Video games are dead, but these loser devs seem to really like Contra, so I guess we can let them make some games and maybe score us some cash.
- Probably Konami (2008)
In 2004, after Neo Contra was released, Konami gave up on Contra. You might even say they gave up in 2002 after Shattered Soldier likely failed to meet their expectations and they decided to go back to using the IP for games that didn’t resemble the original iconic game. Lucky for fans though, they didn’t mind letting other studios develop proper titles for the franchise. I’m sure there was still some investment on their part, but this method sheltered them from overhead and blame for potential failures in a genre they considered dead.
Over the next few years WayForward, M2, and Arc System Works would each take their turn at trying to revive the beloved series. Each developer was experienced and respected, but it was also clear that they all also had great respect for the franchise and that development of each of their games was fed by passion born of that respect.
Unfortunately, although each developer would succeed in wooing many fans of the series, none of the games seemed to be discussed by more than a few loyal gamers within weeks of their release, and all are assumed to have sold poorly. Were the games marketed poorly? Were they restricted to too few platforms? Was the genre truly dead? Or were the games competent, but just not good enough to gain widespread appeal? I had my theories on the first three questions, but the only way to get a good perspective on the last question was to play the games.
Oh, I guess there is also one more Contra game that Konami itself developed a few short years ago...
Win Conditions: Normal Difficulty, 1cc
Time to learn: over 20 hours
Single Playthrough: 45 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 7
Review Score: 5
I remember hearing about this game when it launched, but forgot it existed until early this year when I saw it being played on the AGDQ stream. Developed by WayForward, it looked like a lot of fun, and the prospect of playing it was actually one of the things that spurred this project.
Of all the Contra games I planned to play, I think I was most excited to play this game. As with all of these titles, I read some reviews and watched some gameplay before ordering it, trying to build up my hype for what I expected to be one of the highlights to this project. That probably worked against this game though, because although it had it’s moments, it was probably the biggest disappointment of the series. That’s not to say this is a bad game. It’s not, and I can see why so many people like it. For me however, the sheer amount of bad balanced out the amazing good in this title.
One of the things that did not disappoint was the presentation, as the game both looks and sounds great. In fact, I think this game is probably the best looking game in the entire series. Using high color pixel art, the way the player, enemies, and backgrounds all look and move is fantastic. Many enemies and bosses are revamped versions of enemies in previous titles, and it was great to see new higher detail interpretations of these creatures. The sound effects were good, but the music was wonderful, making great use of the DS’s limited range.
The majority of the game is spent in 6 side scrolling stages that mostly draw inspiration by the oldest titles in the series. Enemy placement ranges from clever to frustrating, depending on what weapons you have, and random spawns are unfortunately as abundant as they were in Super C and need constant attention. I was happy to see a return of platforming in this game with multiple paths to choose from in most levels. Unfortunately, unlike in the original Contra, these different paths are not balanced very well, and there is often a clear “best” path that you simply learn through trial and error.
Most of these paths exist on either the top of bottom screen of the DS as both screens are used to make a tall vertical playfield. The area underneath the DS hinge is also part of the playfield, even though you can’t see it, and though it’s clear they made an effort to try to keep danger from surprising you from underneath this blind spot, it still happened enough that I wish they would have just designed the game around a single screen. To help navigate the increased verticality of the playfield, they provide you with a grappling hook that fires straight up and can pull you to overhangs, but I found it a bit stiff and awkward and only used it as part of a planned path, never as part of a dynamic escape or split second decision.
Hey, didn’t you love the “3D” base stages in the original Contra. Yeah, me neither, nor anyone that I know. Well, aside from the 6 normal run’n’gun stages, there are also 3 of these atrocities. Maybe they thought they could do base stages “right” in Contra 4. They didn’t. The base levels were the worst part of the original game, and they took the worst parts of them and amplified them here. I would go as far as to call them a close 2nd to Contra 3 for most annoying alt levels, and you might be thinking “whoa, whoa, too far man” with that statement, but it’s true. From the speed of the bullets, to the hitboxes, to the number of targets that force you to repeatedly jump (and jump, and jump) to be able to hit them, I don’t think I enjoyed anything about these stages.
