I’ve played a lot of shooters in my life time. I was playing shooters long before they meant first person gun game. I remember the times when shooter meant flying in a space ship and killing other ships and flying monsters. Today the word shooter usually refers to HALO and COD. When I was a kid, it meant games like Galaga and Twinbee. Over time, it changed into being games like Metal Slug which meant you now had to qualify games with adjectives such as space shooter or flying shooter. Today COD games are taking place in space so even that term won’t work for much longer. Well today when I use the term shooter I’m using it in the old way because I’m talking about an old Konami classic by the name of Life Force (LF) or Salamander depending on where you’re from. This fast-paced, action-packed piece of 1986 glory offers the best of the arcade era. I have said this once or twice before, but honestly this is by far the best Arcade Archives title I have played thus far. HAMSTER really impressed me with this one. Not just in the quality of the port, but also in the customization and mode options provided with this title. This is one of only two Arcade Archives ports I’ve played that I would actually say is fully worth the $8.
Even for a game that’s 30 years old, LF does not disappoint visually. The level design, enemies, and bosses are all very impressive. The images used in this game are distinctly graphic in nature. It feels like an alien science experiment gone wrong. The opening level is alive with pulsating obstacles, growing walls, and a giant brain with one veiny eye as the boss. Clearly inspiration for the secret final boss in StarFox 64 (1997). Everything moves quickly in this game and smoothly as well. The enemies, your ship, the weapons, and even the obstacles all move at rapid speed. Avoiding obstacles is the much more challenging aspect of the game than the shooting. As with all Arcade Archives titles, you have a number of visual customization options among several other types of customization. But what I really like about this particular port is that you also have a number of in game visual options to choose from without having to take advantage of the menus added by HAMSTER. This download includes all three versions of LF (Salamander, Life Force (NA), Life Force re-release (Japan)). These three versions are not just multiple installments of the exact same game. Each one has basically the same levels as far as layout, but they all have different background visuals, weapons, and general color schemes. In many ways the LF Japan version is a completely different game from the other two. I also liked that you could choose to play as either of the two ships without needing two players and using the second ship completely changes the general color scheme of the game as well.
You get your classic arcade HUD here with the Hi Score number in the top middle of the screen and each player’s points and lives on their corresponding side. But when you play the Japan version you also get an entirely new power-up HUD added to the bottom corner of the screen. This is nothing more than a set of text boxes, but it changes colors and updates in real time, making it quite impressive for a 1987 (re-release year) game. The power-ups look really nice in the original versions, but the variation is removed in the Japan version to hide what they are as an added challenge to the re-release of the game. This port is perfectly responsive with zero latency even with a one to one shot ratio. You can even change the gameplay to auto-fire and you still won’t get any lag. For a game from the 80’s, I give the graphics top marks.
The gameplay is so frustratingly hard and yet so inexplicably addictive. I sat down with the intention of playing for a max of one to two hours and had to force myself to stop playing at the end of hour three. The game is not random. The same things occur every time in the exact same places and yet you will die over and over in the same ways to the same enemies. But you won’t toss the game aside. Instead you will be motivated to push on, trying to make it to the next level and increase that hi score just a little more. It’s extremely simple to play. You drive a space ship either left to right or down to up on the screen with the joystick or D-Pad and shoot with one button. Buttons are always customizable in Arcade Archives titles so that button is up to you. You then use a different button to shoot missiles when and if you collect them or you can use a third button which shoots both regular weapons and missiles at the same time. Sounds easy, but anyone whose played anything in a classic arcade knows it’s not. Not to mention that the Japan version has the added difficulty of making you have to initiate power-ups by hand as you collect them. You can play up to two players with a starting max of seven lives each. The usual Hi Score and Caravan modes, included in all newer Arcade Archives titles, are both available for the Salamander and Life Force (Japan) versions of the game, but only the Original mode is available for the Life Force (NA) version.
This game will have you traverse multiple levels, each ending with a boss fight. Over the course of this journey, which you will most likely never finish, you will have to change flying direction multiple times, avoid obstacles such as growing walls, solar flares, and a number of different types of enemies. Your ship is really sensitive. You can’t even make the slightest amount of contact with anything or it’s instant death unless you have a shield power-up active. Too often will you die trying to grab a power-up that seems obtainable but is just a little too close to a wall. As previously stated, the game has a one to one fire ratio when auto-fire is not enabled, meaning that you can only shoot as fast as you can mash the button. This game will put your spam skills to the test in multiple scenarios, some of which are entirely unfair but totally doable. When you die, you are given a few seconds of invincibility upon respawn but you lose all your power-ups. There are four available difficulties, but even on easy this game is hard.
