Salamander: Even better than the real thing

This Famicom/NES exclusive take on Konami’s Salamander is a terrible port of an incredible arcade game. Entire stages have been slung straight in the bin, and some of what’s left is presented out of its intended order. For fans hoping to polish their scoring techniques at home before unleashing their shmupping skills upon the local arcade this cart is beyond useless, unless their idea of top-tier strategic play is “shoot things and don’t die”.

It’s all true… and dead wrong at the same time. This version of Salamander wants to be something a little more interesting than another plain old port. The small team behind this release understood perfectly well that trying to bring the arcade game home was a fool’s errand on such limited hardware (it took the mighty power of the X68000 to achieve something close to that in the ’80s), so why waste time making a bad port of an arcade shmup when they could make a great Famicom game instead?

This clear difference, aiming to be an original take on the same concept rather than a carbon copy at any cost, keeps this port relevant today in a way the PC Engine’s technically superior attempt, as lovely as it may be, no longer is. Everywhere else (apart from the MSX), Salamander is Salamander is Salamander—more or less, anyway. But here? No. You’re bound to run into a genuine surprise or two even if you’re certain you’ve already seen and shot at all the series had to offer. Let’s use the great coil of a fire dragon that normally appears as an end of stage boss as an example: it couldn’t be done as an arcade scale encounter on this gorgeous little cart, so instead of throwing it out completely they kept the idea and reimagined it as a miniboss, and made a gigantic flaming dragon head the true challenge instead. This new beast’s much better suited to Nintendo’s console—and that makes it an astonishing sight in its own right, rather than a watered-down version of something else. Like every other boss in the game the background tiles as well as your score/status bar completely disappear during this tense duel, and I love it. It’s a technical limitation transformed into an exciting virtue: there’s literally nothing on the screen but you and whatever twisted monstrosity the game’s placed before you, and that means there are no distractions—and there’s no escape, either.

While we’re on the subject of brilliant climaxes: this also seems to be the only version of the game to feature the titular Salamander at all, as a protective serpent circling the usual final boss. It’s such a natural inclusion I was a little shocked to find it missing on a memory-refreshing run through the arcade game afterwards.

The new levels we sometimes have to fly through to reach one of those memorable enemies are just as impressive, and I’d even dare say they’re better than the arcade originals we lost. Who wants another space stage when we could be weaving our way through an ancient pyramid before taking on Tutankhamun’s death mask, or flying along a gigantic laser-shooting ribcage and then shooting at a floating skull with detachable eyeballs instead?

And the old ones that do remain somehow shine all the brighter in their new home, the numerous graphical restrictions—noticeable tiling on supposedly natural forms, eyes that never blink, colours that are always too bright or dark or just plain wrong, always surrounded by a pitch black void—only adding to Salamander’s intimidating atmosphere. Everything’s slightly “off” in an unsettling way, clearly striving to represent some form of organic shape but never quite getting there, like an AI-generated image trying to pass off seven grotesquely twisted fingers as a normal human hand.

Whatever strange place you’re trying to blast your way through, your surroundings are always more than mere decoration. Biological masses will rise up to block your path, great plumes of fire arc out of the impressively animated flames lining the top and bottom of the screen, stone pillars do their best to crush your ship—the environments you fly through are unique (and deadly) locations, not passive scenery. There’s always some new hazard to watch out for, something that sets a place apart from the rest and needs to be navigated with a healthy mixture of quick reactions and care. Luckily for us, Salamander doesn’t just make that possible, it makes it easy. The scrolling in either direction is always smooth (bar the odd bout of slowdown, the sort you’d expect to find in any shmup when the action starts to heat up), and flickering is kept to a reasonable minimum. I’ve always thought of horizontal and vertical shmups as being wildly different things but here, as it always has been with Salamander, these two mortal enemies come across as nothing more than minor variations on the same theme—as far as shmups are concerned, that’s basically witchcraft.

Throughout it all the collision detection is never anything less than pin sharp, and this unseen and often underappreciated bit of polish opens up all sorts of exciting opportunities: Yes you can make your way through that tiny gap. Yes you can pass a mere pixel from a deadly shot. Yes you can skim the corridor walls and snatch that power up before it scrolls away from you.

Yes it is all your fault when you die.

The good news is if (OK, when) you eat a bullet or accidentally scoot yourself into a wall, the game always gives you a chance to recover. Any Options you’ve earned can be quickly scooped up, and mini swarms of orange item-dropping enemies are found not only at the beginning of each stage but around key mid-points too—and if you somehow miss every single one of them (heck, I’ve done it myself plenty of times), your most basic shot and slowest speed will still be enough to take a screen-filling boss down in a reasonable amount of time, you just have to be that little bit more careful (and accurate). You can always put up a real fight, even at your weakest: no matter how bad it may look, Salamander wants you to keep pushing yourself.

This may not be the cart to go for if you’re after the “real” Salamander experience, but there’s no doubt it captures the essence of the original game and seized upon this forced opportunity with both hands, the programming equivalent of turning lemons into sweet lemonade. It never tries to hide or obscure its many differences—and it shouldn’t, because it has nothing to be ashamed of. This is real jewel of a Famicom shmup; ambitious and inventive, Salamander is more than worth spending time with—in any decade.

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