Salamander (1986)

by Nish
8 minutes read


Salamander (1986) is celebrated for its pioneering approach to arcade shoot ’em up design, featuring cooperative gameplay, a mix of scrolling stages, and a simplified power-up system that set new standards for the genre.


Salamander represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of arcade shoot ’em ups, marrying the thrill of space combat with groundbreaking gameplay mechanics. Its release in 1986 marked a significant contribution to the genre, courtesy of Konami’s innovative approach to game design.


Salamander: A Symbiotic Dance Between Firepower and Friendship
While often overshadowed by its more famous cousin Gradius, Salamander (1986) carved its own niche in the side-scrolling shooter genre. Beyond its fast-paced action, the game unfolds a subtle narrative about camaraderie and a desperate fight for survival on a distant planet.

The Mystery of Gradius and a Distress Call

The exact connection between Salamander and Gradius remains a point of debate.In the Japanese and European versions, the game takes place on an unnamed alien world. The North American version, however, retitles the game Life Force and establishes it within the Gradius universe. Here, the player pilots a Vic Viper starship, receiving a distress call from a distant corner of the planet Gradius.This call for help sets the stage for a daring rescue mission.

Piloting the Vic Viper: A Symbiotic Partnership

Regardless of the chosen version, players take control of the Vic Viper, a sleek and agile starship. However, the Vic Viper is more than just a machine. It houses a symbiotic lifeform known as the Option. This little green creature resembles a salamander (hence the game’s title) and plays a crucial role in the gameplay.

The Option can detach from the Vic Viper and fire independently, significantly increasing firepower. However, it also acts as a shield, absorbing enemy fire aimed at the ship.Managing the Option effectively, detaching it for offense and reattaching it for defense, becomes a core aspect of the gameplay and a key element of the narrative.

A World Under Siege: The Bacterian Threat

The alien world, or the affected region of Gradius in the North American version, is under siege by the Bacterians. These hostile, single-celled organisms have mutated into monstrous creatures, swarming the skies with a relentless onslaught. The distress call originates from a human colony caught in the crossfire, adding a layer of urgency to the player’s mission.

Beyond Bullets: Power-ups and Strategic Choices

While the core gameplay revolves around blasting enemies with the Vic Viper’s cannons and the Option’s fire, Salamander offers a variety of power-ups to enhance the player’s arsenal. These range from speed boosts to homing missiles, each requiring strategic management to maximize their effectiveness.

Furthermore, the game features branching paths at key points. Players can choose between different routes, each offering varying levels of difficulty and enemy configurations. This allows for replayability and caters to different playstyles.

A Symphony of Firepower and Camaraderie

Salamander offers a unique two-player cooperative mode. A second player can control a Super Cobra starship, another powerful craft with its own Option.Working together, the two players can unleash a devastating barrage of firepower, creating a beautiful dance of bullets and explosions on screen. This cooperative element strengthens the narrative theme of camaraderie, showcasing the importance of teamwork in the face of overwhelming odds.

A Desperate Stand and an Uncertain Future

The ultimate goal of Salamander is to reach the source of the distress call and rescue the trapped colony. However, the final boss encounter varies depending on the version. In the Japanese and European versions, the final enemy remains enigmatic, leaving the outcome of the rescue mission ambiguous.

The North American version, Life Force, features a more definitive conclusion. Players face a monstrous brain, the ultimate form of the Bacterian threat.Defeating this monstrosity liberates the affected region of Gradius, but the fate of the rescued remains unknown.

A Legacy of Fast-Paced Action and Subtle Narrative

Salamander, regardless of its version, stands as a testament to the exciting world of side-scrolling shooters. Its fast-paced action, strategic power-up system, and innovative symbiotic gameplay with the Option captivated players in the 1980s. Yet, beneath the explosions, a subtle narrative unfolds, highlighting the importance of teamwork and the desperate struggle for survival against an overwhelming threat.


While Salamander focuses more on ship-based combat than on individual characters, players take control of the Vic Viper, facing off against a legion of alien adversaries and formidable bosses that challenge their reflexes and strategic planning.


Salamander introduced mechanics that would become staples in the shoot ’em up genre, including cooperative gameplay for two players, a mix of horizontal and vertical levels, and a simplified power-up system. These elements combine to create a rich, engaging gameplay experience that is both accessible to newcomers and challenging for veterans.


Salamander stands as a testament to Konami’s legacy in the arcade gaming industry, offering a blend of innovative gameplay, challenging mechanics, and cooperative action that continues to influence the shoot ’em up genre decades after its release.

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