Shoot ’em ups these days seem to focus a lot on the bullet hell approach. A subset of the shmup involving hundreds of projectiles, and enemies on the screen at any moment. Where touching anything at all killed you instantly. There is certainly merit in that approach, where completing the challenge is a badge of pride. But in the days where the genre was exiting its single screen infancy there were many other takes on the genre. Some games like Gradius, and R-Type would slowly veer into that direction. Others like Cybernoid would add a touch of trial, and error puzzling to the mix. As time went on, even the stories would take action sci-fi elements in addition to visual styles.
PROS: Inventive. Challenging. Beautiful visuals.
SALAMANDER: Abadox is often compared with Life Force due to the similarities.
One such game was crafted by Natsume. These days they’re primarily known as the house of Harvest Moon. But throughout the 1980’s, and 1990’s they would put out many, many well crafted action games. Action platformers, and of course shmups. Abadox at first glance is often mistaken for a Salamander (Life Force in the U.S.A.) clone. It has some similarities. You fight in an alien beast. You have power ups that beef up your attack power. It also had horizontal, and vertical perspective stages. But to its credit, Abadox has a lot more going for it. The gameplay while still a shooter, has its own feel. Things feel heavier in Abadox. Not so much slower, but heavier. This is partly due to the large characters throughout the game. Even the smallest, grunt enemies are almost as large as your character. Because of this the game also doesn’t get into bullet hell territory. The game doesn’t need to. One hit from any given weapon can take you down unless you have some sort of power up. Suddenly, dodging 8 lasers, and three pellets goes from not being a big deal, to a pretty big challenge.
The story of Abadox isn’t a very complicated one, and doesn’t need to be. You play one of the few survivors of a planet that was eaten by an interstellar creature that is one part Galactus, and one part Death Star. You learn that your world’s Princess (Now a Queen) has survived, and is trapped in the bowels of the monster. So you take a page from Man-At-Arms, and go into the belly of the beast to free the monarch, and destroy the creature so it can’t digest another world.
The game starts with you skimming along the surface of the monster, and gets you acclimated to its formula. Each stage is a two-part affair, with each half pitting you against a mini boss. As you plow through enemies, in an attempt to survive there are symbols that join the enemy ranks. Destroying them allows you to collect a power up. Among them are better guns like spread guns, lasers that take down grunts in one hit, and shields that orbit you. There are also temporary invincibility moments if you play your cards right.
Abadox has some of the best visuals of any game on the NES. Every character in the game has intricate details, and many of the stage backgrounds are even animated. Years later, seeing the backgrounds of flesh contracting, and expanding as muscle spasms will impress you. Not only that but everything is memorable. Especially the boss encounters, some of which can even take up most of the screen. Also memorable is most of the game’s soundtrack. Composed by Kiyohiro Sada, many of these songs are catchy, and fit the action perfectly.
Abadox isn’t a particularly long game. It’s only seven stages long, but is still in line with most shmups of the time. It is also notoriously difficult, but in a good way. When you die you’ll often chalk it up to your own ineptitude. But if you have the patience to learn from your mistakes you’ll find a very good game that is both cruel, and fair. The game also has cheat codes for those who can’t seem to persevere. Though it’s recommended you do persevere because winning legitimately here feels very rewarding. Just know that even after you win it isn’t over. Because the game has a challenge that might just require you to break out the bullet hell skills if you manage to rescue your fearless leader.
Even if the genre isn’t your cup of tea, Abadox is highly recommended. It’s easily one of the best Game Paks available for the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game controls responsively, dishes out a lot of pattern memorization, as well as require the hand & eye coordination needed for the genre. It is certainly a challenge, but not impossible. That isn’t to say it’s all roses. The large sprites lead to slowdown in a number of places in the campaign. Playing for long periods as you try, and fail, can feel understandably repetitive. Still, despite being mentioned by some of the more prominent bloggers, and internet video producers over the last few years, as of this writing it hasn’t skyrocketed in price yet. The game can be had for a few dollars loose. Not a bad proposition considering what the aftermarket values are with a lot of other shmups.
Final Score: 8 out of 10