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Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus (Saturn) artwork

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus (Saturn) review


"1986's Salamander, the first title in the 1997 release of Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus, acts as an ungrounded version of Gradius, which came out a year prior. Whereas Gradius required a near-methodical mindset, thanks to its checkpoint system, Salamander is more high-octane and in your face, adjusting the gameplay accordingly."



1986's Salamander, the first title in the 1997 release of Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus, acts as an ungrounded version of Gradius, which came out a year prior. Whereas Gradius required a near-methodical mindset, thanks to its checkpoint system, Salamander is more high-octane and in your face, adjusting the gameplay accordingly. No longer do you have to reappear at checkpoints when you get hit, instead respawning on the spot, and the selection bar is absent, opting for the more traditional shoot-em-up trait of picking up or flying around power-ups that are specifically branded. There's even 2 player co-op, something the previous title didn't allow. While these changes make the game more accessible in comparison to its immediate predecessor, don't think you can breeze by without a workout. Salamander's screen scrolls by at a faster rate, and when mixed with the return of Gradius' aggressive enemy attack patterns whenever you have a buffed-out space fighter, you're going to perform a whole lot of dodging.

It's worth mentioning too, that, while Scramble and Gradius 1 had their part in molding the series, Salamander also had a huge impact on the Gradius franchise. Shoot, the very first stage, an organic tunnel littered with germs, had its elements reused several times since: the creepy brain arms that reach out, the ginormous fangs that slash from nowhere, the regenerating flesh you must boldly drill through, and so on. The fire stage, also, which is an ocean of flames spanning the ground and ceiling, has its fair share of remakes, like the stage in Gradius III that toss around meteorites, or Gradius IV's level featuring rock formations moving about in a raging sea. Salamander's bosses have been everywhere, as well, appearing in numerous boss rush sequences. If you've spotted a stalking dragon, a capsule that fires a legion of missiles, or a brain with arms in a Gradius title, they made their debut in this spin-off. Let's not forget Tetran, a mechanical, starfish-like boss, which waves its arms around like... a boss. It makes almost as many appearances as the original Big Core Mk boss.

Interestingly, the only aspect the main series didn't take from Salamander was the vertical-scrolling stages. You'd figure with all the things borrowed from the game, they would yank this feature, as well. I guess it's the one thing the Salamander games can truly call their own.

Despite the game's influential prowess, Salamander has this irritating problem, one that carries over into Gradius II: it gets stupid hard right at the end. With practice, you can get through the first four stages without losing a life, but the last two levels are a different story, since the difficulty makes this sudden, sharp turn. Stage 5, subtly titled Asteroid Hell, is easy at first, even when a predictable set of asteroids shower the screen, however, the next batch of obstacles screw you; enemies appear out of thin air, forming a barrier around your ship, and then quickly close in. It happens in a span of a second, and occurs five or so times in a row. It's hard enough surviving this with a strong ship, so imagine how insane it is escaping with a powered-down fighter. THEN you're immediately greeted by bullet hell, which is nearly unavoidable if you don't attack a specific point right away.

If you manage to pierce through this stage with lives to spare, there's the finale to contend with, and it's inane. Again, this starts out doable, but becomes straight-up masochistic midway. Fast bullets blanket the screen at different angles, giant moai heads clog the corridors with their constant jumping while projectiles charge in from the background, and, if you pass all this and destroy the trademark easy final boss, Salamander gives you the finger. As a send-off, Salamander introduces another first for the series... the high-speed fortress segment. Dozens upon dozens of pillars will descend on the ship, only stopping at certain areas, each a different angle, and you must fly through these spots while the screen scrolls at, well, high speeds. This makes completing Salamander more of a stroke of luck than skill, which is a shame, considering how balanced the first four stages are... This isn't as amazingly hard as Gradius II's final stage, thankfully, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.

