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Any fan of NES shooters is undoubtedly familiar with Life Force. As the sequel to Gradius we all thought the game was excellent, building on what we loved about Gradius and more. However what nearly all of us were not aware of is that Life Force was actually a loose port of Salamander, an entirely different series from Konami. Salamander would see many ports and sadly the excellent PC Engine version never came to the US. This is an excellent addition to the system’s shmup library and one worth seeking out.

Those who have played Life Force will be pretty surprised at just how different Salamander really is from that game. For one there is no power-up bar; all weapons are dropped randomly from enemies. I can see why Konami adapted the Gradius weapon bar when bringing the game to the US as it drew an automatic connection to Gradius but the Salamander method is actually pretty quick. Item drops are a regular occurrence although you’ll have to remember what each weapon looks like to avoid ditching the laser for the ripple for example.

As a shooter Salamander mixes both horizontal and vertical scrolling much like some of the Twinbee games. This could have been a recipe for disaster but the game is equally adept at both. It’s interesting to note some of the other differences between this and Life Force. Where Life Force adapted a biological theme Salamander is more straightforward (although all of these changes would be incorporated into a new version of the arcade game too). The fourth stage of Salamander was moved up to become the second level of Life Force. Sadly the original stages of Life Force aren’t present, which sucks. While they definitely seemed out of place (seriously an Egyptian themed level?) their presence would have increased the length of the game and made you feel like you got your money’s worth.

Overall the difficulty is quite low compared to the typical entries in the series. Due to the frequent weapon drops you can reach full power pretty quickly at which point you will blitz through the levels easily. There is still a ton going on with stray bullets and enemies blending into the background but nothing so intense that would be considered unfair. This home port adapts the checkpoint system of Gradius but isn’t as punishing since the game is so generous with weapons. There is no Konami code and continues are limited but that is little deterrent. The lacking challenge does however highlight the one crucial flaw with the game however.

The only major flaw with the game is its length. With just six stages shooter veterans can complete the game in under thirty minutes. Those less skilled will probably average an hour or so and while I like the game there is still something to be said about its value proposition. On the plus side the game is relatively cheap by import standards and I’m sure most will run through the game a few times as it is pretty awesome.

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Salamander was a significant leap forward in terms of presentation over Gradius which is surprising considering both games were released a year apart. The generic star fields of old have been replaced with more varied terrain such as fortified enemy bases, asteroid fields, and fiery planets. There is also a unique boss for every level which sounds minor but goes a long way toward keeping you from getting bored. I’m pretty confident no one wanted to spend another game blowing up the same mothership over and over again. This version of the game is near identical outside of differences in resolution and some minor loss of background detail. The FM synthesized music has been improved over the arcade game but the voices announcing the names of weapons and levels have been removed.

The one flaw with the game’s presentation is the slowdown. Much like the NES version of Gradius II with four options and a weapon like the Ripple filling up the majority of the screen the game can and will slow to a crawl frequently. This is especially egregious during boss battles but at least there it is welcome as the game can move too fast otherwise. How’s that for a problem? It isn’t game breaking but is pretty annoying as it really stands out amid the rest of this fantastic package.

Outside of the Salamander Deluxe Packs for the PlayStation and Saturn this is the best port of Salamander and one that should have made it overseas. If the game’s length is not an issue for you I see no reason not jump in unless you have access to the previously mentioned Deluxe Packs.


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Pop’n Twinbee

The Twinbee style of shooters never really appealed to me, although I must admit that my disdain comes from playing Stinger on the NES. After spending the better part of two hours going to and from the department store to buy a new game only to be greeted by…..that I’m pretty sure soured me on the series’ mechanics. Turns out all I needed was to play the right games. Detana Twinbee really changed my opinion and this excellent gem made me a fan. Pop’n Twinbee is a truly excellent game and one of the SNES’s finest, which makes it that much more frustrating that it was only released in Japan and Europe.

Pop’n Twinbee loses the side scrolling stages and completely focuses on its vertical action and in my opinion is a much better game for it. Juggling the bells for power-ups, one of the main tenets of the series, is now much easier. At times I was able to juggle up to eight bells at once with no trouble, not that I recommend it. The bombs have also been improved for the better. Now the bombs will automatically target the closest enemy but aren’t completely perfect and will sometimes miss. There’s also a nice tradeoff in that you need to cease using your main weapon to use them.


A few changes were made to the power-up system that bring it closer to Gradius while still keeping the flavor of Twinbee. Your options hew closer to Gradius and you can pick up a trio to supplement your fire. You also have three choices as to how they function depending on the character. Sadly you’re only other weapon upgrades are a more powerful single shot and a three-way shot although they are both pretty effective. Aside from bombs you can also wind up a punch to smack enemies in close range and even bullets if you can get the timing right.

