Konami celebrates the 20th Anniversary of their fabled Contra franchise by doing something that’s eluded them for over fifteen years – they’ve released a great addition to the series. Finally, after suffering through any number of mediocre additions, 3D reinventions and shameless porting the series returns to its very core – absolute chaos.
Fans will recall that after the mass exodus of talent from Konami following the series last ‘true’ entry (the superb Contra III for the Super Nintendo) the state of all things Contra was thrown into chaos. Although a respectable Sega Genesis version (Hard Corps) was released, there’s a well documented descent of lackluster and misguided entries that proved that just because the game had the name Contra on the outside didn’t mean there was much Contra on the inside. As the years flew by it was becoming pretty clear that the world was changing, and the window for a more traditional game of Contra might have been missed.
Now Konami hopes to not only resurrect the series for a new generation, but hopefully throw the faithful a bit of fan service with a little help from California developers WayForward Technologies. One look at the companies resume should have frightened away even the most fevered Contra fan, as most of their experience has been with SpongeBob Squarepants and Mickey Mouse releases. Yet somehow their repressed urges for impossible glory have blessed us with the most complete and hardcore 2D platformer in some time.
As for the new game’s plot and story, don’t worry too much. Although officially sanctioned to take place after the events of Contra III, it’s not long before yet another alien entity is threatening humanity once again and the best of the best (namely four soldiers, including our heroes Bill and Lance) are dispatched to clean up the mess. Like a good comic book there’s attempts to put the series into some sort of narrative context, but chances are you’ll be too busy running and gunning to care all that much. Just keep your eyes peeled forward (or in this case, above), shoot those disgusting aliens and try not to run out of lives before you reach the end.
Speaking of the gameplay, get ready to party like its 1987 all over again! The game takes its entire cue almost entirely from the arcade (and NES) original, from the various level and weapon designs to its overall feel. The developers have used that template and liberally sprinkled in choice elements from Super C and Contra III, from holding and switching between multiple weapons, stationary shooting, and powerful explosions there’s more than enough boom-boom here to satisfy anyone looking to satisfy that classic feeling. The all-new grappling hook does feel tacked-on and isn’t implemented that well, but the use of both DS screens only doubles the action and is used well. Although there are moments when the gap between the two screens obscures whatever nastiness is hiding within, it’s an interesting use of the technology and doesn’t feel out of place.
If there’s any flaw it would have to be where the game also borrows from, namely the love/hate relationship of the rarely seen Sega Genesis Hard Corps. Although beloved by the hardcore set, Hard Corps forever reset the series difficult level from merely difficult to near-impossible, sending would-be fans running for the hills and into fits of insanity. Here the difficulty level is turned up nearly as high, which is sure to please fans aching for a challenge but will absolutely obliterate a generation of gamers weaned on CGI cinemas and dial-a-combo action (God of War, anyone?). This is a hard, hard game that might have benefited with a bit more balancing, as the original games in the series were never as panic inducing. Still, patience and persistence will prove even the mightiest level to have a weak spot and will certainly reward those brave enough to stand up to the challenge. Also, don’t look for the famed Konami Code to help you out as the main game has disabled it; you’ll have to navigate this one on your own, so no cheating for you!
The DS hardware proves itself more than capable of handling the carnage and looks and sounds absolutely fantastic. Those missing the days of huge, blocky multi-jointed sprites and palette swaps should be in heaven here, as the game takes more than a little inspiration from its 16-bit ancestors. Gone is any trace of polygonal shame, replaced with well designed and animated hand-drawn and brightly colored goodness. That’s not a slur against the powers of 3D whatsoever, but it’s evident that freeing the game from any modern mechanisms has done wonders for its aesthetic, rightfully letting the gameplay alone take center stage. The soundtrack excites as well, as composer Jake Kaufman obviously knows his MIDI roots and plays them well. A class-act production all the way, and thank goodness for that!
Contra 4 is sure to please its legions of hardcore, nostalgia craving fans who’ve (beyond all right and reason) stuck with the series through thick and thin, although the incredible difficulty is sure to scare away potential newcomers. But even with its massive difficulty level the game itself is a joy to behold and a wonderful 20th Anniversary present to anyone who remembers the simple pleasures of eradicating an alien menace. Plus, the DS game is stuff to the gills with bonus content, including the original NES versions of Contra and Super C (unlockable in Challenge Mode), not to mention a very cool trip through a history retrospective Contra Museum. A fantastic package and well worth the time, and here’s to another 20+ years of action goodness.