I found the bosses to be a bit disappointing as well, because save a few exceptions, most bosses are easy/boring damage sponges. The bosses tend have attack patterns with clear tells, but most of them are so trivial to learn that they rarely presented a challenge. The few bosses that did present a challenge were actually pretty fun to fight for the most part, but even the easy ones wouldn’t be so annoying if it weren’t for the weapon system.
On paper, the weapon system actually sounds pretty good to me. It returns to a two slot weapon pick-up system very similar to Contra III, except picking up a power-up that matches your current weapon will make it into a more powerful version. The game smartly has all of the classic weapons here, and between the two levels of power available on each of them, most are pretty versatile and fun to use. Losing a life however, replaces your fun gun with a fun vaccuum. Similar to the original games, a loss of life means a loss of the weapon in your current slot and a return to the default pea shooter. A section of a level might be great fun with a good weapon, but fun time takes a nosedive as soon when you lose a life and are left with this worse than ever weapon.
The default pea-shooter is a scourge on this game. Much weaker than it was in older Contras, it’s many times less useful than any of the level 1 weapons in the game and laughable compared to the level 2 weapons. Because most of the levels and bosses seem to be balanced around having one of the better weapons, using this weapon to beat any boss in this game is excruciatingly boring. I can’t tell you how many times I literally died of boredom to an easy boss because it was taking too long to die and I started to zone out. Using it on many parts of the later levels is many, many times harder than having any other weapon.
The pea shooter issue is exacerbated by the fact that the game decided to bring back button mashing. Now it’s true that you can hold down the button and get a very slow automatic fire, but the rate of fire is so slow that in most situations it’s simply not practical to use, so I really don’t even know why they bothered. They also put a relatively low limit on how fast you can fire with mashing, bringing in all of the negatives of button mashing, without bringing in any of the positives (like the amazing spread gun death blossom from the original Contra).
I will admit that the lack of autofire probably would not have bothered me as much if I was still a strapping young lad. Years of gaming, typing, and clicking have wreaked havoc on my hands and wrists though, and painful cramps would always start within 20 minutes of playing this game. The tiny DS and 3DS buttons are no doubt part of the problem. This is the only game that I can think of that punishes you with real physical pain when you lose a life. An amazing accomplishment, to be sure, but not a welcome one.
As for overall difficulty, despite the mostly easy bosses, the difficulty of the stages themselves ramped up throughout the game, though that ramp was incredibly incredibly spikey and uneven. Earlier games in the series had these difficulty spikes as well, but nowhere are they as deep and sharp as in Contra 4. Much of this stems from the previously discussed weapon system though, as losing a good weapon can be the difference between a lazy stroll and a drawn out death gauntlet. As with the old games, memorization was a major factor in difficulty, but the technical execution required here could also get pretty tricky, especially in later stages.
I was kind of excited to learn that this game had a challenge mode that provides some bite sized Contra for you to try to tackle, as well as some genuinely cool unlocks for completing them (like the NES versions of Contra and Super C!) I was less excited the more I played it though. For one thing, the mode doesn’t even unlock until you beat the game, so you can’t use it to learn the game and can’t enjoy the cool unlocks until you’ve spent enough time bashing your head against your DS (or vice versa). A few challenges are neat, but most challenges are annoying as hell and not fun at all. No one likes escort missions. What the fuck are they doing in Contra?
