The DORK Club

January 12 [2008]

Contra 4: Back to the future

Filed under: — Travis Trekell @ 8:36pm

CONTRA 4 BOX ART COVER ACTION SHOOTER DS WAYFORWARD KONAMI XXXLike New Super Mario Bros. before it, Contra 4 ignores over a decade of gameplay evolution and jumps backwards through time to the early ‘90s, imagining a sequel to Contra 3 unaware of the games that have come between now and then. This brutally difficult, 2D run-n-gun shooter doesn’t aspire to be anything more than a simple diversion, challenging and replayable. As a sequel to Contra 3, it more than succeeds, reminding us why we spent so many hours toiling through those ‘Alien Wars’ in our youth; and as a celebration of the Contra series itself, Contra 4 makes us wish every entry could be this damn good. With a surprising amount of content and an old school, nostalgic charm, Contra 4 is a bittersweet reminder that they don’t make them like this anymore.

For starters, most modern games are nowhere near this difficult. With large chunks of development dollars budgeted towards pre-rendered cinematics and detailed narratives, developers need to ensure every player will reach the end of their game to see all the content they went to such great lengths creating. Contra 4, however, has none of these modern trappings. Instead, the one-hit-kill gameplay is savagely difficult from level one to level nine, never letting up on you in the slightest. The game requires a combination of rote memorization and battle-honed skill, as waves of projectiles and surprise ambushes bring death with equal swiftness. As often as you’ll find yourself cursing the screen and out of continues – even on the game’s easiest difficulty setting – the exaggerated difficulty level only betters the game. Before too long, you’ll find yourself beating each level a little faster, dying less and less. Even after you’ve beaten the game, there’s plenty of reason to continue playing through its challenges, as each playthrough you see yourself inch ever closer to perfection with a new high score to match.

Air units!

Of course, this sort of gameplay is old hat for fans of the Contra series, and Contra 4 comes packed with plenty of allusions to older games to make any longtime fan smile. As the sequel to Contra 3, the game borrows heavily from the SNES classic, reimagining enemies, boss fights, locations, and weaponry from the seminal shooter. And though a finally-useful version of the laser is more than welcome, we sorely miss the multidirectional flamethrower. The original game that started it all doesn’t go unrecognized, as the first two levels act as loving homage to Contra’s opening stages. The original Contra’s psuedo-3D, behind-the-back corridor segments also return, this time with actual polygons, and punctuate the more difficult side-scrolling levels. The Konami code also makes a comeback, though not quite as you’d expect.

Contra 4 isn’t only about nostalgia and series worship, thankfully. The game adds its own wrinkles to the Contra formula, thanks largely to the DS’ dual screens. The game’s levels are rendered on both the top and bottom screens, making for an experience rich in verticality. A gap between the screens in-game accounts for the gap between the screens on the console itself, but with the number of projectiles flying through the air, it’s easy to lose track of one stray bullet when it disappears into the break, only to have it reemerge unexpectedly and kill you. As you play, however, you’ll become more adapt at tracking projectiles, even when out of sight, and come to thank the screen gap for the extra time it affords you rather than curse its existence. A new grappling gun allows you to zipline between the top and bottom screen at any time, latching onto ceilings and power lines. The boss fights, in particular, stretch the possibilities of the two screens to their limits, as the game throws towering monstrosities your way, forcing you to pay careful attention to each screen at the same time.

Air units!

After you first complete the game, even on easy, you’ll unlock a challenge mode. Here, you face 40 unique challenges that have you completing levels under strict time limits, using prototype weaponry, and battling endlessly respawning waves of attackers to unlock new playable characters, comics books, and an interview with Contra series director Nobuya Nakazato. In addition, two of the first things you unlock are full versions of the original Contra and Super C, which are just as fun and playable today as they were on the NES. Contra 4 also features a virtual museum that acts as a crash course in Contra history and places each game in the overall series timeline, including Japanese and European releases. It’s clear that Contra 4 was made by a group of people that know, love, and respect Contra. Their passion permeates the game and it’s difficult not to have at least a little of their enthusiasm rub off on you.

Besides playing great, the game looks and sounds great too. Visually, Contra 4 looks like a lost SNES classic, but no game on the SNES was quite this detailed or fluidly animated. Artistically, Contra 4 borrows heavily from Contra 3, completely redrawing many of its most recognizable sprites and backgrounds. The variety on display is stunning; you’ll visit an abandoned laboratory, a lush jungle, and an alien hive. The game’s minimal interface elements, however, relegate your score to splash screens between levels, making it impossible to track how close you are to earning a valuable extra life. Contra 4’s soundtrack is also a blast from the past, featuring the sort of synth-rock video game music that’s no longer en vogue in this age of orchestrated OSTs.

Air units!

Contra 4 feels like a game that fell through a hole in time. Lost to the past, it found a new home here in the present. The game is a relic from a bygone era, a memory of halcyon days spent with Ocean platformers and re-numbered Final Fantasy titles. Still, as a modern action title, Contra 4 proves how timeless and compelling its 2D challenges are, and stands proudly as one of the most accomplished action games on the DS. Younger gamers whose 2D experience is isolated to minigames and submenus will find a surprisingly substantial, always challenging experience. Similarly, us old codgers looking to relive our 8- and 16-bit glory will find a game that allows us to remember The Good Ol’ Days, even for just 45 minutes or until our continues run out.

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(c)1997-2008 Travis Trekell