After Konami released the classic shooter Gradius back in the mid-1980s, it was a big hit on the NES and gamers were anxiously waiting for a sequel. Eventually a follow-up was released on the gray box but instead of a direct sequel Konami instead went with this spin-off title (also known as Salamander in Japan) which kept the core gameplay but added quite a few new features. Although Konami would craft a proper sequel that was never brought over to the U.S., this cartridge proves more than worthy to be called a sequel itself.
The story is pretty basic yet interesting as the same time. A giant creature known only as Zelos is devouring planets throughout the universe and apparently the planet Gradius is next on the menu. You just happen to be the guy called upon to stop this tragedy so you must take the controls of the Vic Viper and fly into Zelos to destroy the monster from within.
Your mission covers six stages of shooting action which can be challenged by one or two players, with the second player control the Red British fighter. The object is to fly your ship through the different stages gunning down the numerous alien forces along the way and slaying the monstrous boss at the end of the level. Stages 1, 3 and 5 use the standard side-scrolling setup while the even-numbered stages use a vertical-scrolling overhead view. The game uses the same power-up system as Gradius where you collect orange pods from certain enemies to select which weapons you want to activate, such as missiles, lasers, ripple beams and even an options pod to assist you. However your ship can only take one hit and you lose your special weapons and have to build them up again. Forutnately unlike Gradius your next ships starts off right at the point you got blasted.
The graphics are very impressive for a game 20+ years old. The stages each have their own distinct looks and they sport some nice details, inclduing the shooting flames in the third level. The sprites are all nicely done and the bosses are especially well drawn. Some slowdown does pop up on ocassion but not a whole lot. Once again Konami does not disappoint with the game's soundtrack. The upbeat music tunes are very catchy and do a good job fitting in with each setting, especially the creepy song as you battle each boss. The sound effects are decent enough.
Just like many other NES Konami titles Life Force doesn't disappoint with the gameplay. The exciting action is smooth, addictive and very easy to get into thanks to the simple controls. The two-player mode really works well and in some levels the path splits giving you and your partner their own corridor to clear out. However the game does have a very high difficulty. You start off with two lives and three continues but the one-hit kills make it difficult to get to the end since there are many ways to die plus it's not too hard to slam your ship into the scenery, especially when it really gets claustrophic at certain parts of the game. Thankfull Konamiy included its infamous 30-man code in this cart and having all those extra ships really helps out, though some may feel it makes the game a little too easy now. Plus the game is a little too short with only six levels and the bosses aren't that difficult once you learn the pattern.
Those minor flaws aside, Life Force still excells as one of the top shooters on the NES. Everything about this game is first class and having a friend as your wingman to zap the baddies is a blast plus this is a gem you'll keep coming back to despite its high difficulty and shortness. It may not be a true Gradius sequel but this game does the franchise proud in spades. Definelty highly recommended.
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