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Contra 4

Score: 95%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Way Forward Technologies
Media: Cartridge/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Classic/Retro/ Platformer (2D)/ Shooter


Graphics & Sound:

It's easy when talking about classic games to wax rhapsodic and sound like an old fogey. It doesn't help that I am an old fogey, but if you're going to ask someone to talk about old games, you might as well ask someone that was there, right? Ah, the era of side-scrolling shooters seemed to end and then rise like a phoenix from the ashes. The unstoppable popularity of the Wii and its great roster of Virtual Console download titles (including Contra III: The Alien Wars) goes to show that the gaming public is happy to put function before form. Games that really deliver have become a bit rare as the industry goes more and more mainstream, but it's great to see strong sales behind games that eschew graphic sophistication in favor of gameplay.

This isn't to say that we have to labor under a bunch of games that look bad but play good. The reality is that Contra 4 and most games from the Contra universe over the past 20 years look better than most of the drivel released for young gamers as licensed claptrap. The biggest thing going for Contra 4 is how it manages to update the classic style with some new features and remain completely in the spirit of the originals. The choice of characters now includes Bill Rizer, Lance Bean, Mad Dog, and Scorpion. Other characters are available but must be unlocked. Fans of the Contra style will love the feature that lets you browse original art and promotional material related to all the old games. This is a default feature which should tip you off to the fact that there are many, many extras to unlock along the way. The enemies are varied but all in keeping with the original inspiration, a la H.R. Giger, of bad stuff that creeps in the dark of space. There is a definite thrill to watching the bosses morph into larger versions of themselves and ultimately take the fall when you triumph. Each level and boss has a unique design so that you're rewarded constantly for progress by new visuals. The amount of motion on the screen is tremendous and part of the challenge in mastering the timing in Contra 4 is just avoiding the impulse to glance over at whatever twitchy bad guy just jumped out of your peripheral vision.


Gameplay:

Contra 4 is a pure Contra game in every sense. There are nine levels with all but the last two available to everyone, including the weenies that play on Easy. Heh... if you know Contra, you know that there are no gaming weenies alive that can even hold their own on the easiest setting. This game is pure, raw adrenaline for fans of retro games that aren't afraid of constant humiliation and the demand on their twitchiest and last nerve. This is the Olympics of side-scrolling shooting games and a career-defining moment when you actually watch the credits roll. The option to play with another player wirelessly is the best thing going for this version, since the two-player co-op was a great feature of previous games. The fun of racing for point, pick-ups, and glory is unparalleled in today's games that act like Deathmatch was God's gift to gaming. The truth couldn't be further away from this, and once you pick up Contra 4 for a few minutes, you'll understand. Innocent this may look with its sprites and simple graphics, but simple it most definitely is not.

The story you'll need to know in order to play is that Earth is once again being menaced and it's up to you to clean house. This involves choosing one of many characters for nothing more than cosmetic appeal and grabbing as many large weapons as you can find. A scorched-earth policy is best when dealing with hostile aliens and this is no time to get soft like those kids in that movie about the alien they kept in their closet. None of the bad guys in Contra 4 are likely to ride in your bicycle basket when they can enjoy themselves so much more putting bullets into your body. Some features that really count in this version include the ability to stop play and return later with only a lost continue as a penalty. The grappling-hook feature is a nice way to add some elevation to the game and make use of both screens. The touch-screen doesn't play a pivotal role in Contra 4, which is a shame. The controls are kept simple, and with only a few changes from previous installments. The ability to hold down a shoulder button and freeze your character for more accurate shooting is great. The upgrade weapons are even greater and are essential to ending boss battles quickly. Timing is the only friend you'll have in addition to weapon upgrades... Get it right or get another game, basically. The rewards are worth trying harder. After completing the game, you'll open up a Challenges Mode, which gives you specific tasks to accomplish that really test your ability. If you prove worthy, you'll find that winning challenges opens up huge amounts of additional game, including (gasp!) two more Contra games. And you thought this wasn't a "greatest hits" title... Super C and the original Contra end up being available for play after you work your way through a sufficient number of challenges. This is a huge plus for gamers that came looking for new Contra action and never expected to get a three-for-one. Score!


Difficulty:

The only thing one really needs to know when making a buying decision on a Contra game is that the level of difficulty starts at "11" and goes up to "third-degree burn." Gamers, like skaters, understand that practice makes perfect. Watching a skater roll down a flight of marble stairs or pulverize his soft parts on a railing is an ugly sight. Zeroing out again and again on Contra 4 is even uglier and what it lacks in physical punishment it makes up for in mental anguish. The nice thing is that there aren't random events and fancy algorithms that govern the way each level plays in this game. Enemies do exactly the same stuff again and again, making it possible to map each level mentally and hardwire the actions you'll need to pass through the gauntlet. It sounds nice when it's written on paper but the reality is that you'll spend hours and hours perfecting your technique and cry real, salty tears in front of your girlfriend before you get it right. Don't fret... it's just Contra. If this doesn't sound like your idea of a good time, you probably should empty your wallet on a different game that features more ponies and puppies.

Game Mechanics:

The most interesting aspect of control in Contra 4 is the use of multiple weapons that can be stored, powered up, and rotated in the Normal and Hard difficulty settings. Upgrading a weapon occurs when you grab the same power-up twice; this comes in very handy just prior to boss battles or as a way to overcome waves of enemies. The weapons aren't all that different unless you consider projectiles of various sizes, shapes, and flavors to be really different. The ability to stand and aim is handy for maximizing the impact of certain weapons, but for the most part aiming is not going to be a big deal. Moving around the screen is made easier by the grappling hook. Enemies can also be placed anywhere and can move most anywhere, so you don't get to lounge around considering your options. The key to survival after timing is to keep moving in order to avoid enemy fire and waves of enemies. The other extra moves that you'll master include an ability to climb and to drop down quickly to a lower level on the screen. Contra 4 uses the combo jump/fire for enemies below you, which requires you to direct fire down while jumping up. There were times when this accidentally resulted in a drop-down move and ultimately the use of another Continue... it's not a glitch in the game, but one of the harder moves to master.

Mastery of Contra 4 is a true feat for any gamer. There aren't many games that will earn you almost universal acclaim upon their completion. The rep of a gamer used to be tied to points scored or levels attained in games like Contra 4. Modern games are built more on depth of content and players are rewarded for things like strategy or how many hundreds of hours they commit to their MMO characters. It's not that the new style of game is any less powerful, innovative, or compelling, but Contra 4 takes me back to an age when gaming was stripped down to its essentials and gamers were people that could master impossible virtual beasties and come out on the other end smiling. Luckily we have more than memories; for a few bucks you were going to spend on date-night anyway, you can buy some real entertainment in the form of Contra 4.


-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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