Genre: Shmup Developer: Technosoft Publisher: Technosoft Players: 1 Released: 1990
I’ve misplaced my keys before, so I can related to Laden, the protagonist of Technosoft’s Elemental Master. He, too, seems to have misplaced the keys to his hypertech spacecraft or winged beast of doom and is forced to comb the seven levels of his shooter game on foot. Unlike Laden, I’m an only child and don’t have a brother bent on ruling the world. In an introductory cinema with a twist which would befit any other game’s final boss encounter, Laden learns that the evil King Gyra he has set out to destroy is really just his possessed brother, Roki. Laden is undoubtedly having a bad day.
I, on the other hand, am having a blast at poor Laden’s expense. Elemental Master is a thrilling adventure which sees Laden journey across the world looking to harness the power of the four elements — fire, air, earth, and water — to defeat King Gyra. Nevermind that Laden appears completely ready to take on Gyra in the opening cinema before he has earned any of the powers of the elements. No, thankfully Gyra and his lackeys depart to kidnap the good King Lorelei before Laden has a chance to strike them down with his standard issue pea shooter. Aside from giving the bad guys an excuse to escape, King Lorelei has no baring on the plot whatsoever other than being recsued in the game’s final cinema. I can only imagine that with an atmosphere befitting of an adventure game, Technosoft thought the plot should mimic that setting.
Laden begins his adventure by selecting one of four levels a la Technosoft’s Thunder Force series, each representing a certain world element. The most striking thing about Elemental Master is its brilliant level design, particularly in the first four levels. As Laden is not confined inside some nuclear powered sardine can, his creators can test him unlike any other shooter protagonist, levying wave after wave of environmental hazards upon him. As he travels along a twisting path of cracked earth along the way to the fire elemental, Laden is beset by flaming geysers, rock avalanches, and a scorching lava floor. His bout with the air elemental has Laden getting tossed to and fro by sweeping winds, while he finds his vision obscured by the thick forest which canvasses the earthen level. Still after Laden has gathered all four of the elemental powers, later stages will test him with an assortment of traps to keep him on his toes through the end. In a genre in which developers nearly always treat stages as simply a queue to alter the enemy sprites being thrown at a player, it is refreshing to experience a world as alive as the one presented in Elemental Master.
Mountains casts shadows on the ground, winds scattered leaves across the screen, water ripples and lava bubbles… It’s the wonderful attention to detail which makes Elemental Master so breathtaking. The path set before Laden is lavishly colored and richly detailed, without the obvious redundant tile look so many games have with their level design. The enemy artwork as well is excellent, though the creatures possess little animation and even fewer special effects. The few multi-jointed sprites are nicely done, and the game lacks slowdown even with all of the environmental effects, enemy sprites, and Laden’s firepower engulfing the screen.
Laden is a walking magical weapon of mass destruction. Initially the player can only fire blue energy bolts, but with each victory over an elemental guardian, Laden will expand his repetoire of magic. Each of these four new powers also harness an alternate charge ability that unleashes a far more devestating attack when triggered. Neena, a fairy you save after vanquishing the first boss, will also fly around attacking enemies for little damage. Later in the game, she will transform into a ring and tell Laden to put her on his finger to unlock a powerful light beam charged attack for his useless pea shooter. Considering Laden will need this power to beat the game, he can consider himself lucky his brother went off on that kidnap the king tangent instead of fighting him earlier.
Every great trip needs a fitting soundtrack, and the delayed climax also gives Elemental Master a chance to show off Technosoft’s musical prowess. The game’s soundtrack is incredible, culminating with an amazing four minute long power-pop masterpiece. The game’s atmosphere invokes a more mysterious and gloomy score at times, leaving just a few truly memorable pieces such as the aforementioned credits song. The cartridge also has a little over five dozen sound effects covering all manner of explosions and such. All of these along with a difficulty select and controller configuration can be accessed from a hidden options menu by holding the A-button and pressing START at the title screen.
I don’t know why Technosoft would choose to hide such a menu, since it helps address the one problem Elemental Master has which probably causes it to lose favor among shooter fans — that it is an easy game. Set the game to “expert” and watch new and more difficult enemies attack Laden throughout the game. Still, while having more creatures to attack and projectiles to evade does make for a more challenging experience, Laden’s assortment of charged magic will still overcome everything in his path like a certain knife and butter cliche. After the first level, Elemental Master plays almost like a 16-bit Giga Wing, focusing heavily on these charged bomb-like attacks. Likewise, the higher difficulty settings don’t affect the multitude of health and other bonuses spread throughout the stages. Of course, many consider Thunder Force III a classic despite its low difficulty level, and I can’t slight Elemental Master for not punishing its players more.
Otherwise, regular shooter players may find Elemental Master’s way of sticking Laden right in the middle of the action as he is attacked from all angles to be a bit disorienting. Laden can fire his magic forwards and backwards, and though most enemies will approach him head-on, others will sneak up from behind. This can be particularly aggravating on the earth elemental stage as the trees which obscure the player’s view leave little time to react to these sorts of threats. Any cheap shot is negated by Laden’s generous health meter, which allows him to take four hits and can be increased to eight bars by collecting some of the chalices throughout the game. If anything, not allowing Laden to coast along the edge of the screen and fire away all throughout the game just makes it that much more exciting to play.
Elemental Master’s success lie in it not being like any other shooter, and players should understand that going in. It’s a terrific, fairly original take on the vertical scrolling shooter and yet another feather in Technosoft’s cap. Though “hardcore” shooter fans looking for a tough challenge or great scoring opportunities may be disappointed, anyone willing to step into Laden’s shoes will have a great time killing his brother and anything else that dare step in his way.