Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dragon Spirit (Playstation 2)

Checkpoints OFF/ON
3 Difficulty levels
9 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Namco
Published by Namco in 2005

Namco might be completely out of the shmup spotlight today, but there was a time when the company did participate and even established minor trends within the genre. Albeit being the creator of the first vertical scrolling shooter in history, it is true their catalogue didn't attract that much attention from the masses throughout the 80s. If you dig deeper into it though, there's a chance you might find some interesting and overlooked games waiting to be appreciated. One of them is Dragon Spirit, one of the many evolutionary steps taken from Xevious and fortunately one of the most ported titles from Namco.

The game is a fantasy themed vertical shooter where the hero turns into a dragon in order to rescue a princess that's been kidnapped by a bad guy: a classic storyline for a very straightforward shmup. It's possible to play close arcade conversions of Dragon Spirit on the PS1, PS2, PSP, XBLA and PSN, with other ports available on the PC Engine, NES, Atari ST, Commodore and Amiga. I decided to go for the PS2 version available in the Namco Museum 50th Anniversary compilation, mainly because I thought it would be one of the most accurate ways to experience the game in a home console. However, as I was playing the game and reaching the last stages consistently, I finally got my copy of Namco Museum 5 for the PS1, which also has Dragon Spirit. Suffice it to say, just by seeing the first stages I realized this is one of those cases where the game plays better on the PS1 - the PS2 version slows down in busy parts, with softened graphics and firing controls that are a bit dodgy.

But you know what? I'm stubborn. I'm fierce in my objectives. I had started the journey on the PS2, and I would end it on the PS2!

What? A swimming dinosaur and a shiny blue egg?

I don't know about you, but I think there's something bold and attractive about transforming into a dragon and toasting half the world to rescue a beautiful girl. Dragon Spirit will quench such an aspiration in nine increasingly hard levels, some of them being quite long and tricky. The first thing you see as the game is started is your transformation, which is followed by campaigns over dinosaur populated valleys, lava creeks and volcanos, marshes with magic trees, deserts, moving caves, glaciers, underwater passages, a pitch black chamber and a final showdown in a castle ridden with treacherous wall gargoyles and extremely narrow passageways. Every stage has an unique setting and feels completely different from the previous one, with an astonishing level of variety that also extends to the nice soundtrack, a pleasing collection of tunes and themes that evoke the game's mythical style with haunting efficiency. In this regard, you can see the game as a precursor to Phelios.

Just like in Xevious, there are two types of attacks in Dragon Spirit. Normal fire will hit airborne enemies, while ground enemies must be hit with ground bombs. As indicated by the health bar, you can get hit once before dying, with no possibility at all for health recovery. It's generally good advice to get used to the size of the dragon from the get go, because with every blue orb collected he will gain an extra head. You can have up to three heads, which will considerably increase the firepower range. Just like blue orbs, the orange orbs can be collected by bombing colored eggs placed on the ground. These orange orbs add to the power-up meter in the lower right corner, and for every three orbs collected the power will be boosted to a new level. In the final power level the dragon will fire very powerful flame streams that can pierce through walls, as well as enemy armor. Although this sums up the basics of the gameplay, the extra icons achieved randomly by hitting blinking enemies are what gives the game its very special feel.

Besides the regular blue/orange orbs, extra random orbs can appear in the following flavors: invincibility shield, homing shot (not as effective as it might seem), earthquake (kills all ground enemies as they enter the screen), shrinker (reduces the dragon's hitbox, leaving him with just one head), spread shot (dragon turns white), diamonds for extra points, 10.000 points (yellow orb), 1/3 of a 1UP (pink orb, get three of them to "hatch" an extra life), the ultimate flame power-up (dragon turns green), expanded eyesight (only in stage 8) and the dreaded power-down (black orb). Some of these orbs are very handy in certain parts of the game, and should be dealt with accordingly. The spread shot, for instance, is great to take down lots of enemies, but it's bad against bosses because it's weaker than the flame. On the other hand, the flame has a dead zone right on the dragon's nose, where up close enemies will go unharmed and kill the player by contact. It's really annoying and quite deadly in the claustrophobic last stage. Shrinking the dragon is good but leaves him with only one head, while growing others will get him back to his normal size. Dying sends the player back to a checkpoint, but all current orange orbs or any hatching icons are preserved (note: in the PS2 version the hatching icons are even preserved for a new credit!).

