You have to understand that I can rarely complete a conversation on games without bringing up the Contra series, and most importantly, Contra III: Alien Wars. I played the previous big Contra games when I was a kid and had fun with them, but when Contra III showed up, it exploded my brain. You have to understand this if you hope to imagine the excitement I felt when Contra 4 was announced for the Nintendo DS.
Needless to say, I’ve played the game and it’s great . . . but I have my complaints.
If you aren’t familiar with the Contra series, you should be. At least look it up on youtube or somethin. Contra III is the one that gets all the love, so give it a try when you can. The games can be best compared to 80’s action movies. I’m talking Rambo, Commando, Predator, the fewer questions, the more bullets, the better. That’s Contra. Let’s move on.
Contra 4 looks and feels like any of the old Contras, in all the best ways, and with plenty of homages. The DS enforces a 16 bit look similar to that of Contra III, but with more vibrant colors and some smoother animation work. The setting is a match for the early games, with the first level based on the rambo-esque jungle theme and the boss of that stage an updated version of the original “gun-wall” design. Having emphasized my approval for the game’s aesthetic, I’d like to move on to some complaints.
Just after having bought Contra IV, I eagerly read through its manual, anticipating what may lay ahead for a new sequel to this old genre-defining franchise. It was the manual what first betrayed me.
“Luckily, your mission is simple: Blaze a path of destruction to his front door and invade his guts! Freakin’ yeah!”
The entire booklet is infested with this kind of cliched, sarcastic bro-humor.
“To coddle your fragile ego, the game can be played in three flavors: EASY, NORMAL and HARD.”
“The game will temporarily save your position if Mommy calls you to dinner . . .”
You have a penis, I get it.
I know Contra isn’t exactly appealing to an intellectual audience, but I also prefer not to be slapped in the face and called a moron by the games I play. That’s exactly what some oh-so clever American writer did when he wrote this garbage, slap me in the face. Alright, so the damn book is bogus, but who reads a book to play Contra? Just pop the game in for the real thing. . . . The results left me conflicted.
The opening sequence is polished, but not right. The art is bright, soft anime and the writing is horrible and unnecessary. You might be thinking “Who cares about the intro? IT’S CONTRA.” If so, I must remind you of Contra III’s opening:
SHOT 1: A city. A tempest brews and the screen goes white. When the city returns, it has been destroyed. A crazy space noise is heard and a giant, alien face appears in the sky.
SHOT 2: Giant letters fly across the screen, big enough that you can only read one word at a time: “The Alien Wars Begin!”
SHOT 3: Cut to the Contra guys loading weapons. One of them says “It’s time for revenge” and the second agrees, “We must attack aggressively.”
That is Contra. No foolin around, just plain and simple logic: BAM, ALIENS ATTACK. BAM, WE GOTTA KILL EM. BAM, HERE I AM WITH A GUN AND THERE ARE SOME ALIENS. Simple as that.
And notice the writing. You can just tell it was already stiff and unemotional in Japanese and then a super literal translation to English was the final profound touch. Perfection. Quite the opposite of Contra IV’s opening.
The real problem is that in returning to a famously classic series, the developers became too self-conscious. They weren’t just making a new Contra, they were making a new Contra. They studied the old storylines and characters and really worked hard to bring back that classic feel. They took this project seriously–so seriously they destroyed that classic feel–a feeling that became classic thanks to developers without any worry over how storylines fit together or the series was represented to fans.
The booklet, the intro, the “Museum” feature that shows images and info from older games, and Duke Nukem style voice effects that make your character’s say things like “Come get some,” “Take ’em out,” “Locked and loaded,” or “Let’s party,” are all distracting slips in what was a very straight faced series. Contra was silly, but took itself seriously and that’s what made it great. Now Contra has acknowledged its coolness and silliness, and therefore it has neither.
Still, all of this came from good intentions. I’m sure producing a new Contra comes with a lot of pressure and these additions seemed like a good way to respect and build off of the series. Unfortunately, they weren’t.
In order of appearance:
- Museum: From the main menu you can visit the museum, which contains images and information on every part of the Contra franchise and as you play you can unlock new stuff. Yes, the museum does make the game seem like Konami’s givin a little self-head, but it’s pretty cool to be able to scroll back through the history and then pretend later that I’m an expert. Because that’s gotten me a lot of dates, seriously. I bring up Contra trivia and every girl in the club is in love with me, almost as much as Konami is with themselves. It’s fantastic.
- Character Select: Before starting your game, you can select which of the Contra guys you want to play as. I was always more about the Red guy (the booklet claims he has a name, but I don’t buy it), but aside from the standard blue and red, they included the green and purple minority characters. It doesn’t change the game, but I guess it’s a nice touch.
