CONTRA 4 / Konami / Nintendo DS
It's been fifteen years since we've had a really good Contra game. The last decent effort was Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis, and though it was a very good game it was also so difficult as to be almost unplayable; the last really top-notch Contra game was good old Contra 3 for the Super Nintendo. Since then it's been nothing but a handful of half-baked derivatives farmed out by Konami to second-rate design teams.
Naming this game Contra 4 is thus a pretty bold move; it implies a return to the quality Contra games of old. However, most of the people who made the original Contra games great have long since left Konami, and so this title has been handed off to relatively new and inexperienced team WayForward - a group that has mostly developed licensed games of children's cartoons to this point.
I must say that WayForward clearly approached this game with the best of intentions - they've made it look and feel almost exactly like the 16-bit titles. Unfortunately, they just aren't able to fill the giant shoes of the original Konami team, and what we end up with are a bunch of elements of the older games airlifted into place and sort of mishmoshed together, with unbalanced difficulty and uninspiring level design.
So here's the setup - Red Falcon ... errr scratch that, "Black Viper" ... is once again hovering over Earth and vaporizing people graphically from orbit. Somehow, their power source is based in the Galapapalapalapalgilos Archipelago once again, which makes for conveniently familiar runs through mountains, waterfalls and futuristic military bases.
Gameplay is fundamentally similar to the original Contra games, except it stretches across the two screens now. This actually doesn't work out all that well. First, trying to watch two screens at once in a fast-paced game like this just sucks. And then, there's a significant "dead zone" between the screen that enemies and projectiles disappear into, only to reappear in unexpected places later.
The game is also obsessed with difficulty - even on Easy mode it's really hard. It isn't quite as bad as Hard Corps, but it's pretty close. Unfortunately, the difficulty does not grow organically from clever level design, but simply from endlessly spawning enemies over and over right next to you. It takes the "bullet hell" approach common in space shooters, where you basically have to die over and over memorizing a portion of each level each time. Some people are into that, but I find it tedious and cheap.
The designers also had some interesting ideas about what constitutes the essence of Contra. Namely, they seem to think that one of the main ingredients of the success of the original Contra games was surprise shots to the shins. In fact, they apparently feel that shin-shooting is the key to the success of the whole franchise, as they've packed every level with tons of guys who pop up from the floor immediately in front of you and blast you in the ankles if you aren't previously aware that they are there.
The music is mostly tepid techno remixes of songs from the previous games. Between that, and the really irritating Duke Nukem-esque voice clips they decided to throw in for lord knows what reason, I spent most of my time with this one with the sound off. And that's not cool for a Contra game (oh Kukeiha Club, how we miss you so).
The NES versions of Contra and Super C are unlockable, and this is a nice touch, except that even veteran gamers may have a really hard time getting to a point where they are available. The emulation of both is solid, but I really feel they blew an opportunity here to port the Japanese version of the original Contra (previously unseen in the West) which had some cinematics, better graphics and better music.
WayForward seems to think that Contra is about being pefectionist hard, which it isn't - only Hard Corps was like that and that was an aberration in the series. The games were certainly tough, but they all had relatively easy periods in which to blow off steam, and didn't kill you at every single slip-up on the controls like this one does. This game is completely fucking ridiculous to expect anyone to actually sit through except the most masochistic mentally unbalanced nuts (like those that play the memorization-based space shooters). WayForward captured the look and the feel of the game well, and that's a great bullet point for their resume, but it really doesn't do much for us gamers when the game isn't actually all that fun to play.
* Gameplay Video