Brave knight Amul turns into a mean blue dragon for great justice!
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

Dragon Spirit is a game that demands the player to thoroughly study its stage design and enemy placement in order to succeed. Bullet count isn't that overwhelming - it's quite tame to be honest - but weaving through some sections can achieve a puzzle-like nature at times. Unless there are spikes (caves and glaciers), it's pretty safe to lean against walls and try to herd a few bullets for better maneuvering options. It also helps to have a controller with built-in autofire, since this feature is completely absent from the game. Scoring is totally straightforward, so keep an eye out for those valuable yellow orbs that are worth 10.000 points each. Two score-based extends are granted with 80.000 and 180.000 points, but most of the extra lives will come from the egg hatching with pink orbs. If you're lucky, that is.

Talking about luck, I need to report a weird bug in this game. Whenever I reached the 4th boss (the bone dragon) with 3 heads and full power, 9 out of 10 times he would cheat on me. First I would be hit without being hit, then he'd be invincible until some crazy fast homing bubbles would crush me. Upon dying, if I grabbed the power-ups just before the fight he would do this again. Remedy? Grow just one extra head and don't get any flame power-up. If a shrinking icon comes before the boss fight, grab it and avoid growing three heads. I call this a bug because I think it's pure computer cheating, but I don't know if this is actually inherited from the original arcade game. Could someone help me out?

Namco reportedly released two versions of Dragon Spirit, known simply as OLD and NEW. I heard the main differences apart from changes in stage design are that the NEW version has a faster dragon and hit detection is improved. The PS2 compilation from Namco presents the game in the NEW version only, and it compensates the lack of continues by allowing the player to choose any stage to play when starting a new game. That helps a lot with practicing! The difficulty settings here are unique, since 1 equals NORMAL, 2 equals HARD and 3 corresponds to the EASY setting.

It's always good to see one's dedication pay off in a game that's so punishing, so I proudly present my current high score for this version. It was played on NORMAL, with a turbo controller for proper autofire (wrist damage GTFO!).

Friday, June 25, 2010

Wartech - Senko No Ronde (Xbox 360)

Hybrid (Fighting/Fixed Arena)
Checkpoints OFF/ON
1 Difficulty level (Score Attack)
10 Stages
Ship speed variable / selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by G.rev
Published by Ubisoft in 2007

Mixing genres is a risky endeavour for any video game developer, and for a small shmup dev such as G.rev it could be seen as a true shot in the dark. Therefore, I think it came as an absolute surprise when the company released Senko No Ronde in the Japanese arcade scene. It wasn't actually like Virtual On, which is regarded as its main inspiration, simply because the gameplay occurs in pure overhead 2D instead of 3D.

Wartech - Senko No Ronde is the new name the game received when released in the US for the Xbox 360, complete with the arcade revision (dubbed Rev. X). It's a region-free edition, so I decided to get this version for the sake of manual readability. My general perception is that it wasn't well received by worldwide shmup fans, but at least in Japan it must have had some degree of success. After all, the sequel Senko No Ronde Duo just recently hit the Xbox 360 library as well. Back in 2005, even if the original Senko No Ronde sucked hard you'd have to praise G.rev for the boldness of making a fighting game with shmup mechanics. It's not the other way around, really, since the main objective in the game is to defeat several opponents one after the other in order to get to the final boss. The shooting aspect comes in through (1) the special powers each character is able to unleash upon the others and (2) during boss confrontations.

Senko No Ronde is remarkable for some unique gameplay traits that immediately set it apart from similar titles out there. They're all very distinct and warrant the series with its particular and unmistakable trademark, yet they are alien enough to put off both fighter and shmup addicts. This is why an open-minded approach should be taken by players from both backgrounds, and the good news for all is that there are several online guides that can help people out on the process of learning how to properly play the game. Some pretty good starting points can be checked here, here and here.

