Console: NES 

Company: Konami

Release Date: August 1988

Genre: Shoot 'em up 

Number of Players: 1 or 2 (simultaneous)

Save Feature? No

Life Force is the king of NES shoot 'em ups! This pseudo-sequel to Gradius didn't disappoint with earth-shattering graphics, a soundtrack rich with nostalgia, and scintillating two-player action! Add a fierce challenge with a decent plot and you've got yourself an instant classic!

Overview: Along with Stinger, Life Force was the first shoot 'em up that I played for the NES. My first real friend, Jon Pursel, bought this game right after it came out in stores and boy did we ever have a blast with it! Up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start baby! I remember the endless autumn days that we spent plowing through this game. It was like magic; even though I have played a whole slew of NES shoot 'em ups since Life Force, none of them were ever able to top this classic. Nostalgia isn't the only reason either; this game is the real deal.

Even though Life Force looks and feels like a sequel to the 1986 smash hit Gradius, it is actually a spin-off of that game; not a direct sequel. Virtually all Gradius fans already know this but, for those of you who don't, the real Gradius II, believe it or not, was never released in North America. It wasn't until just this past year (2003) that I finally got to play Gradius II on an emulator and man does it rock! Why games as golden as Gradius II and Gradius Gaiden could get the shaft in America is totally beyond me. Anyway, instead of getting Gradius II, we got Life Force which is known as Salamander in Japan. While this game may not be the true sequel, it is certainly a worthy substitute! Still, Gradius II was incredible as well; why couldn't we just get both?!

There is some truth in the statement that if you've played one Gradius game, you've played them all. Life Force is no different; as a matter of fact, it plays almost exactly like its predecessor. The only real difference is that Life Force switches between horizontal and vertical-scrolling stages whereas the original stuck to the former. This variety definitely helps to keep Life Force from simply being a clone.

Like in any shoot 'em up, the main objective in Life Force is to somehow survive while gaining powerups and fighting massive bosses. Like in Gradius, certain enemies leave behind pods after being destroyed and, by picking up these pods, your weapon gauge moves forward a notch. When the desired weapon/ability is lit up, press the A button and it's yours! Like in Gradius and even Stinger, your weapons/abilities include Speed Up, Missiles, Double Shot, Lasers, Options, and Force Fields. If you are able to survive long enough and powerup in every category, you'll have one heck of a spacecraft!

Even though Life Force only consists of six levels, there is enough challenge and variety to please everyone. Since the game literally takes place inside of a monstrous beast (see the Storyline section), you've got your cell stages that are chock full of organisms and all kinds of enemy growth. In addition, certain levels actually take place on planets that were swallowed by the beast long ago! Level 3 is a full-blown fire world with solar prominences and the phoenix while Level 5 takes you to a world with rocks and mountains and a later section that even resembles ancient Egypt! The final level doesn't disappoint either with rainbow bubbles faster than the speed of light and the staple of the Gradius series: the Moai heads. As you can see, this game just isn't your typical shoot 'em up!


Graphics: My oh my! Even by Konami standards, the graphics in Life Force are simply incredible!! Konami always knew how to create just the right atmosphere through a game's graphics and Life Force is certainly no exception. Some of the stages and especially the bosses are not to be believed! Gradius was a great game and all but Life Force simply blows it away! There's really no comparison.

To be perfectly candid, when Jon and I fired up this game for the first time, I was very impressed with the game's graphics but wasn't blown away like I am today. That's because I've had the chance to play literally hundreds of other NES games since then and let me tell you, none of the other NES shoot 'em ups can hold a candle to Life Force in this area. How ironic it is that the first shoot 'em up that I ever played for the NES ended up being my favorite one.

So what is it that makes the graphics in Life Force so special? First off, some of the stages are simply awe-inspiring for an NES game. The one that comes to mind has to be the third level. It's not just your typical fire world with lava in the background either. There are actually solar prominences (an outburst of lava) that form at particular intervals! The animation is truly superb; a little too good if you ask me. You can even tell that there is heat right above the fire; the attention to detail is excellent. Not only that but the slowdown is very minimal! I don't see how Konami pulled that one off. The fourth level with its cells and growth and the final stage with its rainbow effects and moai heads were cool too.

Secondly, the bosses in Life Force are some of the best ever seen in an NES game. Only Blaster Master had warlords as massive and powerful as those found in this game. Some of the enemy chieftains were so cool that they made appearances in other Gradius games! The first boss is a classic: a brain with two arms and a piercing eyeball. A flame-shooting dragon lurks at the end of Stage 3 with the frightening skull Giga not far behind in Area 4. I found the Pharaoh head at the conclusion of Level 5 (see the screenshot at the conclusion of this review) to be a great boss as well. It was incredible how, at the end of Level 5, the massive walls crumble to reveal the Pharaoh. You see the head in a wall and the wall actually falls off of the screen! How cool is that?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the graphics in Life Force created an incredible atmosphere that is unmatched by other NES shoot 'em ups (or just shoot 'em ups in general). I mean, you felt like you were actually in this game; fighting from the cockpit inside the Vic Viper (or Lord British if you were Player 2) and blasting Zelos to space dust! It didn't feel fake or cliche either; this game pak was definitely original. Atmosphere is a difficult thing to conjure up and yet Konami succeeded once more! Just do yourself a favor and play this game alright?

