I want you to imagine something. Picture yourself in the role of the Great Non-Color-Specific Hunter. You stand alone in the depths of the Serengetti surveying the lay of the land. Your target is a brutal, and clever, elephant lurking among the trees. Confidence fills every fiber of your body. You raise a high-powered energy rifle, 40-watt range preferable, and take careful aim. Without warning, the elephant rushes out of the trees just beyond your peripheral vision, knocks you to the ground, and stomps on your genitals repeatedly before disappearing back into the trees. You dust yourself off, stand back up, walk another three feet and the event repeats itself.
Welcome to the world of Contra 4, the only game to date to cause me to hurl my DS across the room while cursing the lives of every employee at both Nintendo and Konami. But after an hour I returned, like a mangy dog skulking back to its cruel master’s doorstep, to receive a fair amount of the same annihilation of my manhood. I would point to hour three as a high point in my life because that’s when I managed to defeat the first mission on Normal difficulty. There was much rejoicing, indeed.
In so doing I also recalled my love-hate relationship with this series since its inception, a good thing too because the original games are unlockable bonuses in Contra 4. Gamers who feel like their pain isn’t great enough in playing the latest version can revel in the joy of sucking over and over in 8-bit glory. Yet the mystique of the series puzzles fans and strangers alike because there is no valid reason why something so challenging should remain so much fun. Repeating the same thing over and over expecting different results is the definition of insanity and since that is the case then clearly I’ve gone ‘round the bend.
Contra 4 may not tax the horsepower of the DS but it captures the spirit of the original titles. The first mission especially is a clever nod to the first game as the player is dropped into the middle of a jungle and ultimately battles a giant fortress to finish the stage. As the player progresses, larger and crazier bosses and stages rear their heads and it becomes clear that the artists responsible are very creative. Around the time you find yourself hanging on to the top of an out-of-control, for lack of a better term, giant flea while simultaneously working to bring the beast down and fend off aggressive foes on hover bikes the game has thrown every bit of crazy it can think of at you.
Then the next mission turns in to a gory horror show.
Each level has its own unique appearance and enemies. The canon fodder foes are used throughout, but certain surprises are held until late in the game when things go from homage to outright rip-off of Aliens. Which is, of course, exactly how it was in the original series.
The odd fusion of synth-pop that plays across each level sounds like a nod to the history of the series. The energy of the first mission’s soundtrack is a jingoistic fanfare, which matches perfectly to the image of muscle-bound super soldiers riding the pain train over wave upon wave of evil aliens. Eventually the soundtrack opts for a heavier mood as players delve deeper into the alien hive. The music is terrific for this style of game, though it may grow tiresome after repeatedly playing certain missions. It is difficult to remain enthusiastic for a piece of up-lifting music when you’re on your fifth replay of that level.
The voice bites are equally up-tempo even though they sound as if someone raided the Duke Nukem archives and culled his best quotes. The sound effects are vintage Contra from the various weapon types to the alien screams to the death wails of the player character. If you have never played one of these games, first of all shame on you, then yes it does sound like you were given a pop gun and told to pick up heavier artillery once on the ground. While this may not be the most solid military strategy this side of Picket’s Charge, the ever-increasing power of the available weapons sound excellent.
The controls are very tight. There are no examples of “use the stylus to point and fire your weapon while maneuvering around waves of enemies” malarkey. Instead, Contra 4 makes expert use of the DS since each level map takes up both screens. Players will find themselves on the lower screen one moment before scaling buildings onto the upper screen the next. Enemies appear all over the place and their aim can, and frequently will, find you regardless of which screen your character is on. These games are all about pattern recognition and timing, so utilizing both right from the start will grant you a leg up on the opposition.
The B button is your jump button and the Y button is your fire button. When your thumbs are calloused and bruised, these are the two reasons why. Pushing up on the directional pad while hitting the X button fires a cable from your gun that attaches to special platforms lined throughout each mission. Once you connect to it, the cable pulls you up to the platform where you can continue to shoot or move or both. The A button actually drops whatever special weapon you pick up, so if you receive the flamethrower but it is hindering more than helping you, pressing the A button will discard it and you will go back to the standard gun.
