Konami has decided to celebrate Contra's twentieth anniversary by making the best Contra yet.
When I first heard that Contra 4 was being developed for the DS, I doubted that the game would be any good. However, it turns out that my fears were premature. Not only has WayForward (under direction from Konami) created a game that I can wholeheartedly recommend to fans of classic Contra, I'm even prepared to recommend it to everyone else as well, although not without a few caveats.
You may have heard that Contra games are very difficult. Indeed they are difficult, but as in most good games, there is a carefully crafted difficulty curve. Contra 4 is even more generous in this regard than previous iterations. While normal and hard will make you want to tear your hair out if you start there, easy mode has been nerfed in a number of ways that make it a fun way to kill some time and see the sights for gamers of any skill level. Beating easy mode unlocks a challenge mode, which features 40 increasingly difficult challenges. For every four challenges you complete, a bonus of some kind is unlocked with the first two being emulated versions of the NES Contra and Super C. Most players should be able to beat easy and unlock these two gifts without too much stress. Meanwhile, the challenges serve as a good bridge between the easy and normal difficulties. If you delve far enough into the challenges, you may find that normal mode is nowhere near as bad as you first thought. The classic Konami code is back to help see you through the higher difficulty levels if you just can't do it the honest way. After all, the last two levels are only available in medium and hard. Just don't go looking for extra lives, that's not how it works this time. Despite the careful design, the game will ultimately require you to patiently develop advanced skills, but if you can handle the challenge, the rewards are well worth the effort.
So what makes Contra fun to begin with? It's not easy to ascertain. At a glance, the difficulty seems punishing. If you get hit by any projectile, touch an enemy or fall in a pit, you're dead and your currently equipped weapon, likely the better of your available two, is lost. You also have a limited number of lives and continues (fewer of each as you increase the difficulty setting). Yet that is what makes merely staying alive and keeping your weapons such a rewarding experience. The spot-on control, level and game design, and great music don't hurt either. Then there is the new challenge mode, which could be likened to conquering difficult tracks in a racing game or even Guitar Hero. You find yourself repeating a relatively brief section of gameplay in order to master it and unlock the next challenge. The standard mode of Contra 4 could be likened to playing through an entire circuit of tracks in a racer. Top this off with an excessive dose of nostalgia and pure shooting glory, and you might begin to understand the excitement among long time fans for this throwback.
Contra 4's level design and gameplay certainly owe a lot to its predecessors. A substantial portion of the enemy soldiers and machinery are lifted straight out of older games, although the bosses are almost entirely original. Environmental details are also borrowed frequently. You'll find the original Contra's jungle setting with its pools of protective water and exploding bridges. You'll also find a new waterfall and a few 3D base levels. The giant set-pieces and graspable rails of Contra III are also back in top form. Instead of adding a lot of new gimmicks to the series, WayForward stayed true to Contra's roots. Yet there are a few welcome additions including the grappling hook, dual-screen level design, stackable weapons and the aforementioned challenge mode.
The dual screen gameplay was the most ambitious additions, but it was pulled off with only the slightest hitch. In one level where the gameplay becomes completely vertical, the small gap between the screens rears its ugly head. While the player never crosses through the gap, if you rise too quickly you might scroll enemies or gun emplacements into the gap. Every now and then you may fail to notice a bullet that entered the gap and get shot as it sneaks out. However, if you're careful, this will rarely get you killed. If you're not careful, you won't get to a vertical level anyway. On horizontal stages, the gap is hardly even an issue due to careful level design. The grappling hook pulls you up to the top screen, so you won't find yourself traveling through the gap except at high speed. The extra screen is used for an informative map in the base levels.
The unlockable challenge mode is a major part of Contra 4, and I enjoy this addition at least as much as the regular game. While some of the challenges serve as an excellent way to familiarize you with the game's enemies and levels, many of them feature gameplay that is quite different from the normal game such as strange weapons or restrictions on time, ammo or accuracy. And yet all of the reflexes you develop and enemy behavior you become familiar with helps you cope with the regular game more effectively. Each challenge takes between 30 seconds and 3 minutes to complete, provided you have the skill to beat it. More likely you'll spend some time (possibly a lot of time) repeating a challenge to develop said skill. The last dozen or so feature a level of difficulty bordering on psychotic. Although the challenges borrow levels from the main game, they are frequently populated with different enemies and weapons. There are always five unbeaten challenges available if possible. If you beat any of the five, the next is unlocked so that you can still advance if you run into a particularly impossible challenge.
