Comic-Con 07: Contra 4 Preview

It is curious that the unforgiving, one-hit-one-life, Contra-style action game seemed to largely die out along with the uncompromising, muscle-bound 80s action flick from which the genre drew its inspiration. Particularly with the advent of the first-person shooter, video game heroes became much tougher, gaining vast health bars and the ability to weather sustained firepower. Of course, as video game protagonists became tougher, their games became less so. While in Contra, your character may be a bit of a pushover compared to his modern action game brethren, the Contra player is more badass many times over--which makes that character all the more badass in the hands of a skilled player.

So what happened to those games? I don't know, but I do know what's next: Contra 4 on Nintendo DS. With the blessing of series creator Konami, developer WayForward Technologies is delivering the prodigal son of hardcore console gaming, here to shame our time-dulled, atrophied run-and-gun skills.

Konami had the first level of Contra 4 playable in its booth at Comic-Con 2007. First things first: it is hard, and it is hardcore. Naming the game so simply, and numbering it as the first main series entry since 1992's Contra III: The Alien Wars, is a clear eschewing of Contra: Hard Corps, Contra: Shattered Soldier, Neo Contra, et al. Contra 4 isn't isometric, it isn't a string of individual boss fights--it's old-school Contra, meaning you'll be navigating two-dimensional sprite-based levels, facing off against an effectively infinite number of enemies while demonstrating ridiculous physical agility and never letting up on the fire button.

The most significant addition to the formula is the machine's second screen. There is no stylus use whatsoever (and why should there be?). In the level I played, the additional upper screen was introduced well over time. At the start, it was largely empty, with the occasional floating weapon powerup sailing by overhead. As the level progressed, it became more and more necessary to keep an eye on both screens as enemies started to populate it and the game's platforming elements began to become more vertical.

All that vertical space is certainly an adjustment, particularly given how familiar the rest of the gameplay feels, but it doesn't feel out of place or unmanageable. Crucially, I never felt as if enemies were "hiding" in the virtual space between the DS' two screens, a problem that occasionally plagues poorly-polished DS scrollers. Still, this is all hard as hell, of course, but the game would hardly be justifying its name were it not. Where the second screen is really likely to shine is in Contra 4's promised two-player local cooperative mode, which should allow for situations in which players can maintain a bit more personal space thanks to the greater number of paths.

The jungle environment on display was extremely evocative of the original Contra, but with considerably more detailed sprites, backgrounds, and animation that make a strong case that the DS needs more games like this (new ones, that is). It just wouldn't work in real-time 3D--sprite work has that unique quality of possessing qualities of cartoonishness and interpreted realism while being able to somehow avoid actually coming off too much in either direction.

From a control standpoint, Contra 4 has it nailed. Old Contra masters should be able to pick it up and find their instincts kicking in immediately. As before, you can aim diagonally while walking, or plant your character in a fixed point while aiming in any of the eight directions. A vertical grappling hook allows for quick vertical movement when a horizontal rail is present.

The range of weapons is there: machine guns, spread fire, lasers, rocket launchers. Weapons now gain an additional level of power when you collect a second weapon powerup of the same type you have equipped, so a machine gun fires even more rapidly, and the classic spread fire weapon fires four fanned-out shots rather than three. Finally, you can now discard your last-acquired weapon with the touch of a button, in those cases where you mistakenly grab something not suited to the situation at hand.

Amongst the packed Comic-Con crowds, I found myself continually drawn back to Contra 4, which even in its first level offered a stiff challenge. I would die, give up, walk away and check out a nearby booth, then invariably return and plug away until I was able to reach further into the level--at which point of course I would again lose my last life and repeat the process. I was able to make it all the way through the bullet-ridden level and reach the boss, though sadly I didn't have the time to perfect my strategy against the large track-mounted weapon platform that vaporized me within seconds.

For the full version of the game, WayForward will include a three-tier difficulty setting, which should allow the softer gamers of today to make it through without being reduced to tears. But be warned--the hard setting is planned to be tougher than ever.

Depending on how deep you delve into the company's history, WayForward Technologies may or may not seem like a sensible choice to helm the reincarnation of brutal scrolling shooters. WayForward's ludography is littered with licensed titles that would likely never register on a dedicated gamer's radar, but the studio also developed the unsung classic Shantae for Game Boy Color and the inspired-but-not-quite-there genre mashup Sigma Star Saga for Game Boy Advance. In any case, WayForward has vast amounts of 2D portable development experience, and comes off as one of those developers which has something great waiting in the wings that just needs the proper resources. Contra 4 looks to be that project.