The point of Contra 4 is to shoot anything that isn’t you. Pairing up with a friend only means one takes the low road while the other goes for the high road. It should be said in no uncertain terms that this in no way off-sets the degree of difficulty. All it accomplishes is it gives you someone to bounce strategies and obscenities off of.
Contra 4 has nine missions totaling anywhere from three to 15 hours worth of soul-crushing fury. Mastering this game will soon become a challenge for Tibetan monks seeking enlightenment. Why then the high score? Because Contra 4 itself is fun, pure and simple. Hard to the point where the strong will question whether they have the power to move forward, but fun regardless. The dynamics change at the drop of each weapon, which is something to keep in mind. You might pick up the perfect weapon for a specific mission, slaughter all who oppose you, only to have the flamethrower drop on your head thereby replacing your perfect weapon with one not quite up to the task.
It will give you white hairs since you have to know literally every square inch of every map. Having a spot of luck helps immeasurably.
I’m going to spoil one of the middle levels right now to illustrate my point. Those of you wishing to go in knowledge-free should skip to the end of the review where I say they all die in a nuclear fire. Zing!
Here is how one level goes – the player begins by jumping across a series of platforms interspersed with bad guys only to come face to face with a giant submarine that blasts you with a large gun on each end and four high-energy laser beams in the middle. Moving past that results in you scaling a tower while fighting foes who drop all around you. Making it to the top succeeds only in you then having to hang on to a missile as it launches.
The player must leap from one small hand-hold to the next. Another boss fight occurs, this time with a giant iguana, as you cling to a missile soaring through the sky. Post-iguana battle, the player hops from one small hand-hold to the next across the missile as smaller, tougher to shoot, missiles fly up and down trying to knock the player off. Surviving this section results in a timed dance across the missile’s three booster engines as the player must avoid the after burners. Should the player make it this far, the missile crashes into a building depositing them at the right spot to fight a giant alien robot.
This is one of several missions, boys and girls, and if you claim you made it through this sequence on the first try you’re lying. Yeah, I said it.
But doesn’t that sound awesome?
If the excitement of playing through the game isn’t enough, Konami was thoughtful enough to stack up 40 challenges to overcome. These range from surviving a level filled with difficult-to-kill enemies, to speed runs, to pacifism runs where you are not allowed to fire a single shot. Some of the rewards for completing enough of these include the original games in the series, additional skins, and artwork. The game may seem shallow on the surface, but playing it for more than an hour feels like falling down the rabbit hole. Every level has its own challenges. Ditto the special bonus challenges. Finding the keys to victory per level requires as much forethought as it does stellar reflexes.
Despite the insane difficulty inherent to the brand, Contra 4 is an excellent way to spend quality gaming time. Having a couch or chair nearby pre-loaded with fluffy pillows will help save your DS when you hurl it in frustration. Plan accordingly, and this game will bring the fun.
Regardless of personal skill level, the Contra series has always taken a perverse thrill in reducing those of the power thumbs to quivering blobs of jelly. While that analogy may not seem quite a stretch, Konami’s dogged insistence on developing each title in the franchise into an Aliens-inspired dominatrix-fun-house-with-guns hooks you line and sinker. It is remarkably fun, even after all these years, to repeatedly be capped in the face because you know in your heart that after another five minutes you’ll have the pattern down and be able to move forward. Then when you do make it all the way to the end of the level, you run head-long into a five story tall boss alien with three forms and a cheat of a finishing move.
But to persevere gives one a sense of elation equal to inhaling nitrous oxide.
This is a long way of saying the game will beat you silly, but the challenge and gameplay are so much fun that the need to press forward is strong. Contra 4 may not be for everyone, but it captures the spirit of the original games and completing it is as much a badge of honor as it was back in the day.