Anyone who is a fan of shooters knows about the Thunder Force series. Developer Technosoft proved that they were a master at the genre with those titles but they were just getting started. They also created what many consider to be the first real time strategy game, Herzog Zwei. But the shoot em up was their bread and butter. One of their works that sadly doesn’t get enough recognition is Elemental Master, a fantasy themed shooter that is severely underrated.
Long ago the evil followers of the demon Gyra were sealed under Lorelei city castle. The sorcerer Aryaag betrayed the kingdom and released Gyra’s power on the world. Laden, the most powerful sorcerer in Lorelei prepares to fight them back but is taken aback when Aryaag is revealed to be his banished brother Roki. Roki sends Laden away, forcing him to fight his way back in revenge.
The first half of the game involves building up Laden’s powers. At first you have a single spell and little life. You can tackle the initial four elemental levels in any order. After each you gain a new spell from that element and can switch at any time. It is very similar to Thunder Force although here you don’t lose your weapons upon death. It sounds awesome but in practice they cover the usual shooter tropes such as a wide beam, wave beam, etc. What is cool are the charge attacks associated with each spell which produce devastating effects. Aside from charging up for a few seconds you can spam these as much as you want. There are a few other item but the most important is the chalice, which increases your maximum life by one point.
Nearly aspect of the game is great but the level design is the strongest feature of Elemental Master. Like Undeadline you are confined to the ground. This means that the environment is just as much your enemy as the hordes of demons. Each of the four initial levels corresponds to an element with suitable dangers to match. In the fire land tracks of fire dictate your course through the level. In the earth zone enemies drop boulders from high ground and hide in the dense forests.
After this things are kicked up a notch. The traps are new and more plentiful in number. Spiked ball and chains, corridors filled with spears and tight passages await. The game delights in placing much needed items behind traps to entice you into taking damage. It all makes for a very memorable journey to the game’s conclusion, one that is much better than similar titles such as Phelios and Undeadline.
About the only negative would be the relatively easy difficulty. Initially your life bar is short and you have a single weak weapon. This remains the roughest part of the game as the level you pick first will be a rough ride. But with every stage cleared not only do you earn new magic but your health increases as well. The charged attacks in particular are almost game breaking; the holy beam can kill later bosses in two shots! It picks up in the game’s second half with an increase in enemies from all sides as well as long passages filled with traps. These are countered by well-placed fruit to restore health. The limited continues aren’t even a factor as I imagine most will reach the final battle with little trouble.
I don’t normally suggest raising the difficulty early on but in this case I think it is advised. Playing the game on expert provides new enemies and formations in every level for a different experience. It doesn’t ruin the game’s balance either as all items are in the same locations. The raised difficulty will prompt weapon switching more often and actually use the charge attack frequently outside of boss battles. I think it is silly that they hid the options menu behind a code as it helps correct the game’s one flaw.
The production values are strong in Elemental Master although the game doesn’t rise to the heights of Thunder Force IV. The color palette is very dark overall yet it doesn’t drown out the insane attention to detail. Mountains cast shadows, water ripples, and trees sway in the wind. The game is not afraid to toss out well over a dozen enemies at once without any slowdown which is impressive. The sprite work is exceptional, particularly on the bosses. But as much as I like the graphics the soundtrack is the true star. The music is fantastic, full of rocking tunes that really use of the FM synth to deliver a pounding score.
Despite its lack of popularity I feel Elemental Master is one of the best games in the system’s shooter library. Great graphics, an excellent soundtrack, and a long quest make this an all-around great purchase.