Developer: WayForward Technologies
Based on: The merciful belief that any broken-down old series can shine anew, if only treated with care and understanding
Article by Nicola Nomali | November 8, 2008
While aesthetics have always been a central criterion in how we evaluate games, merely pushing the limits of current technology is proving an empty victory more and more often. 3D graphics can only improve so much between here and full photorealism, yet developers gamble millions of dollars just to edge out the competition. In turn, the devotion dedicated to fine-tuning the superficial often ignores the fundamentals of game design, leaving consumers with a pile of eye-catching but tragically uninspired tedium.
Meanwhile, gamers constantly plead to see derelict franchises make a comeback -- and by the power of the market alone, the concept of the "retro revival" is becoming not only feasible but attractive. Companies can forego the pains of establishing a new brand from scratch; meanwhile, marketing to an audience known to faun over 8-bit graphics removes the pressure to hack futilely at the uncanny valley. Moreover, they can build openly upon foundations of design that, nostalgia aside, are legitimately ingenious and timeless. Many of these series perished in the first place during the advent of 3D, when their inherent qualities were trashed in a blind rush to advance to blotchy polygons and barely-recognizable gameplay. It took long enough, but the suits and the whores are steadily learning their lesson.
Contra was on particularly shaky ground coming out of the PlayStation era, far fallen from the reverence it commanded on the NES and its successor. For whatever reason, Konami entrusted European developer Appaloosa with translating one of its most valuable properties to 3D -- and not once but twice, they proved they were much better at making games about dolphins and hummingbirds than super-soldiers staving off alien hordes in the future. The damage done, years passed before producer Nobuya Nakazato took up the reins of the series again, but not even his efforts were as smooth as they used to be. Contra: Shattered Soldier? was inaccessible to all but those hardened enough to beat the American version of Hard Corps, and Neo Contra? bore as much resemblance to overhead shooters like Alien Syndrome as it did a Contra game. The series might have been spared from abandonment, but its original brilliance was nowhere in sight.
A couple years later, New Super Mario Bros.? was released for the DS. An early harbinger of the retro love fest about to take place on handheld and console alike, it sold roughly a zillion copies -- which someone at Konami saw and thought, "Hey, Contra is right up there with Super Mario Bros. when people talk about their favorite NES games. Why don't we do that?" And so they did. Contra 4 was announced just in time for the twentieth anniversary of the series -- a fitting milestone to finally return to its roots.
Trepidation set in early when it was revealed Konami had assigned the game to WayForward Technologies, a small developer best known at the time for THQ's Ping Pals. Right away, it seemed like Appaloosa all over again. Those who took a closer look, however, saw that WF was remarkable for making the most of tepid properties and keeping the torch of old-school sensibilities aflame over the years with under-the-radar masterpieces like Shantae. Their technical prowess flourished on the most meager of hardware, and their talent for crafting detailed and fluidly-animating pixel art easily equalled or exceeded the best of the 16-bit era. Of course, so many licensed games from other outfits are miserable inside and out, and a developer putting their all into games based on cartoons is so uncommon, that it's understandable they were lumped into an unfavorable generalization. But for those who knew the whole story, Konami's decision to put them on Contra 4 wasn't just well-founded; it was about the best thing that could have happened to the project.
Not that it was set entirely on their shoulders; one thing games like Contra have going for them is that many of the kids who played them religiously two decades ago now hold jobs that can determine their future. Konami's associate producers, Simon Lai and Tomm Hulett, were both lifelong Contra fans and collaborated directly with WayForward throughout the entire development cycle. Along with WF fixtures such as director Matt Bozon, they demonstrated enough appreciation for the series' history to quell any fanboy's dread in interviews leading up to the release. Jake Kaufman, who was contracted to score the game, spent years building his reputation in the video game remix scene, including a portfolio of original chiptunes that more than qualified him to compose a soundtrack as catchy as any classic Konami game's. One of his Contra-inspired tracks, "Vile Red Falcon," was even inserted virtually unaltered as the first stage theme, and it fits right in. Not unlike Capcom and GRIN's work on Bionic Commando Rearmed?, this enthusiasm for the source material can be felt throughout the entire experience -- right down to the instruction manual, whose willfully ham-fisted prose is straight out of Konami of America's "just go nuts" period.
But Contra 4 is no remake. Although old enemies do return, and most of its stage motifs are reminiscent of those found in previous games, they extend beyond mere fanservice, subverting expectation and standing on their own merits. So yes, you run through a jungle landscape with exploding bridges -- but now the bridges are planted with bombs by saboteurs, and picking them off early will keep the ground beneath your feet. Yes, you take on the Fortified Gate in a boss battle -- but the end of the old fight now only marks the halfway point, where the Gate is pushed up over twice its original height and attacks with new armaments. The music in the waterfall stage begins with a procession of notes that should make anyone who played the NES game? take notice, but then it spins off into an entirely new melody.
