Friday, November 28, 2008

Games of Yore: Life Force

Feeling the need to further rationalize my tendency to write about what ever the hell I please, I am starting a new games-related feature on Chorus, Isolate, Confirm. However much hullabaloo there may be over the latest title for this console or that, it's sometimes important for a gamer to reflect on his heritage. Hence, Games of Yore.

The games I write about in this column must meet only two requirements. They must have been released at least ten years ago, and they must have some significance to me. That's it. I like to keep the rules simple. Now, then...ARE YOU READY FOR YORE?

Game: Life Force (Konami; 1988)
Console: NES
Genre: Scrolling shooter

One Christmas morning, my friend Peter got an NES from Santa Claus. He graciously called me that same day to invite me over to play, as my household had not yet graduated from the Atari 2600 School of Hard Knocks. Over the phone, he told me that he had three games: Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Life Force. I had never heard of Life Force, and asked him what it was. His response, as best I can remember:

"I'm playing it right now. It's pretty cool. I'm in a space fighter flying through something that looks like intestines, blowing up these things that look like giant polyps."

Repulsive as it sounded, I had to know what this bizarre marriage of outer space action and medical drama was all about, so I headed straight over to his house to investigate.

Life Force (also known as Salamander in Japan) turned out to be, for lack of a better analogy, like a drastic re-write of Fantastic Voyage in which the protagonists had no vested interest whatsoever in preserving the life of the organism into which they'd been injected. (Or, if you're not into books, imagine a remake of Innerspace in which Dennis Quaid's sole purpose is the destruction of Martin Short.)

As the game's instruction manual explains, a rather large alien called Zelos has become over-zealous in his eating habits. He has basically eaten everything in the universe, including Easter Island and ancient Egypt, and now must be destroyed from the inside. The 80s kid in me hears that plot description and can't help but yell, "TOTALLY AWESOME, DUDE!"

And it was awesome. But I have to say, a lot of stuff about Life Force didn't make a whole lot of sense. For example, why is the very first boss a huge, flying brain with arms and an eyeball? And why is Stage Five full of all that King Tut crap? And why is Stage Six infested with leaping moai heads that spit donuts?

In retrospect, however, my young mind didn't dwell for very long on such technicalities. I was too busy marveling at how radical it was to play a cooperative two-player game with my best friend, and not have to keep dropping quarters into it. I was too busy improving my Vic Viper space fighter with enough SPEED, MISSILE, LASER and OPTION upgrades to make it an unstoppable storm of flying firepower. I was too busy swearing at the hundreds of dirty tricks the game pulled, specifically for the purpose of killing me. Especially those damn solar flares in Stage Three.

Life Force's winning combination of giant brains, challenging gameplay and memorable music (a cornerstone of Konami's scrolling shooters) quickly endeared the game to my younger sister and I. We teamed up to plow through all six stages while singing impromptu lyrics to the game's soundtrack. We fought over who would pick up which power-ups. We were Konami kids, once and for all time.

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