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Contra: Shattered Soldier (PlayStation 2) artwork

Contra: Shattered Soldier (PlayStation 2) review

"We all have that friend who happens to be a movie buff - the guy that owns more movies than you have seen in your life, and knows more about film than anyone has a right to know. For some odd reason, these movie buffs usually work (or have worked) for a movie rental company. For me, my movie-friend is Jeremiah, and he is a former employer of Movie Gallery. He worked there solely for the free rentals, if that tells you anything. Ultimately, I think it was worth the time, given his monthly bil..."

We all have that friend who happens to be a movie buff - the guy that owns more movies than you have seen in your life, and knows more about film than anyone has a right to know. For some odd reason, these movie buffs usually work (or have worked) for a movie rental company. For me, my movie-friend is Jeremiah, and he is a former employer of Movie Gallery. He worked there solely for the free rentals, if that tells you anything. Ultimately, I think it was worth the time, given his monthly bill for rental fees.

Jeremiah and I have been known to butt heads when it comes to theatrical preferences, be it style, substance, acting, whatever. One of the more notable debates we will have from time to time is in regards to older movies; he thinks that any classic is worth watching just as much as a good action-packed flick, while I say that it depends on what kind of mood you're in. Moreso, I've found that Jeremiah favors the original version of ANY film over a remake. This is an interesting position of favoritism...I tend argue the point that simply being the first person to make a particular movie does not automatically make yours the best. In essence, you are proclaiming to the world that you had the idea first; I have no problems with being #1 on such a list. However, just because you had the idea first does not necessarily mean you implemented that idea in the best way possible. Remakes and updates are a spice of life, breathing new life into older styles and genres and making them more accessible to the current audience. They can also correct mistakes made in previous versions, whether it’s a minor plot point or something the director simply wanted to change.

Segue to Konami, whom - along with Squaresoft and Capcom - are the kings of updating their own formulas in the videogaming world without having to create entirely new games. They are the Dons of the video game Mafia, each controlling vast empires with underlings alike in style yet quite different from their rival "families". Each company has had their classics that they continually improve upon and add to: Konami has Castlevania, Gradius, Metal Gear, and Contra; Capcom has Street Fighter, Mega Man, and Resident Evil; and Squaresoft has the Final Fantasy series. They has kept their games fresh and new, despite their obvious similarities to their predecessor games. I find nothing wrong with taking what works from each game, then attempting to improve on those qualities while weeding out what did not settle with gamers. Updates, I would say, are the way to go in the video gaming industry, provided the update is handled in a user-friendly manner.

Contra: Shattered Soldier is one heck of an update. Following up the dismal attempts at a Playstation Contra game, Konami decided to go back to what made the games great in the first place instead of supplanting the name and style in a different genre. The result is a back-to-basic formula with so much thrown at you, its difficulty raises itself above its predecessors to an almost maddening height. However, I too quickly jump into the review...

Shattered Soldier's premise is a basic one: you take in 1 of 2 soldiers against an entire armada of opponents, hoping to slay them through the use of your weaponry, jumping skills, and a WHOLE lot of luck and pattern-memorization. Your characters - "Badass" Bill ("Player One" from the original Contra) and "I'm a super-bitch android chick" Lucia - can run, jump, and aim their gun in 8 directions around them, firing whatever you might have currently selected. The gun itself is equipped with 3 different flavors of ammunition - Machine Gun, Flame-thrower, and Grenade - that you can switch between at any playable portion of the game, removing the frustrating locating of such weapons that plagued previous Contra games. Unfortunately for you, the “One-Hit-Kill” rule is still in effect, so if your soldier touches even the smallest harmful object, they’re toast and you lose a life. Lose all your lives and you have to continue (which, if you’ve gotten far enough, can be mid-stage instead of the beginning); lose all your continues and it’s Game Over, Man.

Using your rather basic skills, you get to traverse each stage by blasting everything you see. Nearly everything in the game is predetermined - enemy placement, bosses you fight, et cetera - so learning and relearning the levels is the name of the game. Since everything has a weak point and methods of attack that can be learned and circumvented, you’ll find yourself in training mode extracting where and when enemies come into play and what the best way to dispatch them is. Thankfully, your character has also gained new abilities in the form of locked gun position (for firing in 1 continual direction while being able to freely move), Movement Lock (stand still while firing in any direction you want), and the all-powerful charging gun. As a secondary form of attack, you can charge up each respective gun setting, firing off a different style of weapon entirely...Seeking Missiles, Circular-Spread Shot, and Plasma Shots are at your disposal just as easily as the base weaponry. Best of all is that, despite previous Contra games' precedents, you no longer lose your weaponry upon death. You perpetually keep all those fun little toys at your beck-and-call, ready to maim anything daring (or stupid) enough to step between you and your goal.

