Thursday, August 23, 2012

Salamander 2 (Saturn)

Horizontal / Vertical
Checkpoints OFF
8 Difficulty levels
6 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1997

Konami could’ve been objective and lazy, launching Salamander 2 as a stand-alone disc for the console market just a few months after the game had debuted in the arcade scene. It’s really fortunate that the company was still on top of their game during the 90s (unlike what sadly happens today), so we were blessed enough to receive the game bundled with predecessors Salamander and Life Force, shooters that were by then almost 10 years old. Titled Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus, the compilation came out for the Saturn and the Playstation and is a real gem both for lovers of the Gradius universe and non-Gradius fans alike. After all, Salamander games have no checkpoints, which were always the bane of any Gradius game except for anything post Gradius IV.

In almost all aspects Salamander 2 represents a remarkable leap over Salamander. Prettier, smoother, more intense and definitely more fun, the sequel takes what made the first one an exquisite hybrid shooter and applies a nice overhaul to everything. The organic environments still set the tone, but the presence of flaming suns, large battleships and meteor-filled outer space bases amplifies the scope considerably. It’s still a short ride given the six stages available, but that’s duly forgiven once the player is granted access to the second loop and the challenge receives a considerable boost with suicide bullets on the side. It’s nothing close to what you get, for example, in the second loop of Xexex, in fact it’s probably one of the most manageable second loops with suicide bullets I’ve ever seen.

Inside the bowels of the universe

Coming to terms with the basic gameplay in Salamander 2 shouldn’t be any surprise for those who already know the first chapter. The good thing for newcomers is that the sequel ditches symbols for most of the items and adopts alphabet characters, thus making the learning process a tad easier. S stands for speed-up and M for missile. The main weapons are L (laser), R (ripple laser) and T (twin blade). The only two items with symbols are fortunately self-explanatory: force field and option. As we all know, in the Gradius universe the option is that omnipresent energy sphere that follows the spaceship around and mimics its primary weapons. They now come in two sizes, with the smaller one called “option seed”. A single option seed creates a small option that circles the ship while shooting the default bullet sprite at a fixed firing rate. If a second option seed is taken a full-size option is added to the ship’s arsenal, to a maximum of four.

What lies beyond the basics is what takes this game a step further in terms of dynamic gameplay. Taking a weapon item of the same type, for instance, boosts its power for 10 seconds. A second missile power-up will make the ship fire missiles in both directions (up and down) but with their crawling ability revoked - these two missile modes are switched by taking further missile items. And then there’s the final improvement, a separate button used to sacrifice your options: push to turn one option into a homing laser, push and hold to unleash more options at the same time. The sacrificed options will come back to the ship as option seeds, so for every option you kill you still get half an option back. It’s a great resource to take care of enemies behind walls or to relieve the tension if you’re about to get overwhelmed.

There are two score-based extends at 200.000 and 500.000 points. Basic scoring involves taking every possible power-up icon (all of them are worth 300 points each), playing as a killing machine, milking bosses for popcorn when feasible and triggering two mildly tricky secrets worth 100.000 points each. Apparently invincible, the Golem brain of the first stage can be destroyed if you reach him with at least one weapon (L, T or R), two full options and missiles. The problem is that to achieve this firepower level so soon in the game you need to kill the popcorn enemies in a predetermined order. It’s not that hard to do but a little practice is definitely needed. A second trick for another 100.000 points is in the start of the 4th stage: destroy the two spaceships without hitting the rings in their thrusters (hit their right halves only) and a third ship will appear from the left, then waste its three sections from top to bottom to get the bonus score. This second trick is easier to perform than the Golem’s kill.

Three stages of Salamander 2
(courtesy of YouTube user PickHutHG)

Salamander 2 has it all in the way of eye candy, with very little slowdown (only present in a few sections of the 5th stage) and an overall easier difficulty. There are no walls of any kind, especially fun-breaking parts such as the 4th boss in the first chapter. Another reason for the more friendly challenge is the fact that rank takes longer to kick in and gets totally reset upon death. Options will linger on screen until you take them back, therefore with the exception of the lack of speed-ups the game is still quite manageable once you die. It also flows in a more cohesive manner thanks to the almost complete elimination of empty space (one of the minor downsides of Salamander), with an asymmetrical distribution of horizontal to vertical areas. The only vertical stages are levels 2 and 6. I like how wall turrets are absent in vertical stages, they always sounded a bit weird in the first game.

Although this sequel undeniably surpasses Salamander, it does lack an aspect that helped pave the first game’s fame: the announcer and his cheesy voice messages. The only voices you’ll ever hear appear when items are taken and during the fight against the last boss. The music in Salamander 2, on the other hand, is nothing short of outstanding, with great themes from start to finish. The song for stage 2 is one of my favorites of all time, and stage 4 somehow reminds me of the epicness of Radiant Silvergun. Old fans will cheer and rejoice when they reach the second loop, for the music is changed to a remixed version of the soundtrack for Salamander. That was a nice one, Konami.

I spent approximately one week playing Salamander 2 as part of the STGT 2012 on the Shmups Forums. After looping with Vic Viper (player 1) I switched to Super Cobra (player 2) because the game gets slightly easier with this second ship (beating it once unlocks an option to start the game directly on the second loop). I played on NORMAL (MEDIUM), and in my best run I reached stage 2-5.


  1. Although I love Salamander 2, I could never 1cc it. The best run I had was when I beat this game using only two credits. Still, this game is very addicting, and keeps me trying.

  2. Right, Konami totally isn't even a shadow of what they were back in the old days. Just sad... The probably were my favourite developer even though I have issues with their checkpoint-based shmups.

    Anyway, unfortunately I had little time for this year's STGT and was on vacation during the Salamander 2 week and just played like 3 credits. Might try it again sometime. Thanks for the great review once again! Different 2nd loop music - how awesome is that? Might even motivate a 2nd loop grouch as myself.

    1. I wish my excuse for this year's STGT was exclusively lack of time... It was on the first couple of weeks anyway, but then Salamander 2 was selected and I rejoiced YAY. Such a fun game, and fairly easygoing by Konami standards.

      However, I was deeply disappointed with the later choices - and my STGT stats went downhill from there.

    2. I was fine with ESG Galuda personally, but the doujin week was a joke. Not yet another caravan... I couldn't even get it to work despite trying different setups. Cho Ren Sha is an awesome game, would have been a MUCH better choice.