Since this is an SNES exclusive it was designed around the system’s strengths and as such this is a slower paced shooter than most are probably used to. The game’s leisurely pace should not be taken lightly however as it is just as intense as the twitch action games popular in the genre. The game cleverly mixes in ground based targets among its more straightforward enemies, forcing you to prioritize since you can’t target both at once. While I do feel the game could have used a few more primary weapons aside from the two available the few on offer are more than adequate to complete the game.

Although the game is only 7 levels long it will still take most about 2 hours or so to complete as each stage is pretty long with some stretching up to 15 minutes. You’ll never get bored however as the visual design of the world will keep you interested as well as the pacing of the game’s action. The boss battles are the game’s true highlight as each goes through multiple phases like a raid boss. Just be grateful they aren’t as difficult.

Speaking of difficulty overall the game is balanced pretty well. On the default setting the challenge is about medium. For the most part the game is fairly easy with the occasional spike here and there. Towards the end it picks up considerably like it should and for those that want a real challenge crank the setting up to 8 and cry. Part of what makes Pop’n Twinbee so accessible would be its use of a life bar instead of lives. Although you have a single life and limited continues health can be replenished regularly, plus you can tank an absurd number of hits before death. Power-up clouds almost always arrive in clusters so unless you are absolutely terrible at the game you can maintain a set of options and a shield at all times. Yet somehow in spite of all this the game still manages to put up a fight. Like I said, perfect balance.

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The visual evolution the series underwent with the release of Detana Twinbee continued here as the game looks like an anime come to life. Pop’n Twinbee looks absolutely fantastic, full of bright, vivid colors, and a level of detail in its world that wouldn’t look out of place in the arcade. The backgrounds depict a beautifully stylized steampunk world full of industrial machinery and giant sized mechs. The closest comparison would be Atlus’s PS2 gem Skygunner. The game is light on special effects with transparency used pretty frequently yet the game does not suffer in the slightest because of it. In many ways I wish more developers would show this level of restraint. All of this visual splendor is done with only the barest minimum of slowdown, a miraculous feat.

I fully expected the soundtrack to be full of bright and chirpy music that would grate on my ears after one session but instead was greeted by a symphonic score that is just excellent. The music is appropriately happy and adventurous when setting out but can also become dark and menacing at a moment’s notice.

It’s a bit curious that the best shooters for the SNES never came to the US. With the likes of the Parodius games and Twin Bee maybe the system wouldn’t have such a bad reputation (although partially true) when it came to the genre. Pop’n Twinbee is Konami firing on all cylinders and a game you absolutely need to play.


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Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius

I really love examining the later games released during any console generation. Once the technology has matured and tool chains have been mastered its nothing short of miraculous what is pulled from aging hardware. Look at Vectorman and the Adventures of Batman & Robin for Genesis. Or Seiken Densetsu 3 and Donkey Kong Country 2 for SNES. Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius can count itself among that crowd. As the last Parodius title developed for the Super Famicom it pushes the system pretty hard in numerous ways, especially in terms of speech.

The name of the game loosely translates to Live Chatting Parodius, a name in which it lives up to. A large portion of the game’s memory is dedicated to sampled speech to enable running commentary throughout the entire game. It gives the game the feel of a talk show such as Game Center CX and the like. Sadly this feature is lost on those of us that can’t speak Japanese. The commentary, while pretty cool in concept isn’t exactly crucial to the proceedings. The few phrases and such that I picked up on usually amounted to commenting on how dangerous the current situation is, warnings about the upcoming boss, and common stuff like “Watch Out”, “It’s Dangerous” or even berating you on your bad performance.

Luckily the game is still excellent regardless of whether you can understand the strange old man talking over your progress. The number of playable characters has tripled in size from its last installment to a record breaking (at the time) 16 pulled from nearly every Konami series you can think of. The majority of the new faces are Parodius originals for those that want something different. While there is some obvious doubling up of characters, such as the similarities between the Vic Viper and Lord British there are some slight differences that make a large impact such as forgoing options for a chargeable laser.

Rather than original themed stages Jikkyou Parodius instead parodies other Konami properties. Some of these are surprising and will be foreign to most; stage 2 is themed after Tokimeki Memorial, an inhumanly popular dating sim from the mid-90s. It’s certainly strange subject matter for a shooter yet somehow they make it work. The concept of fighting a pair of school girls stacked on top of each other as an end level boss fits right in with the series’ ridiculous tone.

