The second game in my 25-part retrospective on the Nintendo Entertainment System is about Life Force. I expect everyone recognized the game covered in the first part, but Life Force is much more obscure. Despite is lack of notoriety this is one of the great games on the NES. Life Force is a scrolling shooter, a spin-off of the much more well-know Gradius series that features both horizontal and vertical stages. Among the many things Life Force takes from Gradius is the use of the Vic Viper, the ship that is always used in Gradius and the same upgrade system. Also like Gradius Life Force is awesome.
Life Force began as a Japanese Arcade game called Salamander that when it came time to bring it over to the US they changed it considerable, making it about flying through a giant monster. They also changed the name to Life Force. Then when is cam time to release it for the Famicom, the Japanese equivalent of the NES, they based it on a mix of Life Force and Salamander calling it Salamander. Then it came back over as NES game the name was again Life Force. Outside of its convoluted origins, Life Force has some notable elements. One of the most important parts of a shmup, as these scrolling shooters are called, is the power up system. Life Force uses the Gradius power-up system, where the player collects power-ups and uses them on the ability needed. First is speed up, which makes the ship move faster and is essential to avoiding some of the obstacles. The next slot is missile. That causes missiles to fire from the top and bottom of the ship that hit hard to get too enemies. The next is pulse, which changes the normal shot to a wavy beam. After that is laser, which makes the shot a powerful beam. The last is option. Option gives the player a little drone that fires along with the player. Also, you can have a pair of them and catch them when you die. This power-up system is pretty great because turn the once vulnerable ship into an unstoppable little God. The only problem is that if you die you lose all of those powers and have to collect all of the power-ups again. Which after the early parts of a level is almost impossible to do.
And die you will, at least at first. This game is difficult. Difficult in ways that are not in vogue in the current video game market. It is not the players twitch skills that need to be honed to beat this game, but the player needs to memorize enemy patterns and level layouts. In places, if the player does not already know what is coming then there is no way to avoid death. And once one death hits, due to the building nature of power-ups, more will follow. There is a reason that that sort of false challenge has been weeded out of gaming; it’s just not fun. But it is not intolerable in Life Force. Twitch skills can take you fairly far in this game and just paying attention is all the memorization necessary. With a few hours of practice, the average player should be able to clear at least the first two levels fairly easily. The difficulty of also offset by the use of the famous Konami code to give the player thirty lives. This is also a great tool for learning the stages so you can beat the game legitimately. One important thing does not contribute to the difficulty: the controls. The ship feels sluggish at first, but with a few speed-ups, you’ll be zipping around the screen like a pro, then a couple more and you‘ll zip into a wall.
The levels display what is the best part of Life Force: the crazy stage subjects. In what only makes since in the context of NES games, and in fact is one the best things about the NES, the player will fly all over the place with no real sense of connection between the stages. One level looks like the insides of some giant monster, the next you are shooting giant jumping Moai heads. It’s the brilliant surrealism that made the NES great. The first stage in this game looks very much like a living creature. The stage walls and the enemies all seem very organic. The enemies look like blood cells and the boss is a giant brain. After that, you go to a simple canyon, now scrolling vertically instead of horizontally, into a military installation of sorts with s robot/flying machine boss. The third stage is a sun or some such thing, with fire and flaming birds and dragons all over the place. Then its through a body again, but this time vertically. Then horizontally through some canyons and pyramids with Pharaoh head boss. The last boss appears to be a planet with a giant snake curling around it. All of this rendered in beautiful 8-bits. The sheer insane variety of stages and enemies is one of the best parts of the game.
Most important to the greatness of Life Force is that it is just plain fun. You die not being angry that you were killed, but wanting to make another attempt. Before you know it, you’ve wasted five hours and the game is still a joy to play. It is pure gaming that can only be found on the NES.
pictures from vgmuseum