Release Date: November 13, 2007
After the absolutely fantastic Contra 3 for the SNES and Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis, Konami's Contra franchise took a serious downhill turn, with lackluster and bland PlayStation spin-offs that grew increasingly uninteresting until, thankfully, Contra: Shattered Soldier showed that the series might actually be getting back on track. However, the next title after that, Contra 4, came as a bit of a surprise to everyone. It was a Nintendo DS exclusive created by Wayforward, a company best known for its mega-obscure classic Shante and then a series of Spongebob Squarepants and Shrek spin-offs. It seemed like a recipe for disaster … and yet, with Contra 4 Wayforward showed that it was the ideal candidate to handle the Contra license. Make no mistake: Contra 4 is a true sequel to Contra 3 and worthy of the Contra name in every way.
A warning before this review even starts: Contra 4 is hard. It's not hard like Halo 3's Legendary mode or anything like that; Contra 4 is hard in the old-school NES way, where you have extremely limited lives, die in one hit, lose all of your power-ups when you die, and the screen is filled to the brim with enemies and bullets. Even the Easy mode, which is in fact far easier than Normal, could potentially offer enough difficulty for less-skilled gamers to find themselves unable to get past the second stage, and Easy Mode also cuts off early, preventing those same gamers from experiencing the last two levels of the game. If the idea of playing through stages multiple times to learn all of the patterns and enemies doesn't appeal to you, you might be better off passing on Contra 4. It isn't nice, it isn't friendly and it will hurt you. However, if you can get past the difficulty, you'll enjoy every minute of it.
Much of the Contra 4 gameplay feels like a natural evolution of Contra 3's, almost entirely ignoring the lackluster spin-offs. Players run through a series of stages, blasting the heck out of every foe in their path and trying to avoid getting blasted in return. Gamers who've played Contra 3 will find themselves right at home here, with many of the same features returning, admittedly in altered form. For example, Contra 3's weapon-switching system returns almost unchanged. Players can pick up any two weapons at a time, change between them at will, potentially allowing skilled gamers to have an ideal weapon for any situation, or save those useful homing missiles, since the "reserve" weapon doesn't get lost when you die.
In addition to this, Contra 4 includes a new weapon power-up system. By collecting the same weapon again, a player can power up his current gun. A second spread gun turns the three-bullet spread into a five-bullet one, a second homing missile doubles the number of missiles, and a second machine gun turns your regular gun into a double-firing monster. Players can even choose to "sacrifice" one of their obtained power-ups, reverting back to the normal gun, in exchange for allowing a wireless co-op partner a chance to grab the sacrificed power-up. After all, two spread guns can potentially be better than one.
Much like the original Contra, the game switches from a side-scrolling view to a behind-the-warrior angle when the player enters an enemy base. These gameplay segments (which, unsurprisingly, are going to feel very familiar to Contra vets) involve blowing your way through a series of defenses inside an enemy base, automatically moving from room to room after you defeat a "wall" blocking your way. Player-controlled movement is restricted to jumping and side-to-side dodges, and while it isn't a drastic change from the usual gameplay since it still boils down to shooting glowing weak points and avoiding bullets, it does offer a refreshing switch that helps keep the gameplay fresh. Perhaps the only complaint about these segments is that they're much easier than the side-scrolling stages, but in this fashion, they offer a much-needed breather from the usual unrelenting action.
The biggest gameplay change from Contra 3 is the addition of the Nintendo DS' second screen. Contra 4 uses both screens, and even though your hero is only on one screen at a time, enemies will be attacking from above and below at all times. Bosses tower over both screens, certain paths split to take you above the enemy-infested lower screen or make it easier to damage a boss. At certain points, the Contra soldiers can use the new grappling hook attachment to hook onto various ledges and objects on the upper screen, allowing the gamer to switch between the two at will. This comes in handy during the many pulse-poundingly intense boss sequences, many of which use the two screens to their full extent. Having to keep an eye on both screens is yet another part of why Contra 4 is so difficult, and yet it feels like a natural, and incredibly fun, evolution of the Contra formula.
However, it isn't entirely without flaws. There is a small gap between the screens (the hinge area that makes up the difference between the DS' top and bottom screens) that is a "dead zone" as far as the player is concerned. It's a slim area where the enemy still exists, but the gamer can't see them. While this rarely comes up, there are a few times when you can be nailed by an "off-screen" enemy who is trapped between your screens, and that can just be a bit frustrating. It's an unavoidable element of the DS' design, but that doesn't make it any less annoying when your soldier loses his last life to an easily avoidable alien.
Perhaps the best part of Contra 4 comes after you've finished the game. Players who've successfully completed the game (even on Easy mode) will unlock the Challenge mode, which is a series of 40 sub-missions, set in the game's various stages, that challenge the player to complete new and often difficult tasks. These tasks range from the simple, such as beating the stage with a new and increasingly difficult set of enemies, or defeating one of the game's many bosses without taking a hit, to the more unusual, like completing a stage without missing a single shot, using a "prototype laser weapon" that happens to resemble the unusual laser power-up from the original Contra, or completing the stage without a gun at all! These missions are short but supremely fun and challenging, and only the top Contra buffs will be able to complete them all.
Why bother with the fun-slash-frustration of completing the Challenge mode? It unlocks the title's numerous bonus features: For every four missions you complete in Challenge mode, the game unlocks one of its many secrets, and while not all of them are particularly fantastic, there are a few gems hidden in Contra 4, including comics, director interviews and even complete ports of Contra and Super C for the original NES!
Contra 4's soundtrack is the usual high-quality fare, intense and perfect for keeping a gamer's blood pounding during intense boss fights and the seemingly endless hordes of evil aliens rushing at them from all directions. Most of the classic Contra sound effects return almost unchanged, and that's sure to give veteran Contra players a nostalgia rush.
Likewise, the graphics are a very natural evolution of the designs found in Contra 3. The sprites are exceedingly well-animated and very smooth, and the game runs without a hitch or slowdown, no matter how many foes and bullets are onscreen. The entire design has a very old-school feel to it, and while it may feel dated in another franchise, it feels absolutely perfect for a Contra title.
Contra 4 is relatively short, but the difficulty and the immense number of extras give it a healthy replay value. The gameplay itself is fun and challenging, with a series of interesting and exciting levels, punctuated by difficult and terrifying boss battles. The only thing that prevents Contra 4 from being an absolutely must-buy game is its difficulty. It's very likely too hard for the average gamer, who may find himself frustrated and annoyed even with the rather forgiving Easy mode. However, if you absolutely love a challenge, are convinced you can't lose or simply have fond memories of the controller-breaking frustrating of Contra for the NES, then Contra 4 is a must-have. Wayforward has proven that its game is, undoubtedly, the true Contra 4.
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