Disclaimer: I was provided a copy for review by the publisher's agent.
Rating: 6/10 - Brutally hard, classic gameplay that hasn't joined the twenty-first century.
Platform: Nintendo DS
Ah, Contra. I have fond memories of the original Contra. It was one of the first Nintendo games I had. It was my first cheat code. It had cool powerups and neat boss battles. So I was looking forward to Contra 4.
Unfortunately, like most nostalgia, the past wasn't as good as I remembered it. I had forgotten that the original Contra was an arcade game. It was brutally hard, the better to eat quarters with and to mask the game's short length. A single mistake made the game more difficult. Thinking harder, I realize that I never successfully finished the game without the Konami code.
Contra 4 remembers the original Contra more accurately and adds extra layers of difficulty. If you're looking for brutal old school difficulty, and are okay with replaying levels over and over again, that might be okay. If you're looking for a series that has moved with the times and adopted advanced in game design in the last twenty years, look for another game.
So what's going on? The game has a totally irrelevant plot. Alien invaders blah blah blah go get em! Whatever, on to the shooting.
You're a shirtless Rambo knockoff fighting through waves of aliens, presumably to stop them, or something. Most of the game is a 2-D side scrolling platform shooter. You're usually travelling left to right. You'll occasionally go bottom to up. And on a few levels you'll travel in 3-D down tunnels, just like the original Contra. You'll find more powerful weapons floating by or stored in boxes throughout. You'll face boss monsters at the end of each level and frequently mid-level. Nothing surprising. You do get a grapple, unfortunately it only goes straight up, only attaches to special rails, and you can't swing on it. Still, it's fun.
Contra 4 is hard. Damn hard. I tried playing Normal difficulty, but I couldn't do it. I chewed through all of my lives and all of my continues without finishing the first stage. So I gave up and moved to Easy. Then I couldn't finish the second stage. Hours of trying again and again, and I've finally made it to, but not through the City, level 7 of 9. And now I'm done. I don't have it in me to try again.
Part of why Contra 4 is so hard is the old school gameplay. Our hero dies immediately upon any contact with enemy fire. Or touch an enemy. Or touch the bottom of the screen where you know there is a platform just out of sight. There is no life bar. One hit and you lose a life. This is especially frustrating as most of the aliens you're fighting take more than one shot to kill. Perhaps I could steal some of their armor? The rest of the world moved on, Contra 4, it's time to allow minor mistakes to be recovered.
Of course, when you die, you lose whatever weapon you have active. The game lets you carry two weapons, so if you're careful you've have at least one good backup weapon. Still your punishment for not being good enough is to make the game harder. In some cases you'll go from one boss to another with no opportunities to get a new weapon, so two deaths against the first boss means you'll be facing both of them with a crappy weapon.
Having the right weapon radically changes the game. Armed with spread shot, or even better homing missiles, you can quickly wade through most of the levels. Armed with a powerful weapon like the crush missiles or laser and you'll make short work of most bosses. If you're stuck with your default rifle most bosses are long, slow, difficult slogs.
I mentioned that touching an enemy is fatal. It turns out that any part of an enemy is fatal. Touch their head? Fatal. That's particularly frustrating when an enemy on a level below you is just hopping over a gap and his helmet grazes your foot, killing you. Similarly, if you touch the legs of an enemy laying down you'll die. The end result is deaths that feel like cheating.
Contra 4 is also limited by the eight-direction pad for aiming, just like an old Nintendo game. Unfortunately this means you're frequently fighting the input system instead of enemies. You can only fire in the eight directions, so you frequently find yourself unable to hit enemies who are between two of the directions. Again, many of your enemies aren't so hindered and can aim at any angle. Frustrating.
One improvement over the original Contra is that you can fire at an angle without moving, or fire downward without jumping. But you do so by holding another button, a motion that feels unnatural. I never managed to use the button fluidly, resulting in moving in when I didn't want to, or stopping when I needed to move.
In a throwback to needlessly old-school gameplay, you'll spend most of the game rapidly tapping the fire button. This is utterly pointless. Tapping the button isn't fun, it's not engaging gameplay, it's just dull. All of the weapons have an autofire mode but with the exception of the machine gun it's slower than you can achieve by tapping the button rapidly. Given the nature of the game, you'll almost always want to be filling the screen with as much gunfire as you can, so this is decidedly unamusing.
Like many arcade games, you'll be expected to avoid attacks with suddenly appear with little or no warning. The first time you encounter a boss, you will lose several lives as you learn his attack pattern and signals. Some attacks arrive with split second warning, requiring exceptionally good reflexes to avoid. Some attacks come from off-screen, turning the edges is dangerous places.