Of course, certain traditions are to be expected from a game committed to restoring its long-past glory; the "3D" stage type is reprised from the original game, for one. But beyond that modicum of credence, Contra 4 is equally concerned with expanding on its base and moving the series forward. In other words, it's a true sequel.
Specifically, it's a sequel to Contra III: The Alien Wars? -- hence the title, don't you know. In fact, "4" is much more than a number in this case; it's a declaration of intent. For most people, Contra III represents the pinnacle of the series; every game that followed it either was an utter embarrassment or leaned too heavily on Nakazato's indulgent affection for set pieces; in either case, the simple joy of running and gunning against an army of ordinary foes ceased to exist. By Shattered Soldier, even devices that distinguished the series (such as power-ups) were done away with, and since every stretch of land was only meant to shuffle you along to the next boss fight, platforming itself became a rarity. Your performance was measured and emblazoned onscreen at all times, and insufficient grades would prevent you from seeing the whole game, making every kill (and death) an ordeal. Things were ever becoming less like Contra and more...something else. Something nowhere near as good.
With its bold numeral, Contra 4 disregards everything that came after Contra III and names itself the successor. It invokes some kind of alternate history where no one ever cared to hold the series to the precepts of 3D, or choke the fun from it in pursuit of some hardcore ideal. It ventures to show what could have happened if classic style and substance had been allowed to coexist beyond the 16-bit era. In fact, its substance is drawn from even further back, from the game's NES forerunners. While Super C? lives in Contra III's shadow and the original game is remembered more for its novel cooperative play than its level design, these two exemplify the heart of Contra: flowing stages, dynamic environments, high roads, low roads, small fry blocking you in just the right spots, eclectic power-ups, and bosses memorable enough that it's okay if you don't fight a new one every thirty seconds. These are the components of an enticing, well-paced game, and such is the philosophy that Contra 4 upholds from start to finish. And of all the vestiges of the series to see return to the forefront, it's by far the most welcome.
Of course, a play field spanning two screens is good news where versatility is concerned, and the level design often doubles the number of paths that might have availed in a one-screen game. This also doubles the obstacles, enemies, power-ups...and in general, the degree of replayability. For example, would you rather run along the bottom screen and deal with androids sniping from behind pillars, or risk fire from the mounted cannon on the overpass for a shot at that high-flying invincibility capsule? Is it worth delving into a crowd of zombies to shoot them before they explode, or would you clear out the alien grubs on the rooftops and count on the distance to save you? And what about weapons? Flame would be good for this boss coming up, but you're going to want Homing right after that, and you might not see another Spread capsule before that gauntlet of regenerating robots two stages down. For being hard enough to demand thorough practice, Contra 4 hosts an abundance of possibilities to encourage improvisation and keep you coming back.
One seemingly obvious criticism is the invisible "gap" linking the two screens, which presumes the physical space between them is still part of the game space. But in execution, it's unquestionably preferable to the alternative (assuming the two screens attach end-on-end, when they really don't). With the gap, you can watch a bullet disappear from the bottom screen and, by keeping its path in your mind's eye, accurately predict where it'll emerge on the top; without it, you'd just see it incongruously pop from one screen to the other. Enemies only have the opportunity to "hide" in the gap in vertically-scrolling segments, but since the gap only amounts to about one ninth of the total height of the play field, it's avoidable if you just keep moving -- which, helpfully, is always a good strategy anyway.
Watching both screens at once takes time to adjust, but there could be no better motivation than the grappling hook. A new addition to Contra's mechanics, it swiftly elevates you to any surface you can hang from, such as rails and ceilings. And although it was first devised as a means to get around the gap, it was ultimately made an intrinsic part of every stage's layout. Contra III may have introduced hanging and climbing, but the hook vastly increases the player's mobility in vertical space while allowing climbing itself to become more prominent. And with the option to quickly lift yourself to and from any given elevation, the level design is that much more diverse.
Another device inherited from Contra III is the ability to carry two weapons at once: one in hand and the other in reserve, should you die. Besides providing a safety net, this made it easier to experiment and adapt within different combat situations. In Contra 4, it's augmented with the capacity to upgrade any weapon by collecting it twice, which affects each flavor in different ways. Spread fires in five directions at once rather than three; Flame shoots a huge blast that disperses on contact, like the charged shot in Super C; Crush traverses the entire screen; and so on. You can also shed any power-ups you've acquired, one level at a time -- so if you're playing two-player with a friend, and you have an upgraded Spread while he's down to just his pea-shooter, you can distribute the wealth between you. (Or you can just scroll him off the bottom of the screen and kill him again. Jerk.)
And that's about the breadth of the controls: run, gun, jump, duck, grapple, climb, switch weapons, and commit acts of charity. You can still lock yourself in place for precision aiming, but Contra III's "jump and spin and shoot both weapons at once" super-move is gone, and the screen-clearing bombs have reverted to the instant-use variety from the first game. But this economy of verbs is what best shows off the purity of traditional Contra gameplay; anything more is fluff, complicating things without necessarily improving them. The different playable characters behave identically, too, and while it's hard not to miss the range of schemes from Hard Corps, this is, again, a game with a message: "Here is the essence of Contra." And to that end, the restraint is all too appropriate.
