We didn’t get Gradius II for NES here in America, but in my opinion we got something better: Life Force, the oddball reworking of Salamander. It wasn’t a true Gradius game, but that made it all the better. Although I am endlessly jealous of the sweet translucent blue cartridge it shipped on for Famicom.
I mean, day-amn. Even when we got the same stuff as Japan, they still got better stuff.
But, OK, whatever. I played Life Force to the point of exhaustion, which is to say I progressively worked my way from being able to beat it just barely with the 30-lives code, to being able to beat it on one credit with 30 lives, to being able to beat it on one credit, to being able to beat it on one life. Which I did exactly once and never again, because that escape sequence at the end never ceases to be some hardcore B.S.
The real Christmas miracle of Life Force is that it proves my mother was (is!?) a ninja. When I unwrapped this on Christmas morning, she was amused to see the surprise in my face; I honestly didn’t expect to ever own the game, which pained me slightly because the box art filled my soul with aesthetic desire. (Something about that silver-trimmed Konami house style combined with a phenomenal painting of a massive space serpent enwreathed by flame really appealed to the budding artist in me.) I expressed my gratitude for the game, and she laughed at my surprise, because it turned out she had bought the game on a shopping excursion for which I had been taken along. She somehow managed to buy a game which my finely tuned adolescent eye, always on the search for anything video game-related, should have been on high alert for while I was walking right beside her, inches away from the shopping cart in which it had been secreted.
I suppose it helped that this was in the last days before retailers began to put video games in class cases and behind the camera counter, the end of games being left out on open shelf hangers. But still. Good work, Mom.
Life Force may not have been the technical, visual marvel that Gradius II was, but it traded slightly (slightly!) downgraded visuals for more varied game design and the audacious decision to allow for two-player simultaneous action. I say “audacious” because, really, how else would you describe it when someone designs a largely horizontal shooter in which each player can potentially acquire long, beam-like weapons and multiple secondary guns to triple their firepower… on a system notorious for the strict limits on the number of sprites that could appear simultaneously on a single horizontal line? Life Force practically dared players to grab Options and Lasers and spam the screen with beams, and even so it managed to juggle NES hardware priorities in such a way that it never became unplayable. Sure, there was flicker and even some slowdown, but never enough to interfere with the action. Kind of amazing.
Konami even added a couple of new stages specifically for the NES version just to show off. “Cartridge space limitations?” they sneered. “Whatever, have some Space Tut.”
But perhaps best of all, they worked in a Gradius-like power-up system, a huge improvement over the arcade game’s more restrictive approach. While they hadn’t quite yet arrived at the weapon customization system that would appear with Gradius III, it was still a huge boost to player control. Who knows why Life Force/Salamander didn’t use the Gradius mechanic to begin with, since it was obviously patterned closely after Gradius. Maybe the designers wanted to make their own mark. But still, there’s no shame in admitting someone else’s way is better, and the designers of Life Force on NES sucked down their pride for the betterment of the game.
Between its simultaneous cooperative play, alternating vertical and horizontal level formats, excellent visuals and music, and fun and interesting themes, Life Force remains my favorite member of the Gradius family. (Even if it’s not.) You see, it ninja’d its way into my heart one Christmas.