The Contra series of games includes some of the run-and-gun genre's greatest titles; along with the Metal Slug series you won't find a finer bunch of ridiculously tough, immaculately designed platform action experiences. We've already been blessed with a Wii U Virtual Console port of Konami's 1992 SNES masterpiece Contra III: The Alien Wars, and now Contra fans can also pick up Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX – a GBA port of the SNES game with a number of significant changes.
As usual, some not-so-friendly aliens have invaded the planet and it's up to you to eliminate them all using excessive violence. Taking place across six increasingly difficult stages your task is to take down each end of level boss while getting ever closer to the final battle inside the alien lair. The original SNES game was created when Konami was at the top of its game and features some of the consoles' most beautiful 2D sprite work plus a whole plethora of SNES trickery, including sprite-scaled set-pieces and mode 7 rotation in the top-down stages. The icing on this action packed cake is the incredibly raucous soundtrack and simultaneous 2-player mode. With this in mind, you'd think it would be easy to simply chuck the same experience onto the GBA and make everyone happy, right?
Sadly, the aforementioned changes to the GBA iteration are mostly bad. For starters, the display area has been zoomed in, so while the sprites are larger it means there's less real-estate to move around inside and the graphics are significantly blockier in comparison to the SNES version. On Wii U, side-by-side comparisons with the SNES version show the GBA graphics to be paler and more washed out. At the time of launch, this design choice made sense given the size of the GBA screen, but on Wii U it doesn't translate quite so well.
In terms of gameplay, this is still an excellently designed shooter, with the player running, jumping and shooting through a bunch of brilliantly designed stages chock full of wonderfully designed enemies and alien technology. There's even the opportunity to take a few military vehicles for a spin along the way. However, some elements of the original have been altered to dramatically change the gameplay; for starters you can no longer hold two weapons at the same time, effectively removing the strategy of holding a spread weapon for screen clearance and a more powerful yet focused weapon to take out stronger enemies. The smart (mega) bomb is completely absent as well, which is a strange omission.
Perhaps to counter these changes, the gameplay is slightly easier than it was on the SNES and bosses can be taken down faster. Additionally, it's now possible to lock a character's aim and move at the same time, a feature lacking in the SNES version. The developers also added in a password system to allow players to jump straight to specific stages, although with Virtual Console allowing save states this option becomes obsolete for Wii U users, unless you're planning on using cheat passwords for extra lives.
As well as the gameplay changes some stages are removed completely; the two top-down exploration stages are now gone, replaced by 'Military Train' and 'Big Battle' stages from the Sega Mega Drive Contra title, Hard Corps. On paper this sounds like a decent idea; unfortunately alternating between the two graphical styles is a touch jarring as the Mega Drive graphics haven't been altered or re-drawn and look rather out of place. The level design and art direction is still excellent, it's simply a shame the developers didn't attempt to better integrate the two more closely to match the SNES graphic style.
Ultimately, this is indicative of the overall feeling of the package on offer; everything feels a little thrown-together and rushed. Even the brilliant soundtrack has been toned down and sounds like a weird 8-bit retro rendition of the original, which is a minor tragedy in itself. What you're left with is an absolutely brilliant game to start with that's been tweaked a little too much for its own good. The old adage, if it ain't broke don't fix it, certainly applies here. The final sour point is you won't be able to play co-op either, as this feature was accessed on GBA hardware via link cable and thus doesn't work on Wii U at all.
To summarise, the bottom line is if you're chomping at the bit to play a brilliant Contra game with excellent 16-bit graphics, thumping soundtrack (and 2-player co-op still intact) on your Wii U, you already can - it's called Contra III: The Alien War. There's practically no reason to pick this up as long as the SNES version exists alongside it, other than the novelty value of playing a couple of Mega Drive stages. While Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX was a good GBA game, on Wii U it's simply not needed, even though the legacy gameplay still shines.