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Life Force Review Rewind

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On 07/04/2021 at 09:15 AM by Jamie Alston

Journey to the belly of the beast.

An excellent companion to the Gradius series, Life Force has enough variety to warrant a playthrough at least once.

If you ever want to know how Konami became so successful, just look at their arcade history of the 1980s. Not only were the games entertaining, but there was also a good chance that their best hits would appear on NES and a wealth of other home consoles. Life Force was no exception. Released initially as Salamander in Japan 35 years ago today, the game came to America as Life Force and received an NES port two years later.

Originally touted as the sequel to Gradius, it later became apparent this was a spin-off instead. Even so, the fundamental elements of what made Gradius a fine shoot-em-up are preserved here. In addition, the game introduces a new story, a new ship joining the fight, and simultaneous 2-player goodness.

The premise of Life Force involves an enormous snake (or salamander if you prefer) named Zelos devouring planets whole. Among its victims are the planets Gradius and Latis. The only chance at rescuing both civilizations is to travel to the creature’s heart and destroy it from the inside. Gradius sends the seasoned pilot of the Vic Viper (player one) while Latis offers their ship, christened “Lord British” (player two), in a joint strike against a common enemy. Sounds crazy? Of course, it does. Crazy enough to work.

As stated earlier, plenty of gameplay elements carried over from Gradius. First and foremost, the power meter system returns. Collecting red capsules from fallen enemies allows you to select the desired upgrade on the meter. This time, the double shot has been replaced with the ring-shaped Ripple Laser to go along with your missiles, option drones, and force shields. The standard laser and missile salvos are now stackable as they can be upgraded to an additional level for greater firepower. Other than that, the fundamental gameplay elements mostly stayed the same.

Life Force differs from its predecessor in two significant ways. First, it introduces top-down stages in addition to the standard side-scrolling fare. Second, where Gradius mainly focused on avoiding enemy bullets, Life Force places emphasis on obstacles. As a result, the environments in each area are constantly throwing new biological barriers in your path- which makes sense given that you’re traveling through the body of a giant space serpent.

Don’t be surprised if cellular walls suddenly appear while shooting enzymes defending the creature’s body. Further in, you must brave membrane barriers that grow back in mere seconds after being destroyed, making the journey forward quite treacherous if you don’t time your shots properly. The scenario I just described is only the first stage in-game. Things only get trickier from there. But it works to give the game a truly organic feel.

As you might have guessed, the level design in this game is full of ambush tactics that require a moderate amount of memorization to survive. One of the most infamous examples is the heat stage, where the entire area is set ablaze. Not long after getting accustomed to dodging the flaming birds and fireballs spewing from the top and bottom of the screen, flares suddenly arc out of the fire, quickly destroying your ship if you get careless. And surprise, surprise- even a fully powered force shield won’t protect you if the flame makes contact.

Of course, you still need to dodge enemy fire from smaller ships, walking gun turrets, and those ever-so-popular Moai heads barfing rings at you. The enemy designs for each area are imaginative and original- especially the boss characters. Most of them are colossal compared to your small ship, and some are just plain weird. The first boss is a floating one-eyed brain that chases you around the screen with its claws. Later you'll eventually do battle with the head of King Tut- which suggests to me that perhaps Earth is one of the planets the hungry serpent consumed.

The game sports an impressive visual presentation to be an NES port of an arcade game. Environments are more detailed with animated flames, ships rising from the background, and can handle many objects on the screen without any significant slowdown. In one stage exclusive to the NES version, there's a section where you fly over a gigantic rib cage before facing down a skeleton head. Variety is in plentiful supply from start to finish.

There were some sacrifices from the arcade version that had to be made. For example, the colors are a bit dull, and the maximum number of Options drones you can have is reduced down to only two, whereas the arcade version allowed up to four. However, these are small concessions not to compromise the integrity of the experience on NES hardware.

