Luckily, in the case of Contra 4, that entire opening paragraph is entirely irrelevant.
If you want to run and gun, if you want to shoot up a base pseudo-3D style, if you want to search desperately for the spread shot while navigating the narrow platforms of the jungle, if you want to be irritatingly be hit by falling rocks on the way to an Alien Fortress on top of a waterfall, if you want to spend an RPG amount of time trying to survive 9 merciless stages with the brutal, console-throwingly difficult 2D gameplay that defined the late 80's and early 90's portion of your childhood, then you probably want Contra 4.
|Get Psyched! Oh wait, wrong game.|
Graphically the game is an example of how instead of putting all of our energy into 3D rendering, we should also appreciate just how much we can do with 2D graphics in the modern era. This is a gorgeous game with very nice background visuals with some 3D effects added in nicely. The player sprites are a bit pixelated but animate very smoothly. The game doesn't suffer from intense flickering like the games of old do, which is nice because with all of the on-screen activity it's going to be hard enough to keep track of things. Artistically the game looks a lot like Contra III, which isn't surprising given how most fans loved that one the most. Many of the enemies retain their original look and the player sprites are very similar to their classic counterparts.
|Alien breeding programs have eliminated the "ball arms" gene|
The controls are as responsive as they need to be and simple to get the hang off for the most part. The direction pad on the DS may give you some problems, especially when trying to shoot diagonally which may prove frustrating while you're new to the game. It's a little harder to really mash the shoot button on the DS due to the small size of the buttons and the fact that it causes the whole console to shake. By holding the R button, you can at least stand safely in place while you fire in any direction, which also allows you to fire directly downward without having to jump. If you've only played Contra and Super C with lacked this feature, that's an incredible button right there. The simplicity of Contra's controls will lead to the same problems they did in the old days, such as accidentally dropping down from a ledge when you try to jump too soon after shooting at an enemy below you. The new ability to climb ropes affords itself many opportunities at accidental and deadly dismounts when you're trying to do too much at once and while none of these issues are necessarily new to this game, they are a perennial source of frustration.
The sound effects are crisp although some are rather quiet, so you'll have to strain a little to enjoy that classic 'p-choom' sound unless you've got headphones. The classic ricochet noise which denoted a successful shot on an enemy returns for added nostalgia, though most of the sounds in the game will be more updated. The game's music features some new tracks and several remixes of the ones you remember. If you're playing on Hard then you're rewarded with an enhanced version of the original Jungle track. Arguably the greatest 8 bit music ever, the Base Boss music from the first Contra returns in two of the three base-style levels as you're fighting the final enemy there, offering a more percussive and instrumental version, coming off as more dramatic (though not necessarily better) than the original version.
|Mad Dog has chosen the passive-aggressive approach|
With the addition of only a few new tricks, the core gameplay is unaltered from what we've grown accustomed to, feeling the most like Contra III, which might seem expected, given the numbering, but let's remember that they're 15 years apart. Before starting the game you can select which character you want to use. So if you're like me and sad that you have to be player two to enjoy the benefits of red pants, now you can choose Lance (the red pants guy) instead of that stuck up Blue Pants Bill right out of the starting block. Two other characters, Mad Dog and Scorpion, are also immediately selectable, and if you're familiar with the regional differences between the original Contra games, you know why that's such a delightful addition. All of these initial characters are just color palette swaps of each other, but if you ever felt that Bill Rizer would be better represented as a black guy with a golden rifle then this game's for you.
|This seems very familiar|
After your support chopper drops you into the jungle, careful not to insult your manhood with a helpful missile or two aimed at your enemies, you'll find yourself in the same position in which you found yourself way back in the original Contra, with a big gun that shoots one small, pathetic round at a time. Even the sound effect is exactly the same as it was in the NES days. Your mission on every level is simple to say but nearly impossible to do, run to the end of the level while shooting everything in sight before it gets you. If you take one shot from anything, you lose a life.
Enemies come in all forms, from the backpack carrying cannon-fodder guys who used to irritate us on the waterfall (and still do) to durable gun turrets which take many shots to destroy. There's an increased premium on mid-bosses in Contra 4 which help give each level some added depth and challenge on the way to the eventual main boss. Mid bosses are among the most interesting enemies and may take the form of a large alien, a powerful tank, a giant robot, and more. It's not uncommon to encounter a mid boss that's actually more difficult than the level's final boss.
|Spreadshot is love|
To help you navigate all of these hazards, your character can climb certain walls, hang on bars and certain ceilings, and can now climb ropes or rope-shaped alien entrails, which does unfortunately open the door to the 2D platformer rope nightmares we all remember, and more than once you'll be lamenting the loss of a life while asking, "why didn't we grab that rope, Bill?" New to the series, you are also given a grapple hook which is used to latch onto hangable objects above you. The grapple hook with shoot all the way to the heights of the level but you're very vulnerable to attack while it's pulling you up there. In an effort to make use out of this new tactic, weapon pods can often be found over deadly chasms, forcing you to shoot them open, jump down just far enough to collect the item before it's lost, and then grapple back to safety before it's too late, which looks pretty darn cool when you pull it off, but is rarely worth the trouble. Perhaps you might feel the use of the grapple hook adds a needless new learning curve in a series that's already too damn hard, but you'd better get used to it, as several key parts of the game require it. Sticking to running and gunning and some light climbing would be ideal but the grapple hook just may save your life one day. Or possibly cost you one.