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The fun continues as even Lethal Enforcers is ripe for parody. Yes the deadly serious light gun (emphasis on gun) shooter serves as the basis for a level that combines moving targets and obstacles with the fast pace of the speed zone from Gradius II and III. While you might expect an end level boss in some way related to the series (I don’t know, a giant pistol or something?) instead you’ll face a Kabuki actor in one of the game’s more difficult encounters.

Other levels draw from Legend of the Mystical Ninja, Twinbee, disco and cooking. At only eight levels this is shorter than prior games in the series but you won’t finish it one, two, or even three sittings. There’s a battery back-up option which seems strange to include in a shooter but is literally a god send here. The only caveat is your score is reset to zero, not that most will even care. Aside from playing through the game with different characters there are 70 fairies strewn throughout the game. They are hidden pretty damn thoroughly and will take dedication to acquire them all but sadly your only reward is a stage select option.

While the main focus of the game may have changed slightly one thing that hasn’t is the difficulty. Jikkyou Parodius is absolutely brutal and unrelenting to an insane degree. This is slightly faster paced than the previous games and with that comes more aggressive enemies to match. Even the relatively brief space intermissions before each new level starts are pretty deadly. It’s definitely unexpected and with the increase in bullets and just junk littering the screen comes slowdown. Prior games were pretty good about restraining their chaos to reduce it as much as possible but here slowdown is a regular occurrence. Honestly I’m pretty sure they had the SNES ready to tap out at any moment and it sucks that the system can’t keep up. It isn’t game breaking but is notable enough to warrant mentioning.

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This installment of Parodius was released in late 1995 and so benefits from years of dedicated work on the hardware. The game simply looks fantastic, with large sprites, excellent animation, and beautiful backgrounds at every turn. The series wacky sense of humor has been taken to the extreme and if you thought some of the enemies and bosses in prior games were ridiculous before its nothing compared to what Konami has cooked up here.  The SA-1 chip was included, which enables some polygonal effects here and there but is mainly used to speed up the system’s slow processor and data compression.

That compression is what allowed the game to have so many voice samples and music. There are very few games from that era that come anywhere close to this game in that regard; maybe some of the later sports games. Aside from the commentary the soundtrack is otherwise excellent, combining original compositions with funky remixes of public domain songs and other Konami hits. The sound is of a higher quality than most SNES games and doesn’t suffer from the typical muffling associated with many of its best efforts.

As one final outing for the series before it moved to the 32-bit consoles Jikkyou Oshaberi Parodius is an all-around excellent game. While its signature feature is lost to non-Japanese speakers it has little impact on the rest of this phenomenal package.


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Gokujō Parodius

By 1994 the American arcade was dominated by countless fighting games, light gun shooters and some truly awesome 3d racing games.  This left the once popular shooter clearly on the outs, which sucked as that was about the point when some of the most unique games in the genre would hit the market.  Fans were left hoping for home ports as these games stayed in Japan, with Gokujo Parodius being one of them.  Take everything that made Parodius: Non-Sense Fantasy great and add 2-player coop (at least in the arcade) and you have this excellent port that America would be denied.

While it never saw an official arcade release in the US Gokujō Parodius! Was released on console in Europe under the name Fantastic Journey.  Well that’s one way to put it.  I don’t know how or why the name was changed to that as the official title loosely translates to Fantastic Parodius – Pursue the Glory of the Past but the fact that once again Europe got a cool exclusive over America still remains.  The Parodius games are the best Gradius games that never were, and at least on the SNES turned out even better than Gradius III.

Since the last Parodius title the roster has nearly tripled in size with new characters debuting from a few more series.  Actually to a certain extent you could say it’s tripled; in coop player two has access to a further eleven characters that are palette swaps/counterparts to player one.  With an increase in roster comes new weapon options and Konami really went to town in giving everyone some interesting weapon combinations.  While the returning cast members are still using gear from their respective series the newcomers draw from some really obscure Konami arcade games such as Thunder Cross and Xexex.  You’ve to respect that respects their lineage while at the same time lampooning it.

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Gameplay is near identical to Non-Sense Fantasy although you do have a few more options like turning off the annoying weapon roulette.  The focus instead is on the zany hijinks at every turn and in this respect the game is literally insane.  The first level sets the tone as it takes place inside one of those crane machines that ate your money rather than doled out prizes.  Stage two is one long battle against a cat faced submarine; it’s an R-Type style assault against one huge battleship except this one makes cute noises and adorable faces.  The Speed up level takes its theme to heart as it takes place on a rural street with signs and hazard warnings all over the place.  Silly, but when you think about it it makes sense.

