Life Force
System: NES Publisher: Konami Developer: Konami
Genre: Action Type: Space Shooter Circa: 1988
I've heard of reaching out and touching someone, but this is going too far...The Moai in the upper-left corner was very proud to finally produce a singular blue ring

Although I put Life Force on my Top 100, the thought occurred to me that I couldn't remember if I had ever beaten it without using the 30-life code. My guess would be "yes", but even so, I was almost positive I had never beaten the second quest. Looks like I had a job to do. :)

I played this game for several days in a row and had a moderately easy time beating the first quest without using the 30-life code. It wasn't too long before I conquered the second quest as well. I wouldn't say that Life Force is "too easy", but I can say that the rumors of its extreme difficulty are greatly exaggerated. I had doubts that the game was truly "masterable". It seems like sometimes when I'd play it, I could beat it fairly easily. Other times I'd get completely wiped out. But now it seems like I'm beating it fairly consistently (the first quest at least), so it appears I may have been wrong. Either way, this mission to save the galaxy from the planet-devouring alien, Zelos, is one of the finest shooters to have ever appeared on the NES.

Graphics are certainly a highlight of Life Force. Not only is the level of detail and use of color amazing, but the art and animation style is mind-blowing. Enemy ships move and behave in manners appropriate to their style: Small ships spin or flap towards you, gun turrets rotate to face you, and blood cells eerily bob and float as if inside invisible liquid. When the stone walls crumble in the Egyptian temple level, they break from the wall and rotate as they fall, creating a very realistic effect. In the fiery Prominence stage, giant arcs of flame tear across the screen in a fashion that can make you wonder how that was done on the NES.

The bosses are huge and colorful. You haven't lived until you've seen the giant Pharoah Mask light up and take action, or witnessed the rotating arms of Intruder elegantly glide and spin as if under the influence of Mode 7. Other bosses include a giant free-floating brain, an enormous dragon head, and a grinning skull with googly eyes that you confront at the end of a ribcage large enough to engulf a solar system.

Incidentally, I dug up an old Nintendo Power "Pak Source" guide from many years ago that listed all NES games released at that time and the ratings NP's staff had given them. They gave Life Force a 3/5 for graphics which, by their standards, was rather low. This is further proof for my theory that they rolled dice to come up with their scores.

That looks amazingly like a birthmark I once had...On second thought, maybe a tour of the sun during corona season wasn't such a good idea after all
SOUND: 10/10
I wonder if I'm giving out too many high scores for sound lately, but I honestly can't think of anything I dislike about Life Force's music or sound effects. The music is some of the catchiest I've ever heard. It's such a vast improvement over Gradius's rather weak soundtrack that the contrast is enough to shatter glass. Some themes, such as Level 1 and Level 6, have that gung-ho "Let's Save the Galaxy" flavor, while others, like Levels 2 and 4 are more whimsical, as though they're reminding you to keep a sense of humor about you as well as your wits. But the standout pieces here are those of Levels 3 and 5. Level 3, which is the Solar Flare (Prominence) stage, begins with a melody that starts softly and builds upon itself, note after note, and burns with the level's fiery emotion. "Thunderbolt", the theme song of Level 5, is charged with frantic energy that perfectly matches the frenzied nature of the stage.

One possible complaint there could be is that the same boss music is used for every boss (with one exception - Gradius's goofy boss theme is reprised for a mini-boss in Level 5). But it's such a great boss theme, and the way it's utilized in Level 6 is so ingenious, that I'm willing to argue that this was actually a good move on Konami's part. In Level 6, the final level, the boss music begins well before you actually reach Zelos and is eventually accompanied by an eerie alarm siren, which creates an interim of heart-pounding suspense.

The story of the solitary spaceship against the huge alien army has been done in countless shooters, but Konami has a way of putting a unique twist on it (especially since they helped pioneer the idea in the first place.) Life Force's manual explains that an immense alien creature named Zelos (possibly one of Konami's infamous puns) is on the rampage, swallowing up entire galaxies and planets, including Gradius and Latis. The best starships from both planets, the Vic Viper and Lord British, are sent out to penetrate the heart of Zelos and destroy it. But Zelos's innards are alive and full of hostile antibodies, and many of the galaxies he's consumed have assault and defense mechanisms that are now under his control.

That is a rather elaborate explanation for what you see going on here, but I'm willing to buy it. It makes sense enough for stages 1 and 4: biological nightmares in which blood-red cells rapidly spread like cancer, giant pointy teeth gnash away, and nerves pulsate with electrifiying tendrils. I'm willing to believe the prominence stage is a devoured sun (or perhaps, just really bad heartburn). And level 2 certainly looks like the remnants of a half-digested planet. But I'm just as content to play the game without really thinking about Konami's explanations (part of the beauty of there being no dialogue.) As far as atmosphere is concerned, my favorite part is the final stage in which you plunge into the darkest reaches of space and arrive at the final mysterious space fortress. (Why would Zelos's heart be inside a mechanical structure?) The fortress seems eerily abandoned, as though the machinery inside is operating on its own, and it's full of Konami's trademark Moai heads. I love the way the scrolling is stalled on the approach to the final boss as it slowly looms into view. Just being there, at that moment, is something I look forward to every time I play.

