Here is a small tidbit of information to make you feel old; Contra is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year. That’s right Konami’s revered series has been around for two decades now and for gamers like myself who remember firing up the original on launch day for the NES this is certain to have you pose the question, “Has it really been that long?” What is probably more surprising though is that twenty years later and we are just now reaching the fourth official chapter in the series. Sure there have been spin-offs and regular entries into the series, but as any fan will tell you none of them have managed to live up to the quality of the core games. With Contra 4 Konami has taken a huge risk by handing development over to an American team as well as limiting its release to Nintendo’s portable, but if you have the means Contra 4 is the best the series has to offer since we all served in The Alien Wars.
Everything about Contra 4 screams old-school design from the visual fidelity down to the unforgiving difficulty. It is almost as if the designers threw out every incarnation of the franchise since Contra III and focused on what made the original trilogy so appealing to the fans. The levels will feel familiar with lush jungle locales that feel like they were lifted right out of the movie Predator. While this approach to old-school design will appease the long time faithful, it does feel a bit on the safe side. Contra 4 still feels like a game that could have been released in 1995, which is both a good and bad thing.
Developer WayForward seems to have taken everything we love about the series and recreated it frame by frame. The only feature that really stands out is the new dual-screen dynamic much like the one found in Yoshi’s Island DS. The gap between each screen is a blackhole of cheap deaths, when combined with the insane difficulty results in more frustration than its worth. To remedy this you now have access to a grappling hook that will allow you to traverse from screen to screen in an instant, but mastering this new technique in a game focused on precision and memorization feels more tacked on than useful.
The rest of the game plays out much like you would expect with lots of precision jumping, enemy memorization, and tons of button tapping. Keeping up with the barrage of bullets while trying to deliver them yourself has always been a ballet that is fun to watch when a great player puts their hands on the controller. Contra 4 is certainly no different as enemies will continue to flood the screen from every direction as you play each section over and over learning the layouts and enemy placement. By today’s standards this probably sounds unacceptable, but for Contra fans it is essential and Contra 4 does it without remorse for gamers spoiled by endless checkpoints and regenerating health.
This game is bloody hard, and that is not an understatement. Anyone interested in this title should know beforehand that Contra 4 does not use a save feature whatsoever, in fact outside of saving your unlockables anytime you power down expect to commence the entire game from the beginning. In typical old-school fashion Contra 4 gives players a set number of lives and continues. Lose a life at the end of a level and be forced to start all over; exhaust all of your continues and its back to level one with you. As I stated there is no remorse for the inexperienced gamer. If you want to enjoy and finish this game you are going to be forced to become really, really good at it.
Everything else here abides by the rules of classic gaming rarely stepping outside the boundaries. This will certainly limit its appeal to some, but fans of Contra should not be hesitant about taking the plunge. There are some cool enhancements here such as the dual-screen elements which also work their way into boss battles, but it is still nothing that we haven’t seen before. The difficulty will also be a factor, granted there is an easy mode that allows you access to stronger weapons and fewer enemies, but you cannot complete the game until you bump it up. Contra 4 is the kind of game that looks down on easier games and calls them names like a bully on a playground, so if you haven’t been humbled by a videogame before prepare to meet your maker.
The sights and sounds here also lack ambition but arguably deliver on all accounts. As I stated earlier the game feels like it could have been released in 1995 and visually my point is driven home. The color palette is fluid and the animation respectable, but if you have seen any previous Contra titles it will feel a bit recognizable. The music is redolent of the series with fast-paced synthesizer melodies that will quickly take you back to late 80s arcade nirvana. Sound effects are standard fare and as an overall package the presentation of Contra 4 feels much like its gameplay in that it only adheres to the hardest of the hardcore fans.
What is substantial about Contra 4 though is how much replay you will obtain if you are willing to stick with it. The insane difficulty will take hours of practice to master and a WiFi co-op mode is great for adding firepower to your arsenal. There are also a host of unlockables such as new character skins and a virtual museum chock full of Contra history that fans will undoubtedly drool over. There are also two full previous outing on this tiny cartridge in the form of the original Contra and Super C both NES classics. These can be unlocked by completing specific challenges in Challenge Mode and outside of a few minor issues are perfectly emulated. Sadly though the co-op found in the main game is absent here leaving you with only the option to select two players from the main menu with both protagonists being operated by one player.
Contra 4 is a cartridge that is aimed directly at the hearts of fans of the series. Very little was done to change the formula, but more than enough was done to revive it. If you crave old-school action that is just as relentless today as it was back in the 80s then Konami has answered your call. With so much to see, do and master Contra 4 is well worth the price of admission given you are tough enough to handle all it throws at you. Toss in two unlockable games, an addictive challenge mode and WiFi co-op and you have the greatest entry to the series since the days of SNES. If your memory hasn’t been tarnished by the poor outings over the last few years and you crave that hardcore old-school action you will be hard pressed to find a better option on any system.