#32: Life Force (NES)

Generally speaking, I’m not a big fan of shoot-em-ups, or shmups, as they’re called. I’m just not good at them. In fact, outside of today’s entry, I’m not sure I’ve ever bought a shmup of my own accord. I even only played this again after I had some leftover time once I beat Castlevania III on a Rizeup Gaming stream. How I got through it…I’m not quite sure.

Regardless. Released by Konami in 1988 in the US, Life Force, also called Salamander in Japan, is a spinoff of the Gradius series. In this game, you’ve saved the universe from the Bacterions, but now planets are threatened by an even deadlier menace, Zelos. You return in your Vic Viper ship to defeat Zelos and save the universe again. This time, though, you don’t have to go it alone. Life Force features optional two-player simultaneous play, with the second player taking control of the Lord British (Sometimes localized as “Road British” because translations) spacecraft.

To defeat Zelos, you’ll have to make it through six levels of shmup action. One unusual thing about this game is that, while most shmups tend toward scrolling in one direction (Either horizontal a la R-Type, or vertical like 1943), Life Force alternates between the two–the odd-numbered levels scroll horizontally, while the even-numbered ones move vertically.

To help you out in your journey, you’ll have access to a multitude of powerups. The Gradius system is back, as collecting icons moves you along on your powerup bar–Speed Up first, then Missiles, Ripple, Laser (These two are mutually exclusive), Options (Effectively clones of your ship that trail you), and finally a Force field. At any point, you can hit A to activate your chosen powerup, which stays with you until you die.

And you will die, a lot. The good news is that, unlike Gradius, there aren’t checkpoints per se; you simply respawn right where you died. The bad news is that, like Gradius, the game is structured such that when you die, it is very difficult to recover from the death, and more deaths are likely to follow, quickly. Without the classic Konami Code, you get a grand total of 3 lives and 3 continues to get through the game. It’s not easy in the slightest.

How hard is Life Force? Hard enough that, according to Arcade History, it was the inspiration for danmaku, or “bullet hell” games such as Donpachi. It’s also hard enough that I still count getting through four loops of the game, starting with three lives, as my greatest gaming achievement (For context, I’ve beaten F-Zero GX’s Story Mode on Very Hard, and I find Battletoads to be somewhat overrated on the difficulty curve). Interestingly, the hardest level is probably the third, with solar flares, dragons, and other obstacles appearing from out of nowhere, and in combinations that give you almost no time to react before you die. And once you die once, well, good luck dodging anything with a default-speed ship. The game gets somewhat easier after level three, although it’s still very challenging in an absolute sense past that point.

The game itself is auto-scrolling, so the only way to make it faster is to not die and lose your powerups, and to quickly kill the bosses, which is best done with the Laser. My very rough estimate, if you manage to make it through the entire game without dying, would be that a start-to-finish playthrough would take about a half hour. Remember, though, that without the Konami Code, you’ll be spending a lot longer than that actually acquiring the skills to make it all the way through, with a lot of restarting from the beginning.

Once again, I’m not big into shmups. But Life Force is a ton of fun, and a big challenge too. I’ll admit to not knowing if it holds up to a shmup connoisseur, but for someone casual in the genre like myself, it’s definitely worth playing. If you can’t find the NES version, it was also released on Virtual Console. Now get to it!

-EE

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