I along with millions of kids always assumed that Life Force was the sequel to Gradius. It came a year later, featured an identical power-up system and even starred the same ship. And Konami certainly positioned it as such. But it would be decades before I would learn that in actuality Life Force belonged to a separate series called Salamander. While we missed out on the excellent Gradius II Life Force served as an excellent substitute. This is one of the best shooters for the system.
Salamander has an odd history when it comes to the US. For some inexplicable reason the organic theme of the game’s first level was used to rework the entire game so that it takes place in the body of an organism. Mostly this simply involved adding a weird pattern to the game’s backgrounds and a very brief intro explaining the story. The NES game is a port of this version of the game but adds the Gradius power-up system to boot. It’s a strange mish mash but it all works out in the end.
In the arcade Salamander did not use the Gradius power-up system. Instead enemies would randomly drop the individual items themselves. For the most part they were plentiful enough that you were able to get up to speed quickly. On the other hand you were at the mercy of what the game gave you, meaning if you died things would be a lot more complicated if the system decided to drop a bunch of missiles rather than options. With the adaptation of the weapon grid you now control the rate at which you power up. It creates a different flow to the game for sure but one that I’m sure Konami hoped would be familiar to fans of Gradius.
The weapons themselves are identical to Gradius with one exception. In place of the worthless double shot you have the Ripple. The Ripple produces a wave of concentric circles that expand in size the further they travel. While it isn’t as powerful as the laser it is far more useful, so much so that it would be brought over to almost every subsequent Konami shooter in some form. Sadly the American version limits you to two options rather than three, no doubt an effort to limit slowdown which is still pretty bad.
In some ways calling this a port doesn’t do it justice. It keeps the same alternating horizontal and vertical shooting action but adds quite a bit of new content. The fourth level in the arcade, Center Core, is now the second stage. In its place is a new level, the Organic Speed Zone, which features a rapid ascent into a brain like area where you fight a skull. The fifth stage is also brand new, the Temple Zone. This level is completely out of place as it takes place in an Egyptian Temple complete with a pharaoh as its end boss. On its own the level is fine but is a huge WTF in contrast to the rest of the game. The game’s conclusion is a bit anticlimactic but the journey to get there is incredibly fun considering it isn’t as hard as its sort of predecessor.
The brutal difficulty of Gradius has been toned down significantly here. Power-ups are far more frequent, to the point where you’ll avoid them unless you are playing for points. This helps immensely when you die since you can get back up to speed pretty quickly. The biggest factor in the lower difficulty aside from two-player coop is the elimination of checkpoints. You respawn immediately so even though you are weaponless you can at least brute force your way through the game. If you really suck the Konami code works but frankly it’s embarrassing if you even need it here.
One thing that can’t be denied is that Life Force looks great. Although brief at just six levels it offers more variety than two or three shooters combined. The biological theme is fully realized as you pass through areas that resemble the mouth, kidneys, stomach and even brain. It isn’t perfect and gets downright silly when you see volcanoes spewing molten rocks and the various mechanical enemies but you can forgive it. While it is technically more accomplished slowdown is egregiously bad. Two players with full options letting off a stream of fire will cause the game to turn into a slideshow. It was even worse in the Japanese version where you could have up to three options at once!
Life Force was a great game back then and still remains so now. In light of the fact that we didn’t get Crisis Force and Recca in the US it is one of the absolute best shooters for the NES and is only let down by its short length.