Back in 1985, game giant Konami knew it had a smash hit in the arcades by the name of Gradius. By smash hit, I mean breaking thumbs and banks feeding all of your quarters into an arcade cabinet. One year later, Konami went back to space Satan and asked him to forge another game. This game was an upgrade from Gradius. Instead of being just a horizontal scrolling space shoot’em up, this one would take that style and include vertical scrolling levels.
Konami knew that people would riot if they included vertical scrolling levels and called the game Gradius 2. Fans of Gradius would say Gradius doesn’t have vertical levels! Then they’d overturn the machines then light them on fire. No, in this case, they had to come up with a different name to make this a spin off series, even if both games have the same features. So they called it Salamander, before renaming it Life Force when it came over here to to North America.
Not even a change in name could fool people, we all knew it was a sequel to Gradius. It had a lot of similarities, such as collecting pods from enemies as a sort of currency. Then using the pods to buy ship upgrades. This has always been a staple of the Gradius series.
The first upgrade that you can buy is speed, the next is missiles. These missiles fire in both directions, unlike Gradius which only dropped them, making them feel more like bombs. You can now upgrade them twice. After that, you can upgrade your gun to a ring laser, which is good for those people out there with no aim. One step over ring laser is the long laser that does what it says. I assume its more powerful, since its long and straight. Then there are options, which have been made famous by Gradius that has spheres shadowing your space ship. These spheres shoot when you shoot and take no damage. Finally, there’s a force field that lets your ship take some extra hits before it wears off.
To really throw people off, for the NES version of Life Force, they flipped the buttons. Gradius had A to shoot and B to buy an upgrade, while Life Force had it B to shoot and A to buy upgrades. To me, this felt a lot more comfortable on my thumbs, but I know with space shoot’em ups, you’re supposed to use your index finger to rapidly tap the fire button.
This game is no different. If you hold down the fire button, you’ll shoot one bullet per screen at a time, but if you rapidly fire then you can have several bullets. I am just thankful to have the one bullet per screen if you hold down the button, because at least then you fire faster the closer you are to an object.
The space ship itself has favorable hit detection. If an object hits your tail fin or cockpit, you won’t blow up. As always, if you take one hit, you’re toast, but at least with Life Force, you respawn right there with temporary invulnerability. This ability to keep going makes the game a lot easier, and it was probably what needed to be done, because of the game’s two player cooperative play. That’s right you and a friend can now make the game slow down to a crawl by playing at the same time.
Even without a second player, the game will slow down especially on the vertical scrolling levels. Once enough enemies get on screen, things go slow. When you’ve got full power ups and a lot of enemies, that causes the NES to flicker and in a game where one hit is death, you need to see your ship.
At least with Life Force, there are continues. Using up all of your lives means you’ll need to restart the level. Its a fair trade off when Gradius didn’t have continues at all. With that being said, every death takes away your power ups so it feels like you might as well hit reset to start all over again. While it is fully possible to make it through the game with no power ups, I can’t imagine it happening. That’s what makes the Gradius and Life Force series so difficult, the fact that you have no upgrades.
I’d say Life Force is a different sort of difficult from Gradius. While the original Gradius was bone crushingly difficult for all of the bullets and events with random projectiles like volcanoes, Life Force feels more like level memorization. In Gradius there was a big emphasis on you against an entire fleet of space ships, but in Life Force, there’s an equal amount on surviving the terrain.
In the first level, walls will grow and sometimes block you in, so you need to be quick to avoid them or beat them in their race to go. You’ll also need to shoot your way through walls that in time will regenerate. Its not exactly a pressing issue in the firs two levels, but it becomes a lot more challenging later on. The third level is covered in fire, complete with jumping flares that give you little to no chance to react, but if you memorize where they’ll be, you should be fine.
From there your speed and a nimble ship become mandatory. Vertical levels propel you quickly down corridors and you’ll need to dodge left and right. The final level does the same thing, but much worse with gates that shift down to narrow gaps and you’ll need to remember where those gaps will be placed if you want to get through the game in one piece. In later levels, the vines and walls that you can tunnel through will rapidly build to destroy you and so again, its all about level memorization. This makes the game feel cheap and not challenging. In fact everything else is easy by comparison, especially when you’re fully upgraded and nothing can stop you.
The bosses are awesome monsters that really make the game stand out. To cover a few, you’ve got a giant brain, that I swear was the final boss of Gradius, but now it grows arms. There is a giant fire dragon’s head that spits fire faster and faster as it takes damage. A giant cybernetic skull that eats your bullets and spits them out in random directions and speeds. A sphinx head and the final boss seems to just be a laughably easy serpent, because the real boss is escaping the area through those narrow gaps.
Life Force is really a step forward in effort. The levels all feel unique from one another and they don’t get recycled as Gradius had done. Each stage does start out similar though, you’ll fly through open space, destroying rows of rust colored space ships to get a currency pod. Then you’ll dive into a more hostile second half of the level.
The first level is what looks like the inside of an organism, the second level is made of rock, the third is fire, the fourth I get fuzzy about, then there’s some sort of Egyptian temple in space and so on. The fire level is probably the worst with the flares, fire snakes that coil around you, random lava louts that spring out of the top and bottom. Enemies that explode into a fireball that heads straight at you. Oh and twin boulders that hurl themselves your way.
The music is better than Gradius. The high pitched sounds have been replaced by more subtle background music. Of course the wild banjo music still returns for one part of the game. As for the sound effects, they sound as if they’re shared with Contra, but hey if Valve can use the same sound effects for the past 15 years, so can Konami. The sound effects are key to the game though, because some enemies just can’t be damaged, so you’ll need to pay attention to the sound they make.
In true Gradius fashion, there are no credits at the end, just the Konami logo after a thrilling explosion and escape ala Contra. Spoiler alert from that ending. I know there were people out there that haven’t put their lives in a cheese grater to play this game long enough to beat it.
I think Life Force may just be a lot better than the original, but I will never respect it as such. I can still consider this a brutal, challenging game that is still a classic, it just doesn’t hold the same popularity that Gradius has. I feel like there’s a lot of wasted time in Life Force cutting through terrain and waiting for boss fights to start. It does go the extra mile to make itself feel different than its predecessor and its a visual feast for the 8-bit era.