Thursday, June 30, 2011

Salamander (NES)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1987


Proud offshoot of the Gradius series, it was natural for Salamander to find its way home to the Nintendo Famicom soon after its release. While not as faithful a port as the first Gradius, the game does justice to the original material, albeit changing it completely in lots of ways. Console fans and Salamander admirers owe themselves a look for these changes alone, just don't expect the same kind of challenge the arcade game had.

One natural doubt about this game is its relation to the North American release of Life Force. "What were the differences?", I wondered before picking this up for another monthly competition. Not so many, at least not in the same level as the arcade versions. Both games use the power-up scheme from Gradius, but the weapon array in Salamander is better because it shows the full name for the power-ups in each cell. In Life Force you're offered tiny blue bars and a side display of the currently lit power-up. Salamander allows you to get three options, Life Force only lets you activate two. Lastly, Salamander has multiple endings depending on how many continues you use to complete the game, whereas Life Force has only one. I'll be describing any more differences I find when I play Life Force.

Vic Viper faces the meteor shower on the 2nd stage

One of the features that's part of Salamander's charm is the fact that the game alternates horizontal with vertical scrolling. Playing it naturally felt like a novelty, but the biggest asset at the time of its release was the possibility to do it with a friend, something quite rare for an 8-bit shooter. Since the game ditches the instant power-up system of the original in favor of the Gradius-style weapon array, gameplay basics are a no-brainer for fans of the series: pick up capsules left by completely destroying enemy waves or orange enemies to light up the cells in the weapon array. Activate the desired power-up and see Vic Viper (or Lord British, the second player) improve its speed, missile, ripple, laser, option and force/shield capabilities. Missile, ripple and laser can be powered up once more after they're activated and, as I mentioned above, you can have up to three options trailing you around. A special addition in this version is the occurrence of hidden 1UPs that appear as blinking power-up capsules - I found two of them in the first stage alone. This makes it quite common to stock more than a dozen lives, since you win extends with 10.000 points and for every 30.000 points afterwards.

The most representative changes in relation to the arcade game include: fourth stage is now stage 2, with a boss that merges both original bosses in one; stages four and five are completely new, and come with more organic motifs, a high speed section, egyptian aesthetics and brand new bosses (a skull and a flying sphinx head). I had the feeling that the game is longer, mainly due to the new stages added, and that stage 3 is harder in this version (those fireballs and little phoenixes are a pain in the ass). Bullet count is very low, and practically non-existent in the first loop, so most of the opposition comes from enemies themselves and the environment. The game gets quite claustrophobic in the new 5th stage (horizontal), as opposed to the overall style you have in the rest of the journey.

Technically, there are times when the NES/Famicom isn't capable to handle everything that's happening on-screen, so slowdown and heavy flicker ensue. For instance, having a fully powered-up ship during the meteor shower of the second stage can make Vic Viper disappear completely for a few seconds. The music is great though, and the generally mild difficulty level sets Salamander apart from the somewhat higher challenge offered by Gradius.


Two stages of intense 8-bit outer space organic battle
(courtesy of YouTube user HEROAAAA)

With all its inherent goodness, I felt very sad to discover that the scoring system in this game is broken. As you can see from this video (thanks, Jorge!), due to a respawning tiny volcano it's possible to get the counterstop in stage 2-5. My motivation to keep playing suddenly died. In the high score below my credit ended in stage 2-6, after I successfully tested the trick and decided to go on to see how far I could get.

On a last note, we all know that Famicom cartridges are great to collect due to the variety of colors used by different publishers. However, a special nod goes to the transparent Famicom cartridge style used by Komani for Salamander. I wish there were more of them around. :)

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