High energy adventurous compositions have always been the hallmark of classic Konami shoot-em-ups, and Life Force does not disappoint. Throughout most of the game, the music is memorable almost instantaneously, especially in the Cell, Prominence, and Temple stages. The boss theme isn't as whimsical as in Gradius. Instead, it's more severe and brooding. And I rather enjoy the sound effects when collecting power-ups and other peculiarities characteristic of the series.

If you enjoy shoot-em-ups with a heavy emphasis on obstacle avoidance, then Life Force is the game for you. It’s not a perfect game, as there are many frustrating moments when an obstacle or stray bullet can easily make short work of the upgrades spent time acquiring. However, the biological theme of the environments adds a fun twist to the standard cosmic elements in other games from the same period. As of this writing, the easiest way to own this game is to purchase it on the 3DS eShop. If you want to take a crack at the arcade original, you can buy it as part of the Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection, now available on all major gaming platforms.

Review Policy

In our reviews, we'll try not to bore you with minutiae of a game. Instead, we'll outline what makes the game good or bad, and focus on telling you whether or not it is worth your time as opposed to what button makes you jump.

We use a five-star rating system with intervals of .5. Below is an outline of what each score generally means:

All games that receive this score are standout games in their genre. All players should seek a way to play this game. While the score doesn't equate to perfection, it's the best any game could conceivably do.

These are above-average games that most players should consider purchasing. Nearly everyone will enjoy the game and given the proper audience, some may even love these games.

This is our middle-of-the-road ranking. Titles that receive three stars may not make a strong impression on the reviewer in either direction. These games may have some faults and some strong points but they average out to be a modest title that is at least worthy of rental for most.

Games that are awarded two stars are below average titles. Good ideas may be present, but execution is poor and many issues hinder the experience.

Though functional, a game that receives this score has major issues. There are little to no redeeming qualities and should be avoided by nearly all players.

A game that gets this score is fundamentally broken and should be avoided by everyone.



Cary Woodham

07/04/2021 at 08:41 PM

I rented this a couple of times and played it with my friend and really enjoyed it.

Later we saw the arcade version at Six Flags and were excited to play it.

Have you ever played Salamander 2?  You chase the brain boss in the first level and when you think you're going to fight it again, a giant mouth comes and eats it and you must fight that instead!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

07/07/2021 at 03:41 PM

Yup, I imported the Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus on my Sega Saturn. Salamader 2 is included on the disc and it was really something to see the scene you described as the first level boss. Nice callback to the first game!

Cary Woodham

07/07/2021 at 07:19 PM

I imported the PSP Salamander collection, so that's how I played it.

There are some Salamander callbacks in other games, too.  Have you played Gradius V?  The first level is filled with Zelos hearts of varying sizes!  And there's a Konami arcade fighting game where you play as a bunch of Power Ranger-like super heroes.  I think it was called Monster Maulers.  Never played it myself, I just saw YouTube videos of it.  Anyway, one of the things you fight is an Easter Island head from Gradius, and another is the brain with one eye and arms from Salamander!  They even play the same song as you fight it!

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

07/07/2021 at 08:53 PM

I definitely played Gradius V (still haven't beat it though). I loved the part where you blow up the Zelos hearts and they all making that digitized "Waaah!" scream. Unforgettable.

Matt Snee Staff Writer

07/10/2021 at 05:44 AM

Like many kids of the 80s, I played a lot of my Nintendo games over and over, whether they were good or not. But very few gave me the joy Lifeforce did. I loved this game. I played it over and over, loved the music, was obsessed with the idea of flying a spaceship through a giant, living alien planet. Great game. 

Jamie Alston Staff Writer

07/10/2021 at 12:00 PM

Yeah, I was very late in getting around to Lifeforce. In the 90's I was only familiar with Gradius and Gradius III. I remember my brother telling me that Lifeforce was the sequel to the first Gradius, but I didn't get to play Lifeforce until the early 2000s when I started collecting NES stuff again. It's a great NES shooter.

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