I think it’s difficult to argue that Contra is the premiere co-op experience on the NES, followed closely by Battletoads, Double Dragon II: The Revenge and this week’s entry: Life Force, a localized NES port of the Japanese arcade hit Salamander (沙羅曼蛇). It was also the second release in the classic Gradius series on consoles in North America and were arguably the best ports of any arcade scrolling shooter series on the NES. As consistent as the Gradius name has been through the years, for me it peaked in 1986.
I would argue that Life Force is the perfect scrolling shooter. It isn’t as challenging as something like R-Type Final, or as bombastic and legendary as the Touhou series, but it was a well-balanced, varied and rewarding gaming experience without having the barrier to entry many of the “Bullet Hell” shooters do. Anyone can pick up Life Force with a friend and go for a rush through six levels of pure NES bliss. The co-op here is identical to Contra’s in its structure and the legendary “Konami Code” also works, increasing your chances of a successful playthrough. You can even steal your friend’s lives if you want them to never speak with you again.
Levels play out identically to Gradius and even contain many recurring enemies from its predecessor. They alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling and each stage has its own variety of pitfalls and challenges, and I think “variety” is the key word here. One of the things that I feel makes Life Force so good is it never feels like you are doing the same thing over and over. As much as I love this genre, it’s easy to see how similar most of these games are. The odd challenger like Ikaruga or Omega Five can come along and change the game a bit, but it does not happen nearly often enough to make things feel completely fresh and you generally just end up dodging deluges of bullets and holding fire to survive. Life force manages to bring a variety of threats and a number of ways to approach each engagement that can push a player’s skills to the limit and encourage many playthroughs.
Gradius’ powerup cells are back as well; the goal being to collect them from specific targets and then “spend” them to purchase upgrades on a line of powerups that stick with you until you die. The lineup of boosts, when stacked, can make your ship into a seemingly-unstoppable juggernaut of destruction, but one slip up can force you to start at square one. It gives an incentive to play smart and raises the consequences of a careless death. I would say that this is one of the best uses of risk/reward game design of the NES era.
The six bosses are a lineup of some of the most freakish and bizarre villains of any game I’ve played on the NES (and that’s saying something). From a clawed, cycloptic brain; to a menacing skull whose eyes fly out to attack you; to a bullet-spitting head of Tutankhamun’s sarcophagus; I think it’s safe to say that Konami just went with whatever madness came to them at the time. It’s funny to think how possible it could be that they picked up that month’s copy of National Geographic, covered their eyes, flipped to a random page, pointed arbitrarily, and whatever was in the photo nearest to their finger, that was going to cap of the level. Even the levels themselves, while themed in their own way, have no real logical order or succession, albeit this was not uncommon for the time. So, needless to say as exciting and fun the levels and bosses are in Life Force, there really is little cohesion to their design. As far as the story goes, the goal is to destroy a planet of some sort but there is no context, there are only targets… Lots and lots of chaotic targets.
Now, while LifeForce does appear to lack rational artistic direction in its graphics and level design, in the sound department it knocks it right out of the proverbial park! This masterful soundtrack was composed by the great Miki Higashino, the former Konami sound team lead behind some of their best arcade classics. It is an exciting setlist with songs that perfectly fit the levels and was recently featured on my list of 20 Favorite NES Soundtracks ranking in the top five. Having been released in 1986, it is a stunning implementation of the NES’s not-yet-fully-realized sound potential, but everything flows so well. The use of unconventional time signatures, shifting melodic tones and fading out into the boss music creates an off-kilter yet cinematic atmosphere, perfectly complementing the flow of the game.
For buyers, Life Force has been on an upward trend in price over the last ten years but remains safely around the $10 mark. It isn’t an expensive game by any means and is fairly easy to come by. It is in demand though, so be wary of advantageous resellers pushing the game for far more than it’s worth. This is a common title and should not break the bank for collectors and casual NES fans. As a fun co-op experience it really stands out and really is a must-play for fans of the genre. If you aren’t an NES owner, the game has been released on various digital platforms, most recently the arcade version was ported to the PS4 in both the Japanese (if you have set up a Japanese account on your console) and North American stores, but keep in mind that this release is the arcade version of the game, so if you want to play the classic NES port as described in this article, you’ll have to hit the Nintendo eShop. It is certainly worth playing for retro game fans and given its accessibility and low price point on all fronts, Life Force can easily be enjoyed by everyone.