It’s been a while, readers. But I’m back. That’s right, the PhD is over. Submitted and awaiting viva! Throughout these past few months, I haven’t stopped playing games entirely. Still, my enjoyment of life in general has increased dramatically now, and that extends to games too. After listening to a recent Retronauts episode about the Gradius series, I decided to dust off my copy of the expansively named Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus for the trusty Sega Saturn. I’d always been curious, so why not try these spin-offs of a beloved series?
Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus is a collection of three arcade games, namely Salamander, Life Force, and Salamander 2. The former two, which I’ll cover first, are variations on the same basic game released within a year of one another in 1986-7. Salamander 2, by comparison, released almost ten years later in 1996, and is a more modern iteration on the series formula. These games all riff on similar level themes, bosses and structure, many of these themselves nabbed from the Gradius series. For instance, every game alternates between horizontal and vertical scrolling stages, and contains a mix of biological and sci-fi themed stages.
Let’s get into the history pieces, Salamander and Life Force. Most striking about this pair is how much better Life Force is, despite being virtually identical to Salamander. Aesthetically, the only differences are some colour/background changes and added voice commentary which give Life Force more of a biological theme. This produces mixed results. On the positive side, it is impressive how a simple colour change of magma red to cold blue transforms flames into stomach acid. The theme breaks down somewhat in the final, space base level, with the commentator’s description of penetrating “a liver” failing to convince.
Indecisive aesthetics aside, what distinguishes the two games from one another is the weapon system. Salamander has a typical shoot ’em up system, with defeated enemies leaving behind Gradius-esque power-ups: options, speed-ups, missiles, etc. The problem is that Salamander is extremely stingy with doling these out past the opening level. Early on, the game provides ample firepower, but a single death – while it mercifully doesn’t take you back to a checkpoint – takes you back to square one in terms of power and handicaps you for a significant period. In practice, your first life is your best chance for beating the game since Salamander’s first batch of enemies shower the player with options and power-ups.
The few tweaks made in Life Force improve the game dramatically. For starters, Life Force increases the number and frequency of power-ups available from enemies. Life Force also differs by adopting Gradius’s signature power-up system – see that bar in the bottom corner of the right screenshot? – so that you control what upgrades to give your ship. In short, as well as being more plentiful, power-ups go further thanks to Gradius’s unique “currency” system.
How about the game/games themselves? Well, it’s a fairly addictive ride, if rather rough. Initially, certain sections felt needlessly cheap and punishing, with flame/acid rushing from the bottom of the screen to annihilate me in stage three. An earlier section fires bouncing blue balls that are challenging by virtue of their visual similarity to your blue ball-like options, if you have any. With the exception of that last example, possession of a fully powered up arsenal is extremely helpful in surviving every level. Continuing after defeat is a grueling struggle and unless you can rescue your options before they disappear off-screen, it can be tempting to restart completely from scratch – that’s especially true in Salamander given the scarcity of power-ups.
Much of the difficulty generated by these games can be put down to the fast pace of the action. Compared to the Gradius games, and especially a series like R-Type, the levels scroll very quickly. I’m genuinely impressed that such old games have such a blistering pace and throw around such high volumes of fire with hardly any slowdown. There are moments, such as in the penultimate stage, when the screen becomes the definition of “bullet hell” for long enough to all but guarantee the player’s death. Still, while technically impressive for their day, Salamander/Life Force are less enjoyable games for their intensity.
Now, Salamander 2. For a 1996 release, I have to admit to being underwhelmed by the game’s graphical presentation. (You got me, I’m vain.) As I mentioned at the start of the post, Salamander 2 updates the gameplay of the original games. Rather than come down clearly on any side of the mechanical/biological divide, Salamander 2 takes both directions at once, re-imagining the stages from the original two games with some fresh ideas and Gradius references added for good measure.
Gameplay-wise, Salamander 2 offers a slower paced hybrid of Salamander and Life Force which is a lot of fun. One of the innovations in Salamander 2, which I don’t believe is present in any other Gradius-related game, is a chargeable homing attack which sacrifices options. It’s a nifty idea which is handy for overcoming bosses and overwhelming moments in the main levels.
Salamander 2 once more abandons Gradius’s strategic power-up system in favour of the original Salamander’s more traditional drops. While it can occasionally be annoying to see a speed power-up when you really wanted missiles, there are at least enough power-ups around to give you a fighting chance. Even better, when you die, any options you had remain on-screen for a time. For these reasons, Salamander 2 is a more forgiving experience than either of its arcade predecessors.
That’s not to suggest the game is devoid of challenge. The game is simply better balanced thanks to a difficulty curve which smoothly increases as you proceed through the game. There is also a second loop of the game that unlocks after beating the game, with remixed stages and new music.
Speaking of the music: it’s excellent. Where the original games have fairly generic intense music (in my opinion), Salamander 2’s score is more playful and melodic. Akira Yamaoka’s name stands out amongst the pseudonyms listed in the credits. I love his Silent Hill music, and this game is no different. My favourite track comes from stage two: Sensation.
All in all, Salamander 2 is easily the star of this collection, and a fine shoot ’em up at that. It may not offer anything spectacularly original in either visual or gameplay terms, but it is a very well crafted game with plenty of replay value.