Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Salamander (Konami)

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I can’t stress this enough, Salamander is my favorite shmup of all time.  It’s not that the game is unique, it’s clearly a spin-off of Gradius and in the United States Konami pretends that this game, renamed Life Force here, is the second game in the Gradius series.  It’s not the challenge or anything like that, honestly the game is one of the easiest shmups.  Nope, it’s just so much fun to play and the little tweaks over the Gradius formula just keep it on the top of my list.

Salamander adjusts the power-up bar that Gradius established, which appeared to be popular enough to include it as an option in all future Gradius titles moving forward.  It also adds co-op gameplay, the second ship being the “Lord British” although in this title there is no difference to the power-ups or gameplay.  Instead of your deaths returning you to a checkpoint, your ship automatically respawns when a life is lost.  In addition all the cold mechanical machine settings of the Gradius series are instead replaced by organic styled levels and bosses.  In Japan and Europe, the game released as Salamander and both versions are essentially identical.  In the United States, we received a version called Life Force that added a plot about being inside an alien complete with cut scenes, more organic themes to the bosses and level names that sound like body parts.  Japan later released their own version of Life Force that included most of these elements and changed the soundtrack.  Unlike Gradius, Salamander switches between horizontal shooting levels and vertical shooting levels, even in its ports.

The MSX version of Salamander is much longer than the arcade version, with each of its levels being elongated in this port.  Instead of respawning, the ship is returned to a pre-determined checkpoint like the Gradius series, and collecting 15 E-capsules will permanently upgrade one of the weapons on your track.  After level 2 is completed, the three following levels before the final level can be played in any order.  In addition they have added back story for the pilots of the ship and cut scenes in the beginning help establish those stories.  This version is unlike any other version of the game.

The Famicom/NES version of the game, much like the arcade, was named Salamander in Japan on the Famicom and Life Force in America on the NES.  For most of America’s audiences, this is the only version of Salamander that’s ever been seen and it is considered the second game in the Gradius series with Gradius as its predecessor and Gradius III as its sequel.  The game combines aspects of both Salamander and Life Force arcade games in an optimal hybrid.  Aside from multiple ending paths that were in the Famicom version, both titles are identical to one another.  In these versions, the Vic Viper respawns instead of checkpoints and putting in the Konami code at the main menu starts you with 30 lives instead of 3 (like Contra).  This is the easiest way to complete the game.  This version is available on the Wii Virtual Console in the US.

The PC-Engine version of Salamander foreshadows the new direction of the series and the way the sequel would be developed eight years later.  Instead of a power-up bar like the rest of the games, you collect icons that relate to the individual powers you can unlock in the power bar.  For example, if an enemy drops a shield right away, you instantly have a shield.  There are no respawns, it returns to the classic checkpoint system, and the game has improved sound and speed over the arcade.  Although there are slight differences in the overall gameplay, it stays relatively faithful to the arcade classic.

Salamander 2

In 1996, Konami released an arcade sequel properly named Salamander 2 that keeps up with the staples of the series.  Along with fresh new graphics, the game retains the respawn system and organic themes surrounding levels and bosses.  Unlike the original, this title employs the icon collection format to powering up your ship that was previously in the PC-Engine port of Salamander.  It is for this reason that this sequel is not only seen as the easiest game in the Konami shmup lineup, but also because it virtually eliminates the concept that the entire game must be completed in one life.  Salamander 2 has been in several collections for the Saturn, Playstation and even PSP in Japan, although aside from emulation and importing, the title has never released outside of Japan.

Written by Fred Rojas

March 5, 2012 at 2:51 pm

One Response

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  1. Used to play Salamander a lot on the MSX. Was great fun. 🙂 As a small kid, I often played co-op with my father at that time. He was pretty good at if I remember correctly. We never completed it though.. maybe I shall invite him to an MSX (still got my old SVI Spectravideo computer) gaming session? 😉


    March 5, 2012 at 3:46 pm

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