Other levels are cartoony takes on popular Gradius staples but the biggest source of the game’s weirdness comes from its bosses.  How do you fancy a battle against a panda ballerina, complete with tutu?  Or a mermaid with a pirate ship on her head?  The big core from Gradius makes an appearance but not in the way you expect.  Possibly my favorite boss is the capsule monster of stage five.  Shaped like an overgrown power-up it feels less like a battle for survival and more like a loot piñata as it shoots tons of power-ups in random patterns.  The only real danger of death comes from the occasional spike ball mixed in and its pathetic attempts to ram you.  If you take too long he simply flies away in disgust; how’s that?

Unlike the other games in the series the difficulty here is a bit more lenient and totally dependent on the character chosen.  The Vic Viper is well rounded and adaptable to any situation.  Hikaru/Akane’s weapons are very powerful, especially their boomerang shot which will rebound off destroyed enemies and take out others.  However their options are static and their shield only protects your face; shots from other directions can easily take you out.  I found I died a lot less to stray bullets than in the other games and that the game doesn’t reach the insane heights of its brethren.  It makes for a much more relaxing experience in that regard.

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As a late 1994 release Gojkujou Parodius is a pretty damn good looking game.  In the arcade it ran on proprietary hardware and the SNES does a near perfect replicating its look, only suffering in terms of slowdown and the missing coop.  The levels are teeming with activity with many moving parts in its backgrounds.  There’s a great deal of variety from one level to the next and it overall has a more vibrant look compared to its predecessor.  They do recycle certain enemies and bosses such as the galactic dancer and the American eagle but that can be excused as plenty of other games do the same.

Once again the soundtrack borrows from classical music in the public domain.  The likes of Strauss, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky present and accounted.  The songs themselves are done justice through the SNES sound chip but I like the way that the game isn’t afraid to slow down or speed up the pitch to match the on screen action.  There are just as many original themes as well as clever remixes of music from Gradius to round out the aural package.

The only area that Gokujou Parodius comes up short compared to its predecessor is length: 8 levels versus ten.  But when you are having so much fun it won’t make a difference.  This is a bigger and better game than Non-Sense Fantasy in almost every way and one of the best SNES shooters of all time.  You don’t need to be a fan of parodies or Gradius to enjoy the fine shooting action on display here as it is simply a great game overall.


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Parodius – Non Sense Fantasy

The Gradius style power-up system is one of the most versatile and creative in the history of the shooter genre, so good in fact that many games have cribbed it.  Konami themselves have used a variation of it in a variety of spin offs, most notably Salamander and Twin Bee.  2 obviously wasn’t enough so they created a third that parodies the serious tone of Gradius, Parodius (clever play on words there).  Usually parodies are done by a third party but in this case Parodius is both parody and celebration of the success of the series and has enough unique elements to stand on its own.

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I think I can see why Konami shied away from bringing Parodius to the US.

It’s a mystery as to why the Parodius series was never given a shot in the US.  Well maybe not so much considering some of the, uh, weird shit in the game.  Maybe Stinger failed so hard Konami came to the conclusion that Americans like their shooters full of grit?  In Europe it was a different story as most of the series has been released there in one form or another.  This Super NES installment is a conversion of the second arcade game with the sub title Non Sense Fantasy in Europe which is a pretty apt description. Nothing is too outlandish for this series and in spite of the wacky hijinks the game never forgets that it is supposed to be entertaining above all else.

Like Gradius you can select different weapon combinations but here they’re also tied to different “ships”.  The Vic Viper returns with a full complement of weapons from the original Gradius.  Now the other ships if you can even call them that are where things get strange.  Twinbee from the series of the same name plays identically to those familiar with that series.  The Octopus is the equivalent of the Salamander series with its Ripple laser and two way missiles. A pair of penguins named Pentarou play exactly like the VV from Gradius III for those who find the standard Vic Viper’s weaponry too pedantic.  I won’t lie, it’s pretty damn weird to pilot a string of octopi or as a penguin but once you get over the absurdity of it all Parodius is just as challenging and entertaining as its more straightforward brethren.

You’re still collecting glowing pods to select which weapons you want to equip however Parodius has even more offer than just that.  The random item roulette causes the weapon bar to cycle and can help or hinder you depending on luck.  If it lands on a weapon it will give you a fully powered-up version of it such as four options.  Hit a blank space and you’re stripped of all power-ups.  The more power-ups you’ve collected the worse this actually turns out.  In your greed to collect em all like Pokemon more than likely you’ll pick this up at the worst moment; good luck with the results!

For anyone that has imported a Twinbee game or had the misfortune of playing Stinger the bells make an appearance here with hilarious results.  The bells only move left to right now making it easier to juggle them and cycle through the colors.  You’ll want to do so as the powers they bestow are a bit overpowered.  The Green Bell triples your size but makes you invulnerable to everything, so feel free to plow through walls and enemies.  Red enables the use of the Kiku Beam, which is a long vertical beam that will destroy anything in its path.  My personal favorite is the White Bell which gives you a megaphone which will cause your ship to spout various nonsensical phrases such as “Got a Stinkfoot!” and “Shaving is Boring!” that actually inflict massive damage on impact.

