Contra 4 (DS) review
"Heroes aren't what they used to be. There haven't been any good, mind-blowingly badass characters in years. Sure, there's the occasional exception like Solid Snake, but the vast majority of today's protagonists are either a bunch of generic gunmen clad in fancy armored suits or whiny, self-absorbed, spiky-haired teenagers. So we get better stories and understand these new characters' perspectives and motivations. That doesn't necessarily make a good game. What happened to guys like Mike Haggar,..."
Heroes aren't what they used to be. There haven't been any good, mind-blowingly badass characters in years. Sure, there's the occasional exception like Solid Snake, but the vast majority of today's protagonists are either a bunch of generic gunmen clad in fancy armored suits or whiny, self-absorbed, spiky-haired teenagers. So we get better stories and understand these new characters' perspectives and motivations. That doesn't necessarily make a good game. What happened to guys like Mike Haggar, Duke Nukem, and all the others that showed what being a real badass was all about? Where are all those brave souls that didn't need stuff like character development and a plot to make them likeable? Where's the showmanship, the charisma? Is the heroic badass truly dead? Not just yet. While old-school heroes are certainly a dying breed, Contra 4 represents everything that makes them so damned awesome.
The year is 2638, and Bill Rizer and Lance Bean are back in action. As the heroes of Contra III, they're well-versed in the arts of kicking ass. They're teamed with Mad Dog and Scorpion, a pair of seasoned veterans looking for some fresh targets. They're on a crusade against the Black Viper, an alien entity looking to snuff out the human race. Even if the destruction of mankind is the most generic villainous scheme ever, it's still serious enough for our heroes to journey to their old jungle stomping grounds from the original Contra. That's really all you need to know about Contra 4; with an alien invasion already in progress, there's no time to consider the emotional baggage.
So. Four men are the only thing standing in the way of a worldwide extermination. That's a pretty scary (if not depressing) prospect, isn't it? Fear not, for these heroes are among the toughest 2D warriors you'll ever get the privilege of playing. Forget about things like stealth, high score combo chains, and all the rest of the stuff that games have been spoon-feeding you; this crusade is about killing people, plain and simple. After rappelling off a helicopter, your character will unholster his one-shot peashooter rifle and riddle the battleground with bullets. Depending on your difficulty setting (you'll likely switch to Easy Mode after getting roasted every five seconds on Normal), your extraterrestrial foes can take a couple of bullets before going down. While some of them will just sprint towards you, the enemy forces are heavily entrenched with machine guns, grenades, exploding zombies, laser canons, and tons of alien weaponry. With enemies and projectiles literally coming from every direction, you're going to have quite a time slaughtering them all.
Oh, and by the way: You'll die if you get hit even once.
Needless to say, you're going to be doing a lot of dodging. That's really the inherent strategy of all Contra games; understanding your ever-precarious position on the screen and avoiding everything that’s being slung at you. While there are playable characters, there are no significant differences in terms of their maneuverability. Your character can leap and bound over enemies, cling onto certain walls, perform Olympian-worthy aerial somersaults, and crawl along the ground. You can even snag high ledges or ceilings with a grappling hook. There’s nothing special or fancy about these moves; they’re just meant to keep you from getting riddled with bullets. While the controls are equally simplistic as the moveset, they are remarkably responsive and easy to pick up. If anything, Contra veterans will feel right at home.
But if you don’t feel like playing defensively, the game’s weapons system is definitely worth abusing. Though you’ll only start off with a wimpy little single-shot rifle, you’ll be able to snag the upgrades and other pickups strewn throughout the levels. You can spray the screen in a wave of buckshot, roast your foes with a flamethrower, and annihilate everything in your path with the laser rifle, or just go on a mass-murdering spree with the machine gun and missiles. While there’s nothing particularly new or innovative about the weapon designs (they’re supposed to kill enemies, not be stylish), you can boost their powers by collecting another pickup of the same weapon. The fact that you can switch between two weapons is a blessing in disguise; it offers plenty of variety and can help you survive the all the brutal battles you’ll have to endure.
If you’ve played any of the older Contra games, all of this should sound pretty familiar to you. Indeed, Konami decided to go back to their old ways to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the franchise. But as a treat to all the fans, they’ve included a truckload of bonus content as well. Once you’ve beaten the Arcade Mode and a few missions in the Challenge Mode, you’ll unlock both the original Contra and Super C, cheat codes and all. You can look over the history of the series via the unlockable comics, artwork, screen shots in the Museum. There are even a few extra character sprites from Contra III, Hard Corps, and Shattered Soldier as well. With so much stuff practically begging to be unlocked, it’s pretty clear that Contra veterans and uninitiated gamers will have plenty to savor over.
Don’t count out the Arcade Mode, though. The game is definitely an old-school shooter, but it still looks brand new. Though some of the level designs are based on those found in older games (the first area is a wonderful homage to the Jungle level in the original title), they look fresh, engaging, and vibrant. Between the lush greenery, rusty sewers, and urban sprawls, there’s plenty to look at. There’s nothing quite as awesome as climbing up the muddy, soaked terraces next to a waterfall and sniping every gunman that gets in your way. Of course, that’s topped when you’re tumbling back down as you’re being chased by a fifty-foot alien monstrosity. There are even a few 3D stages with a tunnel perspective; instead of moving right or left, you’ll have to dodge bullets, shoot targets, and avoid obstacles that appear in an ever-changing background. Even if the characters are essentially a bunch of shirtless, muscle-bound pixels, hearing them say “Come get some” or “Let’s PARTY!” will make you grin more than a few times.
Look, folks. If you have any love at all for retro gaming, then get this game. It’s that simple. Contra 4 hearkens back to the games of old, when you just had a man, a few guns, and a lot of enemies. The wide variety of upgradeable weapons and diehard enemies means you’re going to be in for one Hell of a gunfight. With tons of platforming and dodging blended with the violence, the insanely challenging levels will always be engaging and fun to complete. On the other hand, the incredibly high difficulty level means that you’re going to need plenty of patience and even more skill. For all of you Contra fans, this shouldn’t even be a question. With so many unlockables and references to the other games in the series, you’re going to drown in the nostalgia. But hey, don’t think of Contra 4 as some rehashed title of a forgotten series. Contra is back, and it kicks ass.
Community review by disco (January 25, 2008)
Disco is a San Francisco Bay Area native, whose gaming repertoire spans nearly three decades and hundreds of titles. He loves fighting games, traveling the world, learning new things, writing, photography, and tea. Not necessarily in that order.
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