When I want to really treat myself, nothing satisfies quite like new old Konami. It’s a testament to the studio’s once unrivaled prowess that they were able to captivate audiences worldwide throughout the ’80 and ’90s despite so many of their finest titles never making it to market outside Japan. It was a true embarrassment of riches.
Take Crisis Force here. This 1991 vertical shooter is one of the best of its kind on the Famicom…and only the Famicom. As a high-quality regional exclusive with a late release date and no requisite language skills, you can expect to pay upwards of U.S. $85 for a used copy today. That may not seem too outrageous. It’s slightly less than the inflation-adjusted price of an NES cartridge circa 1991, after all. The Famicom is generally an affordable system to collect for, however, and any game approaching the three-figure threshold is a major outlier.
In Crisis Force, one or two players assume control of teen siblings Asuka and Maya as they repel an Atlantean invasion force attacking Japan. Yes, this is the second game I’ve covered this year (the other being G.I. Joe: The Atlantis Factor) where the mythic lost continent rises from the sea to threaten humanity. You’d think getting sunk by the gods once would have taught these jerks better manners. Anyway, Asuka and Maya happen to be the last living descendants of Mu, another hokey made up civilization, meaning that they alone can pilot the powerful Aurawing craft and save the day.
Based on that description, it’s clear the developers drew from the same “ancient aliens” well that produced Gradius’ iconic moai head enemies. A better point of comparison might actually be stage five from the NES port of Life Force, as Crisis Force’s Atlanteans share a similar Egyptian flair. Some even fire hieroglyph-embossed laser beams at you! Big points for style there.
Attaining victory requires you to conquer seven levels of increasingly hectic aerial combat, a task that should take roughly forty minutes. Provided you don’t run out of lives and have to start burning through your three continues, that is. It’s a fairly average runtime for the genre. The difficulty, at least on the default setting, tends toward the forgiving. This is one of those shooters where your weapon power-ups double as ablative armor. Get hit while your main gun is upgraded and you’ll be docked firepower in lieu of a life. When you do die, the game is kind enough to respawn you on the spot with a fresh stock of super bombs rather than busting you back to a checkpoint empty-handed.
The highlight of Crisis Force is the mighty Aurawing itself. It can morph between three functionally distinct forms at will. These let you direct the lion’s share of your fire forward, backward, or to the sides as needed. Each of the three primary forms has it own bomb type, as well. Of course, the enemy and stage design are very much planned around your offensive flexibility. I like to think of it as a gentler take on Toaplan’s Hellfire.
There’s also a temporary fourth ship transformation triggered by collecting five of a specific power-up icon. If there’s a second player along for the ride when this occurs, both on-screen Aurawings will merge, leaving player one in the driver’s seat. This uber-Aurawing is invincible and dishes out massive damage, but the strict time limit makes it tough to maintain for more than thirty seconds or so. A key strategy is to collect four of the necessary transformation orbs and then hold off on grabbing the last one until it’s time to confront a boss.
Konami opted to use their custom VRC4 memory mapper chip to enhance Crisis Force’s visuals. The results speak for themselves, with the parallax scrolling backgrounds in particular standing out as some of the flashiest on the platform. About the only other Famicom shooter that can give it a run for its money in the graphics department is fellow VRC4 wunderkind Gradius II. The soundtrack is a not to be underestimated, either. My heart was pounding right out of the gate thanks to one of the most energetic opening level themes I’ve ever heard. That percussion!
If it wasn’t for the occasional patch of slowdown, especially in two-player mode, Crisis Force would be a virtually flawless example of the formula that made Konami such a juggernaut in the 8-bit era: Six or seven concise, action-packed stages polished to a mirror sheen and crowned with as lavish a presentation as the hardware will allow. In this regard, it rates right up there with the likes of Castlevania, Contra/Super C, Jackal, and Life Force. If you’re into that sort of thing, you owe it to yourself to step up and give those pushy Atlanteans what for. Soggy bastards have it coming.