Contra 4's weapons arrive in the traditional flying capsule and are mostly recycled from the previous games, aside from the upgrade system, which goes a long way towards keeping things fresh. If you stack two of the same weapon in one of your two weapon slots, you'll be rewarded with a powered-up version. This addition was intelligently used to include most of the classic weapons while keeping them balanced. For example, at Level 1, the spread gun only fires three bullets. The classic five-bullet spread is reserved for Level 2, lest the game be all about acquiring a spread gun for the win. Most other weapons take their classic form at Level 1 and a beefed up form at Level 2. Contra 4 also adds a new function allowing medium and hard players to drop a weapon at the touch of a button. This is useful for downgrading at times, but it's most useful for sharing weapons in cooperative mode.
The graphics of Contra 4 rely mostly on detailed 2D art to convey the scenery. There is some subtle use of more advanced hardware now and then, but it's mostly avoided. This is probably for the best, as eye-catching special effects would be quite unwelcome in a game where a single injury causes grievous damage. The most eye catching things in the game are, as they should be, the enemies and bullets. The tiny bullets glow brightly, standing out easily from the backgrounds, and the enemies are colored brightly and outlined in black. Character animation is very good. If you can spare a moment to observe the backgrounds, you'll find that the various elements are beautifully painted and that there are often subtle animations that bring them to life. Bosses are often gigantic and use sprite rotation to manipulate various appendages. The 3D base levels inspired by the original Contra are now rendered with polygonal 3D rather than in pseudo 3D. The walls, bullets, stationary weapons and bosses are in 3D while the player and aliens are still 2D sprites. 3D would have been unwelcome in the regular stages, but it makes for a great upgrade to the classic bases.
The sound effects are often retro in style, but with modern fidelity. Weapons sound as they did of old, and the classic pinging sound still informs you when a fixed enemy placement is taking damage from your attacks. Minor explosions during gameplay are subdued so as not to distract you from actual threats. For example, enemy grenades make a timely whistling noise that will alarm you if you weren't paying attention when it was lobbed at you (with unerring accuracy of course).
Musically, Contra 4 is a tour de force. The sound track was devised by the brilliant Jake Kaufman (aka virt). For those who aren't inclined to appreciate great music, I would imagine that the tunes will sound appropriately dramatic and catchy. For those who are so inclined, there is a bit more to say, especially if you fondly remember classic Contra music. Starting right from the first level, Kaufman weaves songs out of new material combined with melodies from the classics. For example, the Jungle music starts with the classic intro and develops into a new song from there. The Waterfall level owes a good half of its melody to the original. Later you may notice other references to classic Contra music. If you play on hard mode, the Jungle music changes to a full-on updated copy of the original from Contra. Of course, there is a lot of completely new music as well. The direction of the music has gone much as the game has in this regard. Aside from the timely references, the music is very inventive and full of subtle depth with multiple melodies and layered harmonies working to form a rich tapestry of sound. The music sounds good through the DS speakers, but it sounds even better through a great set of headphones.
Contra wouldn't be quite right without multiplayer. Contra 4 features the usual cooperative mode (local only, two game cards required). The traditional staples are all here. If one player advances the screen too fast in a vertical area, the other player will die when the bottom of the screen rushes up to meet him. But that's okay, because you can steal the other player's lives if you run out. The only notable change is the new ability to drop weapons with the A button. Consequently, if you take all the weapons in Contra 4, instead of hearing your partner whine, you'll get to hear him beg.
There are a few negative things to mention. The emulation of Contra and Super C lack multiplayer support. Instead if you start a two player game, the d-pad controls both players and the four face buttons independently control jumping and shooting for each. I suppose a few crazy people might enjoy that for more than five minutes. Additionally, the sound isn't quite right. The noise channel (drums and sound effects) doesn't sound exactly accurate, and you may notice other audio glitches every once in a while. The games are still quite fun and playable though. Contra 4 itself has a bug or two. A few players have run into a glitch on the first level that causes the game to give you 99 lives. This might be welcome in the one player game, but I've heard that it may ultimately crash the game in cooperative mode. I've also noticed that if you rush into the waterfall portion of the game, the music will stop and restart once (that one seems to be particular to that stage). These glitches don't really harm the game, but they mar an otherwise solid presentation.
Contra 4 is an excellent addition to the Contra series and the perfect follow up to Contra III. The designers have bent over backwards to make the game accessible to newcomers, but have not sacrificed anything in doing so. The dual-screens were handled with skill, and the grappling hook is a great addition (being useful even within a single screen, not just as a tool to reach the top). The game is exceptional all around. Even the instruction manual pays homage to the classics and is well worth a peek for the ardent fan. Contra fans should buy this game immediately, and action fans in general should seriously consider picking it up.