The space shooter is a genre that has somewhat faded into obscurity in recent years, both due to advances in technology rendering their limited scope obsolete and their typically gruelling difficulty proving unpalatable to some gamers. The NES port of Life Force, (or Salamander, as it was originally known on Eastern shores) serves as an effective reminder that there’s great merit in revisiting simpler times. Players who will meet Life Force on its own terms and master its intricacies will find a challenging, rewarding experience, but those looking for a relaxed, light-hearted game may find its constant pressures frustrating.
Life Force is extremely similar to its older brother, Konami’s excellent 1985 arcade gem Gradius, once again placing players in the cockpit of Vic Viper in an intense and (occasionally) frustrating battle against the gargantuan invader Zelos. Gradius’ unique power-up system makes a welcome return – players collect glowing icons from downed enemy ships which can be redeemed for a number of boosts such as increased speed, rate of fire and even orbiting assistant ships. Utilising this system with maximum efficiency takes some practice, with many a rookie player prioritising the wrong enhancement or being unable to split their focus between managing their ship’s power-ups and dodging enemy fire, leading to frequent early deaths.
Life Force mercifully leaves very little down-time between lives, however, and its addictive and challenging gameplay make each failure feel like a lesson learned rather than a cheap punishment to bolster playtime. Life Force rewards patient play and thoughtful movement, rarely devolving into a ‘bullet-hell’ style shooter where lightning fast reflexes and constant rote memorization are required. The game alternates between horizontal and vertical scrolling stages; which are more favourable is a matter of personal preference, but each feel natural and well-designed in their own right.
The visuals are refreshingly detailed, with each varied background maintaining an organic feel, gritty and imposing without being dull or lacking in colour. The peppy soundtrack lends an optimistic playfulness to the adventure, each stage looping catchy tunes that avoid becoming repetitive or distracting throughout the game.
This features a two-player co-operative mode, mercifully allowing struggling players to tackle Life-Force’s initially enervating challenges as a duo, counteracting the formidable difficulty by allowing more screen coverage. This can be done on the 3DS even when only one player has purchased the title and is arguably the optimum way to enjoy Life Force, adding further nuances such as power-up management to the fray. The mode is a welcome addition, and a generous one at that - allowing two players to enjoy Life Force in its entirety for the price of a single admission is more than a favourable deal, and its simple controls and clear presentation make it easy for anyone to get in on the action, regardless of previous experience in the genre.
For the experienced shooter player, Life Force is fairly short – restarts aside, the game can be blown through in short order, and replayability is extremely limited. Still, the short time spent with Life Force is an exigent joy, a rollercoaster of triumph and frustration, each enfuriating death offset with rewarding victory. Life Force is not so much a game as it is a provocation, a bold proclamation that gamers today cannot muster the skill nor the patience to overcome its trials – as a gateway into the shooter genre or just a game to put some hair on your chest, patient players could do a lot worse than picking up this demanding classic.