Mika and Sakurako are about to engage in some harsh close-up brawling

For obvious reasons, I won't delve into all aspects of the gameplay in this text, so I'll quickly go through the points I consider important for a newbie (as I was weeks ago) to know. In Senko No Ronde, every character pilots a "rounder", which is how the combat suits are called. As expected, all rounders have unique features, and you can even choose between two variations of each, in what is called "cartridge" (A and B). This cartridge selection provides minor changes to the character's firepower, speed or combat behaviour. Complementing the character's lifebar (armor) you have a charge energy gauge, which is used to fuel your special attacks. As a step up from the original arcade controls, the Xbox 360 controller interface maps several combined attacks to single dedicated buttons, making use of nothing less than 7 buttons out of the 8 available:
  • main weapon (X) - the main shooting attack;
  • sub weapon (Y) - the secondary shooting attack;
  • dash (A) - self-explanatory;
  • barrage (B) - used alone and in combination with directional commands to trigger special moves, at the cost of energy units in the charge gauge;
  • barrier (RT/R2) - defense, at the cost of a little life/energy;
  • overdrive (LB/L1) - activates a kind of berserker mode for the rounder, who'll have his abilities/powers augmented while the lifebar is slowly depleted;
  • BOSS (LT/L2) - Booster of Over-armed Shell System, an ultimate attack where the rounder will turn into a huge mecha that's very slow but can clutter the screen with extra firepower, just like a boss in a regular shmup. By default, every character begins a fight with two BOSS attacks in stock.
Aside from the basic weapons and the special attacks deployed with the barrage button, button combinations and close combat come together to complete the bulk of the gameplay. Button combinations involve main/sub weapons being triggered while dashing (A) or using the barrier (RT). Close combat is all related to positioning: there are two circles around each rounder - the outer circle represents the reload cycle of the main weapon (X) and the inner circle represents the reload cycle of the sub weapon (Y). Whenever you enter the opponent's outer circle, activating these weapons will result in melee attacks.

After taking a determined amount of sequential hits, the rounder will enter a state of dizziness (a "down"), a very good opportunity for the opponent to invade his enemy's circle area in order to engage into close combat. However, too many hits will activate the anti-field, a protection circle that nulifies bullets and renders the player invincible for a short while. In order to defeat an opponent you have to take him down to the "vanish" state, where victory is just one hit away. As a last moment counter measure, activating BOSS mode while in "vanish" will grant an even more powerful BOSS for to the player in peril (BOSS modes have separate lifebars which are dependent on the current charge gauge).

It sounds complicated, doesn't it? Granted, I concur that Senko No Ronde is an acquired taste. It takes time to really get to know all that's needed to perform well with a character, be it against a friend or against the computer. When playing solo, there are two ways to enjoy the game. In Story mode you choose a character and go through just a few stages to see how his/her storyline unfolds. There are lots of dialogue (in Japanese with English subtitles) and cut scenes, all related to how humanity left the planet because of a whining girl (really!) and developed these crazy powered suits to survive in the future.

The absence of any scoring didn't motivate me to dig any further into Story mode though. For us shmuppers, the real fun is in Score Attack mode. There you have a proper scoring system that encourages energy preserve, perfect/fast kills and BOSS eliminations. Starting out with 1 + 2 lives in stock, there are 10 stages where all of the 8 rounders must be fought. Advancing to the next stage will replenish 50% of the lifebar, with no increment on the charge gauge or the BOSS stock. However, an extra life and and extra BOSS are awarded for 1, 3 and 6 million points achieved. The 5th and the 10th stages are regular boss confrontations against a huge spaceship and a squid-like monstrous creature. This is where the game sets the foot fiercely in its shmup roots, with an overwhelming bullet hell challenge awaiting in the end. The most frustrating aspect of all is that you have only one chance to fight each boss in the 5th/10th stages. The good thing is that even when you're defeated by the last boss you still get your high score into the worldwide leaderboard - it has to be in one credit though. In the end, bonus points are awarded for all remaining lives/BOSS in stock.

