Retro Profile: Life Force (NES)

If you ever want to know why and how Konami became so successful, just look at their arcade games of the 80’s. Not only were their games entertaining, but you could almost always bet that their arcade titles would find a way to the NES and other home consoles. Life Force was no exception to that notion, as it was ported to the NES 2 years after its debut in the arcades of America and Japan. Interestingly enough, this wasn’t a sequel to Gradius, but rather a spin-off of sorts. Even so, the core elements of what made Gradius a great game are still preserved in Life Force.

It is quite the enjoyable shooter with both side scrolling and vertical scrolling levels. It really fits the theme of flying through an alien body because, in a way, it simulates being digested. The first stage alone is pretty interesting to play through, as the creature’s own anti-bodies and enzymes attack you. In some parts of the level, you’ll have to shoot through body tissue that quickly rebuilds itself to keep you from advancing further. Things like these give the game a truly organic feel.
You’ll be dodging enemy fire from small ships, walking gun turrets, and those ever-so-popular Moai heads shooting rings at you. All of the enemy designs for the game are great, but the bosses for each level are particularly fun to look at. Most of them are fairly big and imposing, and some are just plain freaky. The first boss, for instance, is a floating one-eyed brain that chases you around the screen with its claws. The bosses get so strange, that you’ll eventually end up doing battle with the head of King Tut…no joke.

Controlling your ship is just as easy as it was in Gradius. The power-up system has also remained unchanged as well. You still need to shoot down a certain pattern or color of enemies in order to gain the power-up orb. This time though, the Double Shot has been replaced with the much more useful Ripple Laser to go along with your missiles, option drones, and force shields. Other than that, everything is mostly the same, and that’s a good thing.
If you thought Gradius was hard, you haven’t seen anything yet. Life Force can really throw you for a loop at times. Even the first level may eat up all of your lives if you’ve never played this game before. You’ll have to get used to things suddenly blocking your path that weren’t there just a second ago. The 3rd level proved to be especially frustrating to me upon playing it the first few times. All I have to say is…those flames are no joke.

As with most arcade ports, the graphics aren’t as good on the NES, but they still fit the game very well. The colors are slightly dimmer on the NES, but nothing that will distract from the enjoyment of the game. The backgrounds are a little more detailed than they were in Gradius, with animated flames, and even ships rising from the background in one of the vertical scrolling levels! A very nice feat, considering the time that Life Force was released. One particular level looks especially unique, because in one section of it, you get to fly over a huge digested rib. It’s just not something you saw in your everyday shoot ”˜em up.

The game’s sound output was also top notch for it’s time. The music is quite memorable in some levels, especially levels 1,2,3, and 5 (I think). The boss music isn’t nearly as high pitched and happy sounding as it was in Gradius. Instead, it’s more brooding and serious, but it still sounds cool. The sound effects are also fun to listen to as you collect power-ups and destroy those little dinky ships. All good stuff, really.

Play or Stay? Life Force is a must-have for any NES owner out there who loves a good shooter and great challenge. It’s a game that probably won’t be beaten on the first day of purchase…not without cheating anyway. The organic feel adds a fun twist to the usual “shoot-the-ships” gameplay. So far, this game has yet to make it to the Virtual Console. It would only make sense if Life Force eventually found its way on there since Gradius is available. I can’t see how we can have one without the other.

Jamie Alston is somewhat of an unusual gamer. While most people crave the visual delights that can be found in many of the current generation consoles of today, he actually prefers the 8-bit & “super 8-bit” (SNES) glory days of yesteryear. This is probably due in part to the fact that his brother chose the Nintendo Entertainment System over the Sega Genesis back in 1989…or maybe it had more to do with that time when he fell and hit his head on the blacktop in elementary school. Whatever the reason might be, Jamie has an undying love for those unnecessarily big cartridges he spent so many summer afternoons playing. When he’s not raiding trucks that “have started to move” for rations and key cards, he stays busy supporting his gaming hobby by working as a Policies & Procedures Analyst for a financial company in Baltimore, Maryland. And when he’s not working for “the man”, he’s working on the next retro review for the week. And when he’s not fighting off writer’s block and much needed sleep, he’s raiding trucks that “have started to”—well, you get the idea. Currently living in Randallstown, MD, Jamie sums up his life long dream this way: “If I one day find myself driving on the highway in a 2004 Honda Accord with an NES directional pad for a steering wheel, you can bet that I’ll be holding the up direction for that turbo boost on the straight-aways. That’s when I’ll know that I’ve finally made it in life”.