Excess does have its place in the series, though, and Contra 4 isn't above Nakazato's brand where it's warranted. While bosses no longer dominate the game, they remain arresting and engrossing in their presence, testing the player's nerve with attacks from all sides -- and often refusing to die after just one round. And with two screens to inhabit and pixel art legend Henk Nieborg drawing them, they're unparalleled in both scope and appearance. On-rails sequences benefit from better consideration than they once did: while Contra III's motorcycle stage was mostly limited to shooting down flying targets from street level, Contra 4's jet ski stage shifts its focus back and forth between the ocean beneath the player and the skies overhead. This opens it up to skirmishes with both the aquatic and airborne infantry of a speeding battleship, as well as creatures of the deep who aren't always satisfied to stay underwater.
If there's a single high point to the game, one event that best exemplifies the exhilaration that makes Contra what it is, it must come in the middle of Stage 4, when a rocket dozens of screens tall erupts from a silo in the background. Its continues rising as you navigate the scaffolding in the foreground, and once at the top, it blasts off just as you latch on to it. You climb what railings and footholds present themselves, and after sending a giant robot to a five-mile fall, the outer casing is cast off. Nowhere to go but up, you take hold of the interior missile as it enters its ballistic trajectory. Your only grips are a series of small bars that protrude and recede along its length, and as if you weren't already dangling perilously in the stratosphere, smaller projectiles start flying in from offscreen.
With almost no room to maneuver, survival rests entirely with your ability to aim both bullets and jumps. Only when the missile dips into its final descent can you find solid footing...right on top of its still-active engines. Now you run to whichever thruster lies dormant as the others sputter their last, until they all die down. At last, gravity's warm embrace takes over, and the missile crashes violently through a high-rise building and plunges deep into the earth -- all with no harm done to our shirtless hero (of course).
"The ride" has all the over-the-top pyrotechnics and laughable feats of machismo as Nakazato's best, but it goes even further to involve the player directly in the action. Yes, in Neo Contra, you get to see Bill and Jaguar explode out of a volcano and run in place on an active helicopter's blades, but it has nothing to do with input; the player is just an observer of the spectacle. Contra 4 actually includes you as a participant and executor of your own superhuman stunts, making every marvel that much more empowering.
Contra 4 isn't as emptily punishing as Hard Corps or Shattered Soldier, either, but it is extremely difficult; one-shot kills, losing your weapons, and limited continues are all in order here. Depending on whom you ask, it might even be the hardest Contra game ever. But if that's true, it holds the lead for all the right reasons. Instead of deciding life or death by rote pattern memorization, it duly rewards reflexes and good judgment. Every leg of every stage has been deliberately thought out with regard for the terrain, enemy placement, and items on hand; in turn, taking careful advantage of all of the above is the only secret to victory.
The game also offers an Easy Mode, featuring slower enemies, less cunning bosses, and instantly-upgraded weapons. It only lasts through the third-to-final stage, but for an affair like Contra 4, which is designed to be played again and again, there's no shame in taking time to learn the ropes. While its main use is to invite new fans to the series, even veterans are urged to capitalize on both this and Normal before settling in to tackle Hard Mode.
Beating the game on any difficulty, even Easy, unlocks Challenge Mode. This charges you with an array of specialized tasks to train your Contra skills: rush through a stage, beat a boss on one life, or just survive an onslaught of foes. Other missions are there for more of a laugh: finish a segment with limited ammunition, or without shooting once, or just plowing through with a unique bonus weapon. The latter sort may have no practical application, but it's unfeasible that you'd complete the list and not come out a more adept player. Lasting around a minute or less each, even the hardest challenges are easy to approach, not to mention an excellent way to warm up for the main event.
Besides your own betterment, there's also the incentive of unlockables. Every four of the forty challenges (in Contra 4) unlock some kind of bonus content, including extra characters (like Probotector, from the old European localization of the series), promotional comics, artwork and trivia from all the games in the series, a telling interview with Nakazato, and even Contra and Super C themselves. Multiplayer for the NES games is out, sadly, but it's still a heck of a haul. And more importantly, it's a proper celebration of a genre-defining franchise of twenty years, which went wrongly abused and unloved for a full fifteen.
Now, Contra 4 has redeemed the series in every respect. Before Mega Man 9, it was the first to revisit its former greatness...and returned so brimming with sincerity and hindsight that it instead shot right past its forebears -- and, to everyone's surprise, improved on the best. It embodies the finest in both classic run-and-gunning and show-stopping situational thrills, and in balancing the two perfectly, it puts itself in a class all its own. It attacked aggressively, and it got its revenge.