Online match: Changpo versus Lili in Mika's stage
(courtesy of YouTube user ubuojiad)

Visually, Senko No Ronde is effective and overall pleasing, though not much of an eye candy. I think it could've used a little bit more detail, but it's fine as it is. I can't help but feel a kind of detachment from the background when I play though, because I just can't pay attention to anything in the graphics besides my enemy and myself. Controlling the rounder looks kinda floaty up front, but it gets better as you play. Musically speaking, sometimes I noticed a few throwbacks to the music style from Border Down, G.rev's previous shmup.

Everybody knows that mastering a fighting game takes months, maybe years. As much as I enjoyed learning some of the techniques in Senko No Ronde, I just can't dedicate myself for that long anymore. Early on I had my objective with the game very clear: beat Score Attack mode with Mika A (cartridge A) with both bosses defeated. Mika is that classic androgynous anime character, and I chose him because I think he's got some of the best shooting combos and an extremely powerful BOSS form. My main attack strategy was doing the barrage full range attack (semicircle + barrage) followed by missiles (Y) and a stream of the main gun (X). The rest consisted mostly of getting used to every enemy and boss pattern, and I have to say that the last boss is one of the greatest last bosses ever - a real bastard! Lili was the easiest opponent, Ernula the most treacherous and Fabian and Karel the most powerful.

I didn't get to play against people on Live because I don't have a gold membership account. Am I eligible to a decent fight locally? I wouldn't know, I actually don't know anyone who could play this game with me.

My high score is shown below, both bosses properly defeated. It's a measly score when compared to most of the crazy high figures from over 200 players, but I'm happy with it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gradius (PC Engine)

Checkpoints ON
1 Difficulty level
8 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed by icons
- - - - - - -
Developed by Konami
Published by Konami in 1991

I have a confession to make. Back in my teenage days, during my first era as a video game nerd, I never played a Gradius game. Surely I had laid my eyes on Gradius III for the SNES, but the game was too dry and slow to capture my then incipient shmupper self. The first time I would really be exposed to a game in the series would be when I snagged an used copy of Gradius V while wandering through LA's Universal City Walk in April 2005. Damn, it's been more than 5 years already, I'm getting old!

I'm mentioning this because I had this warm feeling upon playing the PC Engine port of Gradius again, the same feeling you get when you return home after being away for a long while. It's that comfortable sensation that brings familiar memories to mind and makes weaving through the game a pleasant, relaxing experience, to the point that I was able to surpass my previous high score in one sitting. Granted, this version isn't nearly as difficult as the original, but it was the first time I felt this way with any of the Gradius games. So I guess it's quite clear that I should be moving on to Gradius II, don't you think?

Fighting the boss of the cell stage (7th)

on the PC Engine is a fine game. Besides that, it's a very decent conversion of the arcade original. It preserves the overall graphical excellence and boasts above-average audio when compared to the general PC Engine shmup library. You can think of it as a pumped up version of the NES port, with the same simplifications (such as the simplified mirror stage or the shortened cell stage) but holding up pretty well graphically. And true to the love Konami did show to NEC's console, there's an exclusive extra level that comes right after the mirror stage and before the tentacle golems, complete with giant skeletons, floating skulls and bone debris flying everywhere. The rich design in this stage is definitely a step-up from all other levels, and although it deviates a little from the whole concept it fits the game perfectly.

I wrote about this many times, but here goes a recap of the gameplay: you pilot the Vic Viper. One button in the controller is used to shoot and the other to activate power-ups, which are collected from complete waves of small drones or differently colored enemies. Each power-up shifts one position in the lower bar, and the several available upgrades are activated as you see fit. The bar is cycled through speed, missile, double, laser, option and ? (shield). Some of these enhancements can be activated only once (missile) or as long as needed/wanted (speed and ?/shield). Alternatives to the main weapon are the "double" (forward and 45° angled shot) and the "laser". The "option" adds a glowing orb (up to 4) that follows the ship around and mimics everything it does.