Music: Man oh man! If the game's graphics weren't enough to make you go ga-ga, you'd better refrain from listening to the music! I will never forget those days jamming to this game with Jon and hearing the incredible music. Like the game's graphics, the music does a great job of creating the perfect atmosphere. It just really draws you in and...gosh...is it ever nostalgic!

Like in most Konami games, there are no weak tracks in this game; everything is superb! The Stage 1 track sets the stage for the game nicely with a dark, ominous tone. However, just when you think you've figured it out, Stage 2 comes out and surprises you with a lighthearted, even friendly feel. Then there's Level 3...oh man...Level 3. This tune really strikes a familiar chord with me. The intro was just perfect and the rest of tune reminds me of those wonderful days Jon and I spent some 16 years ago. Stage 4 is probably my least favorite track and yet it is still excellent! I always liked the Stage 5 track a lot for some reason and the Stage 6 tune is a great fit for the game's final stage. I loved the intro to Stage 6; it established the perfect feel for the final level. The boss and ending themes weren't spectacular or anything but they were definitely above average. Sound effects were pretty good too.

Play Control: This kind of varies. If you have a couple of speed ups, missiles, lasers, and a heap of options, the play control is near perfect! If not then, well, you're in a heap of trouble. It's a lot like Gradius and Stinger; you start out pretty weak but once you get all powered up, everything feels ten times better. There is really nothing new to report here; overall, the play control is excellent.

Challenge: No matter how good you think you are at shoot 'em ups, this game is tough. Jon and I were so thankful that the game had a 30-man code because without it, we probably couldn't have made it past the first stage. I'm serious!! Life Force is one of those games that throws you into the fray right away. You think Stinger was tough; take a crack at this!

Life Force is such a difficult game for several reasons. One reason is that you start out with only 3 lives and believe me, those lives can disappear in a flash. Another reason is that enemies aren't your sole concern in this game. If you crash into a wall, you lose a life. If this sounds easy, just wait until you reach Level 3 with its bursts of flame and the speed area of Stage 4. Mwa-ha-ha!! If a moving obstacle such as cell growth (you heard me!), appearing cells, or teeth (yes, teeth!) hits you, you lose a life. If an enemy crashes into you (a distinct possibility considering many enemies move very fast while the Vic Viper moves very slowly at first), you lose a life. If one of the hundreds of bullets being fired in your direction happens to graze you, you lose a life. Considering that all of these threats can appear simultaneously, you can begin to see why most young adults can trace their first swear word back to Life Force (just kidding!)

It may sound as if I am complaining but that it actually not the case at all! To be perfectly frank, I love the challenge level of this game! Life Force is one of the few NES games that still challenges me even though I've beat the sucker 50 times. And, contrary to popular opinion, this dog is very beatable even with no codes. I never use the 30 man code anymore because it takes the fun out of the game for me. The real challenge comes from trying to beat it with three...au natural if you will. If you can survive that brutal third level, you've got a chance.

Storyline: Finally! A semi-decent story in a shoot 'em up! It seems like most of the games that I have reviewed lately have average to poor storylines so it's nice to finally break that trend.

Simply put, all of the action in Life Force takes place inside of something. An evil monster as a matter of fact; one so massive and gargantuan that it can literally swallow entire worlds and still have room for dessert. Seriously, hundreds of ancient worlds remain inside of Zelos (the creature) and, all of a sudden, it appears as if his eye is fixed on Planet Gradius and its neighboring planets. If you thought that the Bacterian threat in Gradius was bad, this is far worse.

The Vic Viper once proved it mettle in Gradius and now, it appears as if it will have to protect it homeworld once more. While the main goal is to fly inside Zelos and destroy his evil heart, it is much easier said than done. You literally have to fly through worlds that Zelos has swallowed; ones that are now under his control. And to get to Zelos' heart, you'll have to defeat his strongest guardians; ones that are undefeated up to now.

I don't know...it isn't the best story ever but it's a million times better than the competition. I liked the idea of flying inside of a beast and fighting on ancient worlds. Like I said, the game's atmosphere was top-notch. While this is chiefly due to the outstanding graphics and music, the story actually has an impact; subtle as it is.

Funfactor: Few games provide a trip down memory lane like Life Force. The game is tough as nails and it can get frustrating at times but man, Konami got things right. If you want a challenge and you're an expert at shoot 'em ups, you can't do any better than Life Force. The gameplay is solid and the two-player mode is as fun as it gets! This game is a great one-player game but it really cooks with two. Just make sure that you round up someone with a high tolerance for pain and frustration. :) Seriously, if you enjoy shoot 'em ups and you've never played this game, you have no idea what you're missing! This game shows why the 80s are sorely missed and fondly remembered. Back then, video games were video games.

Negatives: The insane difficulty level. While I have no problem with Life Force being so tough, I could see why some people would give up on this game after just a few tries. Granted, the game can get frustrating at times but you just have to be patient. Just be thankful that there is a 30 man code okay?

While the controls are very smooth overall, you do start off a bit on the slow side. Without Speed-up powerups, you're screwed big-time! Also, while the story is definitely an improvement, it is still rather silly.


Ratings: Graphics: 4.7 Music: 4.7 Play Control: 4.3 Challenge: 4.7 Storyline: 3.9 Funfactor: 4.7 Overall Score: 27.0 out of 30.0 Overall Rating: Golden Classic!!


Last Updated: May 21, 2006
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