For those not in the know, Life Force started out life known as Salamander in Japan and was renamed for Western audiences. The Salamander series is a spin off to Konami’s famous Gradius franchise of shooters; the main differences in Salamander are the introduction of a simultaneous 2 player mode, vertically scrolling stages in addition to the usual horizontal scrolling levels and a simplified power up system.
It is fair to say that the humble NES is not remembered particularly for having many shoot-em-ups, that is at least compared to the TurboGrafx and Mega Drive. That being said there were a few and Life Force holds its own as one of the best shooters on the NES.
A giant alien fiend by the name of Zelos is up to no good consuming planets and even whole galaxies which cross its path. It’s up to the good ship Vic Viper, and if playing with a buddy, Lord British, to penetrate this vile being and destroy it from the inside. As a result of this many of the stages in Life Force have an organic feel to them. In addition to the usual small alien foes you will want to shoot to smithereens you also have to contend with dangers such as landscapes which rapidly grow around you threatening to crash your ship. There is lots of variety on offer here and of course the trademark Easter Island heads make an appearance later in the game, in true Gradius style.
For an NES game the graphics are quite impressive. There is lots of detail in every level and the animation of the enemy ships does not disappoint. Later in the game there are effects such as giant arcs of flames tearing across the screen and crumbling walls. The boss fights are quite innovative too, as you’ll take on formidable foes such as a flying brain with arms, a massive dragon’s head and a spooky grinning skull. The music is upbeat and catchy and set the pace nicely for each level; considering the NES hardware the music quality really stands out and is a league above that contained in the NES port of Gradius.
Much like Gradius the key to success in this game is getting fully powered up. If you get the optimum selection of speed-ups, shields, options, missiles, and lasers you will be a force to be reckoned with. Of course if you die and lose your power-ups then things will become a lot more difficult all of a sudden. On the whole the game feels a lot more balanced that Gradius and it is easier to recover from this loss of power-ups. As such this is much more accessible as a game for the shoot-em-up novice, while others such as Gradius might intimidate.
One of the greatest features of Life Force of course is the simultaneous 2 player mode; this does not feel tacked on as an afterthought, by any means. On many occasions there are multiple paths to take which allow each player to build up their personal power-up supply without getting in each other’s way. The rest of the time it is a free for all, but this is a cooperative game, it’s nice to share!
For shoot-em-up fans this game is truly worth a look. It isn’t a faithful port of the arcade original particularly, but don’t let that put you off. The game packs a good challenge without being stupidly hard, it is the ideal entry point for a newcomer to the Gradius series of games. The alternating horizontal and vertical levels are an innovative touch for the era and the 2 player mode is the icing on the cake. It comes heartily recommended for shoot-em-up fans.