Not counting design excellence (for its time), the above paragraph alone underlines the genius behind the popularity of the series. Gameplaywise, the PC Engine version remains faithful to the original down to the extends (first with 30.000, and then for every 80.000 points), with only one glaring limitation that becomes evident as you activate more options: slowdown. Lots of it. When present, slowdown makes the game a lot easier and the tricky sections a lot more manageable. I'm quite sure that if it weren't for the slowdown the game would be a lot more challenging. Flicker is also present in heavier parts, but fortunately it doesn't affect bullet visibility at all.

Dangerous skeletons and flying skulls try to stop Vic Viper in the exclusive extra stage
(courtesy of YouTube user BrYaN5555)

And just when I thought I had learned everything I needed to know about the game, while searching for some decent gameplay footage to add to this post I found this video. It explains in full detail how to activate four hidden bonus areas, which according to the Gradius strategywiki were only available in the MSX port!

My new high score shows an improvement of roughly 66% from the last one. This time I reached loop 3-4:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ai Cho Aniki (PC Engine CD)

Checkpoints OFF
1 Difficulty level
4 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Masaya
Published by NCS in 1995

Nowadays, the determining factor that should motivate anyone to play Ai Cho Aniki is definitely the kitsch value related to its very particular game design. However, back in 1995 nobody would expect how offbeat the game's content would be, even by extrapolating what had been shown in the weird Cho Aniki three years earlier. Therefore I believe this game should be approached in two different ways: (a) as one of the most unique gaming experiences ever and (b) as a true shmup. As an experience in absurdity and a wacky subject for conversation, Ai Cho Aniki is one of a kind. However, as a shmup, it is a complete disgrace.

One day I got home really tired, and as I didn't feel like diving into the excruciating difficulty of Dragon Spirit but still wanted some shmup action, I finally booted Ai Cho Aniki to see if I could at least grasp the basics of the gameplay in order to try a 1CC later on. Two hours passed, and right there and then I already had absolutely no intention to play this game any time soon, simply because two hours was the time I needed to both achieve the 1CC and to also get utterly frustrated with the game mechanics. It's astounding how disappointing this sequel turned out to be, and I'm at least glad that in its next installment the series got back to the regular shooting we all know and love.

Why am I bitching so much, you ask?

I'm the "little" guy, and I'm fleeing from the two big... ahm... guys?

Ai Cho Aniki
(which means something like "Super Big Brother of Love") is an odd kind of shooter in all possible ways. Graphic design is all about seminaked men in ambiguous homossexual-driven situations. Adon and Samson, the bodybuilder characters, replace former protagonists Idaten and Benten since they sort of abandon their heroic duties, as seen in the animated intro. You can expect all sorts of crazy gay stuff, such as flying ballet duos, butterfly dandies, a snowman that releases minions from his crotch, crawling pairs on 69 poses, satires to Michelangelo's and Botticelli’s artwork (such as a Venus that's replaced by a guy that summons aubergines), etc. Combined with crazy psychedelic backgrounds and some bold mecha style, it’s a wacky concept that wins due to weirdness alone. I thoroughly enjoy the art here, but unfortunately a shmup can't be judged by this aspect alone. And that's where Ai Cho Aniki completely falls apart.

On the gameplay front, regular shooting is predominantly replaced by special moves derived from fighting games. This means that in order to have a chance at doing some decent damage, the player has to input commands that resemble hadoukens and sonic booms. Keeping the fire button pressed will merely result in some measly homing shots that are ultimately useless when the screen gets filled with more than three popcorn enemies.

With the other button in the controller the player can spin for unlimited invincibility. I might be wrong, but my guess is that this function is there just to make up for the considerable size of the character. It’s possible to weave through the whole game spinning like an airborne ballerina, stopping only to fight the necessary bosses and mid-bosses. Of course this doesn’t help in scoring at all – and scoring here is displayed complete with original Japanese numbers. Don’t worry though, upon beating the game a regular roman representation of your final score is properly displayed in a last screen. Reaching the end is a matter of preserving the vanishing hourglasses: they deplete over time, and losing lives makes them disappear even faster. Benten appears from time to time as the power-up carrier with some replenishers and extra hourglasses. However, there isn't any power-up that increases the character's firepower.