Sadly, Life Force, the second title on this compilation, shares its exact problems, but its positives, too. The game, to be specific, is a remake of Salamander, this time following the organism theme throughout. To be more specific, this is the Japanese remake of the American version of Life Force. Ehh? Yeah. It goes about switching in new backgrounds, including one or two new tunes, a bit of graphical tinkering, and a slight shuffle in enemy appearances. Sounds like a lot, but not really, because the core features of every stage is left intact; you can approach Life Force in almost the same way you do with Salamander. The only true change is the addition of Gradius' selection bar, which modifies the gameplay, but not by much, surprisingly. It just means you have to wait a little longer to collect your Multiple power-ups, those glowing orbs that provide extra firepower. This is the complete opposite of having four of these buggers within the first minute of Salamander.

Life Force is still an interesting piece to have on the disc, for comparison's sake, but it makes you wonder why the original US version wasn't included. I guess they thought this was the better version?

Completing the collection is the 1996 release of Salamander 2, coming ten years after the original. Shockingly, unlike the Gradius sequels, this game doesn't mess with its predecessor's play mechanics, with one exception: your Multiples can perform a special attack once they're charged up. The power of the attack depends, so they can either be a limited-range attack circling your ship, to one where lasers slither around the play area, tracking enemies. The downside is having to recollect your Multiple power-ups once each slaughter ends, but it's such a small downside considering the damage inflicted. This, mixed with the returning adjustments from Salamander and the inclusion of a continue system, turn this into the most comfortable experience you'll have with an arcade Gradius title.

Unfortunately, this does make the gameplay a bit mundane, both as a Gradius title and a shoot-em-up product. Too bad, since Salamander 2 has some neat-looking mixture of pre-rendered and 2D sprite graphics. I held off on calling them great because of the odd reliance of bright and unusual color combinations, at times giving the impression you're stuck in a Saturday morning cartoon for toddlers. Some of the stages have nice, albeit underdeveloped, concepts, like having to squeeze between two warships with minimal effort, or having to dodge mechanical suns that actually retaliate and give chase. However, I usually have a hard time remembering most stages, even after playing Salamander 2 extensively, and this is due to specific things being overused; there's a total of six stages, two are organic-themed with minor differences (the second just has more enemies), and two use almost the same color palette, giving the appearance that you're going through the same area back to back. Hilariously, this leaves the fortress-within-an-asteroid-field level the most memorable stage in the game. Having to fend off a gauntlet of asteroids, enemy formations, and mountains of turrets, while going in and out of broken pieces of the fortress, is good fun.

In many ways, Salamander 2 is the opposite extreme to Gradius III: one is annoyingly hard, while the other is disappointingly simplistic, both unnecessary to play, except for curiosity's sake. Funny thing, though, is how Salamander 2 almost pays a demented tribute to Gradius III by having its second loop be as difficult as that game, maybe more. They even took away the continue option! It's sad that a game that's inspired many of its successors ended up having such an uninspiring, direct sequel. It's not terrible, but I can't imagine many gamers wanting to play this more than once.

Viewing the compilation disc as a whole, you won't get much mileage out of this if you're not a Gradius fan; Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus will feel more like a small piece of history to own than an actual set of games you'll want to play over and over again. There are plenty shoot-em-ups on the Sega Saturn more worth your time and entertainment.

Rating: 5/10

pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (August 14, 2011)

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overdrive posted August 16, 2011:

Good review. As a fan of Life Force (American NES version), I'm always interested to read what people have to say about the Salamander games. One little thing that may just be me:

To be more specific, this is the Japanese remake of the American version of Life Force of Salamander.

The "Life Force of Salamander" part doesn't seem to read right. Like there's something missing. Like "of the American Life Force version of Salamander" or something like that.
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pickhut posted August 16, 2011:

It was intentional to make the whole thing sound more confusing than it did, but you're right, it still sounds weird. I went back and threw out the "of Salamander" part at the end.

Thanks for reading, too! I was surprised myself how the review ultimately turned out since, the last time I played these games, especially Salamander 2, I remember having positive thoughts about them. I guess playing the other Gradius games back to back, and more in-depth, had an effect in changing my opinion.

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