- Duke Nukemesque Phrases: Yeah, they’re really stupid. Fortunately you can turn them off in the options menu. I’m grateful.
- Grappling Hook: If you don’t use the dual screens it ain’t exactly a DS, is it? Press a button and a cable fires up out of your character until it snags a ceiling or rail or something. You suddenly fly upward and hang from whatever point was grabbed. The grappling hook was a really good idea. I do wish that they treated it as a tool like the guns, something you could modify or upgrade with items. Either that or if it was a bit more interactive; for example instead of just flying upward, you climb up and can swing back and forth, etc. Anyway, I see where they’re coming from and it works nicely in the game so congrats. There are some levels that demand you get pretty quick with the grappling hook, so players will either get good at it or be very frustrated.
- R-Button: Now when you press the R-button, you can aim your gun without running in the direction you’re aiming! This was an excellent touch. It has been an issue since the beginning of Contra and finally there is a remedy that works wonderfully. Put those extra buttons to use guys! Kudos!
- Switch Weapon Retained, Dual Weapons Gone: These aren’t new features, but they’re worth pointing out. The ability to hold 2 weapons at the same time (as introduced in Contra III) remains in Contra IV. Awesome. Unfortunately, you can no longer hold out both weapons simultaneously and fire in all directions. . . . Okay, so that was pretty much useless, but it was cool anyway. I’d have liked to see another form of the dual fire (especially if it was combined with the R-Button function), but alas it is gone.
- Leveling-Up Weapons: Now you have a reason to grab the same weapon more than once. When you grab the same weapon multiple times, it levels up to a more powerful form. I must say I was extremely disappointed to find out that if you have a weapon (weapon A) and you switch to another (weapon B), then pick up a 2nd copy of weapon A while using weapon B, the new weapon A will overwrite your weapon B. You end up with 2 copies of weapon A filling both of your weapon slots. Why didn’t they program it to automatically level-up the other weapon instead of overwriting your current one? Because that would be far too convenient. Apparently this function comes from the arcade version of Super C.
- Drop Weapon Button: Does anyone ever use this function? I guess you can drop one weapon to experiment with another, but you’re pretty much never going to do that. On the contrary, I’ve cursed this button more than a few times after having accidentally bumped it.
- Bombs: The epilepsy bombs of Contra III are gone. That was disappointing. There are some
- Rebalanced Weapons: Maybe this is just an illusion, but the Spreads aren’t exactly the best weapon anymore. You really have to switch back and forth between guns to maintain an ideal. The spread is less powerful and less dense at level 1. It’s much better at level 2, but still noticeably weaker than other weapons like the focused ray of the machine gun or the mighty concussion grenades. I consider this rebalancing an improvement, but to be honest, I end up sticking to a Machine Gun/Spreads Combo anyway. Heat-seekers are much more rare than they used to be as well. On the one hand, I miss using them all the time, but on the other hand, they become a treat to play with when you can.
- Original Flamethrower: You remember that really awesome flamethrower that showed up in Contra III? Yeah, they scrapped that. It was too much like a real flamethrower which is powerful and effective. Now this weapon fires a circling little fireball more like the flamethrower in the classic Contra games. And just like the original version, it really sucks. Level 2 flamethrower isn’t much better. Thanks, I appreciate that they’re staying true to the series–really it’s fantastic.
- Save Game: Now you can quit the game at any time and begin later from the start of the same level. It costs 1 continue, but at least its possible. I get that they wanted to hold on to some of the old school Contra challenge, but I’d have liked to see a real save feature that didn’t cost you anything, especially on a hand-held system that I usually can’t play without regular interruptions.
I’m very happy with it. It’s not perfect, and if you ask me, it’s not quite as good as Contra III, but it also blazes its own path with features that aren’t in the previous games. It’s tough which means I won’t expect to be done with it any time soon, but it’s also not the ideal hand-held. I wouldn’t bother playing this on the bus and I wouldn’t bother starting a game that I couldn’t sit through to the end. Still, if you have a DS, Contra IV would be a great investment.
I’m glad that systems like the DS have created a safe haven for 2D. It’s a terrible tragedy that 3D dominates the game market like it does because most games simply shouldn’t have a 3rd dimension. It took a long time for Contra IV to come out and the only reason for that was the Nintendo 64 (and each console after it). If 3D hurt the platforming genre, it murdered the shooter (as it was known at the time). Things changed, 3D shooters took over, but that extra D means it’s a completely different genre.
Work like Contra IV reminds us that nothing has changed. We didn’t play those old games because we didn’t have the next generation to replace it yet. We played them because they were good on their own, they still are and they always will be. The graphics and the dimensions we explore will never change the fact that our old ones worked just fine.
-Christopher J. Rock