|Grappling can also leave you temporarily headless|
Better weapons and powerups are shot out of pods imbedded into the background, or from flying pods which look very similar to those found in Contra III. If you're hoping for some new toys to play with here then you'll be somewhat disappointed as all of the weapons within have been featured in previous titles. However, all of the weapons can be upgraded by picking them up twice, so their functionality will improve in ways you may not expect. In some cases, the upgraded weapon is If you're playing on Easy, they all start off fully upgraded. Being able to upgrade the weapons puts an increased premium on collecting them as well as making it more tragic when you're killed, and your weapon is lost. Like in Contra III, you're allowed to carry two different weapons which is awfully helpful, since you only lose the one who had equipped when you die. Unlike Contra III you can't fire both weapons at once although there was really no tactically sound reason to do so in the first place. You can also discard your weapon, tossing it to the ground. This is useful if you're playing with a friend and are generous enough to share the wealth. It can also be helpful if you know you're about to get hit by something that don't want to lose the weapon permanently. Although if you're new to the controls you'll find yourself accidentally throwing away your weapons at very inopportune times.
The levels play similarly to how they'd play in Contra III, with most of them being a side-scrolling format allowing you to climb rails, walls, and ropes in order to get to higher plains. Many portions of the game give you the option to take the high or low path, so you can run along the roof tops of the crumbling city or try your luck on the mean streets below. This would be especially helpful on multiplayer so you can finally get your buddy the hell out of your way, relegating him to whatever path you don't take. One of the levels takes place over the ocean on a futuristic jet ski, sort of like an aquatic version of the hover bike level in Contra III. And to the delight of fans of the original Contra, there are three shooting-gallery levels reminiscent of the bases from the first game. These levels are even harder than they were in 1987 with more tricks and traps awaiting you, but with the faster pacing and new features, may be even more fun than the bases you remember. Or maybe just more infuriating.
Aside from the regular campaign, you can also unlock Challenge Mode, which sticks you in 40 different scenarios, demanding that you complete tasks ranging from completing a section of a level without being able to shoot, having to retain extreme accuracy, taking on a boss without sustaining a single hit, and more. Some of these are unimaginably annoying, and not in the good Contra way, but just in an unfair, irritating way, which I assure you is actually different. For example, when playing some of the Pacifism modes, where you can't shoot, you're basically at the mercy of what the game throws at you. Sure, it might give you 3 paths to take but say enemies are on all three paths, preventing you from jumping, dropping, or standing your ground. What do you do? Nothing, you're screwed. Most of the challenges are fair in some very hidden way, but some of them will have you contemplating just how important a DS really is while you're looking for a hammer. As you complete these tasks you'll be rewarded with various unlockable bonuses which actually manage to justify the injustice you've just suffered. These bonuses...these bonuses are perhaps the greatest example of fan service the game has to offer. The booklet specifically says it offers no spoilers on what these prizes are, and in honor of that they won't be mentioned here, but to give you a small idea, if Contra 4 itself were absent from the game and only the unlockables remained, it would still be worth buying. Seriously.
So the gameplay in general is pretty great, classic Contra at its finest with a few new abilities. But alas, we must also cover the grim matter of the difficulty. First the good news: It's not as hard as Contra III. But then, few things in life are. However, the difficulty of Contra 4 is still insane and will scare off the modern gamer used to endless life bars and unlimited continues. It's much harder than Contra and Super Contra and requires extremely skillful maneuvering and heroic patience. The game can be set to 'easy' but the last two levels won't be available, and it's not as if "Easy" isactually all that easy anyway. If you're feeling extra masochistic, you can put the game on hard, where enemy bullets are almost too fast to see and bosses boast a carpal tunnel inducing number of hit points. As eluded to earlier, one of the hardest things about Contra 4 is that it takes place on both screens, making it very hard to see threats coming from the screen opposite of the one you currently occupy. You either have to look at what's coming or keep and eye on what's happening on your screen, either option increasing your mortality significantly. Plus, enemy fire briefly gets lost in the space between the two screens making it extra difficult to keep track of it. Honestly this is one of the more frustrating facets of the game, and whether it's intentionally meant to increase difficulty or just an unfortunate side effect of an attempt to take advantage of the DS platform, it does beg for an eventual adaptation to a single-screen platform if ever possible. Fortunately the overall game is great enough for this not to ruin it.
|Bill must eliminate all the Aliens before 20th Century Fox sues him.|
Contra 4 is a prime example of what can be accomplished two decades into a long-running series when its made with the fans in mind and not just the money. Contra 4 isn't made to appeal to a new generation of gamers. It doesn't even try. This game is solely for those who loved Contra, Super C, and Contra III, loved the punishment and tragedy they dished out, and wanted more. Fifteen years after the last classic Contra, this game proves it can hang with its iconic predecessors and is easily the best Contra to come out in the 2000's. It doesn't try to be new or different, it just tries to be good. There is no fathomable reason that any classic Contra fan wouldn't become an immediate fan of this classic Run and Gun experience.
* A few of these screenshots came from IGN.
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