Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus
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Game Name: 沙羅曼蛇 (Salamander) Deluxe Pack Plus
Media: 1 CD-ROM
Publisher(s): Konami
Developer(s): KCET
Genre(s): Shooter
Release Date: June 19th 1997
Serial Number: T-9520G
Region: JP

After the success of original Gradius Konami decided to make a spin-off game, a shoot’em up with simpler and more approachable mechanics while maintaining similar themes. Salamander replaced the selection bar introduced in Gradius with instant power-up capsules, introduced the red Road British spaceship (yes, it’s supposed to be Lord British), dropped the bullshit checkpoint system and shuffled horizontal and vertical stages, a feature that to this day is quite unique, making Salamander games stand out. The series is also very special to me as the NES Life Force was, if my memory serves me correctly, the very first shmup I’ve ever played, long before I even realized it was a part of a bigger franchise.

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus Screenshot

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus is essentially a 3-in-1 package containing Salamander, Life Force and Salamander 2. Though honestly it’s more like a 2,5-in-1 since Life Force is just a slightly reworked version of original Salamander game. This is the confusing part – originally Salamander was released in Japan (and then in Europe) but the American version was renamed to Life Force and had its visuals slightly altered so the new title made a little more sense. Later, Japan also got its Life Force version which enhanced the biological theme further and replaced the power-up mechanics with those of Gradius. The Japanese renditions of those games is what you get in SDPP.

Let’s start the overview with Salamander, and what I have to say at the very beginning is that this game is such a bitch that I’m going to spell it out – B-I-T-C-H. You thought original Gradius was hard? How about starting out with three lives, as usual, but without any option to continue and no extra lives either to be found or granted for certain amount of points. It doesn’t help that the game (spoilers!) ends with an escape sequence where you fly through a tunnel while trying to avoid bars popping out of the wall trying to block your path. This alone needs to be approached with at least 2 lives left to spare and good luck trying to get through the whole game without screwing up, but I’ll save that for later.

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus ScreenshotThe challenge of Salamander begins in a horizontal biological stage and then smoothly changes into vertical asteroid stage. You also visit the fire stage, classic volcano level and the obligatory fortress stage at the end, starring the benign final boss, which continues the Gradius’ traditions. In total there are 3 horizontal and 3 vertical stages which are relatively pretty fast to complete (around 15 minutes), but it definitely takes hours to see the credits for the first time, though you can always rack up the number of lives up to 7 or change the difficulty level (and it’ll still be tough). Power ups are what you’ve already seen in Gradius, except missiles fire in both up and down (or left and right), the ripple laser was introduced and the shield is… crap. “Guys, how about me make a shield that, like, diminishes in contact with power-ups too!”. Before you even notice it’ll be gone, and do note that the more powered-up you are, the harder the game gets, so the only thing the shield grants you is a temporary spike in difficulty in exchange for lousy protection. Aside from those differences, Salamander plays pretty much just like Gradius but feels a bit faster and in general is more of a dick.

Speaking of dick moves, here’s a little tip that’ll make your experience slightly less frustrating. As it turns out, the level 4 boss, known as center core, is one of the most impossible bosses ever. By impossible I mean it’s way too hard to kick his ass without getting annihilated first, and as I mentioned earlier you need all of your lives if you want to finish the final part of the game. Though you only need to blow up three cores while avoiding blue balls of death, you quickly realize how infuriatingly hard this is, unless you happen to have perfect hand-eye coordination. Honestly, at times it feels like you’re trying to dodge rain. But guess what, it only works until you defeat the boss. After that, on subsequent playthroughs (as long as you don’t reset/turn off the game) the boss becomes less impossible, though still pretty damn hard. Apparently this version is so faithful to the arcade, that it retained this feature, so what you should do every time you start playing Salamander again is to get to the fourth level, defeat the boss while giving no fucks about losing your ships, go back to the title screen and start again. There are some safe spots that could help you through it but I find that they don’t work 100%.

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus ScreenshotSo yeah, my relationship with Salamander is more of a love-hate variety. At the time when I got it, it took me about 70 tries or more to realize I just can’t make it on default settings, so decided to try Life Force and what do you know, not only it’s slightly different than the original but is more approachable too. Still no continues allowed (unless you choose 2 players, for some odd reason) but now at least you have a chance to get some extra lives. The Gradius style selection bar maybe allows for a slower build-up but at least you can choose what power-up should be next, instead of relying on what you find. Also, the selection bar for 1P and 2P is different, playing as Road British lets you obtain options faster but it’s harder to upgrade speed. And if you want to play as a second player in 1P mode, simply use the controller plugged in the 2nd port (works for all three games).