Beyond the campy exterior is a game that isn’t afraid to challenge the conventions of the series it openly mocks.  The levels closely resemble Gradius down to the brief space intermissions at the start of every level except with a comical bent.  For every familiar element the game brings in from Gradius or Twinbee they’ve applied a Monty Pythonesque slant to it.  The ever present volcanoes sport happy faces when dormant but quickly become angry and spout eggplants in a matter of seconds.  Most enemies consist of anthropomorphic animals, especially the bosses.  The Vegas Go Go dancer moves in the exact same pattern as the   from Gradius II but is invincible, meaning you’ll have to……uh “navigate” the safe spots around her body.  As if that wasn’t surreal enough it’s quickly followed up by an eagle decked out in an American flag.  Draw your own conclusions.  It never lets up as it gets even stranger the further you progress with a sumo wrestler, a moai head attached to a ship, and a near nude woman draped in a robe.  What does any of this have to do with shooters?  Nothing!  But it’s pure, unadulterated madness is more fun than ten games put together.

While it makes fun of the serious tone of most shooters from that era Parodius does share one trait with them; the difficulty.  It’s very easy to underestimate the stakes involved during each level since the game is trying to kill you in the nicest way possible.  There are frequent dead ends and other situations that have little margin for error.  The item roulette is the equivalent of a girlfriend slipping a little tongue then kneeing you in the nuts as it pops up at the worst moments.  This is a fairly long game at 9 levels plus the SNES exclusive bath house (by this point it doesn’t even sound strange anymore) so you’ll definitely get your money’s worth out of the game.

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The SNES version of Parodius is an excellent port of the arcade game missing very few details.  Outside of the resolution you could easily mistake it for the coin op.  Parodius goes in the complete opposite direction of Gradius with its explosion of color and vibrant backgrounds.  There are some truly large sprites uncharacteristic of your typical SNES game so it’s a bit of a surprise that there is little to no slowdown at all.  It helps that this is a slower paced game but coming off the slowdown ridden Gradius III a year prior this is a miracle.  There’s even a bubble level like that game except here the game doesn’t slow to a crawl, almost as if Konami were throwing shade on their previous work.  Parodius also has a fantastic soundtrack and with good reason, most of it is classical and folk music available in the public domain.  The reason being the composer did not have enough time to complete an original score for the whole game so had to make do with what was available.  In my eyes it adds to the game’s mystique and fits the tone of the game well.

It seems strange that to this day Konami has never given the series a chance in the US but thanks to its European releases those that want to import can at least enjoy a full localization, not that there’s any text to begin with.  Forget about the cartoon exterior and you’re left with a challenging yet fair game that is truly phenomenal.


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Gradius II

I know what you’re thinking, “isn’t Life Force Gradius 2”?  And the answer is no.  While the two series share similarities Life Force is actually a part of the Salamander series.  The real Gradius II never saw a release in the US in the arcade or on consoles.  As to why I sure as hell don’t know; Gradius was released in that early period in the NES’s life where there really wasn’t much available and was fairly popular as well.  Gradius II is a far superior game in every single way and outside of the slowdown is one of the best shooters available for the system.

The elaborate power-up system of the original has returned but has seen a massive upgrade in every possible way.  Many of the series tenets were laid down here and further expanded on in subsequent games such as the Power-Up menu.  At the start you are presented with a choice of 4 different weapon configurations.  It isn’t the outright weapons bonanza that Gradius III would later bring to the table but the customization is welcome.  Not everyone will want to tackle the game in the same manner and now you have some say in the matter.  In addition you can switch when you continue if a particular weapon set doesn’t strike your fancy.

Honestly they’re not so different; the only changes are in the type of missiles, double shot, and laser available although that might be doing it a disservice.  Missiles especially play a large factor in whether or not you’ll have to risk getting in close to cover an area that they won’t reach.  Photon Torpedoes are powerful but only hit the ground, not the area above you.  The different double shots I can’t comment on since I never bother with that shit, they’re too weak compared to the lasers and a bit of fancy flying is more convenient than a weapon dedicated to covering your tail that isn’t optimal.

If you thought two options were enough now you can have up to 4, which is totally insane.  With 4 options you can cover nearly half of the screen although it brings some performance issues along with it (to your benefit if you want to exploit it!).  As a bonus if you select another option once you’ve hit the maximum they become a rotating shield for a brief period.  Granted the two shield available do an admirable job protecting you as is but every little bit helps as this is one tough nut to crack.

