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Life Force

Released: 1988
Company: Konami
Genre: Space Shooter

The genre of space shooters in video games is about as perennial as the sitcom in television (and about as substantive), so it comes as no surprise that in the evolution of the field and the NES itself, Life Force rarely gets much more attention than that of any other semi-classic game. As if there's a built-in glass ceiling in the category, you'll never hear games of Life Force's breed being mentioned in the upper eschelon of most players' librairies. I myself had a hard time talking at length about this game1, because games of this nature really don't suit themselves well to dissertations.

Does that mean that this cartridge is not very good? Actually, I underrated this thing the last time I gave it a solid look-over, a fault I have since corrected. Thing is about games of this nature, their overall quality hinges on two things: Presentation and Challenge. Once those are out of the way, the rest is gravy. As it turns out, Life Force is spectacular in one of those areas, and flawed in the other. I'll leave you to guess which one is which for now. Suffice to say that they cancel each other out, resulting in the score doing much the same thing.

Like you can expect with games of this nature, there isn't much of a storyline here. The conflict revolves around a planet-eating dragon named Zelos, and your quest as the pilot of the Vic Viper is to fly into Zelos and destroy it. The idea of flying directly into the enemy to take it out is an interesting one, to be sure. There is one major flaw to the storyline, however, and that is what you see when you've beaten the game. Forgive me if I spoil the ending to those who haven't completed the game, but really there's no ending to spoil. A 30-second jingle with the Konami logo, in my view, does not constitute a worthwhile reward to me.

But while the plot may have some holes, the presentation certainly does not. Despite the relatively early release this game had in the NES' life, Life Force has to go down as having some of the best graphics on the system. They definitely hit home the atmosphere of both the innards of a giant reptile, combined with the robotic denizens of outer space. The visual splendor kicks into high gear in the third level, when solar flares lash through the screen. The alternating vantage point of side and vertical scrolling helps give each level its own feel. And one more thing - I'm amazed at how they managed to stuff as many sprites on the screen as they did without any flicker or slowdown.

Musically, the game is just as fantastic. All six level themes have an active melody and rhytmic percussion driving them on. And this game employs a very nifty tactic that I've never seen any other game use: during the opening of each track, the sound effects are completely muted, allowing you to listen to the first few measures without your cannon shots getting in the way. Actually, the sounds really don't intrude on the music much anyway. I especially like the sound used when you shoot at something that can't be damaged. It's hard to describe, but it sounds exactly as you would expect it to sound.

In a game of this genre, play control is imperative. And for the most part, the ship controls fairly solidly. Hit detection is pretty accurate, and while it might be a tad slow at the outset, there's ample opportunity to speed it up. I do have a little bit of a concern with the laser power-up, though. It doesn't seem to move on its own path; if your ship moves against the scrolling of the screen, the laser will move with the ship. In some cases, you can actually use this to your advantage, and at most other times, it doesn't really affect the outcome of the game, but it's still something that irks me a bit.2

Unfortunately, the learning curve in this game has some massive kinks to work out. First off, I realize that I'm not the quickest wolf in the pack when it comes to video game skills, particularly the ones that involve sharp reflexes. However, that doesn't justify the fact that I have a tendency to lose handfuls of lives in each level - even the first - while suffering no casualties at all when fighting any of the six bosses. Why's that? It probably has to do with the fact that the levels themselves are more about dodging every little projectile on the screen - because as powerful a ship as the Vic Viper is, impact with so much as a jelly bean will result in its disintegration - whereas the bosses are mostly guerilla warfare. The fragility of your ship also renders just about all of your powerups worthless, because you'll never be able to enjoy them for more than 10 seconds before you collide with another bullet. If your ship was a little more durable, and the bosses more troublesome, you'd be seeing much more than a 3 in this score.

Because of the difficulty of the levels, I usually get scared away from this game. Honestly, this game should be more fun than it really is, especially considering how terrific the audiovisuals are in the later levels. Since a full campaign lasts no longer than 45 minutes, it makes a fairly good Quick Play, but unless you either have the reflexes of an android or the 30-life code, the session will be a lot quicker than it ought to be.

If you can forgive the difficulty, though, Life Force is not a bad game. You may never hear it mentioned among the best games of all time, but it does its job pretty well.

1. Consider this: This is my second attempt at a Life Force review. The first never got past the outline phase. And this one took about 3 months to write. (Of course, the recent purchase of a PlayStation didn't help.)

2. Seems Konami had its troubles with lasers - they couldn't seem to get them right in Contra, either.

Overall Ratings:

Play Control:
Technical Score: 17
Challenge: (Bipolar)
Thrill: (Frustrating)
Aesthetic Score: 13
Overall Score: 71%

You are now listening to the music to the fifth stage of Life Force.