If you know anything about the scrolling shoot-'em-up genre, then all you need is the title of Raiden III to know that it's the latest in developer Seibu Kaihatsu's long-running shoot-'em-up series. Raiden III hit arcades back in 2005, but only now has it come to home consoles in this PlayStation 2 update. The gameplay is basically untouched, but a few additional modes have made it into the mix to give the game an iota of value beyond its challenging but fleeting arcade mode. However, longtime shoot-'em-up fans won't find much new or original about Raiden III. It takes the exact same formula found in every other modern scrolling shooter, tweaks it ever so slightly, and then calls it a day. Certainly the game can be fun, even with its total lack of originality, but at the $30 price point that it's running for at retail, you'd hope for some kind of unique quality to help make up for the inherent shallowness of the package.
Most shoot-'em-ups have some sort of gimmick or concept that sets them apart from the rest--at least the good ones do--and the Raiden series is no exception. The Raiden gimmick has to do with weapon selections. As you progress through a level, power-ups for your ship's primary guns and secondary missiles will appear from time to time, and each of these icons changes in color or symbol after a bit of time left floating around the screen. Primary weapons include a powerful laser that shoots straight ahead, a slightly less powerful laser that can be waved from side to side, and a weaker spread gun that can cover a lot more of the screen. Missiles work on similarly, with powerful nukes that shoot straight forward, less powerful radar missiles that will take an angle to a certain enemy, and weaker heat-seekers that will shoot every which way. Each and every one of these selected weapons can be upgraded over time into more powerful versions as you collect these icons. If you happen to grab an icon that's different from the weapon you're set on, it'll switch you to the new weapon, and so if you have a particular fancy for a certain weapon, you've got to be careful when you grab the icons.
Oh, and you shoot bad guys, too. A lot of them. Like any scrolling shooter worth its salt, Raiden III is jam-packed with enemy ships, boats, tanks, and all sorts of big, honking bosses, and they all fire plenty of bullets and lasers in your general direction. You'll spend as much time dodging bullets as you will firing them yourself, and the challenge of doing so gets pretty overwrought at times. Of course, this is par for the course for a scrolling shooter, and Raiden III isn't necessarily any tougher or easier than most games of this type. In fact, not much of what you're up against feels unfamiliar. The firing patterns and enemy types all feel, again, par for the course. That's not to say the shooting action isn't enjoyable, because it certainly is. When you get a set of weapons built up to max capacity, it can feel pretty epic as you blast away at anything that comes within range of you. All told, the game plays solid enough, but it's boilerplate in practically every way.
The features set doesn't do much to counteract this feeling. The main arcade mode can be beaten in about a half hour if you get good enough at the game, and though there are multiple difficulty settings, everything above normal is so decidedly masochistic that all but the most hardcore players will scoff at them. Heck, even normal is pretty hard. Of course, games like Raiden III are built to be played over and over again for scoring purposes, but with no online leaderboards, the inspiration to continually work on your score isn't exactly high. Beyond the main game, there are basic score attack and boss rush modes to play around with (the latter of which has to be unlocked), as well as a replay mode that will save individual performances of various stages. You just save the data at the end of a level and go back and watch it any time you please. It's kind of a neat feature, but again, the lack of any online functionality makes it a little pointless unless you really like watching your past performances all by your lonesome, or you drag a friend over.
Speaking of friends, yes, Raiden III does support two-player cooperative play, which is really the ideal way to play the game. There's also a mode that lets you control both ships on one controller, though doing so is rather awkward as far as steering is concerned, and trying to keep track of both ships is one of those chaotically crazy things that you basically have to be some kind of savant to pull off. This one's for the most insanely skilled players only.
One area where Raiden III really fails to impress is in terms of presentation. No one expects a shooter like this to reach for the moon with its graphics, but Raiden III looks ancient, even compared with years-old shooters like Ikaruga and Gradius V. The environments look bland and washed out. The ships and explosions are decent looking, though they're also highly pixelated and grainy. The frame rate at least holds up, if nothing else. The game's audio consists of some decent sound effects and a solid soundtrack of synthesized tunes, but nothing stands out.
You can't argue with the notion that Raiden III does what it does decently, at least from a gameplay perspective. The shooting action pops just about as well as any other modern take on the scrolling shooter genre, and the challenge is most certainly there. However, Raiden III also doesn't do anything beyond this. It's functional, and fun for a bit, but once you've played through the arcade mode a few times and tried out the scant few ancillary modes, you'll be done with it. There's no hook here to bring you back, nor is the gameplay exceptional enough to leave a lasting impression once you've had your initial fill. Maybe that won't matter to the few dedicated Raiden series fans out there who have been dying for a new Raiden game to hit North America for years (after all, it's not like you can just go out and buy Raiden or Raiden II these days), but at the oddly expensive price of $30 for what is, in essence, a budget game, you will need to be an exceedingly hardcore fan to make this purchase justifiable.