Contra: Hard Corps
Based on: More gunning, less running, and what grim fortunes might betide if Parish were the one naming our games.
Article by Nicola Nomali | March 29, 2008
When looking back at the first generation of SNES games, Konami titles like Super Castlevania IV? and Contra III: The Alien Wars? are the ones most frequently upheld as the titles that took conspicuous advantage of at-the-time esoteric visual effects like layers, semitransparency, rotation, and scaling -- to the point that terms like "tech demo" often find themselves thrown about. Coming from your average snarky gaming pundit, this implies that style was given preference over substance, or that this technical finesse was only used so extensively because the technology itself was new and novel.
But as anyone who has played either title will tell you, they're solid games beneath all that gloss. And for evidence that developers didn't just fall slack once they had suckered in enough early adopters, Konami themselves kept this same new-generation enthusiasm stoked constantly throughout the 16-bit era. Even on the Sega Genesis, with specs generally a step or two behind those of Nintendo's machine, they pushed the available technology to its limits with games like Castlevania Bloodlines?, Rocket Knight Adventures... and, yes, Contra: Hard Corps.
Given the famously expressive nature of the Contra? series, Hard Corps is actually the perfect example to showcase Konami's underdog accomplishments on the Genesis. Rotation -- something ostensibly impossible on the system without a Sega CD or, failing that, the help of Treasure -- is employed to some rudimentary extent. And when that fails, the artists step in by actually drawing a new sprite for every angle they want an object to turn. The game's enormous bosses are composed of numerous small sprites whose movements relative to one another convey complex gestures and transformations normally thought impossible with 2D graphics; then, when defeated, they burst into hundreds of apocalyptic explosions that twist around themselves in intricate patterns while white and photonegative flashes threaten seizures. Even static cloud sprites shooting across a one-color sky successfully imply a high-speed flight scene, and in one memorable boss fight, a giant robot chases you down a winding road that convincingly recreates the SNES's vaunted Mode 7 perspective effect.
Konami must have realized the Genesis sound synth is inescapably poor; rather than try to repeat the moody ambience of Contra III's score, Hard Corps' soundtrack sticks to straight rock and even some electronica, where downsampling is a good thing. There are even a few scratchy voice samples in there. The color palette is sparse, but the designers made the best of it with gritty sensibilities, casting the scenery in unnatural purples and reds and letting black fill in the remainder. The result is almost nightmarish, cleverly keeping in tone with the game's setting, a dystopian urban hell. Earlier games took their inspiration from Alien and First Blood, and Hard Corps offers its own blatant references -- namely to Blade Runner and The Road Warrior.)
Beyond its aesthetic aspects, Hard Corps also evolved the gameplay of the series as the direct successor to Contra III. Many of the previous game's features are intact, including the climbing and hanging mechanics and the ability to save screen-clearing bombs to use at will. Others are expanded dramatically; while Contra III allowed you to carry and switch between two weapons at once, the number is now doubled to four. But most interesting are the new advancements, particularly the freedom to play as one of four distinct characters. From the beginning, players may choose from Ray Poward, the quintessential Contra Man; Sheena Etranze, the one-woman army; Brad Fang, the mutant cyborg werewolf; and Browny, the robot with a double-jump.
Each character has his or her own advantages and drawbacks, most of which are embodied in their exclusive sets of weaponry. Ray has the familiar standbys like Spread and Homing, while Sheena's Axe Laser combines the two. Fang's weapons favor raw power over usability (some can only be fired horizontally), whereas Browny carries high-concept oddities like the Gemini Scatter, which shoots short-rage recursive bullets, and -- I kid you not -- the "Super-Electromagnetic Yo-Yo." Nearly every Contra game before Hard Corps included two-person multiplayer as a main draw, but Player 2 was always just a palette-swapped clone of Player 1. Not so here. In addition to a highly replayable single-player mode, Hard Corps's varied selection also made for a customizable cooperative experience.
Whether you're playing alone or with a friend, though, the real replay value is found in the game's branching paths. Hard Corps was the first Contra game to include story beyond the opening and ending, and along the way, players are given a say in how to progress the narrative. Do you chase after the mysterious criminal razing the city, or do you answer the research facility's distress call? When ambushed by the enemy, do you fight to the last or surrender until an opportunity arises to strike back? Each option gives way to exclusive stages, and even stages that are shared between paths take on different qualities to reflect the plot. In the end, there are four separate routes through the game, each with its own ending. Thorough players can also access a fifth ending through a hidden stage, where they must fight a surreal amalgam of Simon Belmont and Japanese singer Masato Shimon to a techno remix of "Vampire Killer."
Series producer Nobuya Nakazato has said that his ambition with Contra III was to move the focus of the series from skirmishes with common enemies to battles against huge bosses. If that game was venturing towards his goal, then Hard Corps is a head-on collision with it by way of a Mack truck. What remains of Contra's classic run-and-gun platforming is as good as it ever was, but honestly, it's practically vestigial at this point in the series' evolution. Like Treasure's Alien Soldier?, the majority of the game consists of boss fights and set-piece battles, sometimes encompassing entire stages. They're all entertaining spectacles in their own right, but the underlying monotony of barely walking ten steps before the screen stops scrolling again gives the affair an uncomfortably on-rails feeling. If it weren't for the branching paths, it would be... well, it would be Contra: Shattered Soldier?.
The other black mark against the game, and one for which it's infamous, is its scathing difficulty. Even by series standards, Hard Corps more than lives up to its title. The very inventiveness that makes it so dynamic in places also means it's constantly throwing the player into unpredictable situations against which the only weapon is trial and error. The Japanese version of the game featured a three-hit life meter and unlimited continues to balance things out, but like Ninja Gaiden III?, this show of mercy was cruelly removed in the course of localization. As it is, even the most hardcore Contra fan could have a rough time getting through to the end, which doesn't bode well for less invested gamers. The sheer brutality could very well be a deal-breaker. But here, for your consideration, is the emotional defense.
In general, "challenge" tends to be a polarizing concept in gaming. Many players value it as a measuring stick for improving their skills, savoring each obstacle as they surmount it. As the demands of a game become increasingly grandiose, so does their satisfaction for rising to the occasion. Then there are those who value their games as diversions from the daily grind, for whom gratification comes with the ability to ease and repose. For them, even the smallest frustration isn't a means to a reward but an impediment on the way to relaxation.
Still, these mindsets aren't necessarily exclusive in an individual: One gamer may have no patience for the showering bullets in a danmaku shooter but be more than pleased to roll with the punches in an old-school Roguelike. Whether he's simply better at one than the other or he simply finds something in the presentation to be more attractive, an identical level of difficulty can be acceptable where it's objectionable elsewhere. Really, it boils down tothe factors that make the core challenge into a full experience.
Contra: Hard Corps, for a example, isn't just a hard game; it's a hard game where you die in one hit, respawn exactly where you were killed, start from a checkpoint after a Game Over, play every stage knowing that the next explosion could send you into a fit of epilepsy, battle a Japanese pop culture reference wielding a boomeranging taiyaki bean cake, and fire a gun that shoots enormous red bullets in five directions at once. Some of these things may seem more relevant than others, but they're all part of the same whole. And as often as the game will punish the player for not correctly reading a boss's attack cues, if he finds it charming that his character yells a defiant digitized "It's payback time!" after every death, he's that much more likely to take his lumps with a smile and stay with the game that much longer -- for the journey.
Because, you see, Contra's not about the alien you kill at the end of Stage 7. It's about the robot you kill in the middle of Stage 3.