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.