Review by KillAllPopStars

Reviewed: 05/15/13

Too difficult to be fun, but too cool not to be.

Two genres dominated the 8-bit era: side-scrolling action platformers and floating shooters. The former spawned some of gaming’s most beloved, prolific, and enduring series, such as Mario, Kirby, Metroid, and Castlevania. However, the latter genre, despite having produced some of the most exciting and dynamic games of the era, seems to have faded into near obscurity with the passing of time. I suspect that one major reason for this is the insane difficulty of most of those floating shooter games. Most games of the 8-bit era were difficult, often relentless, and none more so than these types of shooters. Retro gamers looking for a true challenge know that old-school floating shooters rarely disappoint. However, there is a downside to this. In attempting to meet players’ demand for a challenge, developers would sometimes end up producing a game that is simply too difficult to be fun (Silver Surfer, anyone?). Life Force could have very easily been one of those games if not for its very cool and original concept and Konami’s nearly flawless execution of it. Life Force is maddeningly difficult, but so beautifully designed that you want to surmount even the most insanely unfair obstacle to see what comes next. So, what’s good about this game, and what’s not so good? Read on to find out.

Plot: 9/10
Life Force is technically the sequel of Gradius, and it picks up right where that game left off. You have saved the people of Gradius from the Bacterion threat, but now a massive, planet eating alien named Zelos is heading right for you. In order to defeat him and save the galaxy, you must fly in through his guts and destroy his death-trap infused body piece by piece, from the inside out. The plot is not incredibly complex, but it is very original and serves to establish an interesting and novel premise for a type of game that, in fact, needs little to no plot to be fun.

Design: 10/10
This is where the game really shines. The entire game takes place inside a giant cosmic space dragon. You enter through the rear (yeah, don’t think about it too much), and work your way through his innards to the head. The stages alternate between horizontal and vertical forced scrolling stages, which lends some variety to the gameplay. All the levels are very strictly linear, but this never gets boring because you are moving around constantly to avoid enemies and projectiles. Each level is unique from the others and has a different feel. The enemies are themed for each level, which loosely corresponds to a section of the creature’s body. With the exception of two stages, the environments vary and change as you progress through the level and nothing repeats itself, so even in a genre constrained by its format, you feel as if you are going on a journey, constantly covering new territory as you progress through the game. Really, this is what keeps you playing through the difficulty; the desire to see what comes next.

Gameplay: 6/10
The gameplay in Life Force is sort of a double edged sword. It is a modified version of your standard space shooter. The controls are simple. The d-pad moves your ship, and the B button shoots. Enemies and projectiles relentlessly bombard you as you desperately scramble to either destroy or dodge them. Most enemies come at you in formations. If you manage to take out an entire formation you get a weapon upgrade that allows you to cycle through a series of modifications, including a speed boost, missiles, lasers, and a shield that allows you to take an extra hit of damage. This is a nice feature, but somewhat annoying. Each time you get one of these powerups, it changes the type of upgrade you get. When it cycles through to the one you want, you press the A button to activate it. However, as frantic as the action gets, it is easy to pass up the one you want because it is difficult to constantly keep an eye on the status display, and if you miss it, you have to collect enough powerups for the list to cycle through again. In the later stages, it is often insanely difficult to take out an entire formation, as you will be doing more dodging than shooting.

The variety of the types of enemies you fight is one of the things that keeps the game from getting redundant. From flying blood platelets, to strange intestinal arms that form from the walls and try to grab you, to mechanical insects, to circling dragons made entirely of flames, this game has a lot to offer. Each enemy and type of obstacle must be dealt with in a slightly different manner, which requires more strategy than your standard shooter. The action is fast and frantic, and the boss fights are truly memorable. Each is very unique and unforgettable, but they can all be defeated in more or less the same way. This game would be very fun if not for two very detrimental aspects.

First of all, it is simply TOO hard. You start out with three lives and die with only a single hit. There many older games that employ this formula, but in this one the enemies are brutally relentless. There are flame arcs in one of the levels that are nearly impossible to dodge and have the potential to take out all three of your lives in a single arc. I’m a fairly accomplished gamer. I can beat the infamous Ninja Gaiden without cheat codes. I’ve even beaten the original Ghosts N’ Goblins, but Life Force gives me fits. Fortunately, the classic Konami code will let you start out with 30 lives. When you get a game over, you can continue from the beginning of the stage in which you lose your last life. This helps, but even so, in trying to beat the game cheat-free, I rage quit this game several times before getting through even the first half of the game, then just gave up altogether. I know it has been done, but I know of VERY few gamers who have been able to get through this game without using the built-in cheat code. That’s how I had to do it, and I still have to use continues and rely on a LOT of luck. At times, Life Force is just too difficult to be as fun as it should be. Beating it becomes a chore.

Life Force also suffers from being far too short. It only contains six stages and can probably beaten (by an insanely skilled player) in around 30 minutes or less. It needs about two or three more levels to feel like a complete game. However, the difficulty curve is very steep. Every level is significantly harder than the last, and the sixth is nearly impossible. So, including another one would probably have made the game unbeatable. They should have lessened the steepness of the curve in order to be able to include a few more stages.

Graphics: 9/10
Life Force is, hands down, one of the coolest-looking games on the NES. Admittedly, Life Force doesn’t host the greatest 8-bit graphics ever seen, but for an NES title released in 1988, they are really very good, especially in the look of the levels. Each one has a very different theme and overall feel. The concept of being inside a giant, cosmic dragon is well served by this. For instance, at one point, you have to shoot through a mesh of arteries while dodging a bunch of giant blood cells, and at another, you have to maneuver past a series of ribs that attempt to crush you. Every level looks great, and no screen repeats twice. There is so much atmosphere and mood tone conveyed by the graphics in this game, which is very impressive for an NES title. Your craft looks great and each level has its own group of wholly unique enemies that are all clearly rendered and pretty nasty looking. However, a lot of things go flying across the screen at once in this game. Of course, it’s the nature of the genre. But this often causes an annoying frame rate slowdown, and when more than 2 moving sprites overlap, they begin to flash and sort of pixilate, but this is only momentary and wholly forgivable in light of the outstanding job done with the limited technology at hand.

Sound: 7/10
The sound is good. Not great, but good. The music is great, invigorating and well-paced for an action game, but it is very repetitive. The sound effects all do their jobs. For an NES title released in 1988, the sound is very well done, it just doesn't stand out as anything spectacular.

Multi-player: 8/10
Life Force features a two player mode that allows you to play through the game alongside a friend. This curbs the difficulty of the game quite a bit. Life Force is actually more fun as a two player game. So, I awarded this feature a score of 8.

Replay value: 2/10
Because of the difficulty level, Life Force has very low replay value. The challenge makes it a worthwhile test of gaming mettle to beat once, but the frustration factor didn't really leave me clamoring to go back and play it over and over again.

Overall: 7/10
Life Force is an excellent old-school space shooter, perhaps the best of its kind for the NES. It has a great design and a very cool look and feel that make it an experience well worth your gaming while, but it is severely flawed by the facts that it is just a bit too short and that it is difficult often beyond the point where it is fun, which gives it a very low replay value.

That all depends. If you are an NES collector, this is a must have, or if you are a fan of the genre it is also worthwhile, as it is one of the coolest and most original games in the scrolling shooter genre. However, if you are more of a casual gamer who isn't ready to face an insanely frustrating challenge, I would recommend you leave this one be.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Life Force (US, 08/31/88)

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