Konami is the first video game company I distinctly remember growing up on. I've talked about the overhead action gunner Jackal countless times, it's my favorite video game of all time. Contra was heavily played in our house for years. And there's Life Force, a very quality SHMUP for the NES that I am confident I touched almost as much as Jackal, if not more.
The SHMUP genre (a short-handed saying of "shoot'em ups") is a fairly straightforward and simplistic style of play in nature. Many have an, "eh, if I've played one, I've played them all" approach them, and the gist of that mindset is fairly accurate. It's either vertical scrolling, horizontal, or a third person perspective rail shooter, like StarFox or Gyruss. What SHMUPs lack in robust game elements that RPGs or action titles they make up for in fantastic replayability. The style of play is as classic as an Asteroids arcade cabinet. Perhaps many feel that this medium doesn't translate well on home consoles for particular kinds of players, as the purpose of SHMUPs is to get as far as you can while earning as high a score as possible. The genre is probably my second favorite, following tournament fighters, for virtually similar reasons; they're great exercises in muscle memory and reflexes, especially as I get older. If my ability to play a game like Gradius and R-Type effectively, I think I'll be okay for the foreseeable future.
Originally released in 1986 and has been on many different platforms, ranging from the Amstrad CPC, ZX Spectrum, and Commodore 64, to the PC Engine and Nintendo Entertainment System, this game was virtually everywhere and is still being redistributed today. Originally titled Salamander, Life Force is a spin-off of the Gradius series and features similar elements. Unlike Gradius, this one alternates between horizontal and vertically scrolling levels. Perhaps the only key difference between this port and the Japanese Salamander is you can only acquire two Options as opposed to three, and the lack of multiple endings.
While it's a fantastic slice of nostalgia, I wouldn't call Life Force necessarily perfect. For graphical prowess, it's visually impressive, however when the action picks up, there's a tremendous amount of slowdown. Activity can clutter the screen, and like most NES games, it seems like it's a little too much for the system to handle and goes into laggy stretches for upwards to ten seconds. I've used lag to save my bacon quite a few times, but it did throw me off, it can easily be triggered by simply firing your weaponry when at full power. Also quite a bit of flickering on the graphics.
These visual issues are fairly commonplace for a lot of NES titles, so it'd be hard for me to hold anything against it. Each of the six stages sport a unique style, have their exclusive enemies, and boast some very evocative obstacles. Perhaps the game pushes the limitations of the NES and doesn't run as smooth as Gradius, but it's overall a very cool looking game. Three decades of messing with it have tuned me into wrapping some of its flaws into advantages.
Gameplay wise, not a lot to speak about. B button shoots, A button activates your available selected weapon. The six power-ups are (in order) Speed, Missile, Ripple, Laser, Option, and Force Field. Speed naturally increases your movement, missiles provide the ability to attack from your flank or your Y-axis, acting as a replacement of sorts for the Double option from Gradius. You can activate Missile twice which improves its overall speed. Ripple (my personal favorite) is a laser that develops a wider hitbox as it travels forward. Laser is a very powerful concentrated beam. And Force Field protects you from damage for several hits.
The boss battles are pretty engaging, each stage-ending enemy has one viable weak spot that must be struck while avoiding the barrage of projectiles they hurl at you. There is this strange bit of invulnerability the bosses have before you're able to damage them. Pretty simplistic in execution, but Life Force gets the job done when it comes to playability.
Overall, as far as SHMUPs go, Life Force is a very quality game that is pretty easy when compared to other in the genre. When it comes to replay value, Life Force's difficulty picks up upon second and third playthroughs, so I always take it as an endurance bout to see how often I can complete it on a single continue. There's also a lax bit of fun should you enter the famous Konami Code for 30 lives.