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Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis) artwork

Contra: Hard Corps (Genesis) review

"Contra. Forgive me the mild cliché, but the Nicaragua connection is too good not to bring up first thing, every time. Really now: the Contras were rapists, murderers, and terrorist thugs who plagued the countryside of a hapless Central American nation – and incontestably were the good guys. Equally the digital Contras, for all that they are an elite force dedicated to defeating the extraterrestrial aggressor, are mangy, despicable, homicidal-glint-in-the-eye folks you cross to the ..."

Contra. Forgive me the mild cliché, but the Nicaragua connection is too good not to bring up first thing, every time. Really now: the Contras were rapists, murderers, and terrorist thugs who plagued the countryside of a hapless Central American nation – and incontestably were the good guys. Equally the digital Contras, for all that they are an elite force dedicated to defeating the extraterrestrial aggressor, are mangy, despicable, homicidal-glint-in-the-eye folks you cross to the other side of the street to avoid – but we love ‘em just ‘cause their opposition is so biblically evil.

In the Contra series, it’s humanity versus the alien antagonist, and both sides are saving humility and piety for the afterparty. The formula is fail-safe – or so it seemed until the series, coming off two excellent installments, Contra and Super C, crashed and burned by releasing three flops: Operation C, on the inadequate-to-the-task Gameboy, Contra Force – the last, terrible Contra on the NES – and The Alien Wars, loved by many but mostly thought inferior to the first two masterpieces.

Enter Hard Corps, the Contra magnum opus. The alien Red Falcon threat is back, this time assisted by some nasty human defectors – to combat them, the elite Hard Corps is dispatched. Each of the four characters plays differently, in particular possessing unique weaponry – the character diversification can be seen in that the cast is no longer two identical guys with different colored pants. In addition to the requisite tough guy and muscularly attractive woman, Hard Corps offers you a funky robot and the half-man, half-wolf, half-cyborg Brad Fang. As in previous Contras, two player cooperative action is available if you’re foolish enough to share the joy of slaughtering – and also as in previous Contras, the game hinges on a wealth of brilliant boss battles, with frenzied side-scrolling levels providing the interludes.

What separates Hard Corps from its predecessors isn’t gameplay, it’s visual splendor – compared to this, titles like Contra and Super C were undeniably softcore. Let’s compare: what happens in other games when you shoot an enemy? He dies, which is cool and all, but lacking a certain something. Hard Corps reveals what that “something” is: it’s a colossal inferno consuming much of the screen. From the first time you fire your gun, you’ll notice that robots and mutants perish in a fireball spreading in about eight or ten directions.

The Hard Corps aren’t even using bullets – this basic gun has got to be some kind of grenade launcher or handheld mortar, because last time I checked shooting someone with a regular bullet does not make them explode. You can imagine the grisly efficiency of familiar upgrades like the spread gun or flamethrower, and in addition to those stalwarts from previous Contras, each of the characters has blistering unique attacks. An engaging electronic rock score motivates the action – much the same as the driving percussion of the 8-bit games, but able to do far more with the better technology of the Genesis. Even compared to modern games, these sights and sounds are splendid: not because of their clarity or sharp animation (though the Genesis is pushed to the limit) but because the whole affair is so damn furious.

That’s not to say that Hard Corps is just a cosmetic triumph – more important than its visual magnificence, it restores the combination of precise control and extremely exacting, yet patterned and soluble, difficulty that made the first two Contras tours de force.

Demonstrating this better than any other aspect of the game, the boss fights are the crowning achievement, just as in Contra past. This are the primo struggles you’ll lecture your grandkids about when they come to you crying because they can’t beat the Zeldas of the future.

Consider the third-stage boss, not far into the game, but appearing to you only at the end of a long slog through a noisome garbage dump. Your showdown with this oily collaborator Noiman Cascade is an orgy of violence. He takes the incarnation of the constellation Taurus and begins a flying bull-rush assault on your person, diving down to gore you, recovering quickly from his misses to try it again. Of course, this is Contra, so one brush with him will kill you – and of course, this is Contra, so his lethal figure takes up most of the screen, leaving you precious little space to work. But you do have a brand new move, the slide, which gives you a brief moment of tonic invincibility while whisking you across the screen. So you ought, with some effort, to be able to beat Noiman’s bull – and when you do, congratulations, you only have five more forms to defeat, each making this bull business look like a joke. Brutal endurance battles like this are the norm in Hard Corps.

You’ll face a glut of superb boss fights on the way to the finish, but this edition of Contra throws an extra twist at you by offering multiple paths. It’s still linear – it would be unconscionable to allow a person to skip a moment of this greatness – but you’ll be offered chances to fight extra bosses and achieve different endings to the game.

The endings aren’t worthwhile, unless you care deeply about the story of your Contra games – and if that’s true, you are likely missing the point. The chance for more Hard Corps is reward enough, and along with the multiple characters the extra bosses add depth to a game veteran Contra maestros will likely plow through. Trying again with a new protagonist is hardly a dull affair. The traditional “streets of a shattered metropolis” first stage gives way to jungles inhabited by axe-chucking apes and a macabre alien lair dripping with dastardly adversaries to repulse even the most sanguine player, all with enough variety to keep the game ever novel – not that you’ll have the time to look at the scenery. It will, of course, be obscured anyway behind the gargantuan flames sprouting from the combusting bodies of your wounded opponents. Let’s not forget that oh-so-vital point.

Scripture teaches us the meek shall inherit the earth. Konami wisely retorts, fuck that. Hard Corps returns to the grueling, sado-masochistic, meticulously-crafted difficulty that should have been the series’ flagship quality throughout. Plus lots of stuff gets blown up and there’s some nasty mutants and robots tear-assing around, and God knows we all love that crap (and despite my derisive tone, we really do). Moreover, of all the older Contras – those before the PS2 revival, let’s ignore the late ‘90s dreck – it feels by far the least dated, with its powerful apocalyptic visuals and balls-to-the-wall warfare. This is one of those games that earns not just a retrospective thumbs-up but a hortatory get out and play this now. Don’t make me say it twice.

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Community review by denouement (September 19, 2004)

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