The center core difficulty was toned down so less tears will ensue. The level design remains unchanged, only the artwork was altered (and some music tracks swapped) so almost everything looks like a living thing now, though some of the changes ended up a little silly (for example, the fire in stage 3 was colored blue and renamed to “stomach acid” whereas volcano stage remained unchanged but now it’s apparently “liver zone”). So basically you’re not flying through space but inside the body of a space monster. Less black void, more pinkish bio-web.

Salamander Deluxe Pack Plus Screenshot

The main attraction of this compilation is, of course, Salamander 2 which takes the original to a whole new level (at least visually), since there’s a 10 year gap between the two games. It continues the tradition of mixing vertical and horizontal levels and the no-checkpoint bullshit from Gradius, introduces some new arsenal (twin laser and the option shoot, which sacrifices equipped options to shoot an auto-aimed projectile). Graphics are very colorful – sometimes it feels like Konami wanted to use every single color the Saturn can output – and very nicely detailed, in actual 2D, so it’s more like Gradius Gaiden than Gradius IV, both of which were released at around the same time. I could do some nitpicking though, for example Vic Viper feels very mediocre compared to the rest. Or the background of the second stage, which is just an endlessly repeated pattern of stars, like in the old Hanna Barberra cartoons, which gives absolutely no sense of depth and feels like flying above some fancy carpet. In original Salamander, the starry background was just a bunch of colored dots, but thanks to the parallax scrolling it at least looked properly. But that’s pretty much all I can complain about. The level design takes on familiar themes (par for the course in Gradius series), but all of them feel fresh. We start in a sort of bio-underwater segment, where we met our old friend Golem, but as soon the boss fight starts the poor guy gets eaten and the real challenge starts. The vertical space stage exchanged the boring asteroids for some burning fire action, then we have a proper biological stage, an asteroid-slash-fortress stage and the final stronghold area. Oh, and in the meantime we disassemble a huge space ship (and meet another familiar boss), which reminds me a bit of the classic R-Type. Unlike in previous games, the final boss isn’t actually that defenseless, and on top of that the dreaded ‘dodge the pillars’ segment serves as an introduction to the final battle. It’s worth pointing out that this time the horizontal-vertical stages ratio is a bit uneven, since there are only 2 vertical ones.

The gameplay is pretty much the standard Salamander/Gradius affair, though this time it doesn’t feel as unfair, but still challenging. There’s no option bar like in Life Force, the power up system matches the one found in the original Salamander, though this time the useless shield was replaced with Force Field, and now the weapons can be temporarily upgraded to a higher level – for example, picking up the laser power up for the second time will make it more powerful for a brief period of time (about 10 seconds). Watch out for missile pickups though – if you pick it up twice you get twin missile, but picking it up for the third time reduces it back to one – in horizontal stages this can be very risky. At least now you can continue all you want, and just like in Salamander/Life Force, after finishing the game you can start straight from Loop Nr.XX so the challenge never stops. Interestingly, during the second loop you also hear some different musical tracks! For example the first stage on Loop 2 plays the familiar tune from the opening level of original Salamander.

Oh yes, the soundtrack, it’s definitely the best in the bunch and actually among the top musical tracks in the whole Gradius family as well. Long before getting this pack, I listened to the soundtrack of Salamander 2 a lot. In fact, it’s so good that the best song, Fire Tripper, isn’t actually used in the game itself! (Ok, that doesn’t make much sense). Definitely a recommended listen.

Konami didn’t have much love for the Saturn, but at least the shmup compilations make up for it, and this is probably the most essential one. The only thing missing is the NES Life Force (which was my first shmup ever, and it’s the version that most people have played) to make it feel totally complete, but for whatever reason they didn’t (or couldn’t) include it. It’s also not the best Salamander compilation anymore though, after PSP got Salamander Portable (also Japan exclusive release), that as a bonus includes Xexex (first console port) and the MSX version of Gradius 2 (which is an entirely different game than the arcade version; included in MSX Antiques Collection for Saturn). But as long as you don’t have the PSP or prefer the big screen action (and superior D-pad), the choice is obvious.

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