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Right off the bat its apparent Gradius II is in a totally separate class altogether from the original.  The first level has you navigating around fiery suns that spawn dragons before giving way to massive solar flares a la Life Force.  The requisite Moai level takes a sinister turn at the halfway point when the Easter Island statues turn red and not only double their rate of fire but turn around for one last shot at you.  The speed zone of level six forces you to gather more speed-ups than you’re comfortable with in order to stand a sliver of a chance at navigating the increasingly speedier corridors.

It’s amazing just how much of Gradius II’s content was recycled in its third installment.  Take the sand dragons in Gradius III’s first level.  Give them a red aura and you have the dragons in Gradius II.  Replace the breakable crystals of stage 3 with Bubbles and you have the bubble zone of Gradius III.  Both games share near identical speed zones Moai stages and even have similar boss rushes.  Of course none of us were aware of any of this but it’s insane just how much was lifted wholesale from Gradius II.

Speaking of bosses you won’t fight the same mother ship at the end of every level this time around and for that I say thank god.  Gradius II is armed with a suite of unique bosses at the end of every level, some more difficult than others.  There’s even a boss rush toward the end of the game featuring nearly every boss from Gradius and Life Force which is trippy.  The final boss although excellent in design is disappointing to face but I suppose it’s a nice respite from the brutal journey to reach him.

Aside from the boss fights few will see the end of this game in reasonable span of time due to the challenge.  Konami show little restraint in chucking every possible damn enemy in your path.  There are mid-level checkpoints but if it comes down to that you might as well start over, you ain’t making any progress with the standard pea shooter.  For those to weak sauce to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds there is a 30 man cheat code but it’s entirely possible that it won’t be enough.

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Insanely pretty but the game’s performance suffers as a result.

While Gradius II is on a different level technically compared to the first game it suffers heavily due to slowdown.  Once you have 4 options and lasers anytime you press the fire button the game will slow to a crawl.  Seriously, give it a try.  You can use this to your benefit to escape some tricky situations since you can initiate it on your own.  I guess it’s an unintended advantage but you know what?  Every little bit helps.

I suppose Konami felt Life Force had the shooter market covered in the US and didn’t see any reason to release Gradius II.  We’ll never know but it doesn’t change the fact that we missed out on a really great game.


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In creating the Gradius series Konami made one of the most durable and beloved shooter franchises in console history.  With its unique power-up system countless other games have been “inspired” by Gradius with some degree of success.  The Gradius formula is so well defined in fact that a separate series created as a parody of Gradius named Parodius has spawned its own line of sequels.  One splinter series that is little known in the US is Twinbee of which North America has only seen two installments, one for the Nintendo DS and this game which was renamed Stinger.

Since the first game in the series stayed in Japan certain……liberties were taken with the American localization.  Alien beings from the planet Attackon have kidnapped Dr. Cinnamon to learn the secrets of his bio nuclear sweetener.  The Attackons want to use this “weapon” to turn Earth into a giant ball of cotton candy.

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While Twinbee started out as a series of vertical shooters it would eventually grow and encompass a range of genres, from platformers to RPGs.  The focus shifted from the shooting action to the characters as the series has a long running plot full of wacky characters.  Like Parodius the Twinbee series doesn’t take itself too seriously and has enough unique features to forge an identity of its own.  While Twinbee was insanely popular in Japan and Europe it didn’t leave much of an impression in the US, where Stinger was the lone entrant to reach our shores until 2007.

The unique hook of Twinbee is its power-up system.  Rather than collect items the bells that spawn from clouds can be juggled with your shots to change its color, bestowing a number of different weapons.  These cover a number of typical shmup tropes such as the twin cannon, laser, speed-up, options, and a shield.  Changing the color of the bells for new weapons takes practice and skill and the game is more than generous enough to supply a ton of clouds in case you mess up.

While most of the Twinbee games are vertical shooters Stinger bucks this trend. Like Life Force the levels alternate between side scrolling and vertical shooting.  The change in viewpoint affects the gameplay significantly as it’s easier to keep track of bells in the vertical levels.  There is a heart shaped shot added to the side scrolling that makes bell blasting easier but it’s still annoying.  Since the heart shots would be useless you have the option to bomb the ground in the vertical levels for power-ups.  Here you can take a glancing blow that only removes your bombing ability which can only be restored by a medical power-up.

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The overall tone of Stinger is a bit wacky.  It isn’t strictly because of the fruity US story either, all of that weirdness existed in the Japanese version, and the American story merely contextualizes it.  You have angry coat hangers, mad sneakers, and TV sets screaming for your blood.  And don’t get me started on the bosses.  The quirkiness is dialed up to 11 as you battle a boom box, a seed spitting watermelon and other assorted food and household items.