When you do lose all of your lives, you're given the option to quit or to continue. But you only get 5 continues. When you use them all, you're done and have to start over. At least with an arcade game I can continue until I run out of quarters. Even when you have continues, you don't continue where you left off. Instead you're taken back to the last checkpoint you reached. The checkpoints aren't marked and are infrequent, so you'll occasionally find yourself taken surprisingly far back. I spend a long time replaying the second half of the harbor level, losing a life or two to the birdmen who fall faster than their bullets, losing another life or two fighting the tricky monster on the rocket, losing another life or two making a series of tricky jumps on the rocket while avoiding smaller missiles, and finally losing my last lives on the level's final boss.
The game also lacks the ability to save. This is necessary to preserve the old-school brutality. But it's means that when you start up Contra 4, you're committing to it. Since there are only about two core hours of gameplay, this might not be too bad, but you won't be able to play in fifteen minute chunks to take a break from Phantom Hourglass. The game does note when you abandon the game and offers to take you back to the last level when you restart, but it charges a continue to do so, making this an option of last resort.
With the exception of the 3-D parts of the game, the game uses both screens as a single play field. This seems the obvious thing to do, but it doesn't work as well as one might hope. Splitting your attention between two screens which are separated by a quarter screen can be difficult. It's easy to focus on one screen, only to be surprised by incoming fire from the other. With several hours of play I got used to it, but mostly by playing each level over and over again so I learned where I needed to pay attention at any given moment. Of course, the two screen play field creates the gap.
Many games assume that the two screens are directly adjacent. Contra 4 doesn't. Instead Contra 4 makes the actual gameplay area include the gap. So a bullet traveling from the top screen to the bottom will disappear for a moment as it travels between the two screens. This makes the bullet's motion appear to travel smoothly between the two screens, but it also means that the bullet isn't visible for a moment. When you're avoiding bullets coming from the other screen, you need to remember where they are because they'll disappear for a moment. Worse, if you've moving from one screen to another, you disappear into the gap. Now you can't see where you are, or the incoming bullets, but they can kill you just the same. With enough experience you'll learn to anticipate problems, but it's frustrating.
The 3-D levels are appealing but flawed. Unlike the original Contra, they're real 3-D. When moving from room to room it looks neat, unfortunately it looks flat and uninspired while actually fighting in a room. It can be difficult to aim shots or avoid incoming fire. The enemies and bullets are 2-D sprites whose distance into the foreground isn't clear. Without clear signals, it's hard to tell high high off the ground something is. Furthermore, the game emphasizes the 3-D depth of the scene, so forward and backward movement near the edges actually travels at an angle. Add in enemies who occasionally fire shots at angles and you have some difficult scenes to quickly visually parse.
The 2-D levels are colorful and nice. Unfortunately not a lot of care was put into ensuring that you can easily identify important things on screen. The machine gunners on the first level, the Jungle, are brown blobs that are easy to overlook against the brown backgrounds. I lost many lives bumping into them. The waterfall part of the Base level has dark brown climbable walls on top of medium brown background walls, making them easy to overlook. The Ocean level features occasional fights with enemies below the water. To make it look underwater, it's a low contrast mix of washed out blue shapes.
The characters, both the heroes and enemies, are pretty large. This gives them plenty of space for details. Unfortunately it also means that your hero takes up a bunch of screen space. More importantly, by making everything larger, you make the amount of the world which is visible smaller. In Contra 4 our hero is a bit less than 15% of the screen's width, so if he's in the middle of the screen you can see about 4 widths of the hero's body each way. In the original Contra, the hero was a bit less than 9% of the screen's width, giving about a bit more 5 widths each way. Ultimately I would have preferred a smaller hero and being able to see further.
So what is good? While extremely hard, the core jumping and shooting gameplay is solid. The game has some neat set pieces. At one point you'll climb up a rocket as it's being launched, then fight a mid-level boss climbing alongside the rocket with you. You'll face a massive downward facing cannon that moves along rails above you. You'll battle a submarine from above. The grapple is a bit limited, but there are lots of rails to grab onto.
Finally, the game promises me that it includes versions of the original Contra and Contra S. I have no idea. To unlock them you need to beat them game, then complete additional challenges. While this does provide a reward for the hardcore players, isn't the hardcore play its own reward. This just locks out less skilled players who want to play these classic games.
There is fun to be had here, but don't expect modern gameplay. The game is brutally hard. There are many hours of play, but only because you'll be replaying the game over and over again, slowly progressing through it. It would have been nice if some of the gameplay advances from the last two decades had made their way in. But no one can doubt that this is an old-school design.
Update 2008-01-12: Added disclaimer noting that I was provided with a copy. My apologies for failing to note this earlier.