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They weren't joking when they said Contra will finally go back to its roots and bring us all the things we loved about the 2D side-scrolling shooter. As fans of Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, just imagine our surprise when Konami announced Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS back in June. It was to be developed by WayForward Technologies, known for the facepalm inducing Ping Pals, but we did not lose hope.
We heard little about this upcoming game and the wait was getting difficult to bear, yet we hanged onto Konami's word of making Contra fun again in celebration of the series' 20th Anniversary. Then Contra 4 got a release date. Soon, November 13 came and we grabbed a copy as soon as we found one. Plugged it in, turned the DS on, and the opening screen quickly told us: this is the real deal.
Just like what we grew up with, Contra 4 is that solid, old-school, action-packed game for those in need of a challenge. The story this time is what you'd expect from a Contra title: straightforward, simple, and downright manly. Alien overlord Black Viper decided to attack our beloved planet Earth, and you have to use badass guns to blast them out of our homeland.
Since this is a Contra game, don't expect the plot to be gripping or mind-blowing. We're talking tough-as-nails, run-and-gun shooting here, so turn back if you're not up to progressing slowly due to constant deaths. Excruciating yet addictive gameplay is where Contra shines, and this instalment is testament to that.
Contra 4 hits home just in the first minutes of play. The Nintendo DS hardware was put into good use which resulted to pretty and detailed backdrops, while explosions and other visual effects look nice. Developers did a good job retaining the art style of the game that popularized cheat codes two decades ago.
Action happens in two screens, which can be a blessing or a curse, but boss fights wouldn't have been as epic without the hectic vertical movement that keeps players on their toes. It can be disorienting to move from one screen to another, but if you're complaining about something that can be overcome with skill, this game is not for you.
Sound effects and background music will send any hardcore Contra fan to nostalgia land, while others who aren't devout might find them too dated. Still, we embrace the old-school feel and applaud WayForward for recreating the atmosphere of the long lost shooter (no, the 3D Contra games don't count).
Okay, so we said gameplay is the beef of Contra but went on about aesthetics. Why? We can't stress it enough: Contra 4 is the old-school Contra in the veins of its the NES and SNES iterations. Platforms, power-ups, intimidating bosses, pseudo-3D stages - name all the good things in Contra, render in DS graphics, add new elements, then you've got Contra 4.
One nifty addition is the grappling hook which you can use to move directly upwards, and is effective in avoiding enemies or reaching the perfect vantage point to hit that boss' weak spot. In some levels, you'll be hanging over one building after another. Some will have you running for life on a speed boat while an overgrown fish is trying to eat you alive.
Beyond the graphical and level design improvements, Contra 4 plays the same as its predecessors. You still get killed in one hit, there are limited lives and continues, and you can't save. Controls are spot on, but you'll still need mad skills to get anywhere. Normal mode in this game is for the hardcore, and should not be touched by anyone who lacks extensive 2D platforming experience.
Granted that you can actually beat the game, even on Easy, there's Challenge Mode that will appear. New mini-missions become available to shake things up a bit, and give you the chance to unlock bonus goodies. Of course, if you want the original Contra and Contra C on your DS, there's no other way than give Challenge Mode a go. Unfortunately, there's no multiplayer support for these two.
Contra 4 multiplayer through wi-fi puts tears of joy in our eyes. Like an oasis in the middle of the desert, playing with a pal makes hell a wee bit less hotter. Without it, be prepared to spend more than 30 lives trying to get through one level unless you're among those Contra masters that can finish the original with eyes closed. And one hand tied to the back.