Review: Contra III: The Alien Wars (Wii U eShop / SNES)

Lasers and missiles and heliobombs, oh my

Just when you thought the Wii U eShop had reached a maximum capacity of irresistibly cute little creatures with the likes of Pikmin 3, Toki Tori and Kung Fu Rabbit, here comes Contra III: The Alien Wars to mow down the competition with its terrifying alien invasions, flamethrower-wielding protagonists and M-80,000 Heliobombs. This esteemed SNES classic has been given a new lease of dystopian life with a reissue in the Wii U eShop’s Virtual Console. With only time and this new platform standing between Contra III and its certified “classic” status, does the game still have enough ammo stashed away in its gun belt to blast back into the hearts and minds of today’s gamers? That's what we're here to find out.

Contra III is set in the year 2636 with the Alien Wars of the Contra series still raging. The nefarious alien villain Red Falcon, also known as Emperor Demon Gyaba, has created a legion of alien terrorists and deployed them to humanity’s home planet for a hostile takeover. Earth’s only hope rests with Bill and Lance (altered to Jimbo and Scully — their descendants — in the North American version), two soldiers in the special forces who aim on thwarting the aliens’ plans and destroying Red Falcon.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Contra III on Wii U is how little the game has dated, despite its age. While Contra III may be out-paced in some areas by other SNES classics — the 3D effects in Star Fox, the fun factor of Super Mario Kart — its graphic design and overall presentation come off as though the game could have been developed yesterday by a small studio looking to make a great 2D eShop action-platformer. Details like the run-down architecture in the backgrounds of the first level, the episodic stage design and the eerie adrenaline rush of every last note of the game’s music all add up to an experience that is as modern and breathtaking as it is engaging.

The ultra-serious mood and attitude of Contra III simply cannot be matched. This is a game in which Big Faust — the enormous skeletal alien boss of Stage 3 (the Industrial Area) — throws timed grenades at you, shoots homing lasers out of its eyes, kills you multiple times, and then decapitates itself with a pair of giant sliding doors when defeated. All of this takes place after its two giant alien children have also tried to destroy you…and that’s only the third level. Suddenly getting chased by the cops for sucker-punching one too many pedestrians in that latest GTA game doesn’t seem so menacingly hard-core.

It is testament to the skill of Contra III’s developers that they were able to create something so lastingly relevant. Over 20 years after its inception, it can still inspire fear, dread, awe and — most importantly — fun in the heart of any player. The superb, responsive controls and just-right difficulty make Contra III perhaps one of the best 2D action platformers of the past two decades, and it also manages to capitalize on a trait that would likely be considered a detriment for most other games: a surprisingly short completion time. Contra III can be played through in its entirety in under an hour, which, for an experience this blood-rushingly intense, manages to feel refreshing rather than cheap — especially when its hardest difficulty mode (no walk in the park come the later stages) will send players straight back to the beginning after all of their lives are up.

Another factor keeping Contra III refreshing after all these years is the unique episodic structure of its level design. Rather than just blasting through legions of enemies with the array of weaponry found in the game, each of the side-scrolling stages is sectioned off so that players must focus on the destruction of a particular mini-boss or group of baddies before moving on to the next segment of the stage. This ingenious device is executed seamlessly enough so that most players are not even conscious of it on the first few play-throughs, and it makes Contra III’s replay factor sky high.

Not quite as replayable, however, are Stages 2 and 5, which are the game’s top-down levels that employ the 3D-imitating Mode 7, a graphical design staple of the SNES. While these stages make for fun alternatives to the side-scrolling action, they suffer from imperfections in their design that result in a higher (and sometimes infuriating) difficulty. Players will quickly be frustrated by instances in which their character falls through chasms (especially in Stage 5) that they swear they never stepped near. While the risk taken by Contra III’s developers to incorporate this experimental, rotational-style top-down gameplay should be commended, the somewhat crude design is a cause for concern and results in the only unfair moments in an otherwise flawless game.

Worth noting in the Wii U’s incarnation of Contra III, of course, is the ability to use the portability of the Wii U GamePad to play the game anywhere your alien-blasting heart desires. The nature of Contra’s gameplay is perfectly conducive to small-screen, portable play. Additionally, the GamePad’s analogue stick is actually preferable for navigating the rotational top-down stages, but players will want to stick with the traditional D-pad for side-scrolling action, as the precise, unidirectional shooting involved in those levels can often be confused by the looser movements of the analogue stick.

Conclusion

Contra III: The Alien Wars is often cited as a shining star in the catalogue of games available on Super Nintendo, one of the finest consoles ever launched. Incredibly, the game loses none of that lustre with this Virtual Console release over 20 years on, as the gameplay, presentation, controls and sheer intensity of Contra III’s attitude all manage to strike just the same chords they did in 1992. Its refreshingly short completion time, ingenious stage structure and inimitable mood and tone come together beautifully to offset the one or two design drawbacks in the top-down levels. Contra III is a bargain at any price, and still a classic on the Wii U eShop in 2013. Grab that flamethrower and slaughter some alien scum.

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