Review: Contra 4 is a cruel, loving mistress

Contra 4For a few hours today, as I played through the first three levels of Contra 4, I was transported back to the late 1980’s in mind, body and gaming experience. For a moment, I had reverted back nearly 20 years into the immature little troll that had stamped his feet on the floor of his parents bedroom (that was where the NES was back then). Almost immediately, I realized I was using language so foul and offensive it would have made Xbox Live voice chat blush.

And as the “Base” stage boss took the last life from the last of my five continues, I could think of only one thing to say about this incredibly difficult, mind-numbingly frustrating game.

More please.

Contra 4 is 2-D platform grade A meat with no extra fat gumming up the works. There are no gimmicks; no Mario Kart DS balloon blowing microphone moments to taint its perfect formula. It is incredibly hard, and that is welcomed by this seasoned gamer with open arms and furrowed brow. The introduction of a second screen adds to the innovation of side scrolling levels with two-story bosses (level 1) as well as to the difficulty of climbing stages where your chosen solider (there are four) climbs ropes and cliff faces to reach the inevitable boss battle at the peak. If the human body could somehow split its eyes so that one could focus on the touch screen, and the other on the top one, this game might be slightly less swear-inducing. It can’t though — thank the maker for that — so don’t be too surprised if you find your eyes darting frantically back and forth between screens. When a single, slow bullet finds it way from top to bottom and picks you off without warning either, just accept it. It’s going to happen.

Make no mistake about it–you will die early and often in this title. In fact, by the end of stage one, I guarantee you’ll have heard every single one of Bill, Lance, Mad Dog or Scorpion’s revival catch phrases.

But that’s part of the Contra experience. It’s the reason developers put the famous Konami code in the original; so schmucks like myself stood even an iota of a chance of completing a Contra title without going off the handle on an innocent piece of furniture. IKEA coffee table, I apologize whole-heartedly for what transpired between us earlier today. Since Contra 4 is a true 2-D platformer, there are patterns to recognize and memorize, which only further entices the player to continue or start from scratch after an untimely death. A first run through means almost certain death. A second run, however, and you won’t be reacting to the enemy anymore–you’ll be anticipating his every move.

But that’s just the difficulty factor. With any Contra title, high difficulty is what you expect when you pick up a title like this one. You also expect a certain degree of hat tippery to Contra battles of the past, and Contra 4 delivers on that front too. Mindless soldier drones running from off screen? Check, but this time around they can climb a few ropes now and again too. Soldiers standing on high platforms, firing slow moving, glowing projectiles? Yup, got them too, but now they fire from a screen away and take some getting used to. Are there pseudo 3-D levels that follow you through hallways with automated guns and glowing wall panels, all while mysterious barrels are rolled at you from holes in the baseboards? Why yes, you’ll experience all that with a twist as soon as you get to level three. And of course, sweet glorious spread shot is available early and often, but don’t neglect some of the new weapons that will drop in your path throughout the game. Even the familiar ping your rounds made when hitting targets back in the 80’s and 90’s is here. Music gets and modern update, but still has a familiar core that will have you nodding with respect to boss battles past.

Konami could have easily gone Dawn of Sorrow on us with Contra, with elaborate glyph writing required to take out enemy bosses or open locked doors, but they didn’t. Bill and Lance don’t need extra crap gumming up their mission. They don’t need things like stylus interaction or Brain Age brue! voice commands or story lines or shirts mucking up the works. No way. They just need their guns and some attitude and … a grappling hook? Tis true, in this iteration of earthbound alien ass kicking the soldiers go into battle with something they probably took from the cold dead hands of Super Joe. The developers could have bolted this accessory on an afterthought. But they didn’t. There are no grappling hook mini games where Mad Dog must hit moving bull’s eye targets to save the world from nuclear holocaust; just a few spots here and there were you get to sling yourself up to the top screen and continue firing away.

Game gripes? I’ll revisit the dual screen for this one. Like a similar two screen effort in Sonic Rush, for example, both screens play an important role, and that center bar between them is constantly getting in the way. This was especially the case on climbing levels, where power ups and enemies were constantly getting lost in the void between top and bottom. Another gripe is there’s no Konami code this time around, at least not the way you remember it. I would have also liked to see some differences between the four characters. I understand this is Contra, and it’s not at all about character building, but if you’re going to include more than the red and blue originals, include something unique or don’t bother wasting the space.

Contra 4 is hard in a good way. It’s got the graphical chops I’d expect from an update to the series and includes some new bits that had me picking up my DS to play time and time again in spite of the blue language that had erupted from deep within only moments before. I haven’t thrown my DS across the room yet, but give this title some time.

Did I mention I’ve only played on Easy so far?