Gradius III (1991 - SNES)
Gradius III is one of the earliest SNES releases, and yet remains one of the best and most epic space shooters the system had seen. It is not an exact port of its arcade counterpart, it is more of a reimagining with some ideas from other Gradius games thrown in, but after watching some YouTube videos of the arcade version, I'm left wondering if it's actually better in some ways. Sure, there's a bit of slowdown when your ship has a full set of power-ups (though you might actually welcome it when you realize how much harder it is to dodge things when the game is running at full speed), it seems like some of the changes were for the better. A high-speed flight through a maze of corridors replaces the awkward first-person level from the arcade version. The Moai and Shadow Dancer bosses are more interesting on the SNES version.
It's almost impossible to talk about any Gradius game without mentioning that it does feel like the point of them is to beat them in one life, due to the series' infamous speed-up system. Without any speed-ups, the ship is too slow to avoid obstacles, and dying means you lose your speed-ups and everything else. You may not be able to regain enough power-ups to survive before you're wiped out again.
There is one part towards the end of the game where this becomes a serious do-or-die situation. The ceiling and floor tiles rip up from the top and bottom of the screen and converge at high speed on your ship. It is very difficult to find openings in this pattern and even with a full set of power-ups, the tiles are not easily cleared away.
What this means is that you basically get one shot at this. If you die, you will not likely survive it on your next attempt with no power-ups. No amount of extra lives in reserve will help. You would have to start the game all over again... Except that Gradius III mercifully contains a power-up code (a slight alteration of the infamous "Konami Code"), that will give you a fighting chance at practicing this part (or any other parts you might be having trouble with). It comes down to whether or not you feel it's morally wrong to use a code to beat a game, but I feel in this case it's justified.
With that said, anyone who plays Gradius III should at least try to eventually beat it on Normal without the code. Normal is reasonable even for people who aren't usually good at shooters. I actually managed to beat it on Easy, Normal, and Hard without using the code, but not on the hidden Arcade mode. By then, I had started getting burnt out on the game, and for me it was just enough to finally complete Arcade mode, code or not (I was never able to get this mode to unlock on my SNES cartridge years - I was able to do it on an emulator).
The graphics and sound of Gradius III also deserve a mention, especially since I actually think the SNES game looks better than the original arcade version. Backgrounds are a bit simplistic, but the bosses are big and colorful, and the music and sound effects are outstanding.
Time Mysteries 2: The Ancient Spectres Collector's Edition (2012 - PC)
By now, you probably know that I use Hidden Object Games as a means of relaxation during stressful times and situations, and the death of my beloved cat, Pepper, at the end of July was (and still continues to be) one of the toughest ordeals I've ever had to face. As such, I downloaded Time Mysteries 2 from my Steam library and played through it.
A lot of HOG's are very similar to one another with the only major differences being what self-defining "gimmick" they use and the length of time it takes to finish them. As you could probably guess from the title, the gimmick of Time Mysteries 2 is time travel, which I'd seen in two HOG's I'd played prior to this one, Haunted Past and Crystals of Time, but it is much more thoroughly explored here. Using a portable time device, the heroine can leap forward and backward to different eras where solving puzzles and changing things in the past can affect the future.
The artwork, as it often is for these types of games, is beautiful, but the game is a bit short, as I beat it in about 6.5 hours. A lot of HOG's are short, but the best ones I've played (Grim Legends; Alex Hunter; Midnight Mysteries 3) usually take about 10 hours or more. Maybe I'm just getting better at them from having played so many of them, I'm not sure.
I almost wondered, by the title and time traveling theme, if this series was Artifex Mundi's answer to Mumbo Jumbo's Midnight Mysteries games. But instead of being about famous authors, the story involves an ancient evil sorceress whose spirit has taken over the heroine's family mansion, and she has some connection to the wizard of Arthurian legend, Merlin. So, it's not really a big rip-off as I'd worried it was going to be.