Contra 4 is a game about which that old cliche can be accurately put forth without coming off as selectively nostalgic. In this case, it is a simple statement of fact, not a qualitative statement. They absolutely do not make games like this anymore.
Remember old-school Contra? Tough-as-nails, never-stop-shooting, dodging-hails-of-bullets, 80s-action-movie sidescrolling action? The series has strayed from that brutal but well-loved formula in recent years, with original creator Konami as well as Ecco and Jaws Unleashed developer Appaloosa Interactive taking some poorly aimed stabs at 3D gameplay--injuring the legendary franchise and leaving it a bit worse for wear.
Looking to recapture the true essense of the series, Konami contracted portable specialist WayForward Technologies, notoriously responsible for the pointless DS chat software Ping Pals as well as, more importantly, unsung Game Boy Color classic Shantae and the recent inventive and irreverent Looney Tunes: Duck Amuck.
Helmed by game director Matt Bozon, WayForward was clearly up to the job. For better or worse, depending on your perspective, Contra 4 is old-school Contra--more of it and, if you can believe it, harder than ever. The DS is certainly the system for it, too. It's well-suited to true pixel art--the game looks absolutely great--and it has amongst its massive userbase a sizeable contingent of longtime gamers with an appreciation for the classics.
All four classic Contra heroes are here for this one: Bill, Lance, Mad Dog, and Scorpion, all of whom exclaim things like "Come get some!" and "Let's party!" during gameplay. This is fitting enough, because the gameplay is comprised of all sorts of elements from the first three Contra games. There's a reason Konami dropped the subtitles and decided to pick up where the numbered games left off.
Though the bulk of the gameplay has you shooting your way on foot through jungles, enemy bases and labs, and ruined cities, there's a healthy amount of gameplay variety here. Massive boss battles in the vein of Contra III: The Alien Wars cap each level, easier-than-footslogging vehicular gameplay breaks things up, and the classic pseudo-3D corridor levels return.
The tight control is back as well. It's still a great feeling to dodge a shower of bullets as you pull off a physically ridiculous but action-packed spinning jump while changing directions half a dozen times in mid-air. The main action buttons are of course jump and shoot, but there also the shoulder buttons for standing stationary while firing in any direction and for swapping over to your auxilliary weapon, a feature that allows you to hold on to one of your two guns even after dying.
What's new in overall gameplay terms is the additional screen, and the greater prominence of vertical gameplay that comes along with it. For the most part this is handled well. In the traditional sidescrolling levels, it doesn't add much other than a larger playing field, but some levels are entirely vertically driven and are quite suited to the configuration. Frustratingly, if you stop scrolling up or down at just the wrong altitude, enemies will occasionally end up positioned in the "gap" between the two DS screens, which can lead to obvious dangers when they have guns. Still, the reality is Contra 4 is so hard anyway that such design oversights are but a drop in the bucket of the game's will-breaking challenge.
There's a cooperative mode over local wireless, though it requires each player to have a copy of the game. This is actually one area in which the horizontal levels do gain more from the second screen, as it allows each player to more effectively stake out his sidescrolling claim. The mode has some give and take, with players having to compete for powerups and being able to share lives, but it's fairly straightforward.
The package also has a veritable cornucopia of unlockable goodies, if you've got the stones to actually get to the Challenge Mode to unlock it. Headlining the bonuses are full versions of the original Contra and Super C. There are also even more characters to choose from, pieces of artwork and comics, and, unusually for a portable game, interviews with veteran Contra developers.
Contra 4 makes me glad our publication does not use a score-based review system. The game is utterly confident and successful in what it is trying to be, but it is difficult to judge what it is trying to be on a standardized scale. Some will criticize Contra 4 for relying so heavily on what would term as outdated game design concepts. Certainly, within the context of viewing game design as a linear progression, which is the framework in which many reviewers and gamers perceive the industry, Contra 4 is something of a relic.
Need game design be viewed in such a linear fashion? It's an open question, so hopefully this review will allow you to determine whether Contra 4 is for you. There are no modern-day niceties. One hit equals one kill. Continues take you back to the beginning of the level (or checkpoint, thankfully). A game over takes you back to the beginning of the game. There are no passwords. You can technically spend a continue to pick up from beginning of the level at which you stopped last time, but you might as well just put the DS into hibernation by closing its lid. As far as I can tell, not even the Konami Code will help you out. [Edit: Apparently, the Konami Code does help out a bit in certain situation. Try it!]
The bottom line is that this thing is hard. It's really, really hard. Gamers itching for a true challenge, gamers who believe we've been mollycoddled by handholding gameplay and quicksaving, gamers who look at gaming as a genuine skill will find all the challenge they need here. It is so hard as to be discouraging even to generally dedicated gamers. Still, it's tight and compelling enough that unless you really have no stomach for this kind of thing, you'll want to keep coming back and trying to perfect your game.
So what about Easy Mode? When you start Easy Mode, you'll probably initially find it to be a cakewalk, with its plentiful lives and continues and its powerups that are immediately absurdly powerful, even if the last two levels aren't actually available on that difficulty. Once you're fighting bosses and playing levels a bit further in, the horror--and potential depression--will start to sink in as you realize that this is still not actually "easy" in the context of video games as a whole. "Easy" in the context of Contra 4 is relative. Like Burger King, they should just skip that part and call the lowest one "medium."
You may notice I haven't explicitly discussed Hard Mode. Really, though, do I need to? (The fact that the designers thought it appropriate to relegate the word "hard" to just one of the game's three modes main is vaguely frightening.)
Contra 4 also features a harder-than-Hard goal-based Challenge Mode. There are no words.
But enough about the pain side of this masochistic endeavor. What about the pleasure? If you're the type of hard-bitten gamer who has read this review thus far and, rather than being scared away, has responded by growling "Fuck yeah" through clenched teeth while a demented gleam sparkles in your eye, you know the sense of achievement that comes with conquering a game like this.
This is the kind of achievement born of an earlier age--the kind of achievement that distinguishes you as a certified gaming badass, not the kind of achievement that says you collected a hundred dolls and gives you fifty points on the internet.
Despite the insane challenge and the monumental frustration that comes with having to start over at the beginning of the game when you lose all your continues, it is satisfying and rewarding when you are able to breeze through the first level without losing a life on the way to the second. Then the second on the way to the third, and so on.
Well, maybe losing one life. Or two. Just not, like, all of them.
Make no mistake--this game is awesome at what it is. You, however, might not be able to handle it.