Life Force – NES
Developers: Konami, SPS
Release Date (NA): August 1988
Genre: Shoot ’em Up
Nerd Rating: 5 out of 10
I popped this game in this evening after 10 years or more of not playing it, but it’s one of only a handful of NES titles I remember renting that I never owned, or at least not until I was older and the system’s popularity had long since faded. Life Force, or Salamander as it was sometimes known, is a shining example of mediocrity at its finest. Repetitive and simplistic gameplay combined with merciless difficulty place Life Force among a long list of forgettable NES titles for most; I guess it just so happened that I experienced it at a time in my video game playing career where it’ll always stand out. Remember the stereotypical early shooters with so much shit flying around on the screen that you sometimes lose sight of your own ship? Modern throwbacks to this genre such as the excellent Resogun embody the spirit of games like Life Force, forcing one to look back fondly and remembering these oldies as more fun than they actually were.
I once again used the Game Genie to get me through this (was there any doubt?) but I did spend a little time playing it legitimately just to see how rough it was. Life Force is a quick 30 to 40 minutes when equipped with infinite lives, though when not cheating it’s highly improbable that anyone will make it close to the end without logging serious game time. It seems so easy: move in straight line, stay near the back of the screen, and keep shooting. Not so. All sorts of devilishly clever obstacles make this naive approach impossible. Let me back up a little…
Life Force is a side-scrolling shooter. As the pilot/controller of a rather generic-looking spacecraft, it’s your job to plow through hordes of aliens, robots, and bizarre bio-mechanical defenses. To what end I do not know, but it’s a fierce battle to be sure. There’s a fair degree of freedom when it comes to movement, though unfortunately the craft can only shoot forward. The screen is constantly moving forward, so getting trapped behind environmental elements or enemy fire is a very real hazard and one must always be looking ahead. One somewhat unique feature of Life Force is its mixture of side-scrolling levels and vertical-scrolling levels. These formats alter from level to level for a total of 6 stages. No fundamental difference in gameplay exists between the two modes but it is a nice change of pace from area to area and offers 2 different views of the spaceship. Powerups are available in the form of “pods” dropped by defeated enemies. The upgrades in firepower are a huge asset, however dying is such a common occurrence that one doesn’t get much time to savor the experience.
Anything and everything that isn’t a powerup will blow the ship to smithereens. Enemy fire and enemy crafts seem reasonable enough to facilitate death, but avoiding these is only half the battle. Walls, moving columns, disappearing and reappearing weird veiny things, and literally anything is a health hazard. Oddly enough, the player can breathe a sigh of relief when the boss battles at the conclusion of each stage begin. Why? Because these showdowns are nearly always easier than playing through the damn level! Bosses move in anticipatory patterns and follow a formula that’s very easy to discern inside of a few seconds. Most battles occur in an empty void with no background elements to pose a threat and leave one to focus solely on maneuvering and landing shots. The screen ceases movement as well, removing another constant concern. Bosses also typically have a weak spot that must be hit to deal damage though these are immediately noticeable and the sound effects cue whether or not the correct area has been hit. Even if you don’t have a Game Genie at your disposal (or hell, even if you do), I’d highly recommend having a turbo controller on hand to assist in shooting.
The sound and music in Life Force is serviceable but forgettable. Synth loops run rampant without a trace of a catchy tune to be found, and the sound effects are little more than beeps and pops. It’s not terrible, just a tad bland and unoriginal like the rest of the game.
Graphics fare a little better. There are a few memorable images such as the gargantuan one-eyed brain and giant skull boss with the detachable eyeballs, and the backgrounds are decently rendered if not occasionally scant on detail. An attempt has been made to utilize enemy crafts of all shapes and sizes but ultimately the shapes are somewhat indistinct and everything ends up being a round-ish, floating thing. Bosses are probably the coolest thing to look at, and once you face off against the King Tut likeness and the Easter Island statue replicas spitting out Fruit Loops of Death, you’ll be wondering where in the hell this game is supposed to be taking place. It doesn’t make much sense; some areas look a lot like regular ol’ space, others resemble a cave, then there’s the one that seems to be inside of a pyramid, followed by a very techno-themed level peppered with the aforementioned statues. Earlier levels bear a passing resemblance to the techno-organic leanings of Metroid’s setting, though the second half of the game seems content to just throw together a bunch of random imagery.
Once all is said and done, there really isn’t too much in Life Force to complain about other than the insane difficulty. Being that nearly every NES game suffered this same problem, Life Force emerges relatively unscathed. Of course there’s nothing remarkable here either, and any number of games have taken this same concept and turned it into a vastly more interesting experience. Decidedly average, Life Force doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a quarter-eating trap destined for a life in an arcade cabinet. There’s enough variation to keep it from becoming overtly dull, and it’s perfect for those times when shooting the hell outta shit is all you need. Here’s to 10,000 “B” presses!
Reviewed by The Cubist
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