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Life Force (NES) artwork

Life Force (NES) review

"Take on a massive brain/Cyclops, press through tight spots raining volcanic rock, and reach the famous fire level. It might not look like much these days, but the raging, pseudo-sentient arcing flames were a technological marvel at the time of the gameís release. Was the NES really doing this? Yes, it was, and it still is."

When I first played this game a few years back, it was a real pain. I appreciated the power up system immediately - as 2D shooters go, itís quite intuitive, but more impressively, it calls for you to employ some semblance of shooter strategy. Despite this, however, all I could think of was some fool telling me how Konamiís Gradius series of shooters (of which this game, called Salamander in the arcades, is number two) is the ultimate 'twitch shooter'. This means that the game should ostensibly be all about dodging by the seat of your pants. Itís not (and further evidence to this end presented itself when I played the heavily flawed Gradius III for the SNES). Admittedly, there are some really hairy parts toward the end, where split-second decision making and deft controller touch is your only recourse; but for the most part, the game is all about memorization and preparation. Donít be fooled - Life Force bears more resemblance to the deliberate R-Type than it does to the outrageous Do Don Pachi.

Konami did something marvelous here. They created a game thatís better than Gradius, through crafting better side-scrolling levels than the original, and adding to the mix interspersed top view levels - making Life Force a thematic precursor of sorts to Konamiís later gem, Axelay. Like that SNES game, Life Force gives us six levels of play, filled with excellent graphics and even more superb sound. The power up method is typical Gradius; you are besieged at the start of every level - as well as somewhere in the middle - by waves of weak-willed orange-red spacecraft. When you take out a whole wave, you are given a power up. Missing even one ship in a wave constitutes no power up for you, and a whole lot of cursing. This is because you absolutely need every one you can get to give your ship half a chance.

Here's where the strategy comes in; the power ups have no face - you choose how to spend them (it's quite easy to do, even on the fly). Speed costs you one power up, making it the cheapest augmentation to have. And for good reason; without a few speed power ups, most bosses will pin you down and take you apart. Next are the missiles, then the ripple shot, the all-powerful laser beam, the options (round blobs that follow you and fire with you) and finally the Force shield. I like to grab a few 'speed ups', a ripple gun, and then save up for a shield right away. Your priorities will likely be different; you may feel that speed ups, missiles and the laser are essential to begin - this opportunity for personalization is what makes the power up system so good.

If you get going well early on, it becomes possible to finish Life Force on one man. Should you die, especially in the last half of the contest, you will likely find that your other lives will also be lost in rapid succession, and a continue will be necessary to try to get yourself back on track.

Take on a massive brain/Cyclops, press through tight spots raining volcanic rock, and reach the famous fire level. It might not look like much these days, but the raging, pseudo-sentient arcing flames were a technological marvel at the time of the gameís release. Was the NES really doing this? Yes, it was, and it still is. Itís also forcing you to race through a near-impenetrable gauntlet of steel after dispatching the ever-easy last boss, at insane speeds that break the 8-bit sound barrier. Konamiís classic is filled with memorable moments like these that prove that itís not just nostalgia at work when game experts continue to rave about it. Ironically, Gradiusí sequel is even capable of making some of todayís jaded gamers revisit its archaic atmospheres, once experienced, with a sigh and a smile.

Life Force is one of those shooters that seems perfect when youíre playing it perfectly, and a horrible tangle of slow ships, rapid-fire deaths and cuss words when youíre not. If you get frustrated easily when you arenít making much progress an hour or so into a game, your shooter collection as well as your blood pressure could probably do without a struggle with Life Force. If you wear your ''I survived Xevious'' T-shirt to nightclubs, or broke the bank for Radiant Silvergun, this game needs to be part of your life. Shoot, die, learn, proceed and conquer. Thatís the old school way and it will rarely feel better.

Something More: For whatever reason, Konami changed the name of this arcade classic from its original coin-op name, Salamander, to Life Force, and messed around with the colour scheme in areas for this NES release.

Something Else: Youíve got a PC Engine right? Or a Turbografx-16 with PC Engine converter? Of course you do! Never mind how unlikely that scenario is; if youíre lucky enough to be so equipped, pick up the NEC-hosted, near-perfect port of Salamander. Be forewarned though, if you thought Life Force was hard, Salamander will positively shred you.

Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (January 03, 2004)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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