Review by Psycho Penguin

"Hey, this game is a lot like Salamander!"

Gradius was a very fun game released by Konami during the old days of the NES. It was one of the original horizontal shooters, and it proved to be a lot of fun, and brought lots of innovation to the table in an attempt to prove it just wasn't another lame shooting game. They succeeded and managed to make one of the most interesting and action-packed shooters of its generation, despite the relative slow pace of the game.

Konami is not known as a company that just rests on its laurels, however. Therefore, they set out to make a game that was a lot like Gradius, but offered lots of improvements and additions. The storyline stayed largely the same, however. Of course, no one really plays a shooter for a storyline, but the Gradius series always revolved around Vic Viper's attempt to save the universe. Life Force is really no different.

Life Force is the typical shooting game released for the NES around this time. The enemies are numerous, and some of the obstacles provided are pretty unique. A fair amount of them involved shooting lots of things, but you also had to maneuver your ship through several different level designs, some of which had stage interaction like you've never seen before. The floating Moai heads are a classic example of this, for instance. You'll never know when they are coming next, so maneuvering your ship is an interesting prospect to say the least.

Of course, the game still retains all the classic elements a shooter needs to have. The enemies come at you in waves, and prove to be pretty challenging if you don't have the proper weaponry. Some of them happen to be pretty innovative, as well, especially some of the wall climbers and pods that shoot enemies out of them. The bosses are massive and prove to be quite a challenge, as well. Some of them even take up an entire screen! So, be ready to encounter some of the most interesting enemies and bosses you've ever seen.

For those of you familiar with Gradius, you know the drill. The big innovation brought to the table was the addition of several improvements you could add to your ship on the bottom of the screen. You could do everything from increasing your speed several times to adding the ability to fire missiles in addition to your normal weapon. You also got the usual array of weapon upgrades and shields, which helped give the game a bit of variety.

Every time you killed a group of enemies, or a special colored enemy, it would leave behind a orange weapon capsule, which allowed you to move one space ahead in your list. The more capsules you collected, the higher the benefit. You started off with the basic ''speed up'' and ''shield'' options, but as you got farther along the list, you could collect better weapons. When you selected an option off the list, it would start over, and when you died, you'd lose all of the special stuff you had. So, if you stayed alive for a long period of time, you'd have a real ass kicking ship ready to go.

Fortunately, Konami decided to keep this aspect of the game, as it was one of the things that really set Gradius apart. The game does play a lot like Gradius, which is okay, but they decided to add something that separated this game from its predecessor big time: Vertical scrolling levels. That's right, in addition to your normal side scrolling levels, Konami decided to add in some vertical scrolling levels. They play the same way, with the weapon capsules, but this addition made the game more varied and definitely more fun.

Sadly, Gradius's main flaw wasn't corrected in the two years it took for Life Force to come out. The game still moves entirely too slow. Some of the levels can be a little fast, but this is one of the slower-paced shooting games out there. The enemy fire is rapid, and the game proves to be quite challenging, but due to the fact that the stages scroll at such a slow pace, you never get the urgency or feeling that you don't know exactly what's going on. Some might not see it as a flaw, and it's not the worst thing in the world, but those of you used to fast-paced shooters may be a tad disappointing by this effort.

One of the advantages to a game being slow-paced, however, is the lack of any noticeable slowdown. Life Force looks pretty nice, and the lack of slowdown is definitely a step in the right direction. The backgrounds have improved from Gradius, but they still aren't great. They're a little more varied this time, but most of the time you will still encounter the same old tired black screens you've seen a thousand times before. Would it kill them to throw in a space jungle level or something? I know it wouldn't be the most realistic thing in the world, but really, is there anything realistic about this game? The enemy designs are pretty well drawn, however, and the detail in some of the boss designs have to be seen to be believed.

It sounds pretty impressive, as well. Konami was always right on with its music in the late 80's, and Life Force is certainly no exception. Every stage has a song that is suitable for the level design. The techno beat of the music really lends credence to the outer space feel of the game. The sound effects are pretty decent, but not anything to write home about. The typical shooting sounds are here, but they won't annoy you or prove to be a distraction, so I'm not going to hate on them at all.

Life Force is most known for its extreme challenge, and I can verify that for you: this game is one of the hardest shooting games I've ever played. And I have played a lot of challenging shooters. The game doesn't really move too fast, but the simple fact that the enemies are always in the wrong place at the wrong time, combined with the fact you will see tons of enemy fire coming at you at pretty much every point in the game, means that it's a lot more than a ''just move as fast as possible'' game. Plus, some of the level designs can be a tad tricky to maneuver around, and the vertical scrolling stages take some time to get used to.

The extreme challenge level of the game is one of the reasons I still find myself playing Life Force from time to time. It's a lot of fun, and the fact it borrows elements from another great shooter, and adds new ideas and level designs, makes this game an easy winner. It's just plain fun to play, and the extreme challenge will keep you coming back for more (just make keep to pack an extra controller around, just in case.) The two-player mode can also add to the replay value, as you can embarrass your brother or friend when he loses ten times in a level that you already mastered.

There's not a lot bad I can say about Life Force. It's not the greatest shooter ever, but it's terribly fun and challenging. The combination of vertical scrolling stages to the classic Gradius formula proved to be one of the better decisions Konami ever made. Life Force won't win any awards for all-time greatness, but those looking for a fun romp through a challenging shooter could do far worse than play this underappreciated classic.

And yes, I know the game is called Salamander in Japan, thanks.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/12/03


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