Konami’s Contra (AKA Gryzor, Probotector) is one of those franchises that has struggled to make the transition from 2D to 3D. After the excellent arcade and 8-bit editions, lucky SNES and Megadrive owners were granted Contra III: The Alien Wars and Contra: Hard Corps respectively, both of which were top-notch 2D platform shooters.
However, when the Playstation came along, bringing the promise of immersive 3D gameplay with it, the series stumbled badly with the disappointing Contra: Legacy of War and C: The Contra Adventure. The painfully difficult Contra: Shattered Soldier on the PS2 helped to patch up the relationship with hardcore fans of the franchise, but then the clunky Neo Contra came along and effectively wrecked it all again. Pah.
Ok, history lesson over. Konami has now published a new Contra game, misleadingly referred to as the fourth in the series. Perhaps this deliberate link with the SNES Contra III (often cited as the definitive installment) is an effort to reassure fans that the good old days are back?
Whatever the reasoning behind the moniker, Contra 4 certainly does herald the return of the game we all know and love. First impressions are extremely positive; although this is coded by WayForward (a Western developer), it ‘feels’ like a Japanese title and (possibly most importantly) looks and plays like a proper sequel to the aforementioned SNES classic.
As you’d expect from a game that effectively builds upon a SNES release that is now sixteen glorious years of age, Contra 4 is wise enough to bring some notable improvements to the table. The most striking is the grappling hook device, which comes in handy when stuck in difficult situations.
Like Contra III you have the ability to carry two weapons at once, but thankfully when you die you retain them. In a neat touch, picking up two weapons of the same type results in improved firepower and the system encourages the player to adopt thoughtful and tactical playing style, often sadly absent from this kind of game.
A hallmark of the series is clever level design and it would appear that the developer has taken this heritage very seriously. The various stages are exciting and varied, with more than enough hair-raising set pieces to battle through. Although it never really comes close to challenging the stand-out moments witnessed in Contra III, this DS update still does an admirable job of entertaining and the fact that the levels take place over the dual screens of the DS gives them a wonderfully open-ended and expansive feel.
So far so good, but it simply wouldn’t be sporting to review a Contra title without mentioning the difficulty level. In this regard Contra 4 represents possibly the harshest challenge yet offered up by the franchise, mercilessly pummeling the player right from the outset. Just getting through the opening stage is harder than completing the final level of most other videogames.
Dedicated fans will no doubt rejoice at this, but those new to the series will find it hugely off-putting; Contra 4 takes no prisoners and expects no quarter. It’s frustrating at times but it’s important to understand why the difficulty curve is so unforgiving; it’s no accident that Contra 4 constantly kicks sand in your face. The developers have crafted it this way and fully expect you to memorize each enemy pattern, plan your route though each level and pick the correct firearm for any given situation. It may seem like a lot to expect from the player, but by doing all of this you will find that your gratification increases exponentially. The sense of reward after beating a particularly tough level without dying is immense (it’s also something that you won’t experience too often).
Aside from the main game, Contra 4 also offers up the unique Challenge Mode. This assigns the player short bursts of gameplay (ideal for the portable nature of the host hardware) with a specific objective, such as defeating a certain enemy or completing a level with no weapon. As you might expect these tasks continue to punish the player in ways that border on being vindictive, but the reward for success is considerable: not only does it offer up the usual bonus items like artwork and comics, you can also unlock playable versions of previous 8-bit Contra games.
Contra 4 isn’t for everyone. The difficulty level, even when set to ‘Easy’, is quite frankly on the insane side. But with such a series you have to accept that this is intentional; a Contra title that doesn’t pose a stiff challenge isn’t worthy of the name. If you’re a lifelong fan then chances are you’ll have already rushed out and purchased this, and my recommendation will merely confirm what you already know. To those of you that may not have played a Contra game before, by all means pick this up if the concept intrigues you. It would be wise to expect to get your ass handed back to you on several occasions, but anyone who sticks with it and picks themselves up for another go is virtually assured of huge rewards and plenty of ‘old school’ entertainment. Contra 4 is an impeccably crafted, balls-out blast-a-thon of the highest standard.