Retro Video Game of the moment: Life Force (1988)

Would you believe that there was a video game that took place inside of a living creature?

Video games in the 80’s had started to vary even moreso than the Pac-Man’s and Q-Bert’s of the early part of the decade. By the time I had reached 12 or 13, there were racing games, beat-em-ups, action/adventure games, the occasional RPG and puzzle game, sports games and most of all… scrolling shooters, also known as shoot ’em up games. These arcade games had a simple premise– you piloted a plane, ship or some other vehicle of some sort, moved it around the screen firing lasers/bullets/pellets/whatever at the enemy with the background scrolling behind it all. Some awesome scrollers of those days were 1942 (and its sequel 1943), R-Type, Space Harrier, Section Z and Gradius.

Released in 1985, Gradius changed shoot ’em ups forever because it allowed the player to power up weapons during gameplay using a single power-up item. The game was wildly popular in both the arcades and on the home Nintendo Entertainment System.

Where Gradius succeeded, the sequel then exceeded. Konami released Salamander in Japan in 1986. Keeping the simplified power-up system from Gradius, Salamander also had two-player cooperative gameplay and alternated betweeen stages that scrolled horizontally and vertically (Gradius only scrolled horizontally). Salamander was a roaring success in Japan and eventually was ported to North America in 1988, only this time it was renamed Life Force.

Cover art for Life Force on the Nintendo Entertainment System, released in 1988

There are several reasons I like this game:

  1. As mentioned above, the weapon system was simple yet innovative. You could power-up several times choose from Hyper Speed, Destruct Missile, a Ripple Cannon that shot sonics, a Laser, a Shield (think force field), and up to two Options. If you ever played R-Type, you know having an option, or “buddy”, was cool b/c they would follow your ship and add-on to your weaponry.
  2. It was made by Konami, who already had an awesome track record of NES games. Contra, Castlevania, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Skate Or Die, Metal Gear, Track & Field, you name it, Konami made it and it was fun! (oh, and not to mention Blades of Steel and Double Dribble!)
  3. Two player co-op gameplay. This was a must for me because I have a younger brother. Most Nintendo games were fun back then, but I always had to play a few minutes until I lost a life, hand it to my brother and hope/wish/pray/goad/prod him into dying so I can get the controller back. Shopping for games, we were limited to two player titles to keep the peace in the house. Plus it’s kinda cool to team up with someone when obliterating alien forces with lasers and ripple cannons.
  4. It made use of the world-famous Konami code, which gives you 30 lives to start the game with.

A little more about the last reason– I liked Gradius. Thought it was a fun game and I got pretty far in it, but somehow it didn’t grab me. Now Life Force, on the other hand– I became hooked immediately. It was basically the same game as Gradius, but the scenery shifted from outer space to the inner workings of a massive space snake. You initially fly your ships into the creature’s mouth, represented mostly in Stage one.  The walls of the stage look like gums and there are areas where you have to navigate past sharp teeth that jut out and then retract. You’re destroying bacteria and floating swarming particles as well as dealing with tentacles with eyes and all other sorts of creatures.


Later stages you’re fighting through ribs, lungs, blood vessels, the heart, nerve endings, you name it, it’s all there. Some of the enemies seemed out of place, but I’ll get to that later.

And the soundtrack– some of the coolest tunes I’ve ever played to. I still play back a lot of the Life Force tunes in my head.

Life Force also brought to mind a movie that dealt with a pilot and his ship shrinking down to size to battle forces from within another being…does anyone remember Innerspace with Dennis Quaid and Martin Short? and yes, that is Meg Ryan, back when she was considered quite fetching…

There are a few negatives to this game– if you’re not familiar with this or Gradius or shoot ’em ups in general, you’re in for a serious degree of learning. I mean, it’s still rather pedestrian compared to the next-gen games of today, but you’ll likely need to use that Konami code at first.

Insert Konami code here

Some of the level bosses actually made little sense. First stage, you start in the giant snake’s mouth and then the level boss is a brain with an eye sticking out of it and floating arms that reach for you. After defeating this brain, you’re thinking game over, right? Nope, it’s on to stage two, three, etc. I always wondered– why put the brain in the first stage? Not well planned, Konami, but hey who needs to nitpick when you’re 12? There were also level bosses that were machines, Easter Island heads, a fire-breathing dragon and I think at one point you battle a floating Egyptian pharoah head. You’ll ask yourself how all that got in there?

Life Force boss battle: Now how in the world did that get in here?

Other than that, I highly recommend you find this game and play it. Life Force is available on the Wii Virtual Console or by way of any ROMs you can find and run over your choice of NES emulator program. And if you’ve got an original NES cartridge and system, bless you and please feel free to invite me over!


Classick Material is a video game nostalgic who spent much of his formative years perfecting the art of the flawless NES cartridge load (blow-free!). He also co-hosts the Cold Slither Podcast.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Shareef says:

    Great game, though I prefer power up systems were each icon represents an individual power. That way I don’t have to risk my life for every one, and there are less of them overall. Nice inner space reference!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Shareef! I actually prefer the single power up icons because you don’t have to go out of your way to avoid them. I’ve lost many a life in games like Contra and Super C making that extra jump to avoid the Rapid Fire power up because I already had the sweet Spread Gun going. But now I play Call of Duty, weapon upgrades everywhere.

  2. Lamar the Revenger says:

    Life Force was one my favorite games. tough as all get out for me. Side note: My friends & I turned the Konami code into an annoying chant to distract one another.

    1. I didn’t mention it, but Life Force had a separate Konami code for two players. I may need to pick up a Konami code t-shirt sometime soon…

  3. Roddykat says:

    Great post, Classick. Posts like these make me want to go on a hunt down the actual carts and an NES. Loved Graidius and Lifeforce for the craziness they were (even if I wasn’t very good at them).

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