Insert Walk Like an Egyptian reference here...Now THERE'S something you don't see everyday!
Without any speed-ups, Life Force's play control is rather sluggish. In the most frenzied segments of the game, it can be nearly impossible to survive because the ship is too slow to dodge. This is not something I'm overly fond of in shooters, but I can be more forgiving of it in Life Force than in some others. Gradius may be a harder game, but much of it has to do with how slow your ship is after losing one. Life Force is nowhere near that bad. The firing rate of your normal beam is kind of slow and irritating, too, but once you get the lasers, you can sit back and use autofire with ease.
Life Force's challenge is somewhat dependant on how powered-up you are at any given time. The same style of power-up bar made famous in Gradius is used here in Life Force, too. Your ship starts off so weak and slow that it's almost impossible to survive for very long in that state. However, by collecting power-ups from fallen enemies, you can eventually arm your ship with speed-ups, shields, options, missiles, and powerful lasers. A fully powered-up ship can easily cut through just about anything the game throws at you. I have come painfully close to beating this game in one life several times. (If only I wouldn't lose one in the game's final sequence!)

But even with a fully-powered ship, Life Force is never boring. It is one of the first shooters to utilize both horizontal and vertically-scrolling stages, and the vareity and creativity doesn't end there. Remember the Moai head level in Gradius? It's a famous level, and we all love it, but that was all there was to that level: rows and rows of Moai heads. Almost every level of Gradius was based on a singular gimmick. But almost every stage of Life Force presents new obstacles as you progress. You can be dodging and blasting your way through a volcanic eruption, and then suddenly, you're faced with a downpour of meteors. Just when you get done navigating a hailstorm of spikes, you're about to enter an ancient temple full of tricky mazes and mashing pistons. Walls of celluloid rapidly close in on you. Sometimes the scrolling will suddenly pick up, sending you through breakneck speed zones.

Only the Solar Flare stage keeps the same few challenges for its duration, but the sheer intensity of the action more than makes up for it. Giant tongues of flame lick across the screen so fast, that if you aren't prepared for them, you'll probably get wasted. Some enemies become indestructable meteors that rocket right at you. The odds here are intimidating, but it gets easier if you memorize the patterns of the flares.

Life Force has a second quest in which there are more and faster enemies in some areas. Some, like the Death Hands in Level 1, now shoot bullets, even if they didn't before. The boss of Level 2 also has a special surprise for you that may catch you off-guard if you're unaware of it. But overall, it's not really that much harder to beat than the first quest. The game's third loop increases the speed of some of the enemies even further, making it almost necessary to have at least two speed-ups all the time.

FUN: 9/10
A well-made shooter is a joy that lasts forever, and Life Force is no exception. I have probably played through it about 20 times in the week prior to writing this review, and it has not ever become boring. Because it packs so much into each level, and the action is varied enough that you're constantly using new strategies, there isn't really time to be bored. Although I don't think the game is too easy, I still may have liked it to be a bit more challenging, or perhaps to have selectable difficulty levels, since the game does get harder on consecutive loops. It may be marginally tougher than Dragon Spirit: The New Legend, but it's not quite close to being as difficult as Abadox.

I think one of the most crucial aspects of almost any kind of game are its boss fights. Life Force's boss fights are fun, but they aren't all that challenging. If you're fully powered-up, some bosses will go down in a matter of seconds. Without power-ups, the bosses can take much longer to beat, but aren't necessarily harder with one exception: the Level 2 boss, Intruder. I think Intruder may be impossible to beat if you don't kill it quickly enough and don't have any speed-ups. The final boss, with or without power-ups, is probably the easiest one in the game. The bosses are fun, but they seem more like conclusions to, rather than the ultimate challenges of the levels.

Another point worth mentioning is Life Force's two-player simultaneous mode. The game is even carefully designed with the two-player mode in mind, having multiple paths in some areas and side-by-side sets of enemies that drop power-ups. However, the game seemed much more difficult to beat with two players because you'll need to divide the power-ups between you, thus making it hard to get powered-up enough to stand a chance.

These were some great lengths to go to for some dental work...Funny. I didn't order a snake with my galaxy-sized pizza.

Life Force is a game that defined the sci-fi shooter experience on the NES. The look, the style, the music, and the amazing gameplay have held up extremely well over the years. If you don't own Life Force, then it's a game I can highly recommend acquiring. If you do own it, and you've never considered beating it without using the 30-life code, then I wholeheartedly suggest giving it a try. The game is not as difficult as it may seem, and it's a hell of a lot more fun when you play it the way it was meant to be played, learning its ins and outs. Only then can you experience everything Life Force has to offer.
OVERALL SCORE (not an average): 8/10



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