So that pretty much sums up a few things I loved about Contra 4, and a lot of things that vexed me. I did end up getting a 1cc on this game, but only because I could see that 1cc would not be much harder than beating with it continues. In fact, after my first win, I got 1cc on the very next run with double digit lives to spare. Now that I’m not playing it anymore, I don’t think of it as a bad game, but when I was playing it, nearly every session ended with me in a sour mood. Frustration combined with physical pain will do that to you, I guess. If the games weapons were balanced better and they lost the base stages, I think it would have rivaled or surpassed the original. As it is though, I see it as a game with huge potential that pulled too much of the bad baggage from the original game, and chose to amplify that bad baggage to something worse.
If you were thinking about playing this game someday though, don’t let this review alone sway you. Take a look at some videos and additional reviews. WayForward’s love and respect for Contra does shine through when playing this game, and it’s clear that they wanted to make a Contra game that would resonate with fans of the original. Even though some of their decisions turned me off, I do think that they succeeded with many other gamers. Many, many people love this game, and if the things that bothered me don’t really sound like they’d bother you, you might just fall in love with it too.
Win Conditions: Normal Difficulty
Time to learn: 1 hour
Single Playthrough: 30 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 3
Review Score: 6
I remember hearing about the Konami Rebirth games released as WiiWare a few years ago, but didn’t have a Wii at the time, and then I kind of forgot they existed until recently.
Similar to Contra 4, the reviews and screens for this game made me pretty excited to play it. It looked like a more on the nose homage to the series that might not try to do anything new, but would distill the best parts of the franchise into a short, but focused experience. Also similar to Contra 4 though, I found my experience tempered by a great game that was partially buried by several annoyances.
Thankfully, the game does have some good things going for it, and as with most Contra games, graphics and sound are high on that list. Both have a very arcadey feel to them, with bright sprites and backgrounds, and gamey, but cool sounds and music complimenting everything. Everything looks more cartoonish than in most of the other games, but the style gels, and leaves a solid first impression.
The game plays exactly as one would expect of a tribute title, and seems to try to emulate Alien Wars more than the other games. It consists of a modest 6 stages, and I was happy to see that they did not do the classic Contra thing and include some stupid alternate perspective stages. Unfortunately I was not happy to see that instead we got one and a half gimmick levels that I found equal parts boring and frustrating. That 25% of the game was simply a chore and the thought of running these parts over and over quickly ate away at my motivation.
Thankfully, most of the rest of the game is fun when you aren’t being killed by bullets and enemies that are often hidden in the excessive explosions. I sometimes (frequently) calmly (angrily) asked (demanded) my Wii to tell me what (the doo doo) hit me, but it remained frustratingly silent on the matter. At least the hitboxes are excellent overall on stuff you can actually see. Also excellent are the game’s bosses, which are one of the more enjoyable parts of the game and are, on the whole, pretty fun to fight.
Disappointingly, there are only 4 weapons to choose from, including the base machine gun. The fact that the laser is almost completely useless outside a couple of short parts really made this selection seem even lower. The game does do a good job of making different weapons useful in different situations, including the default machine gun, but in a game with weapon pick-ups, I was really hoping for more choice.
Difficulty is a hard thing to pin down on this game. With unlimited continues available, it’s laughably easy to complete on Easy and Normal, taking me only an hour to get through both difficulties, back-to-back. On the other hand, I skipped getting 1cc for this game, mostly because for the first time in Contra, there is no way to earn extra lives. 3 mistakes and you are on the continue screen, unless you increase the number of lives in the options screen. Conversely, the higher difficulties are definitely challenging, even with unlimited continues. With all of those options going on, I guess the game is as easy as you want to be, which is good for those that don’t mind tuning difficulty to taste, but disappointing for people like me that want a clear, appropriately challenging, but fair line in the sand that tells them they have achieved some level of mastery.
In the end, I spent about 4-5 hours with the game, gauging how hard it would be to get 1cc on Normal, and completing the inconsistent (and often cheap) hard mode. On Normal difficulty, most of the levels and bosses were pretty fun, but a lot of the little things disappointed me and I was having trouble deciding what my overall goal was. After my short time with the game, my overall impression of it is still positive, but like Contra 4, it too fell short of being the ultimate Contra tribute.
