From memorable classics to ignoble flops the honorable–though somewhat obscure the Contra series looks like it’s seen it all. Those who’ve held the series in dearest terms know all too well how many modernizations and rebirths have been made to bring its appeal to a wider audience, but no matter how many attempts to liven up the tough run and gun-style platformer the recent formulas never quite worked. Whatever the reason the idea to leave a piece of the brand behind is what we have with Hard Corps: Uprising; a daring collaboration between Konami and developer Arc System Works (of Guilty Gear and BlazBlue fame) with the intention of breathing new life into the stoic franchise that’s bit of good, bad, and everything else in between.
First off, a little background on just how the Hard Corps name actually connects to the franchise. In 1994 Konami released Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis in the golden years, and is often regarded as one of the difficult action games ever released. That was a good thing for the series’ most diehard groups, but, unfortunately, having just lost the bulk of the franchise’s development team after they absconded to form studio Treasure (who, incidentally, created the best non-Contra Contra game with Gunstar Heroes), the anticipated followup to the Super Nintendo classic Contra III: The Alien Wars was, despite being lauded for its technical wizardly, met with disinterest by all but the most devout of the genre.
That game effectively marked the end as we knew it, at least for much of a decade when the franchise enjoyed a revival. So what better time to rebuild the franchise that combines the familiar with just a hint of freshness? That’s the plan, anyway, and the results are roughly what you may have expected.
Indeed, this prequel puts you in the fatigues of (currently) two resistance fighters: Bahamut, a former elite soldier who leads a fierce battle against his oppressive imperial army, and Krystal a young woman who fights for revenge and answers. There is a story concerned with overthrowing the colonial superpower for independence, it just happens to be told through brief text inserts before each stage.
Continuing with its simplicity you’re treated to only two main game modes, Arcade Mode throws you directly into the fray with only a couple of lives and few continues to beat the entire game with. Rising Mode, on the other hand, builds upon collecting points in order to purchase and further upgrade and customize your character, everything from weapons, armor, and even exclusive abilities can be attained and help you stand a chance against what’s ahead. Regardless of how you decide to soldier through the experience, this game is tough, and you expect to die often. Replaying stages in Rising Mode helps prepare you for what lies ahead, but you’ll definitely want to bring a friend in to assist in the war…or in glorious death. Good times.
Thankfully, the gameplay doesn’t stray far from what’s expected of a challenging run-and-gun, action-packed side-scroller. The element of blazing through countless hordes of enemies, heavy artillery, and traps is definitely alive and well here, and proves to be a genuine throwback to what made the series and to some extent, the genre so thrilling in the first place. There are few distractions and you’ll continuously be dodging gunfire and engaging in multiple boss battles per stage that will either satisfy the hardcore or frustrate the inexperienced. Of course, this is made more tolerable thanks to a life meter that helps to ultimately borrow time–until you reach those scant but much-needed checkpoints or inevitable death occurs, which happens often.
Some naysayers may lament the game’s inclusion of a health bar instead of one-hit deaths, but this definitely helps those unaccustomed to the challenge cope and–quite possibly enjoy themselves in a less sadist fashion. Besides, even purists will note the Japanese release of Hard Corps (for the Mega Drive) also included a life meter, which keeps this update in line with its predecessor.
Compared to the majority of classic Contra titles some may actually appreciate the updated mechanics that freshen up things up, including the ability to dash not only on the ground but in mid-air, double jumping, and the uncanny ability to deflect enemy bullets by bouncing them back. These touches make for a surprisingly accessible gun-and-run game that blend the traditional with flexible. Another smart addition is to carry two switchable weapons and power them up by collecting the same types repeatedly up to three levels, which guarantees that unmitigated use of a specific weapon will be rewarded. Granted, that’s if you manage to last long enough.
Apart from the gameplay the most radical change comes from the visual overhaul of developer Arc System Works, as the entire game is rendered in a high definition anime appearance they employ in all their games. You’ll either love or hate the creative liberties taken as gruff, hard-broiled marines are redone in incredibly colorful taste and eccentric characters and enemies are created with hand drawn sprites and polygons.
It’s a shame this level of graphic detail doesn’t always extend to the backgrounds as many of the levels range from passable to bland, with a distinct lack of personality that is also, unfortunately, a staple of what Arc System tends to do. While the game is technically impressive and looks great, there’s a distinct lack of personality you’d normally associate with such a venerated franchise like Contra, even if this game is doing its best to convince you this isn’t so.
The audio fares roughly the same, with edgy rock ballads that pay homage to classic Contra soundtracks, while the voiceovers are hilariously terrible by comparison, almost as if they were intentionally bad. For those multi-platform fans worrying about which version, XBLA or PSN, has the upper edge the answer is neither; the game is the same on both HD platforms, with the only difference being which console’s controller (i.e. d-pad) you prefer to navigate the action with.
So the question remains how successful is Hard Corps: Uprising when begun anew from its heritage namesake? Konami would have you believe in these changes, since they’re billing this as an independent experience standing on its own merits. That’s fair, although the presentation from Arc Systems Works is more likely to cause division with longtime aficionados than the gameplay and difficulty itself, which retains more than enough of the original ‘blueprint’ to fit comfortably between different generations of gamers. If your devotion to Contra is faithful enough, change could be a good thing for the archetypal, yet aging lineage.