Review: Contra 4

Rating9.jpgContra_4_cover.JPGPlatform: Nintendo DS
Publisher: Konami
Developer: WayForward Technologies
Release Date: 11/06/07
Genre: Arcade
Players: 1 – 2

Mention Contra to a group of gamers and you’ll see eyes widen as war stories flow forward about the times they busted controllers or kicked an NES across the room before snapping back to reality, finding the “zone” and beating the game on one life. Others will whine continually about the games being “cheap” and “unfair” to people wanting even the tiniest bit of hand-holding throughout just one level. Still others will tell you (with feeling) that a Japanese-developed Contra is the ONLY one worth playing and until this moment, they would have been right. WayForward Technologies, a California-based developer with a ton of GBA and DS experience to their credit (mostly on licensed games!) has done the impossible: created a Contra game that not only rivals the originals, but beats them to a pulp in terms of difficulty. Brutally hard, brilliantly programmed and beautiful side-scrolling bliss, this one’s a must-buy if you like it hard and love it old-school.

The game is a tiny bit deceptive when you pop it in the first time. There’s only one mode available for play and the Museum mode is a bit slim in its descriptions, only mentioning either the Japanese or US Contras while ignoring the PAL version, Probotector other than some game covers. WayForward and Konami want you to bust your ass (and your fingers’ asses too) unlocking the good stuff, so you’d best stop lollygagging around in the menus, select your character and GO. You’ll notice the game not only looks great, there’s no chunky 3D aliens to bog down the frame rate and bullets come fast and furious as well as slow and steady as you make your way forward (pun intended). You’ll also notice that you’ve got a wide grin on your face and the game is hard as hell in a hand basket handing out free samples. After about a half an hour, you’re either going to be still playing or looking at that pile of sparking, smoky debris that was your DS or DS Lite.

Hopefully, you’ll be back for more, because the game only gets better (and harder) as it goes on. There’s no touch screen gameplay at all, which might be shocking to some, but it makes perfect sense that WayForward programmed the game this way. Contra is all about fast reflexes and as you now have two screens to worry about, even the tiniest bit of distraction would mean your DS would go sailing into a wall within seconds. However, the game adds a cool twist to the familiar formula with a grappling hook that lets you shoot up to grab railings to reach higher ground. The game has been carefully programmed so that bullets fired between screens will kill you if you’re zipping upward or dropping down into them, so you’ll need to look before you leap (or grapple, for that matter). In fact, part of the challenge in some spots comes from quickly zipping up to scoot hand over hand along a bar, then dropping down before a mid-boss or standard enemy roasts you.

The game also drops in many references to older Contra games in everything from character selection to remixed tunes to some of the bosses. You’ll also find that ducking under water makes you invincible (Super C, anyone?) and yes, the infamous Konami code is in effect… but it’s not at all going to help you in the extra lives department. The added firepower does come in handy, though. In addition to powering up weapons, you’re also allowed carry two guns and swap them out on the fly, which is quite helpful when the going gets rough. Then again, the easiest section of the game is navigating the menus, so any help you get once the fun begins is a blessing. If you’re not dripping with sweat or totally exhausted and hoarse from yelling after any of these nine stages, you should be making games, not playing them.

There’s a 2-player mode here that requires a second cartridge, but your partner better be as ready as you are, that’s for damn sure. While you can share lives if one of you buys the farm, the manual jokes about you stealing all the good power-ups and advancing the screen too quickly for your soon to be former pal. Which, by the way, is exactly what happened to me when I met up with a Contra-crazy friend of mine. He’s known for throwing controllers, but since it was his son’s DS, he was a bit more reserved, cursing up a storm at the game’s level of beefy brutality. Multiplayer is frantic and hellish, yet often hilarious, feeling like a crazy tug-o’-war between two people trying to survive by their own skill, yet constantly needing the other guy around for an assist.

As far as the presentation goes, it’s truly the best-looking 2D Contra in my book. WayForward’s use of vibrant color, well-defined backgrounds and flawless animation all over the place is superb throughout, showing their dedication to bringing DS owners the ultimate side-scroller. I’d been wondering what this team could do with a bit more handheld power after the short but impressive GBA game Justice League Heroes – The Flash, so I was blown away at what’s here. Of equal respect, if not more are the remixed tunes that bring back memories of the NES days, but without the tinny speaker my old mono color TV had. Pop in a pair of earbuds and groove your way through the levels.. or into enemy fire if you’re distracted too much. Speaking of distractions, there’s even some quip-heavy voice acting here, but you can shut it off if you’re a purist. Chance are, you’ll be making your own choice comments when you’re on your last life and that stage six boss does you in…

In terms of extras, expect the game to bust wide open like a dropped melon once you’ve beaten it, but expect a hell of a lot more hard work as well. Challenge Mode will set your sore paws afire with tough as all-get-out ball-busting events that will have you cackling like an escaped lunatic. Survive a stage without firing a single shot? Suuuuurrrrrre. Guess where enemy shots will hit and try to jump them? Not a problem, chief. Hell, by the time you unlock the Challenges, you’ll be some sort of Zen master by that point, so you’ll be able to blow some of these off on the first go. Still, the payoffs are worth the additional stress, with NES versions of Contra and Super C, new playable characters, an interview with creator Nobuya Nakazato, some Contra comics and more

As for flaws, there are none unless you consider a game being too damn hard for kids or the easily frustrated a deal-breaker. Par for the course in Contra, those “3D” corridor stages will take some getting used to for a few players. Granted, old-school Contra-heads will know what to expect, but it can be jarring for someone who’s just spent the better part of a day mastering the first side scrolling stages to suddenly be trapped in a forward-moving hallway where death is much cheaper and you get to keep the change in bullets. The only other issues I had were with the Gallery’s descriptions (they could have been more fully fleshed out) and how the game cover art omits the different systems on some of the packages.

Still, no matter how you slice it (or shoot it, in this case), Contra 4 is a absolutely damn great game that will chew you up, spit you out and drag you back in for more. You’ll love every second of it, of course… and if you don’t, you just might be in love after you’re whipped into submission a few dozens times until you get up to speed. So drop that wimpy platformer and snap up a game that’ll put hair on your chest. Contra 4 will swallow your other games whole and spit the scraps back at you until you’ve uncovered all it has to offer.

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