Win Conditions: Arcade Mode, Bahamut, No Laser, 1cc
Time to learn: Over 14 hours
Single Playthrough: 80 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 8 - Arcade Mode, 3 - Rising Mode
Review Score: 7
The last proper game in the series published by Konami. Perhaps it’s sales did not meet Konami’s expectations. Perhaps it’s sales suffered because they didn’t put the word “Contra” anywhere in the title or even the description of the game and if you search for “Contra” in the PSN store, this game doesn’t even come up. It’s almost like it’s an awesome fan game that’s afraid of getting sued. Hell, if Arc System Works changed some names and icons around, they could have probably left Konami out of the equation and released it as their own IP.
When the game was first released on PSN, I thought it looked amazing and bought within a couple of weeks. Over the next few weeks I spent several sessions playing through Rising Mode with my brother online. I had always intended to go back and try the game solo, but never got around to it until this trip through the franchise. By the time I started this playthrough, I had forgotten most, but not all of the game.
It sounds like a fairy tale. Arc System Works designs a modern run’n’gun Contra game. Though they had stuck mostly to fighting games in recent years, there was still so much that can go right with that combination. For the most part, I think things did go right, but as with other recent games in the series, the little things can taint the experience and they do their part in Uprising to keep it from true greatness.
It’s Arc System Works, so the game looks amazing; That’s a given right? Well, sort of. The backgrounds, players, and most enemies do look absolutely gorgeous, but what the hell is with those bosses? All of the larger enemies in the game understandably use 3D models, but suprisingly these models are unlit, mostly ugly, and don’t look like they fit at all with the beautiful hand drawn sprites and backgrounds. I hope if this game gets a re-release (PC please!) that they apply all of the things they’ve learned about cel-shading to do the bosses justice. My only other gripe with graphics that the enemy bullets can get lost in some of the backgrounds.
The sound effects are best in series for the most part, though the intentionally cheesy and badly acted dialog quickly lost its charm with me. The music was also pretty great, though not nearly as catchy as any of the chiptune titles. Also in the presentation department, there are opening and ending anime montages that are well done, but with only vague story context to tie them to the game, I really wouldn’t have missed them if they were gone.
Even the most beautifully presented game is garbage if it plays like garbage though right? Well, with 8 stages of modern run’n’gun sensibilities, Uprising never plays like garbage and in fact, at it’s best, it is probably the tightest and most enjoyable game in the series for me. At it’s worst? Well, unfortunately the game is annoying and even frustrating at times, especially in stages 4 through 6. These lows are not that bad compared to many other titles in the series, but when contrasted against the extreme highs the game has to offer, they stand out and frustrate more than they should. Sadly, most of these issues would be really easy to fix, as the foundation of the game is super solid.
One foundation that I think greatly helps the game’s fun is the inclusion of several new moves that your player has access to. These moves range from dashes, sprints, tackles and multi-jumps and though their use is technically optional, they make replaying levels a lot of fun as you look for places to utilize them. My only issue with them was that the double tap you could use to airdash was too easy to do accidentally and resulted in many a hit or death for my surprised character.
The choice of characters is one of the more obvious carry-overs from Contra: Hard Corps, and though the difference between most characters is simply stat based, one of the DLC characters is melee only, and so plays completely different than the others. It’s a shame that the character is not included with the base game, but even though I rarely purchase or encourage others to purchase piecemeal DLC, I think it’s worth it in this case.
Another foundation that helps this title to stand out is the inclusion of two main game modes you can choose between. Arcade Mode is similar to classic games in the series, with a modest health bar for your character and many of the new moves available. Rising Mode however starts you with almost no new moves and single hit death and then through multiple playthroughs allows you to unlock moves, health, lives, and other bonuses until you eventually become death incarnate. This makes Rising Mode an ideal way to learn the game for an eventual arcade play-through and is a boon for the more casual player just wanting to see the game. Uprising also brings back the ranking system to tell you how well you played, but since it doesn’t affect what stages you play or your ending, it can safely be ignored for those that don’t care.