So you have this immense firepower at your disposal, yet death no longer robs you of your accoutrements. A fan of the earlier portions of the series might question where the challenge lies, since previous Contra endeavors were increasingly difficult due to the sudden loss of that coveted Spread or Flamethrower via dying. Konami doth not disappoint in this sector of the game, delivering blistering romps through every possible landscape imaginable while continuously hurling opponents of varying styles in the general direction of our heroes. Traversing a difficult landscape while dealing with mutant dogs, alien ninjas, droids, and what-have-you are standard fare in Contra games. Still, they all look and move beautifully, and are equally challenging; best of all, though, is that they make you react quickly AND strategize, deciding on-the-fly which weapon (or charged weapon) provides the safest path of destruction through the harmful denizens of each level.

Boss battles can almost be considered puzzle games in addition to their shooter/platform genre adjectives. First, you find their weakness(es), then figure out how to safely exploit them through the terrain you must brave and the stock weaponry you hold in your hands. Gone is the necessity of having bosses that can be surmounted via the regular Machine Gun, since death will no longer relegate you to such a weapon. You may have a Machine Gun in your hands, but there are more capable - and sometimes necessary - weapons that may be used. So now you have bosses that pass through varying attack styles and patterns, causing your characters to dance about the screen as they hope to stay alive while flipping through their weaponry to find the equipment that suits their situation. Since the controls don't hinder you - in fact, every little facet of the games' movement style seems suited to aiding you whenever possible - this makes the game a chore to complete because of the difficulty planned. I like a game that is difficult because it plays off of your skill rather than games that become frustrating due to unforeseen faults in the gameplay, and this game has just what the doctor ordered. Can't argue with that, eh?

However, such a game cannot be without some flaws. The graphics were nicely handled and were animated quite well, while the music was oddly fitting (although some tracks were too short and looped too quickly, causing a rush for the mute button). The gameplay was a wonderfully spicy dish that challenged the pallete while keeping the appetite ready for another stage, and even the plot struck me as innovative (to a degree) and a step apart from the norm. So where did the game not meet up? Replay, which I normally wouldn't put as much stock in...but seems perilously important in Shattered Soldier's later stages. Upon beating the first 4 (selectable) stages, you are given access to the 5th (and initially the final) stage, set in the introductory level of the original Contra. You then do battle with a bevy of bemused, beguiling bosses bursting with bountiful, bestial brutality.* Beating this stage gives you a short ending...but wait, there's more! If you manage to average a high enough grade on every level, you can access another level and ending past this one! And if you can go through all those stages AND this new stage and average a high-enough grade, then you unlock ANOTHER stage and ANOTHER ending...

...and this is where the game becomes very, very frustrating. Let's take a quick look at how you are graded on the levels first to figure out why this is: each stage has 100 points worth of enemies and bosses. When you take out an enemy that is worth a point, it goes towards your score for the stage, and your total is tallied up at the end of the stage to give an overall grade. Then, your number of deaths in that stage is counted up and points for each loss are deducted from the total, thus effectively reducing your grade. Since acquiring the special movies and extra stages requires near-perfect games to be played (scores of 100 are required), this reduces your number of errors to practically none; if you die in a stage, then you have already severely hurt your chances for completing the game. You might have spent an hour working your way up to Stage 5, only to die halfway through and be forced to complete the level with the knowledge that you have already crippled the entire project.

Losing a life in previous games meant that you would have to cope with the loss of your better weapon and press onward using the standard Machine Gun; Shattered Soldier's deaths cripple your entire further progress. You will have to replay entire stages just to regain the grade you lost from one simple mistake...and this is all assuming that you didn't miss any (point) enemies, either, and do not die on the second run-through. This isn't a major flaw, as it only tends to hurt you if you are trying to reach the final section(s) of the game, but it is a frustrating flaw nonetheless. I do not like the concept of making a single mistake and having to replay a section of the game to make up for it; to have endure an entire stage, requiring minutes from 1 second worth of mistakes, is almost an insult to my gaming abilities.

Jeremiah and I still like to debate on whether the originality of an idea is more important than its presentation, although I have gotten him to freely admit that certain movies HAVE been presented better in their remakes. Ok, so we both agree that the original "Gone in 60 Seconds" was more entertaining (and ultimately better, we think) than its Nicholas Cage remake...due to its presentation. Likewise, we both agree that the Contra series is back and better than ever, and there is no way that the original could possibly be better than this latest jaunt through the syndicated efforts of Konami. They did it right folks, even if I did find some of it to be frustrating...and how'd they do it? By taking what works and improving it, changing just enough to make sure it was a different game...yet it just felt oh so right.

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Community review by reverend (September 13, 2004)

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