas for Dellinger Core, I wanted a boss whose appearance and attack patterns would evolve as the fight went on.

Stage 10 – Mechanical Base

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Draft version of an alternate final stage.

Miyoshi: The part with the Gaameido laser cannon enemies who leave their wreckage behind when they die was meant to be the ultimate pattern memorization. Deciding what weapon to use and when to kill them in order to make a clear path through was difficult, but… therein lies the fun of it. (laughs) When we made the rotating laser section, our intention was for it to be easy to dodge because the rotation would be fixed, but it gets difficult if you cause slowdown with your shot. That was unintentional.

Stage 10 – Final Boss

Miyoshi: We wanted Disrupt to be the biggest, most complex midboss the series had seen. For Shadow Gear, the truth is, we designed him with flexible joints and wanted him to have more organic movement, but the programmers said it was impossible due to schedule constraints. (laughs) And up till the end we were really stressed about what to do for the final boss. Finally, without thinking too deeply we just asked ourselves plainly, “what IS a bacterian?” And our answer was that organic, repulsive creature.

Itou: The truth is, Gradius III was meant to be the conclusion of the Gradius series.

Miyoshi: Yeah, the original subtitle during the planning drafts was not “densetsu kara shinwa e” 2 , but rather “saigo no shitou” 3 . In any event we were going to end the Gradius series here and start to work creating a new series. So we wanted to give a clear explanation of the Bacterians, who had been described pretty vaguely up till then. Of course, new Gradius games keep coming out, so… (laughs)

Regarding the final high speed area, we thought that just escaping unscathed after you took out the final boss would be unrealistic. (laughs) Also, the ending scene shows the Vic Viper exiting through an escape hatch, so we wanted to link up with that too. I remember the Director realized that hatch was in the ending and immediately went about updating the stage map. (laughs) There’s a lot of vertical movement required in that sequence so if you don’t have enough speed its impossible, but I think that was done intentionally… I mean, we did test it and make sure it could be done. (laughs)

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More sketches of stage design.

Hidden “Gradius” and “Salamander” stages

Kaneda: As the sound director, I believe I remember suddenly being told to add these stages in the middle of the development?

Miyoshi: I knew someone was working on it, but didn’t they just use the code from Gradius and Salamander?

Itou: I have a feeling they just ripped the stage character data from there. I believe the Director was saying he was going to make these stages.

Miyoshi: He kept saying he wasn’t doing it as a joke, but that he was trying to faithfully recreate them. (laughs)

The Concept for the 3rd Gradius

Kaneda: I think I remember talking about how Gradius III was meant to be a summation or compilation of the Gradius series?

Miyoshi: When we first decided to make Gradius III, the team was only the director, two designers, two sound engineers, and one person on the hardware side.

Kaneda: We also only had one programmer to begin with.

Miyoshi: Yeah, I wasn’t around during the initial planning stage either. I was on the console development team, and we were talking about what to make for the newly released Super Famicom. Then we talked about porting Gradius III, which was stil in development, and it was decided that it would be easier to port if I had firsthand experience with the arcade development. So I was hastily put on the arcade team. (laughs) But we had heard this was the “final Gradius,” so we proceeded under that belief.

Development Period

Itou: It took about 12 months to finish the master program, I think. I recall that the producer had a wedding, and he kept moving the deadline around so he could make his wedding date in time. (laughs)

Kaneda: Yeah, that was a lot of pressure.

Itou: He had a long honeymoon planned after the wedding, so I remember he kept asking us “are we gonna make it?” while we worked. (laughs)

Miyoshi: The designers have to finish before the programmers can start, and I remember our schedule being very short. On top of that, Konami was very involved in publicity efforts with game magazines, so every month we had to update them with our status reports. It was really tiring.

The Gamest Reader Idea Submission Contest

Miyoshi: We didn’t have to use the winner’s idea exactly as it was submitted. We were free to use just the gist of it and expand or add to it as we saw fit. So it was actually difficult to decide on whose idea and exactly how much of it to incorporate.

Itou: We had a notebook with all of the submitted ideas, but we didn’t just use them as-is.

Kaneda: Yeah, we used them more as seeds from which to develop an idea.

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Early ideas for weapons.