When all of the hourglasses are gone it’s game over, with no continues whatsoever. Is this bad? Not really. With only four stages, it takes just a bit of practice and some minimum focus to see the end of the game. Stages are divided into three areas each, with the middle one working as a sort of intermission.

Intro and 1st part of the 1st stage in Ai Cho Aniki
(courtesy of YouTube user VidyaGamerZero)

While maneuvering the character and trying to make the special moves, you'll be constantly caught up in a series of weird results that will only cease when you stick to a single useful command. And of all moves available the only decent one is the long range sonic boom sparkling shot (←, →, button II - obviously no charging necessary). Every once in a while the huge head beam will be activated for greater destructive effect, but I have no clue how to properly trigger it. I assume co-op play is possible, but I couldn't verify that.

The sheer amount of flashy gay references is definitely the highlight of the title, but every other concerning aspect in Ai Cho Aniki falls flat miserably. Since the normal shot is useless, playing this as a shmup is a boring chore. Having to rely solely in one move in order to survive is stupid and prone to failure, which often leads to frustration. This is definitely not how I want a shmup to play. The music is well executed but just as weird and highly overrated, with awkward arrangements that serve the mediocrity in the gameplay really well. In true honesty, Ai Cho Aniki is a huge disappointment and I'm just glad it is past me.

I beat it once, and that’s enough. My final score was this one:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Cotton Original (Playstation)

Checkpoints OFF
3 Difficulty levels
7 Stages
Ship speed fixed
- - - - - - -
Developed by Success
Published by Success in 1999

It bugs me that the Cotton series received such a weird treatment during the 32-bit era. On one hand, the Playstation received two ports of the first games (including a direct port of Super Famicom's Cotton 100%), while the Sega Saturn was chosen as home for the outstanding Cotton 2 and Cotton Boomerang. Cotton Original (with the long subtitle Fantastic Night Dreams) is a straight port of the arcade game, and is definitely the version to go to if you decide to start knowing the franchise. The PC Engine CD version is just like it with a few number of differences that make the game even more friendly than it originally was. What does this mean? Nothing fancy, it just means Cotton Original is quite an easy game.

Cotton is a cute red-haired witch who's obsessed with a cookie called willow. Her motivation to go through the whole game is to get a giant willow in the end, and in her quest she's helped by the curvy sidekick fairy Silk. Just like its star, the game is loaded with cute, colorful designs that despite being a bit dark still convey what a cute'em up is all about. The "cute" quality here can be also perfectly applied to the difficulty. Suffice it to say, if you have a little brother or a girlfriend who wants to try an easygoing shmup as an introduction to this niche world, hand them Cotton Original for a few hours, tell'em the basics of the game and return a couple of days later in order to check for a completion or even a 1CC.

Cotton takes to the skies with her broom for great justice

Some enemies leave colored crystals after being killed. They come in different colors and each one of them has a specific purpose: the yellow one increases the EXP bar and therefore Cotton's firepower; the orange one does the same but it also adds some points to the score; the blue one adds more of the lightning magic; and the red one adds more to the dragon magic. The crystals can have their color changed by shooting at them, but eventually they will disintegrate if you keep shooting them too much. Little helping fairies can be acquired by hitting the floating vases.

You have one button to shoot and one to drop bombs. Normal attack is performed by tapping, and magic spells by charging. Charging the shot button activates the first magic spell in the queue, so depending on which icon you have you get a fire dragon or a forward lightning bolt. Charging the bomb button will send all fairies forwards for a light attack. Charging both fire and bomb buttons will combine the magic items with the fairies for two alternate spells: lightning results in a bubble that grants invincibility for a short time, and dragon turns the fairies into balls of fire that home on all on-screen enemies except bosses.

Upon beating the bosses a teacup shower (teatime!) will provide some bonus points, and the trick here is to dodge all of them in order to get a higher bonus prize. Keeping in mind that it's possible to queue up to six magic items and that both main magic spells serve to block enemy fire, there's nothing more to know about the gameplay - just relax as you cruise by crazy-cute-psychedelic scenarios. You can even lean on any part of the scenery, there's absolutely no harm done by that. Beware though not to get greedy with the crystals and go rushing after them, because that's the most common cause for stupid deaths. Also remember that extra lives are obtained with 100.000 points and then for every 200.000 points afterwards.