For all of its unique features Stinger is a bit weak overall.  The horizontal levels all feel and look identical since they share similar environmental detail.  In my opinion these levels are a clear indication that Twinbee was always intended to be a vertical scrolling shooter.  Speaking of which, the vertical levels are the most intense with a seemingly never ending wave of enemies coming at you.  I’ve never been fond of juggling the bells for power-ups and my issues with it are apparent from the start.  It takes entirely too many shots to cycle through the different weapons; in most cases you’ll only see the blue bell for speed or white for twin cannons.  I realize juggling the bells and dealing with enemies is the whole point of the game but it could have been balanced better in this regard.

While the later Twinbee games are excellent and borderline phenomenal Stinger is not the strongest entry.  While it’s better than most of the early NES shooter lineup there are far too many classics to work through before Stinger would warrant purchasing.  At least if they would have kept the 3-player coop it would have merited look from coop fans.


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Life Force

After the success of Gradius a sequel was bound to appear.  You don’t create such an awesome power-up system just to use it one game, no sir.  While Gradius 2 did eventually appear for the majority of us in North America we mistakenly assumed Life Force was that sequel.  However despite the similarities it was from a different series.

Life Force was released for America in 1987.  A port of the arcade game, the NES version differs from its arcade big brother plot wise.  Rather than an alien invasion the game supposedly takes place inside an organic life form, hence the title.  Many of the game’s graphics were also altered to fit the theme, among other changes.  Regardless, Life Force is a noticeable step forward for the venerable Gradius series with many sorely missed features added for a more complete experience.

Across six stages of alternating horizontal and vertical shooting you fight your way through the internal organs of the life form.  Now however you can do so in 2-player coop.  The addition of a second pilot helps to ease the burden as the game has the same level of challenge as Gradius.  Don’t let the meager stage count fool you; you will have to fight for every inch, although if you are weak sauce you can rely on the Konami code.  The addition of coop seems deliberate; there are many double paths that encourage players to split up only to reconvene at the end.  Who will take the shitty path?  It brings out some of the best cooperative moments.

The familiar Gradius style power-up system returns, and for its console port they made some changes.  Salamander in the arcade featured an automatic power-up system, removing the option of personal choice; you can once again pick and choose the weapons you want, when you want.  New to the game is the addition of the Ripple, which replaces the sucky double shot.  Once again if you are playing coop it becomes a fight for power-ups since the number does not increase to compensate.  You find out how much of a bastard your friends are during these heated moments.  One of the biggest changes are the checkpoints; there are none, you respawn almost immediately.  For anyone that has suffered the humility of respawning in the middle of the level with just the standard pea shooter, this is a godsend.

Some of the better features from the Japanese version were removed for no reason unfortunately.  There are no multiple endings, you can only have 2 options instead of 3, and it’s debatable whether the thematic change works.  But those are minor complaints in the face of such a well conceived package.

Small faults aside Life Force is one of the top shooters for the NES, especially the US considering we did not receive some of the more visually incredible ones like Recca and Crisis Zone.  It’s a bit short and hard but is infinitely replayable curiously.  The graphics and sound were a huge leap over Gradius and even slowdown is at a bare minimum.  Sequel or spinoff, it doesn’t matter in the end as Life Force remains just as playable 20 years later.

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Gradius III

The early days of the SNES saw many arcade ports, most of which were somewhat designed to show off the power of the new console.  Gradius III was one of those early games that managed to do just that while also falling flat on its face.  Despite that it still manages to be a good game with some major and minor differences from the arcade to make it worth a look for fans of the series.

Gradius III was released for the SNES in Japan in 1990 and the fall of 1991 for the US.  The Vic Viper returns to battle the forces of the Bacterion Empire.   Featuring a number of improvements over Gradius II in many ways it still borrowed or recycled elements from that game, disappointing some.  The SNES port was largely the same as the arcade game but better balanced for home play making it a better game in my opinion.  The arcade game was never released in the US until its inclusion as part of Gradius III & IV on PS2 and the Gradius Collection on PSP.  This would be our first taste of the game.

The first things you’ll see upon booting up the game are your weapon selections.  Split between Type Select and Edit Mode, there are exclusive weapons for each making the choice not as clear cut as it would seem.  Edit Mode is something fans long wished for and lives up to its name, with decisions broken down into six categories with plenty of choices. It definitely lives up to its promise with an insane amount of choices to mix and match.