The Many Weapons of Gradius III

Itou: I believe we ended up including almost all the weapons from our planning documents. Even then I remember discussing if we couldn’t have more, and searching through the ideas submitted from the Gamest contest. (laughs)

Miyoshi: Personally, I like the twin laser. Its a rapid-fire laser and it looks nice on-screen. I always select it without thinking whenever I play. (laughs)

The [!] in the Power Gauge

Miyoshi: As you might expect, we added the [!] to the power gauge simply because we wanted to add some new kind of power-up. I think the most useful was the one that lowers your speed when you’ve taken too many speed power-ups. The mega crush can be useful too, but usually you just die before getting to use it. (laughs) The speed down is useful on the Plant stage, for instance. If you have 3 speed ups, you can easily dodge the plant tendrils, but after that its dangerous to have too much speed.

Playtesting

Kaneda: I don’t believe we did a complete run-through of every stage in our playtesting, did we?

Miyoshi: For bug checking, we preferred to let the person who designed the stage see if he could clear it or not, so you become a specialist regarding your own stage. But since each stage was checked individually, with each person saying “its all good!” if they could clear their own stage, I don’t know if anybody checked it all from stage 1…?

Kaneda: I don’t think any of us even could. (laughs)

Miyoshi: I remember someone bug checked the complete playthrough by credit feeding.

The Drama Track from the CD Soundtrack

Kaneda: Its 100% a true story… more or less. (laughs) The characters were based on the actual staff of the time. I completed it pretty quickly because the story came from actual experiences of mine, like the time I wrote the Kuchuusen intro melody for Gradius but forgot to put it in the game. 4 (laughs)

Knowing this was a shooting game, I wanted the music to be upbeat and rousing. And since there were many stages, I wanted each one to have a distinct feel. The composers who had worked on the previous Gradius games told me they wanted to do something different this time, like choir vocals for example. The songs I wrote were the boss theme, “Dark Force,” and the music for the Gradius and Salamander stages. I also wrote the intro for Higashino’s “Try to Star.” I also remember that I thought the ranking theme I had written was really great, but there was another sound director there who didn’t like it much. (laughs) He said it was too short and too bright, and wouldn’t fit… so it was rejected at first. I think this soundtrack cd has so many catchy tunes, its great to listen to just as normal music. 5 years ago a new employee at Konami came up to me and asked me to sign his copy. I signed it and told him he should go get everyone’s signature. (laughs) I have a lot of personal memories surrounding this cd.

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Concept art for the SFC version. The art was given an updated
anime look due to the younger demographic of SFC players at the time.

The Super Famicom version

Miyoshi: I know the fans wanted a 100% arcade accurate port, but the team we chose for the SFC development didn’t have the same level of skill as the arcade team. There were also limitations with the hardware which made some things impossible. But we were able to include things we couldn’t do with the arcade hardware, and we did fix certain bugs.

Looking back at Gradius III

Miyoshi: There are parts I’m embarassed about, and things that concern me in terms of gameplay. But there’s people who like those aspects of Gradius III all the same, and whenever I’d notice a player at a game center storm off from the cabinet saying “this game is impossible!”, another person would quickly take his place. (laughs) Several years later, when I had returned to console development, people would tell me “You made Gradius III! I love that game!” (laughs) At times like that I’m very grateful I was able to be a part of it. There’s imperfections, but you can still feel that its a part of this beloved series. And since I also worked on the SFC port, I feel a sense of satisfaction and completion regarding Gradius III.

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Gradius III flyer from an AOU show.

Kaneda: What I can say first and foremost is that Gradius III was a project you look back on and say, I’m glad I was a part of it. Its the Gradius series, so it was a great honor to be doing work that would reach such a wide audience. However, I don’t ever want to see another sunrise from the company office windows… although it would happen many times after Gradius III. (laughs) I was in my 20s then, and it wil always be one of the fond memories of my youth.

Itou: My work prior to Gradius III wasn’t that stressful, so this was really challenging. Our schedule was very tight and I remember being very stressed out. On Monday morning I’d change into my work clothes, and work would continue straight through Friday with no breaks. I worked on difficult projects after this, but I feel this was the most taxing. But thanks to Gradius III, I came to learn how to say “I can do this!” even in the face of the most difficult work.