Written by: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K
CC2K Games Writer Mike Leader finally gets his hands on an import copy of the latest installment in Konami's run-and-gun franchise.
The Contra series is one of the gaming world's classic franchises. The first three games (Contra and Super C on the NES, and Super Contra III on the SNES) should be on anyone's list of must-play retro titles. However, in the last 13 years or so the quality of the games has floundered somewhat; the developers have experimented with 3D and 2.5D graphics, with seemingly diminishing results both in terms of sales and reviews. For its 20th anniversary Konami took a major step in giving up the reins to an America-based developer Wayforward Technologies. They also allowed the game to be a numbered sequel, making it instantly noteworthy.
Wayforward Technologies have taken the series back to its roots. Tight controls, legions of bad guys, big boss battles and a selection of kick-ass weaponry to choose from. Levels of constant moving-to-the-right-of-the-screen + hold-down-shoot-button gameplay is broken up with platforming segments, over-the-shoulder shootouts and vehicle combat. One important thing to point out – this game is hard. The Contra series is one of those gleefully old-school titles which has a short main game (less then 2 hours to complete, 9 levels), but the longetivity is in the difficulty. In the past, we here at CC2K have expressed our frustrations with hard games, but this is a different story. I love challenging games – or 'super-fiendish', to take wording from the Sudoku world. Quite often, shooters like Contra are hard, but doable. They are meant to be completed, the only issue is skill. The game doesn't cheat. You're just not good enough. It is all down to pattern recognition and quick reflexes. The game is made more difficult by one oversight; both DS screens are used, creating an upright arcade cabinet feel. However, the break between the screens is effectively dead space – a blind spot. Stray bullets and enemies can sneak up on you through the gap, so extra vigilance is required, as you can see in the following video of in-game footage.
After completing the game on any difficulty, a 'challenge mode' is unlocked. These bite-size levels include beating a boss with one life, surviving an onslaught of baddies, or completing a stage under a time limit. This mode is a fantastic idea, and gives Contra 4 an on-the-go playability that suits a hand-held platform. There are 40 of these challenges, and they're short and straightforward enough that you will keep playing despite repeated failures. Even though the main game is lightweight, the amount of extras and easter eggs is quite staggering. Completing certain numbers of challenges also unlocks goodies, like full versions of Contra and Super C (the original, arguably best NES installments) and concept art. This package is positively brimming with content, and puts most shallow DS games, hell, even home console games to shame.
The smooth, beautiful 2D sprites and locations do not push the Nintendo DS hardware in the way that games like Ninja Gaiden DS or The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass do, but there is still something to admire in its art. Animation is fluid and the huge bosses are impressive. The DS more than holds up against the 'plethora of pwnage' on screen. The music, composed by VG remix deity Virt / Jake Kaufman, is fantastic in paying respect to the genius of Konami's chiptune library, while injecting the style with an undeniable freshness. Level 1-1's music is a prime example, near-quotes from the original Contra's 1-1 theme, but boosted by extra dynamics, depth and punch. This game is immaculately presented, right down to the manual. Here's a quote:
"Challenge Mode – When Hard Mode Just Isn't Hard Enough… So you think you're a Contra Expert. You've blasted Black Viper back to the dark hole he crawled out of, and Earth is singing your praises. Well, we've got news for you, hot shot. There are hundreds of thousands of gamers out there with just as much Contra skill as you claim to have. If only there was a way to prove your mettle… There is; it's called challenge mode."
Wayforward Technolgies have done a great job. This is a loving tribute to a series and genre which have been forgotten in recent console generations. It is highly recommended.
Contra 4, on the Nintendo DS. Played for approx. 7-10 hours. Completed on Easy Mode. Though released in North America on November 13, 2007, Contra 4 is not available in Europe (and doesn't have a release date yet). Import copy was played.