It’s 2017 and I figure it’s about damn time I complete a Gradius game for once. Luckily, I snagged a copy of Life Force at a local game store a couple weeks back, so I can finally make it happen!
Life Force (sadly unrelated to the completely gonzo film of the same name about nude space vampires ravaging Britain) is the NES port of the arcade game Salamander. Salamander was conceived as a spin-off of the established Gradius series of horizontal scrolling shooters that would incorporate a number of new features: Faster gameplay, a new power-up system, simultaneous two-player gameplay, and a mix of horizontal and vertical scrolling.
As a port, Life Force retains some of these features (like the multi-directional scrolling and two-player action), but its slower speed and the return of the traditional Gradius power-up system make it feel less like a spin-off and more like a sequel. It might seem like a strange choice to “Gradius-ify” Salamander like this, but I think it makes sense on a few levels. First off, getting a two-player simultaneous shooter with so many things going on at once running on the NES at all in 1987 was likely something of a programming marvel, so having it also scroll at the same speed as the arcade original may have been an insurmountable technical challenge. In addition, the original Gradius was one of Konami’s best-selling titles to date on the system, which would make emphasizing the resemblance between Life Force and it seem quite sound from a business perspective. But I’m just speculating.
In terms of story, it’s about what you would expect. A gigantic planet devouring alien named Zelos is headed for the world of Gradius and only you, piloting your super cool Vic Viper space fighter, can infiltrate the hungry colossus and administer some impromptu laser surgery to save the day. Also, in a nifty Ultima reference, player two gets to fly the “Lord British space destroyer.” Cool.
Basic stuff, but at least whatever weirdo they enlisted to write the English manual text had fun with their version, which begins: “In a remote quadrant of the universe there was hatched a hideous creature. His proud parents, Ma and Pa Deltoid, named their only son Zelos, which in alien lingo means ‘one mean son of a gun.'” Wow.
Gameplay is classic Gradius. Shoot baddies to rack up power-up capsules and points to earn extra lives. Each capsule you collect will highlight one of the choices on your power-up menu. These include speed boosts, missiles, “option” satellites to double your firepower, a force field, and more. When the power-up of your choice is highlighted, simply press the button to cash in your stash of capsules and activate it. Try not to die or you can kiss all those awesome power-ups goodbye, and it turns out that being slow and nearly defenseless is not a particularly great strategy. This is easier said than done, though, since one touch from any enemy or part of the stage background will do you in.
It’s a very careful and exacting style of play that demands a mix of steady hands, quick reactions, and lots and lots of stage memorization. This is further emphasized by the limited lives and continues available. This is definitely not for everyone, since you really do need to approach a Gradius game “right” and there’s not a lot of room to just mess around and play things fast and loose. Due to its nature as a two-player game, though, most of the stages in Life Force do have forks and branching paths, so there is some variation in how you can approach them.
Life Force has six stages in total, which was sort of the magic number for Konami back then (see Castlevania and Contra) and they are impressively varied. Several are in keeping with the giant space monster theme previously established and feature cool icky details like living flesh walls that “grow” in at you and killer blood cells. Other stages are completely different and vary things up with asteroid fields, walls of erupting fire, and even an inexplicable Egyptian temple. Each level is capped off by a boss. These guys look amazing, but are honestly real pushovers in that they utilize only very basic attack patterns that never vary. After making your way through a brutally difficult stage, fighting these slow, ineffectual bullet sponges will feel like a vacation.
Life Force looks and sounds just as great as its pedigree would imply. Visual highlights include the third level with its towering columns of rushing flame that will wipe out anything in their path, friend or foe, and the huge boss characters. The high-energy music sets the mood perfectly, although it can occasionally cut out a bit when there’s a lot of weapons fire going on. Life Force’s greatest accomplish is probably how smoothly it manages to run. There is some occasional slowdown, but not nearly as much as you might expect when the screen is filled with animated backgrounds and two players worth of missiles, lasers, and option satellites even before you factor the enemy ships in!
The game isn’t totally perfect. I already mentioned the slowdown and the feeble bosses. However, if you have the patience to come to grips with the demanding playstyle that the series is known for, there might be no better way to spend a half hour of gaming time than blasting your way through Life Force. It’s a short game, but another triumph of quality over quantity from Konami’s Golden Age. Like Contra and Castlevania, it’s a finely polished, exquisitely cut gem of a game. And one mean son of a gun.