Honestly, Edit Mode is the way to go. You have access to the overpowered Energy Laser and probably the single greatest weapon, Reduce, which reduces the size of the Vic Viper and acts as a life bar of sorts; each hit received only brings you closer to your original size.  Between the rotating options, the crusher laser that can act as a functional shield while charging, and reduce you are practically invincible.  At least that’s how I play.  The unbridled freedom to mix and match is a Gradius fan’s dream come true. Regardless of your choice of armaments, you’ll need them for the brutal journey ahead.

Comprised of 10 levels, the trip to fight the Bacterion leader will take you through all manner of environments, from the Sand dunes of the first planet to the underground portions of level 3.  Each level has some form of gimmick or environmental hazard to contend with, be it the multiplying bubbles of stage 2 or the break neck pace of the Speed Zone of stage 8.  Despite your vast array of weapons it’s very easy to develop tunnel vision and only focus on what’s directly in front of you and die by an otherwise easy to dodge projectile or enemy.  The variety of the levels is the game’s greatest strength as you jet from one set piece to the next.  The Moai level, the Plant zone, even the boss rush towards the end, no two levels are the same.

While it has been rebalanced Gradius III still puts up a decent challenge.  You only have a few continues and the game is long by shooter standards.  If you die on a boss or an unfortunate section of a level you are all but screwed since you’ll have nothing but the standard pea shooter and maybe one or two power-ups to defeat the bosses.

Some of the flashier elements of the arcade game were excised when bringing the game home.  The third person bonus stage is gone although to tell you the truth it wasn’t all that great to begin with.  What does suck are the enemies removed from the game, such as an enormous fire dragon on the fire level that acts as a mid boss.   The SNES port does feature better graphics than the arcade game in many respects, with additional background scrolling absent from the arcade’s levels and many stages increasing in length.  Many of the bosses truly show off the SNES’s increased power over its younger brother; bottom line if you wanted to showcase just what your new console could do this was one of its stronger games at launch.

The one major dent in the game’s presentation would be the slowdown.  There’s no sugar coating it, it’s bad, man.  The game will slow to a crawl at least once per stage which you could see as a bane or boon, depending on the situation.   This was a frequent problem in early SNES software, something that would largely disappear in the years that would follow.  The soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, with an orchestral arrangement rather than the standard pseudo rock tunes that accompany many shooters.

I’m not even the biggest fan of the shmup genre and I still love this game.  If the slowdown bothers you Gradius III & IV on PS2 and the PSP collection might be your cup of tea although it is a straight port of the arcade game and lacks many of the changes here.  Regardless every shooter fan should play this and those that aren’t might find something they like.

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In the grand sea of shooters the Gradius series stands near the top due to its many distinguishing characteristics.  Whether it’s the innovative power up system, the Vic Viper, or just the curious fascination with Moai statues, even if you’ve never played a game in the series you’ve heard of it.  Despite a number of spinoffs, the grand daddy of them all, Gradius, remains the originator.

Gradius was released in arcades in 1986 and later ported to a large number of consoles, the most popular being the NES version.  The people of the planet Gradius are under attack by the Bacterian Empire and pour all of their resources into creating the Vic Viper, a state of the art starship that is their last hope.  Another in the long line of shooters that pit one lone ship against a fucking armada, the story isn’t important, what matters is the gameplay and Gradius has that in spades.  The power-up system is the defining trait of the series and would go on to inspire legions of imitators.

A horizontal shooter, Gradius was one of, if not the first scrolling shooters for the system and would create a foundation of gameplay elements that would be built upon in later installments.  The first distinguishing characteristic is the powerup system.  Unlike most games with their instant and one shot abilities, collecting the energy icons highlighted one of six available options: speed up, missile, double, laser, option and shield.  Your choice and rate of acquisition is largely in your own hands and will influence just how easy or hard the coming challenges are.  Everyone prioritizes different weapons and that choice of “play style” is what would draw and continues to draw many gamers to the franchise.

Despite its classic status Gradius is a bit Spartan compared to other shooters.   There are only 6 levels, with each lasting only a few minutes at most.  Once fully powered up you will blow through the game, which at most lasts about 20-30 minutes.  That isn’t to say the game doesn’t put up a fight; later levels such as the Moai stage shower the playfield with bullets and the only boss in the game, the Mothership becomes faster and harder to hit.  One stray bullet is all it takes to die, and due to the checkpoints will leave you in the middle of a level with nothing but the standard pea shooter, a recipe for disaster.  But the strengths of the game’s design are such that Konami has been able to use the same system for subsequent Gradius games and the Salamander series with very little updating since it largely isn’t necessary.

While some facets of the game’s design have not stood the test of time Gradius still remains a retro gaming classic.  The NES version is a very good recreation of the arcade game and even offers the Konami code if the challenge is too much.  There are numerous ways to play the game nowadays so there is no excuse not to relive a little bit of gaming history.


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