Gradius is certainly a well known property. It was a huge arcade hit in the 90's. Along with R-Type, it sort of epitomized the horizontal shmups of the day. And it went on to be an early NES shmup classic. But for me, it was it's kinda sorta follow up, Life Force that really got my attention. See, I wasn't really a huge fan of shoot-em-ups as a kid. But something about Life Force just kind of had me in awe. I think it was the weird body horror theme of it all. And I mean, Konami's NES output was hard to compete with at the time. Outside of first party games, Konami and Capcom were the biggest names in town.
Life Force (or Salamander as its known in Japan) has never had the same kind of esteem that the Gradius series proper has held. But I don't know. Even to this day (note, I'm 40 as I write this), I still think that Life Force is way more interesting. For one thing, the whole setting of this first game is that you're flying through some kind of big biological alien creature and destroying it from inside out. That's badass. I mean, I'm a big fan of sci-fi and alien stuff. So yeah, it's gonna appeal to me.
On the flip, Gradius feels a little generic and dull to me. Don't get me wrong, it was an awesome game for its time. But y'know, nothing about the setting is so original. It's just space. And there's so Moai heads - which is WEIRD - but not awesome. Life Force on the other hand is almost gross in its biological terror. In stage one you're dodging bloody teeth coming out of swollen gums. You're fighting a boss battle against some kind of weird parasite called the Golem that's basically a big amoeba with fleshy arms and one eye. It's... something.
The other thing Life Force has going for it (or against it, depending where you stand) is that the power-up system is way simplified. No more selecting your power-ups from a little menu thingy. Instead, there are random drops and you need to learn to recognize the symbols and pick up what you want. This just makes more sense to me, personally. And the thrill of having the waves shooting out with multipliers and several options is fantastic.
Also, I guess I should note that Life Force has a two player option. Though I haven't utilized that feature since I played a NES copy of the game over a decade ago with my wife. These days, I'm playing the arcade version via the Konamic Arcade Anniversary Collection on Xbox One. And my wife isn't into shmups. And she goes to bed a lot earlier than I do, which is when I do most of my gaming.
Anyway, I've always held Life Force in high regard. I first played the NES port in the late 80's and I've semi-loved it ever since. But I'm really not good at it. And I'm not ashamed to say that because it is a brutally difficult game. I mean, right from the first stage there's things coming at you from every direction and it's easy enough to kill yourself by flying into the environment. This is not unlike Gradius, anyway.
But I've been revisiting this game and enjoying the original arcade version in HD. It still looks excellent for a 1986 game. The sprite work is truly impressive. Check out those flames in stage three - my goodness. Also, the music rocks. Again, Konami was a powerhouse at this time.
I'm doing decent enough now that I'm re-familiarizing myself with the levels. I'm consistently hitting level three, and maxing out at just under 250,000 - which is probably about as good (or better) than I've ever done. But yeah, this game is insanely hard. I still appreciate and respect it, though.