There are several different types of power-ups available. Most of them are stackable but special weapons types are not. You can get permanent speed boosts up to four, shields up to four, missiles, drones, and two types of special weapons. Without a doubt, drones are the single best power-up you can get in LF. They are invincible orbs that follow your ship in direct paths while firing the exact same weapon you do. You can have up to four at a time and when you die they can be recollected if you get to them quickly enough. If you can get four drones and the spread laser upgrade, you are basically un-killable by enemies. But that won’t stop the environment from taking you out. Probably the best thing about the gameplay is the fact that it’s challenging, but balanced all the way through as far as combat goes. The levels are hard, but fair and the same can be said about the boss fights. Usually in classic games the boss fight is extremely overpowered. It’s very similar to playing a Dark Souls game. This is not the case in this game. When you get to the end of a very challenging and stressful level there is a boss fight, but it will not be nearly as much trouble as you would expect it to be. They’re basically just bookends to the stages themselves to keep the pacing consistent.
There are a lot of gameplay relevant customization options available in this port. Probably more than any other Arcade Archives game I’ve played up till now. There are the normal options such as difficulty, how many starting lives, and orientation. But there is also a preferences page. This allows you to toggle on and off specific details about LF that may or may not sit well with you. Some of these include auto-fire, how certain bosses behave in later stages, and the number of credits the game costs to play. I found this very useful because it allowed me to tailor the game to my interests without destroying the true spirit and authenticity of the port. Phenomenal gameplay for the levels I could actually complete. My one issue with this port is that the menus imply that there is a way to continue when you get a game over, but I have yet to figure out how. It would be very helpful if such a thing was possible so you could progress to the end of the story because seven lives just don’t cut it. Other than that, I have literally no substantial complaints about the gameplay.
The sound is quite good in this game as well. There is a limited number of looping music tracks. They are all high quality and go well with the visual style while still keeping the game upbeat. But it’s the effects and the announcer that really make the sound worthwhile in this one. There are so many effects. Every little thing has its own sound effect. Shooting, dying, and all the like of course. But there are also other things you don’t often see in games from this era. And then to top it all off there’s the announcer. From start to finish the game has a robotic voice that tells you everything that’s going on. When a power-up drops, he tells you what it is. When a specific obstacle or challenge comes into play, he subtly tells you how to deal with it. Not necessarily in enough detail to figure it out without experimentation, but he definitely notifies you of what’s going on. I think the announcer, more than anything else, sets this game apart from many other games of its time.
The writing is actually quite developed for an old arcade title. If you sit on the menu screen of any version of the game, you will be given a written explanation of the situation in the form of a mission brief. It’s actually quite substantial and gives the game a lot of context. There is also the traditional HAMSTER menu plot summary. “Destroy the Elite Salamander Squadron sent from the invading Planet Bacterion, and save the water planet Latis that was turned into a planet life form.” Now that doesn’t all make sense at first but as you progress through the game the announcer will say things that kind of help put that summary into context. In level two you are told that “kidney stones cannot be destroyed.” That essentially means that you’re inside the planet life form you’re supposed to be saving. Or at least that’s how I read it. It also explains why so much of the environment is constantly moving and growing. I wish I could get farther into the game so I could find out more, but even with the limited amount of plot that I got I have to say that I was very impressed by the amount that was written for an old arcade shooter.
As with most games from this genre, the replay value is focused on the hi score. The six trophies are all score based, making it technically possible to get a 100% in one run if you’re that good. But the plot and level variation also act as a motivator to keep playing even without worrying about the leaderboards. This game is quite addicting and even though I never made it past level three, I still want to play it a lot more. As I said at the beginning of this review, it’s one of the only titles in this collection for which I can fully endorse the $8 price tag. Hat’s off to Konami from 30 years ago.
Arcade Archives Life Force is probably the only game in the collection I’ve played so far that doesn’t need to be qualified. It’s just a solid game for any type of gamer that doesn’t mind not having modern graphics. I mean it even has voice acting. Everything about it is just well done and you won’t regret buying it.
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