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Salamander (TurboGrafx-16) artwork

Salamander (TurboGrafx-16) review


"Sadly, Salamander is a rarity — a Gradius-style game that doesn't operate by these rules. Instead, you get the simple-n-generic sort of system where enemies drop power-ups represented by various icons and, by collecting them, you automatically get whatever goodie they represent. This takes some of the fun out of this title, as the ability to customize the way you power up your ship was quite a nice touch."



For the longest time, I knew nothing about Salamander other than that the game was called Life Force when Konami released it in American arcades and ported it to the NES. That "knowledge" was sort of accurate, but not completely so. You’d probably be closer to the truth if you looked at Salamander as the beta version of the superior Life Force. Naturally, a description like that leads to questions about what exactly what makes one better than the other, but that’s exactly the sort of thing reviews such as this one are supposed to discuss, is it not?

A brief summary of Salamander’s content could forego the mention of any differences compared to Life Force. Both games are space shooters that place the player in control of a ship that must be used to blast all sorts of monstrosities, after all, and both alternate between horizontal- and vertically-scrolling stages (of which there are a total of six). Both begin with a jaunt through what looks to be the internal organs of a massive beast and conclude as the player is forced to confront a giant red orb before making a high-speed exit from the surrounding fortress.

Despite the obvious similarities between the opening stages in both titles that make them feel roughly the same, there is one difference that might serve as a turn-off to players. In its Gradius series and the assorted spin-offs (which include games such as Salamander and Life Force), Konami devised a really neat way for players to add firepower to their ship. Certain enemies drop power-up icons, which you can nab after blasting them. Each icon advances you down an enhancement bar. When you reach the one you want, you hit a button and gain that enhancement. Collecting one icon allows you to increase your ship's speed; getting several will snag you an option ship, which effectively doubles your firepower. Because you have the ability to hold as many as four options at once and several other goodies like increased firepower, missiles and temporary shields are available, you'll spend the entire game working to grab icons and invest them in the necessary weaponry. I'd say this is my favorite of the power-up systems I've experienced in shooters.

Sadly, Salamander is a rarity -- a Gradius-style game that doesn't operate by these rules. Instead, you get the simple-n-generic sort of system where enemies drop power-ups represented by various icons and, by collecting them, you automatically get whatever goodie they represent. This takes some of the fun out of this title, as the ability to customize the way you power up your ship was quite a nice touch. Unfortunately, that’s not the only reason this game is weaker than Life Force.

Playing through Salamander convinced me that Konami’s developers must have enjoyed a sudden influx of creativity when porting the title to the NES. In its TG-16 form, you won't find things such as the second (vertical this time) cell stage that leads to a boss fight with a giant skull complete with creepy rolling eyes. Or the awesome Egypt-themed level presided over by the giant disembodied head of a Pharaoh. Or even the neat-looking (if pretty weak) dragon boss of the fire stage. But you will have to dodge fast-moving asteroids quite often, and the final level frequently evokes memories of any number of lesser shooters that are "good" at mixing together generic fortresses and bland terrain to create a forgettable mash-up of themes.

The boss of the fire level here is a larger version of the mid-boss located in that stage in Life Force: a generic shooter snake. In the NES game's second level, you’ll encounter two bosses. First, you'll have to blast through three sets of shields to get to the cores they're protecting while braving a room where you're constantly besieged by large, indestructible orbs. Get through that encounter and it won't be long until you're in a battle with an enhanced Gradius Big Core ship, which also possesses rotating tentacles that it uses as weapons. Here, you'll fight both of these creations… but as the bosses of two separate levels. Salamander is a reasonably fun game that benefits from slightly better graphics thanks to the TG-16’s superior graphics processing, but the 8-bit title is actually superior in nearly every other way.

The most noteworthy exception to that rule is that Salamander does offer a greater level of intensity. Keep in mind that these games all originated as arcade attractions. When they were ported to the Famicom/NES, things would suffer a bit as far as difficulty goes because an eight-bit system couldn’t deliver the requisite processing power and speed. They'd never become easy, thanks to a draconian system where all your power-ups are stripped once you lose a life, but keeping that one ship alive when things are moving slowly is more manageable on 8-bit hardware. Playing on the TG-16 strips away that luxury. Almost from the beginning, I got the sense that things were moving at a faster pace, and that suspicion became certainty as I progressed.

The first stage's boss is child's play in Life Force. You’ll face a giant brain with arms that slowly follow you around the arena while you fly in circles around your target until you've put enough bullets into its eye. Things are largely the same in Salamander, except now everything feels more claustrophobic because the brain seems to move faster and has longer arms. I actually died once as I fought it! And while the fifth stage is far more bland here than in Life Force, it also moves at a faster clip that forces you to react quickly in order to dodge several waves of asteroids and hordes of ships that warp onto the screen in a loose circle around you and immediately converge in an attempt to collide with you and take a life out of the equation.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Salamander boasts a final boss that actually provides a bit of a challenge. I mean, after you know what to expect, it's about as toothless as the average final boss in a Gradius-based shooter from Konami, but it's entirely possible you'll lose a couple lives before that happens. First, the foe comes onto the screen from behind you in an attempt to end the fight prematurely via a knockout before the opening bell. Dodge its entrance and there's a good chance you'll find yourself fried by one of the lightning bolts it fires at your current location (those shots can be especially difficult to avoid if you've entered its arena with a fully powered-up ship, since they’re difficult to see amongst all the stuff you're firing at it). Your cause is also hurt by enemies crawling along the chamber’s left and right walls that proficiently steal your options. Less firepower equals a longer fight, which means more opportunities for you to slip up and allow the boss to land a lucky lightning strike. It's rare that a final boss in one of these games even remotely stands out -- especially when you consider the fact that the gauntlet leading up to that confrontation treats Big Cores as regular foes and sends multiple waves of giant bouncing Moai heads after you before concluding with a difficult speed run where you have to get through tons of rapidly closing barricades. Whew!

There's not really anything particularly "wrong" with Salamander; it's just not as good as Life Force, which I'd played a good two decades previously. The action might be a bit more frenetic here, but I preferred the creativity that went into designing its successor's levels. Reverting to a more mundane way of bestowing power-ups also hurts this one when you compare it to basically anything else Konami was doing around this time, which really positions this game as one of those shooters that's not especially worthwhile unless you're determined to play everything its publisher was churning out during the 80s and 90s. Beyond satisfying my curiosity, I can't claim I benefited from picking this one up other than seeing a couple Life Force areas with slightly improved graphics.

Rating: 5/10

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (February 02, 2013)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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