As a die-hard sidescrolling shooter fan, when I found out a new Contra game, a prequel to the underrated Genesis title Contra: Hard Corps nonetheless, was being developed, I was completely stoked. When I found out that ARC System Works, some of the best crafters of high-resolution sprite art in the business were handling development duties, my desire to play reached “frothing demand” levels.
The game plays about how you’d expect. There’s a lot of running to the right and shooting everything that moves, as well as your traditional “wall with a laser gun” bosses. Where things differ slightly are in the character controls. You can double jump as well as use a dash maneuver. You can string these together, which becomes necessary, especially when dodging some of the bullet hell bosses that show up later. It’s fairly satisfying to dash into a jump, change course with a midair reverse dash, then jump once more.
There are two main game modes: Arcade and Uprising. Arcade mode is exactly what you expect: you’re given set abilities (based on which character you choose), lives and continues, then blast your way through each level in sequence. Naturally, this will be considered the “real” way to play the game by your series purists, but it’s also extremely punishing (until you memorize the levels and patterns). Rather than give you the option to change your stock of extra lives or decrease the difficulty, the developers have helpfully provided Uprising mode.
Uprising mode works much like Arcade mode, but with a catch: you earn experience points which can be applied to customizing your character. Earn enough points and you can increase the amount of lives you start with, how many hits you can take before a death, and even what abilities your character has. All of these things can be toggled on and off after you earn them, allowing you to have very fine control over how difficult you’d like the game to be. Trust me, when you can take five hits before a death, or all your powerups are automatically upgraded to level 2 or 3, it gets much easier to handle.
Unfortunately, Uprising mode also tends to be a hellacious grind. You start out with less abilities than you do in Arcade mode, and you. will. die. Once you’ve had enough, you can toss points into your chosen character and start anew. You’ll get further, but again you’ll hit a wall where you need to farm some experience and upgrade your character. The constant replaying of levels will help you lean the patterns sure enough, but the fact that you only earn experience for the character you’re playing seems to be an enormous mistake. Want to play as Krystal instead of Bahamut? Be prepared to grind out all that experience again. Think the character selection is limited? The interesting characters are available as DLC (and you’ll still have to grind out their own experience pools).
The game also suffers from some strange checkpoint decisions. Sometimes you’ll get one shortly before a boss, and other times you’ll get checkpointed a significant distance from where you bit it. There doesn’t seem to be a logic to where they’re placed, and finding out you have to redo a particularly difficult section can be frustrating.
Co-Op is a staple of the Contra series, and you’re given options for playing with a friend locally or online via Xbox Live or PSN. Running and gunning with a friend is still great fun, and there’s nothing quite like both players spotting a potential weapon upgrade and risking a death to try and beat their partner to it. It’s also prone to letting players show off their bullet-reflecting skills to each other, though this can cause unintentionally hilarious moments. (See our recent This Week in Co-Op Article for more).
The difficulty of the game can also mean that your co-op experience might be incredibly lonely - once a player has lost all their lives, they can steal a life from the remaining player, so long as they have one in reserve, which is a great throwback to ye olden days, but a player who has the levels memorized, or at least has powered themselves up enough to be able to take a bit of a beating might not die for quite a while, leaving the other player as a spectator. Completing a mission doesn’t even give the second player a courtesy life on the next level, you’re simply stuck until an extra life is earned by the other player or they get a game over screen. This may not seem like a huge deal to some, but it’s quite frustrating when it crops up.
Adding to the potential frustration is the fact that whoever isn’t hosting the game cannot receive achievements. Luckily, a significant portion of them are next-to-impossible to earn (Beat the game without getting hit? Beat the game without killing a single “regular” enemy?), so it’s not quite as bad as it could be.
There’s a nagging feeling I got while playing that the game wasn’t directly given the Contra name because it doesn’t always feel like Contra. The enemies are kind of goofy looking, and the levels seem designed closer to something like Gunstar Heroes than what you’d expect from Contra. The art style can also be extremely uneven. While the sprite art and foreground details are often gorgeous, they stand in stark contrast to the background detail’s lack of personality and at times, clashes pretty badly with the polygonal elements.
I couldn’t help but be fairly disappointed with the game, as it never really seems to meet its full potential. However, if your have a partner who is a Vatican warlock assassin with tiger blood and can handle the its difficulty, there’s decent amount to enjoy here.
Protip: You can use the Konami Code in this game, but it doesn’t do what you might expect it to.