Originality is overrated, especially in gaming. Competence is key, my friends, and that’s especially true when we’re talking about retro-style games harkening back to simpler times. While many of you may roll your eyes whenever a “new” indie game purporting to relive the glory days of pixelated goodness comes about, many of these efforts fall flat simply because – to be honest – they’re pretty terrible. And they often miss the point entirely of what made the original games so memorable.
It’s impossible to talk about Blazing Chrome without a little bit of gaming history, specifically a little Konami history. Long before they were best known for introducing the world’s most popular “code” to the masses, Konami made games – often great ones – that defined genres, one being the very series that begat the aforementioned “Konami Code” – and the most popular run ‘n gun side-scrolling shooter of all time: Contra.
Dissatisfied with their lack of creative freedom after finishing 1992’s SNES classic Contra III: The Alien Wars, a crew of Konami developers left the company, eager to create new gameplay experiences on their own terms. The newly-formed team, now called Treasure, concentrated their development on the more processor-friendly Sega Genesis hardware (or Mega Drive for non-Americans), and crafted a game that evolved the Contra formula into something entirely new, yet strangely familiar with their debut effort: Gunstar Heroes. Considered the definitive run ‘n gun shooter, the game was a smorgasbord of new ideas, amazing visuals, outstanding music, and gameplay that evolved the genre in strange, wonderfully creative ways.
Those who remained with Konami – who by then was publishing games on non-Nintendo platforms like the Genesis – were clearly inspired by their former colleagues’ impressive achievement, squeezing more power from Sega’s 16-bitter than was possible and proved there was still life in the Contra series with a game that lived up to Treasure’s challenge, at least technically. Contra: Hard Corps, was one of the most visually impressive 16-bit games ever created. Gigantic, multi-joined bosses filled the screen with action, backgrounds that seemed to parallax forever,
Had this action been attempted on Nintendo’s SNES it would have melted the poor little console into a pile of plastic butter. Take that, Mode 7!
It was also difficult. Like really, really difficult. So difficult, in fact, that most people brave enough to play never made it through to the end, or likely even saw many of its more impressive levels. Much like that other much-touted, little-played Genesis game The Adventures of Batman & Robin, Contra: Hard Corps was too hard for its own good. It was a game that only sadists could find “fun”, and while there was no shortage of new Contra games over the years – most of them bad, some worse – Hard Corps would be, sadly, the last real huzzah for the franchise.
It’s important to know this because it’s exactly that creative juncture where Blazing Chrome comes in, picking up where Hard Corps left off. Developer JoyMasher, already famous for their retro ‘homages’ to bygone pixel eras with Odallus and Oniken, have crafted an fan-friendly version of Contra with most of the bells and whistles you’d expect from an obsessed indie developer. The game even gets a shout-out from Travis Strikes Again: No More Heroes, as if it needed more indie cred.
The plot is your standard Terminator rip-off: in the apocalyptic near-future machines have risen up to overthrow mankind, and have done a pretty good job at it. But humanity isn’t finished just yet! A team of resistance fighters aim to take down the evil robot syndicate by any means necessary – which means blowing up everything in sight. It may not be the same Predator riff that inspired Contra, but either way you’re getting your dose of 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger nostalgia.
At the onset you’ll choose between the human badass soldier Mavra (who literally chews bubblegum, while presumably kicking ass), and gnarly mohawk-having robot Doyle who loves to air guitar. It doesn’t matter who you choose as both play identical (though you can unlock two other characters – including a ninja – who rely more on melee attacks).
There are three difficulty settings: Easy, Normal and Hardcore (which you’ll have to unlock), as well as Mirror Mode (almost unlockable), with all the usual assortment of leaderboards, achievements, etc. You get to pick from four available levels on the onset, some offering hoverbike action and the ability to get inside powerful robots for a spell, with a few mandatory levels to conquer before the final boss battles.
The gameplay itself is mostly cribbed from Contra – you’ll run straightforward to the right (occasionally in other directions), blasting unlimited bullets from your stock weapon at endless waves of baddies until you reach giant mid and end-level bosses that need blasting as well. You also have a melee attack that’s straight out of Metal Slug and a ground roll that can – and often will – get you killed when you accidently use it.
Thankfully, you can either run ‘n gun your way through levels (hence the genre name) or stationary-hold your attacks for precision. Gameplay is usually very tight and precise – minus the odd death roll – with a level of polish I wasn’t expecting. Along the way you’ll pick up extra weapons to cycle through, like the laser beam shot or various grenade launchers that go boom-boom real good. Unfortunately, none of these weapons add much to the gameplay. In fact, they often detract from it – and get you killed – as the straightforwardness of the shooting (and the killing) doesn’t lend itself to button-mashing.
I need to stress this fact: Blazing Chrome’s gameplay was designed for long-holding the attack button to stay alive, not long-hold charging – or mashing – it. Too often these charged weapons led to death as the wave of baddies didn’t wait for them to charge up – leaving you completely helpless. Even if the standard gun is your favorite weapon, death also means regenerating with the wrong weapon equipped, which can translate into more deaths pretty quickly.
Blazing Chrome isn’t a game that looks great in screenshots – and isn’t meant to. To really see what all the hullabaloo is about you’ll have to play it yourselves, or watch a decent Twitch stream. Huge, chunky sprites fill the screen while giant bosses twist and turn every which way as you learn the patterns to help take them out. There’s even an homage to the original Contra’s “3D” levels with purple-gridded parallax sections straight out of Kung Fury.
There’s even a mini-level straight out of Sega’s Galaxy Force (remember that?), complete with even chunkier sprites and boss battles. You can choose to filter these sprites with CRT filters if you want – who needs HD perfection when you’ve got a hankering for tube television goodness?
It’s just a shame JoyMasher couldn’t have been more “inspired” by those games sense of humor. None of the characters, enemies, or even levels in Blazing Chrome exhibit much personality; everything in the game is pretty non-descript thanks to an artstyle that seems ripped entirely from Hard Corps. Having a game perform silky-smooth is important, true, but I wish the developers had put a little effort into giving it some sense of personality of its own. I mean, you’ve got badass bubblegum and radical robots right there – so much potential is just waiting to be exploited.
The game’s soundtrack is appropriately banging as well, with wild techno-thumps that fit the action well. While there’s no single memorable theme here, boss battle music – which is usually the best kind of music – gets your blood pumping when it needs to. My only gripe: that awful end-credit song “Danger of Love” that can’t be skipped!
Blazing Chrome is difficult, but acceptably difficult, thanks to a generous continue and saving system that does its best to keep you coming back for more punishment. And with its handful of nicely paced levels, it’s also a game that knows not to wear out its welcome. In nearly every way that matters, this is run ‘n gun shooting done right – and done well. Even with the unbalanced weapons and complete lack of imagination, JoyMasher has crafted a spiritual successor to Contra that looks and plays just like a Contra game should play, for better or worse. And considering that Konami’s upcoming Contra: Rogue Corps looks more like Fortnite than the real thing, this may be your only true Contra fix on the horizon. Enjoy it while it lasts.