While the Salamander series was originally intended as a spin-off to the Gradius series, it's taken on a life all its own over the years in arcades and home consoles that's even exceeded the popularity of the Gradius series itself in some cases. Konami has now taken 4 of the Salamander games and included a bonus game with Gradius II to form a solid shooter collection for Sony's PSP system in Japan. So is Salamander Portable worthy of your hard-earned import dollars?
The first thing that becomes apparent the moment you fire up Salamander Portable is the high quality presentation Konami has created for this collection of games. The menus are very high-tech and detailed and all of the games even go so far as to display a preview of the game in action for you to choose from on the main menu. It's a small touch, but it shows the attention to detail Konami paid this package. All of the games feature game settings that allow you to choose how large you want the screen displayed and to adjust the degree of difficulty for each title. As with the other two portable collections, Konami has done an amazing job of making all of the games display just as crisp and clear on full widescreen setting as they do in their original letterboxed resolutions. It's clear that Konami put some time and effort into these packages and the results are astounding. Load times are a little long, but once you get past the initial game load-up, the games rarely load again so it's a very fair trade-off. So how do the individual games in this collection stack up? Read on.
Salamander (1986) - Salamander is basically a toned-down version of Gradius with an interesting "organic" type of theme and the addition of vertically-scrolling levels. Since this game was released in 1986, don't expect it to blow the roof off with its visuals, but surprisingly the graphics in Salamander aren't too shabby. In fact many of the bosses in the game show a shocking amount of detail for its time period. Musically the game has that unique sounding music that's become a staple with the Salamander games. There's even an 80's arcade-style voice that let's you know when you grab a power up or when a boss is coming up. And is it me, or does this voice sound just like the referee in Track & Field. Anyway, this game is pretty tough, but not nearly as tough as the Gradius games so you can at least expect to make a good showing and if not, you can always turn down the difficulty a bit. Salamander is a good shooter but it's clearly quite a ways back from its sequel. (RATING: 8/10)
LifeForce (1987) - The first thing you'll notice when you play Life Force is that it has a striking resemblance to Salamander. Well that's because they're basically the same game with some minor tweaks here and there. LifeForce now features a Gradius-style power-up bar and there are a few very minor graphical upgrades here and there. The difficulty has also gotten a boost and if you thought Salamander was too easy, you're in for a real treat with LifeForce. Not exactly sure why both games were included in this package except maybe for the diehard shooter purists out there. (RATING: 8/10)
Salamander 2 (1996) - Now we're getting somewhere. There's a huge jump in terms of visuals in Salamander 2. This game just looks downright amazing. It's like going from NES to Playstation in terms of graphics quality. Game play also gets an upgrade and it really makes Salamander 2 a lot more playable. You also get the "smart bomb" type attack that makes beating some of the tougher bosses a lot easier. And speaking of bosses, Salamander sports some absolutely huge and heavily-animated bosses. Every boss in the game has its own unique look and style of attack to always keep you guessing. That is when you're not marveling at the amount of detail found in each one. As if the gorgeous visuals weren't enough you'll also be treated to a great up-tempo shooter soundtrack that seems to get better and better as the game progresses. Normally you see a steady climb in audio and visual quality with a shooter series, but Salamander just decided to skip all the in-between and jump directly to amazing. Easily the second best game in this collection. (RATING: 9/10)
Xexex (1991) - Most game collections have what is called a "crown jewel" and Xexex is it. Visually it's not quite as sharp as Salamander 2, but it more than makes up for it with it's wild and psychedelic visual style. If Pink Floyd had designed a shooter, Xexex would be it. Even the enemies and bosses in the game reflect the outrageous style the game incorporates and somehow everything just seems to meld together effortlessly. The game play is very reminiscent of the R-Type series in the way you can attach or detach a pod to your ship anytime you choose to and with the pod attached you then have the ability to charge up and release a power shot. This comes in really handy when you face the tougher enemies and bosses in the game. The game also sports some fantastic scaling and rotation effects, especially some of the bosses. The music in the game is just as off-the-wall as the visuals and they both compliment each other perfectly. If you want to do yourself a favor play this game while wearing headphones because the stereo sound effects in this game are incredible, especially for this time period. All in all Xexex is one of the best shooters I've ever played, and it's just a shame it took so long for me to get to play it. Xexex alone is worth the price of this package. (RATING: 10/10)
Gradius II (1987) - Gradius II is basically more of the same. Since this game was released in 1987, it's going to have the 8-bit visuals, and despite the fact that it does at least look better than the first Gradius release, there's just not enough new ideas in this game to make it a hit. It's even harder than the first Gradius, which I didn't think was even possible, and this game throws everything but the kitchen sink at you from the moment the game begins. The bosses are the highlight of the game, and that's if you can reach one. I used up my fair share of continues and still barely saw the end of the third level. I wish I could say that Gradius II was everything a Gradius fan could have hoped for but it's just the same old story with a slightly different twist. It's clear that Salamander was the series that blossomed and Gradius was left more for the hardcore shooter fans that live for high levels of control-crushing difficulty. Good, but far from the greatness of Xexex and Salamander 2. (RATING: 8/10)
When you read about companies putting together collections of classic games you don't normally associate the term "high-quality" with them, but Konami has pulled out all the stops with these shooter collections. Outstanding emulation, crisp visuals no matter what resolution you set the game to play at, well-crafted menu systems, and an added menu option that allows you to play the music tracks from all the games makes for one unbelievable shooter package. It doesn't hurt that there are three phenomenal shooters in this package and two good ones as well. All in all if your a shooter fan and are longing to play some old-school shoot em' ups, look no further. Konami has an amazing one to serve up with Salamander Portable. (OVERALL RATING: 9/10)