Posted by: seanmalstrom | October 28, 2016

Email: Thoughts on Life Force?

Hi Master Malstrom,

First off, great work with the TG16/Malstrom Award reviews. They’re a ton of fun to read and will no doubt come in handy. ;)

Your recent posts have got me thinking about Life Force. I got it about a year ago, knowing that it’s a classic & one of the few (only?) co-op shmups on the NES. As a fan of older shmups myself, I love Gradius to death, it being one of my first Virtual Console purchases many years ago, and having snagged it in the same eBay shipment that I got Life Force from.

But as soon as I started playing LF, I was shocked at how full of cheap shots it is! The first stage has those growing walls that appear with such little warning that it’s impossible not to be killed by them until you memorize their patterns. The destructible walls near the end of the stage are also a trap if you don’t know that shooting them too much makes them regenerate more quickly, so you have to learn by trial and error that you have to stay very close to the front of the path you’re shooting to avoid getting killed. And stage 3 is ridiculous with the huge fire streams that fill half the screen which are impossible to avoid if you’re not far enough from them before they appear…and when you finally realise that you can hide in the centre of their arcs, you try it, and a freaking lava ball jumps up right there and kills you! WTF! And the next stage has those veins that materialize in the middle of the screen. This is the kind of stuff that inspired I Wanna Be The Guy. And none of this gets much easier in co-op. Having another ship doesn’t help against the stage hazards at all, and unless at least one player knows the patterns, the game just ends up frustrating two people instead of one!

Now, I still enjoy the game and think it’s great, but cheap shots in any game makes it harder to love. I realise that older games did this as a way to extend the life of a game, making it almost impossible for it to be beaten in less than a few dozen tries, but today it just makes a game feel dated. Though, there is still a kind of primal thrill you get from finally learning the patterns and beating that damn stage. It’s also kind of interesting how the game transforms into a completely different experience once you start to get the patterns down.

There’s certainly a lot to love about this game: the levels are wild and varied, the upgrade system is as good as ever, co-op is a blast (when stage hazards aren’t killing you), the music is great, and so on. But I’m surprised that none of the reviews, retrospectives and ramblings on this game that I’ve seen have ever made a mention of the amount of all trial-and-error traps. Is it because a lot of games that era were like that? It’s bugging me because I think that one of the biggest things that killed the shmup genre was how they became more are more memorization-based, culminating in the bullet hell which is more about patterns and finding optimal paths than raw instinct.

What are your thoughts on this game? Am I just a wuss for whining about the insta-kills?

I’m glad you like the reviews. I’m determined to look at these games away from the cultist perspective. But it is hard to review some of them as they ‘have to bake in the oven’. There is a review of Cadash where the game journalist declares it a terrible game because he could never get past the first boss. Some of these games are going to take some time to play and invest in. This is why you will see reviews of the arcade games up first because everyone knows Gradius and R-Type, for example, or some of the Virtual Console ports of TG 16 games.

For shmups in general, they seem to have an interesting evolution. At first, you have the Space Invaders, Galaga, and Xevious type shmups. Then we go to the Gradius and R-Type era. Eventually we get to our current late period with all the geometric patterns. I think it is wrong to put Galaga and Gradius and Ikaruga in the same boat as they are all ‘shmups’ but they are very different.

Gradius was so successful, a spin-off game was made called Salamander. In Salamander, people at first thought they were going inside a giant alien organism. The developers liked this idea so much that they remade the game’s levels to reflect this. Life Force is the port of Salamander for the NES. It has new levels and it uses the Gradius power-up system.

A big mistake I made was to think ‘all shmups are like this’ where my experience with shmups was with Gradius or R-type type games. Nintendo systems mostly just have those variants. Life Force is a Gradius spin-off. On SNES, you have Super R-type, R-type III, and Gradius 3 (and a few more of course). But the shmups everyone knows has either ‘Gradius’ or ‘R-type’ names in them. Gradius and R-type are hard because they are arcade games. In order to be true to their fans, the games must maintain that style. If you play Gradius Gaiden, for example, you are going to get more of what you are already seeing with Gradius.

The TG16 shmups don’t have the frustrations you list. In the Star Soldier trilogy, if you get hit your weapons get powered down. And there are no ‘one hit kill’ moves going on. The games were designed for the console, not the arcade. I also think they were figuring out the frustrations Gradius and R-type had and were solving them.

One of the annoying things about Super Mario Brothers is bottomless pits. Yet, it is a staple of the game so every 2d Mario game will have bottomless pits. When Jazz Jackrabbit was made, an intentional design choice was to have no bottomless pits. So when people play a platformer, they play either Mario, Sonic, or Donkey Kong, and they see bottomless pits and think the genre is cheap. What you are seeing is a staple of that game series, not of the shmup genre itself.

Life Force is a very special game to the NES generation. For some people, it was THE reason they bought a NES. Check out this box art:

Image result for life force

That is the most kickass game cover I’ve ever seen.

I remember renting Life Force on a warm summer night. The windows were open. My friend and I would play the game, die, play the game, die, and we kept dying over and over again. We had fun doing it as we got further.

What really helped was the Konami code. Did you try it? If you use the Konami code on the title screen (got to be fast before the attract mode appears), you will have 30 lives which makes the game much easier. Then when you run out of lives, say Stage 5, you hit ‘continue’ and you start off with 30 lives again!

I adore Life Force. It’s definitely seen as a NES classic. While I know it has the frustrations of the Gradius style shmups, it is actually seen as an easy entry due to how slow the game moves. Even today, I can probably beat it without dying once. There are only six stages, not much content, so they have to keep you coming back somehow. The 30 lives cheat is how I learned the game until eventually I didn’t need to use the cheat.

Mark’s review here sums up my views on the game. Life Force is the best ‘mainstream’ shmup on the NES (hush you Crisis Force fans). NES version is special since it has the unique stages and bosses which are very imaginative. I like how when you die, you come right back and can even snag an option. Use the 30 lives cheat and this game will be no problem.

What is ironic is that I can really hear your complaint… but not for Life Force but Salamander which I am playing for the TG 16. Salamander is the arcade port and what Life Force originally was. While I can beat Life Force in one life, Salamander is much harder, faster, and I tend to lose all my lives very quickly.

 

Look at how much harder Salamander is! He doesn’t even get past stage one! And look how fast those teeth move! I honestly think Life Force is the better game. Life Force was designed for the NES, but Salamander is an arcade port so it has those arcade eccentricities.

In Salamander 2, the brain boss returns but something happens to him. Look at 1:40 on this video!

Ahh… Life Force…. I still get chills when I hear the music.


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