Red-haired cute witch Cotton starts her journey for them tasty willows!
(courtesy of YouTube user forestlock)

Cotton Original can be found both in the form of its initial release or as a budget title in the Super Lite 1500 series. It's a delightful and lighthearted game that hasn't much in the way of challenge, but its pleasing artwork (graphical and musical) sure has enthusiastic admirers in the shmup world. I can't say I'm one of them, I think I need to try later chapters in the series to get my blood really pumped up.

Here's my 1CC high score playing in the NORMAL difficulty:

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Life Force (Saturn)

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

One of the questions that some people (especially non-shmuppers) often ask is:
- Is this Life Force game the same as that Salamander?

Yes and no. Long story short, Life Force is an updated and properly tweaked version of Salamander. The latter was renamed as Life Force when released in the west, receiving a light makeover on graphics and items. Konami would bring this version back to the Japanese market with the same Life Force title but carrying even greater changes, such as fleshing out the organic motif that dominates the game, changing some BGMs completely and replacing the power-up system with the same power-up scheme created in Gradius. The version of Life Force that appears in the Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus disc is this last one, that is, the Japanese final iteration of the game.

In Life Force the player needs to battle enemies inside a living organism, and all stages are redesigned in order to convey the necessary environments. As a result, the graphics represent an undeniable improvement from what was shown in Salamander. The star-dotted backgrounds of stages 2 and 5 are a very good example of this. Other changes appear in boss sprites, asteroids turning into "kidney stones" and fire arch bursts being signalled as "acid flames". Since the power-ups are taken from the Gradius scheme, it simply consists of getting successive green orbs and activating the desired power-up when it gets lit in the weapon array bar. Each orb advances one section of this bar (speed, missile, pulse/ripple, laser, multiple/option, shield), and dealing with this arrangement should be no news for those who have played at least one Gradius game.

Kidney stones cannot be destroyed!

Overall I found Life Force more enjoyable than Salamander. For starters, it doesn't have that wall during the 4th boss confrontation. The spheres the boss spits aren't the easiest thing you'll face in the game, but they are perfectly manageable and don't require any exquisite strategy to be dealt with. In my opinion, this alone was enough to succesfully balance the gameplay in Salamander, and for that I am very thankful to Konami (never mind the absolute lack of continues). I can come back to Life Force any time for a quick play, but I don't feel inclined to do the same for Salamander any time soon. The good news is that almost everything else, apart from the power-up system, is virtually the same in both games.

One of the most noticeable changes in Life Force is that you can have up to four simultaneous shields. As long as you don't deplete any of them, the first one is activated in front of the ship, the next two appear on the sides and the 4th in its rear. It's really nice to see all of them guarding Vic Viper, but the drawback is that with more shields the rank really starts kicking in, to the point of bringing the bullet count close to the same level you have in Gradius. This meant no more than one shield for me! And I also noticed that refraining from activating a shield before the meteor shower in the 4th stage makes this specific part easier (wider gaps between meteors).

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus' intro and gameplay for Life Force until stage 5
(courtesy of YouTube user KollisionBR)

The last major departure from the original formula is related to the power-up bar for player 2. It has a completely different order, and it goes like this: missile, laser, multiple/option, pulse/ripple, speed, shield. Was this maybe aimed at giving another feature to distinguish one game from the other? No clue about it, but no worries either because we all play our shmups by ourselves, right? In Life Force there are also a lot more messages from the game's narrator, with some of them being downright weird (Destroy violent antibiotics!). And just like in the other games from the compilation, this one can be played with absolutely nothing from the original arcade slowdown by setting the wait control to OFF in the Options.

In my best run I was able to reach stage 2-3, playing on NORMAL. Note: although both games have the same amount of enemies, the score in Salamander is always higher because every power-up is also worth 2.000 points, which does not happen in the revised - and better - Life Force.