The weapon system worked a bit similar to Contra 4, with two weapon slots to switch between and three levels of power to reach for each weapon. Fortunately, I think the weapons are much better balanced in this game and though the default pea-shooter is noticeably worse than other weapons, it’s still reasonably effective on most enemies, including bosses. The homing laser is really the only weapon in the game that I didn’t think was balanced well. It’s so incredibly overpowered that it trivializes much of the game when you get it, so I actually started to avoid it completely.
Also back from Contra 4 is the semi-auto fire of most weapons (unless you unlock full auto for use in Rising Mode). It’s not nearly as annoying as in the previous game though, as the slow autofire you get is fast enough to be useful in most situations and the larger gamepads the game was designed for are more comfortable to mash on than tiny DS buttons.
As stated previously the stages themselves can be pretty fun to play through, with lots of ups, downs, and platforms to play on. Unfortunately, a few areas of these levels seem to intentionally play to the weakness of the climbing and/or hanging controls, but those parts were fairly rare. Lives are now found instead of earned via score, which encouraged me to fully explore levels in order to find the little buggers and I have a lot of fun doing so.
Enemies are extremely varied and often entertaining to engage most of the time. When the devs decided the enemies should be less fun, they would sometimes be positioned offscreen after pits as “gotha” enemies, or lob grenades at you from offscreen. Offscreen grenades are actually a Contra tradition, but it was worse than ever in this game. 90% of the enemies were fine, but 10% of an game this long is still too much.
The bosses were more of a mixed bag than the normal enemies. There were usually several in most stages. About half of these bosses are a lot of fun to fight, requiring a good balance of memorization and skill, but the other half tilt to boring, as you spend too much time on defense, unable to actually attack. Also, a couple of bosses assume that the wall climb mechanics are more robust than they actually are.
Difficulty is a very interesting topic for this game. In Rising Mode, you can unlock enough upgrades to make the game the easiest in the series. In Arcade Mode, I thought it was one of the toughest. It’s also very uneven, though not quite as spikey as Contra 4. Things like the helicopter jumps at the several points in the game contributed to this spikiness, as well as several odd bugs or design oversights that caused weird deaths or prevented progression. It took me about 14 hours to get a 1cc in Arcade Mode, but that doesn’t include the time I casually went through Rising Mode with my brother several years ago, so I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to learn from scratch.
Some people don’t think Hard Corps: Uprising is a Contra game even after they’ve played it. I played quite a few Contra games this year, and from the skills you need to the weapons they give you, this one definitely felt like Contra to me. The game is, in my opinion, one of the better titles in the franchise, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in side scrolling action games, but it’s faults hold it back from matching the awesomeness of its Genesis namesake. I think that after unlocking most stuff in Rising mode, the game becomes easy enough that I didn’t notice or care about it’s flaws as much and probably would have rated the game better if I had never tried to tackle Arcade Mode. Only after having to truly learn the game well enough to 1cc it in Arcade did a lot of these things really stick out. The fact that they were able to introduce new moves and concepts to the series and still allow it to retain its soul means there is hope for this series and genre to evolve though.
The last few Contra games were unique for any series. Three different developers and three different chances to revive a series that could once guarantee success. In some ways, each of these games succeeded in pulling back fans and giving them something new to enjoy, even though I personally see three great games that could have been much better. In the only way that matters to Konami though, these games must not have succeeded. Although the series has seen some attention since that time, most of it is focused on gambling and mobile, the current “sure things” of the industry in the minds of Konami and many other companies.
Well that’s the last of the games for this little journey, but not quite the last you’ll hear from me on the series. In the final segment of this series I’ll be talking about the past, present, and possible future for the franchise and the genre, as well as reflecting on my time with these games.