Konami has a long history of developing great shoot 'em ups. As a spin-off of one of their most famous series (Gradius), Life Force carves its own path with many unique qualities, but does it hold up well in their lineage of classic shmups?
Just like in Gradius, you control a ship known as Vic Viper to blast away enemy forces. However, a few newly introduced mechanics make Life Force an entirely different beast. First, you'll notice that the gameplay is more fast-paced and challenging. Enemies can get relentless so staying on your toes while constantly moving out of harm's way is a must. To complement the hectic action, you can now upgrade by simply collecting power-ups as opposed to deploying them via the power bar. It feels awesome once you gather an arsenal of missiles, lasers (either straight or ripple), speed-ups, and a shield. Anyway, stages alternate between horizontally and vertically scrolling which was quite a nifty gimmick back in 1986. Konami would later use this setup in shooters such as the phenomenal Axelay. Even with these innovations, Life Force manages to remain nothing short of simple arcade shooting bliss at its most exhilarating.
Life Force looks fantastic with detailed environments and easily discernible points of interest. Encountering living stages and massive bosses is a rush. That being said, I wish the audio matched this high quality. Although I absolutely love retro video game music, the tunes here are simply boring and even come across as cheesy at times. On top of this, the sound effects are almost cutesy and the voice that alerts you of power-ups and such is just plain irritating. I can understand that it was novel for its time, but listening to it now is laughable. Considering I find almost everything else about Life Force to be a step-up from Gradius, the poor audio is a tough pill to swallow.
This Arcade Archives continues the upward trend of including two competitive high score modes which is great. It also contains three versions of Life Force. The original Japanese game was named Salamander and that's the primary version that I played. When it came out in North America, it was renamed Life Force. This version has a story and the stage graphics were altered to make it appear like the whole game is within a living organism. This was later released in Japan with the same name and some further altered environments. Additionally, this new iteration reinstated the power bar from Gradius. Therefore, it's a lot more difficult because the amount of power-ups remain limited. In the end, it's awesome to be able to enjoy all three versions and test your skills in the high score modes. Oh, and unlike Gradius, you can play simultaneously with a friend. How cool is that?
Besides the subpar audio, a couple of issues hold Life Force back from being a perfect shoot 'em up. First of all, I love a challenge. Why else would I choose to play and review shmups constantly? However, the difficulty here mainly relies on unfair circumstances that you basically have to memorize in order to emerge unscathed. Even if you know the entire game by heart, you'll probably still screw up here and there. Some examples include enemies that form a circle around you then close in, dense organic walls that you have to rapidly shoot through, and gates that quickly shut in front of you. It can get infuriating. My only other significant complaint is that slowdown regularly reared its ugly head no matter which options I tinkered around with. I know the original game had this, but they could have made it much smoother in this day and age. I appreciate authenticity but I prefer an uninterrupted gaming experience.
Arcade Archives: Life Force is a definite classic that any fan of the genre should own. With intense challenging gameplay and many modes and versions to enjoy it in, you'll be picking up this gem from time to time for years to come.
- + Classic challenging 2D shoot 'em up gameplay that combines vertical and horizontal stages
- + Contains three versions and high score modes
- + You can play simultaneously with a pal
- - Some segments are brutally unfair to the point where you have to memorize them
- - Annoying slowdown often occurs
- - Audio is mostly dull and cheesy