Expanded Universes: The Life Force/Gradius anime

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[Editor’s note: Yup, this is for last month’s Monthly Musing topic. I’ve been so behind but I’m finally catching up. Expect a few more Expanded Universes promoted blogs to go up through the weekend. For now, check out Mighty Pinto’s promoted piece on the Gradius anime. — CTZ]

So I’ve been reading all of this month’s musings, everything from Mega Man learning about Japan to Sonic the Hedgehog’s Saturday morning escapades when I suddenly remembered perusing the Xenocide files on Shmups.com one lonely evening. I came across something that made my eyes spasm in pure fanboy bliss: Konami actually released a three part OVA for Gradius/Salamander back in the late ’80s. However, my fangasm was soured when I found out that it was way out of print, and finding a copy was supposedly next to impossible.

Cut to about two years later; I’m perusing the bargain bin down at Tate’s Comics, when a lone DVD case in the corner caught my eye. Sure enough, I recognized the logo on the cover as my eyes widened in awe and surprise:


I must’ve double, no triple-checked, that damn case just to be absolutely sure it was the real deal; and sure enough, it was. I forget how much cash I forked over for it, but I was way too stoked to care. I immediately sped home and popped into my then-working DVD player (the poor thing gave out after my 225th viewing of ALIEN about a year ago) and watched the Konami Logo scroll across the screen with an extended version of the SNES-era intro music in the background. Fire erupted from the bottom of the screen, and an ominous voiceover explained how thousands of years in the future, a dragon will awaken and cover the universe in darkness. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “They were bound to take some liberties with the story, I mean after all, it’s a shmup .. .just as long as they have spaceship-on-Moai action somewhere in this thing, I’ll be fine.”

The orchestral music swelled as the aforementioned dragon appeared onscreen, and for a second I could have sworn I was watching Dragonball by mistake. Still, I kept my hands on my sides, more than willing to give this DVD the benefit of the doubt, as the Dragon burned the titular logo onto the screen:

From the get-go, the whole thing seemed a bit epic in scale for a game about spaceships blasting pustulous creatures for no apparent reason, but hopefully the reason would become apparent once the anime actually started. The problem with the Gradius series is that there’s really no concrete back story. There are so many alternate versions, and each alternate version has their own history, that it’s impossible to really see where and how the series truly played out. Granted, I wasn’t really asking for some classic Grecian or Shakespearean tragedy, mind you, just as long as the characters were somewhat likable.

Unfortunately, right from the start I got stuck with this jerk of a character:

“Seriously, quit following me…you’re cramping my style.”

Say hello to Ike Lord British (no, I’m not being cheeky, that’s REALLY his name), and his wacky sidekick, High Priest Doromo. At least they SAY he’s the high priest. Personally, he looks more like the effin’ court jester from his getup, but I digress.

The story starts on the Planet Latis, where everything is just perfectly keen. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, and they just recently discovered an ominous-looking monolith orbiting the planet. Okay, so that last part wasn’t so keen, but Lord British, miffed at being pulled away from Ultima Online and ruling Latis, passes it off as a mere nothing. He just got back from a long diplomatic mission, which was really a set up by the prime ministers to find him a bride. Of course, Lord British is way too busy to have time for all that nonsense, what with the construction of the new Sanctuary and all, but things hit a little snag when they find the exact same monolith where they broke ground for said Sanctuary. Naturally, this makes Lord British even MORE miffed.

In his infinite wisdom, British orders the construction crew to excavate and remove the giant Moai head from the ground, but Doromo says that won’t do, since doing so will break the protective seal over the planet and bring doom to them all. Again, Lord British doesn’t have time for such nonsense, and tells the crew to dig it up anyway. Naturally, one of them screws up, the Moai head breaks in half, and guess what else? DOOM comes knockin’ on Latis’ doorstep, right on fricking cue. At this point, I thought to myself: “I don’t get it, I must’ve blown up hundreds of those things in the games, and nothing bad ever happened to me!”

So after 20 minutes of Doromo praying to whatever incompetent Gods rule Latis and STILL no Vic Viper action, a mysterious-looking planet appears in the sky. Thankfully it’s not Unicron, but its mere presence causes severe weather distortions from hurricanes to blizzards on the planet’s surface. Not only that, the planet seems to be getting closer. Going over the Prince’s head, Doromo decides to ask for help from the planet Gradius, and the best they come up with is three young hotshot pilots:

“Dammit, Alpha, I said bring me FIVE teenagers with attitude, not THREE! You’re fired!”

