Elemental Master (Genesis) review
"The most endearing quality of Elemental Master is apparent before the controller is even touched. It begins with a pitch-black sky against a low lying blanket of fog, tousled only by the sharp hill tops jutting through, as a single, ever-escalating note lends its intensity to the dreary, oppressive scene. Sheet lightning pierces the darkness, exposing a previously unseen thunderhead. The flashing continues, each pulse giving more form to the cirrus structure, until finally, it is revealed..."
The most endearing quality of Elemental Master is apparent before the controller is even touched. It begins with a pitch-black sky against a low lying blanket of fog, tousled only by the sharp hill tops jutting through, as a single, ever-escalating note lends its intensity to the dreary, oppressive scene. Sheet lightning pierces the darkness, exposing a previously unseen thunderhead. The flashing continues, each pulse giving more form to the cirrus structure, until finally, it is revealed to be an otherworldly portal that could only signify the arrival of evil. With a crack, the stylish logo warps into view, as the most absorbing, sinister tune sets in. Immediately, you know this will be something special.
It must be a difficult decision for shooter developers to make - flying vehicle or man on foot? Of the few shmups that do feature human protagonists, the hero is at least usually equipped with the ability to hover. You can see why in Elemental Master, where the cape-donning main character Laden is cursed to a humorous, eternal march that he will not break even while standing still. On the other hand, Laden has plenty of reason to be so worked up. His brother Roki has been dabbling in strange forces he ought not, and is now possessed by an evil spirit whose first step toward domination is capturing the good king Lorelei. As if being forced to fight his own blood weren't enough for Laden to deal with, his demonic brother arrives with a multitude of followers in tow. It's up to Laden to deal with these macabre minions every step of the way, through vertically scrolling fantasy backdrops which prove more atmospheric than many RPG settings aiming for the same effect. There will be no long-winded dialogue in this outing, though. Instead we have an outwardly appealing plot gleaned from the Saturday morning adventures of old, and capsuled into scarce but powerful cut-scenes
Laden has talents other than running in place, of course. With the tap of a button, a semi-automatic volley of firepower is released (varieties of which are reminiscent of EM's Thunder Force kinsmen), and the same can just as easily be fired backward with equal force. Truly continuous auto-fire, however, has been sacrificed for the inclusion of a charge attack. With each of the 4 initial stages cleared, a new weapon is obtained, and by holding the attack button for a short time, a myriad of elemental super effects can be unleashed. Weapon selection is largely a matter of preference, though - each one is powerful enough to get the job done, and only a couple latter-game battles require a specific element.
It's a good thing these powers are up for grabs, too, for even nature itself is under the control of the evil force permeating through the hills. Running flames chase along the cracks of a volatile volcanic wasteland in the fiery first stage. Meteoric slabs of rock rain down in the same instant, perishing in an explosive blaze as they land. Fierce winds push Laden to his demise in the craggy canyons of level two, as spikes protrude from the ground just in time to impale him. Later stages bring booby-traps - harrowing maces and narrow channels of spears - that act with a mind all their own. When not trying to kill you, however, the scenery can be quite alluring in its gothic beauty. Although the game may appear dull at first, there are several tiny details liable to pop out only after extended playing time, drawing the conclusion that the landscape is dingy and drab by design, and not incompetence. The very shadows on the links of a chain shift as they move around, while nearby frogmen leap from their watery crevasse, leaving a distinct, rippling splash. The earthy meadow of stage four, criss-crossed with pristine brooks, uses a dozen different shades to subtly bring itself to life. It might have made for the most tranquil place in the world, if not for Roki's centaur henchmen practicing their archery on your face.
Other such mythical nasties join in the cause, assailing both with wicked sorcery and archaic pointed weapons. Imps line up in chains at opposite sides of the screen, to litter with throwing knives an already dangerous field of spikes. Skeletons, wraiths and bats guard the gray ashen base of the volcano, in a scene that might fit right into Castlevania: The Shooter. With Laden's reverse firing abilities, there is no excuse for the developers not to fill the screen with enemies from all directions: and that they did, all without the first hint of slowdown. That rare moment, painlessly slight when it occurs, is relegated to the cynosural boss encounters. Every muscle, quill, and scale of these brutish stage guardians shimmers with liveliness. The perceptive will notice how the head of a certain water snake boss appears in perfect 3D as it turns with several glassy frames of animation. The graphical highlight, I suppose, is the cedar spined dragon waiting in one of the later levels, whose every sinewy limb is in constant, writhing motion as he spews forth a variety of projectiles.
And yet, through all these formidable bosses, hordes of angry monsters, and trap-ridden danger zones, the experienced shooter player will be hard pressed to find any real challenge. Certainly, there is plenty of action to keep up with, but Laden's weaponry will prove much too powerful for Roki & Co. on the default settings. Laden also has an energy meter that can be extended rather far, and on top of this, can pick up protective shields, silhouette doubles, even a fairy companion with an attack of her own. The only way to even the scales is through the options menu (hidden away by code), wherein one can kick up the difficulty to discover a refreshing remix of the game. Technosoft doesn't just pile on more enemies and call it hard mode - attack patterns and entire stage layouts have been tweaked.
It's a wonder that such a lofty undertaking was locked away, but you need not resort to using a code to make the game worthwhile. An exemplary soundtrack works in tandem with precise situational timing to propel Elemental Master far beyond where it would be with a more conventional tone. Even through occasional lulls in the action, the percussive, instantly infectious stage anthems keep you actively listening, attentive to what is happening on-screen. No measure has been withheld in making the sound as fantastic as it can possibly be - every boss and cut-scene is assigned it's own song, many of which are several minutes in length. If you've ever caught yourself starting up Thunder Force III just to listen to the music, you would do well to pick up this cart.
What really brings it all into the realm of the phenomenal is how the developers direct story segments at the beginning and end of the quest with all the craft of a cinematic composer. The cadence of the music heats up and tapers off at the command of the dialogue, and what would be a cookie-cutter opening scene becomes impressive and exciting because of effective augmentation. It all comes to a head in the end montage - I won't spoil it for you, but let me just say that in the wake of this unforgettable moment, the initially captivating shot of a lightning charged portal will no longer seem so special as the title screen rolls back around.
It is this exceptional delivery that sets Elemental Master apart from a herd of Genesis shooters that, all too often, do nothing to fancy up their presentation. Grizzled shooter buffs may come up empty-handed if they're looking for trials that will push their ability to new heights, but this is a much more enjoyable journey when you sit back, soak it all in, and enjoy the walk.
Featured community review by deathspork (June 10, 2004)
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