Say hello to Eddie, Dan and Stephanie (pictured from left to right); three Vic Viper pilots who managed to beat back the invasion of their homeworld by the dreaded Bacterian, the race responsible for the huge ball of death now hovering over Latis, or as it is more commonly known: “SALAMANDER”. Of course, in the time it takes for them to arrive, Lord British managed to squander more than half of his planetary defense forces, sending them to be eaten alive by the living horrors that dwell within Salamander itself. To put it more in game terms, they don’t even make it past the 1st level boss … you know, the big brain with arms.

The three teens arrive and educate the Prince and his cronies on how to kill the bad guys, but again, Lord British will have none of their crap and decides to launch a full-scale attack, effectively killing off more than three-fourths of his entire military. Stephanie responds the only way a sane, rational person would respond after witnessing something that stupid: She literally smacks Lord British upside his stupid, blond head, and Dan explains that she’s mad because her father, who was apparently President of Gradius, ended up getting turned into the final boss from the original Gradius: The OTHER big brain. You know … the one without arms and doesn’t fight back. Stephanie suddenly breaks down, and I just sat there in shock … not at the recent revelation, but that I’d just witnessed horrible acting in an anime for the first time. Seriously, from the time Dan finishes his story to the time she starts bawling, it was almost like she missed her frickin’ camera cue.

Then there’s this whole subplot with Eddie about how his family was exiled from Latis back before he was born, but they don’t seem to dwell on it for too long before Dan and Stephanie decide to jump into their Vic Vipers and head off to defeat the Bacterian themselves. Why they didn’t just do that earlier, I have no idea. Then again, they came all this way to act as advisers, and they pretty much end up having to do the job themselves. Sounds like a raw deal, if you ask me.

Lord British finally smartens up and joins them in his own fighter, and the three tear ass through the planet with little effort, succeeding where thousands upon thousands of trained fighter pilots failed on the first fricking level. Seriously, they take out the brain boss with two missiles. TWO MISSILES! They didn’t have any Options equipped, either! Suddenly, I didn’t care about what came before, THIS is what I bought the DVD for! The only thing that struck me as odd was that they seemed to be going through the stages backwards … I don’t just mean in reverse order, I mean they were literally facing left (or down) the whole time:

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?”

Soon, they make their way into the center of Salamander, where they find Zelos, the core of the planet (the big eyeball at the end of the game). Unfortunately, this also awakens Salamander itself, which is also the name of the Dragon mentioned at the beginning of the OVA (are you guys confused yet?). He’s sort of a combination of the Level Three boss and the snake that circles around Zelos at the end of the game. Anyway, Salamander apparently doesn’t appreciate being awakened from his 1,000-year nap, and he responds by attempting to eat Lord British.


Fortunately for our favorite Blond metrosexual, Eddie shows up at the last second, attacking Salamander head-on while ordering the others to take out Zelos while the big dragon’s distracted. They all bid Eddie a fond farewell, as he Kamikazes himself in true Japanese fashion by literally FLYING down Salamander’s throat and emptying an entire salvo of missiles into its gullet, which leads to a very messy death for both Salamander and poor Mr. Eddie.

“Oh, no…Missles! My only weakness!”

Dan, Stephanie and Ike finish off Zelos with little effort, escaping planet Salamander just as it blows up. Stephanie waits til after the explosion ends to scream “EDDDIIIEEEEE!!!”, forgetting that he was already dead the second he flew into Salamander’s unholy gaping maw. They all head back to Latis, and Lord British awkwardly proposes to Stephanie, who promptly tells him (in the most polite way, of course), to screw off. She and Dan fly back to Gradius, the credits roll, and I facepalm, because there are two more OVA’s left to watch. Unfortunately, Salamander was the most interesting of the three, whereas the other two (which are based off of Gradius and Gradius II, respectively) were rather boring, even though the Gradius OVA had twice as much Vic Viper action.

Still, if you want to give them a watch, someone actually posted all three parts onto Youtube for your viewing (dis)pleasure. However, I only suggest this to those who are extreme, die-hard Gradius fans. The acting is laughable, the story is extremely cookie-cutter, and there’s not much shmup action to be found. This is truly a case of a universe that didn’t need to be expanded.

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