I'm just going to lay this out there right now. You may think you're a hardcore gamer, but unless you've successfully completed a Contra title on a difficulty level higher than easy, you're just not. While the Contra series began as hardcore masterpiece 20 years ago, it veered wildly into craptacular territory during the PlayStation days (Blue and Red 3D glasses? Shudder…). At least Konami righted the ship with the PlayStation 2's fantastic Contra: Shattered Soldier. A weak excursion into the third dimension in Neo Contra followed with mixed results. Thankfully, Konami has seen fit to return Contra to its incredibly difficult 2D roots, with a few welcome DS enhancements. This is the true sequel Contra fans have been waiting for.
Contra 4 plays a lot like the legendary Contra games of yore, which basically means shoot absolutely everything that moves before it kills you. It's you versus the world here and if anything moves, kill it. While you're mostly on your own against a ridiculous onslaught of aliens and soldiers throughout the game, you're at least given access to the sweetest cache of weapons this side of the pentagon weapons development house. Throughout the game, you'll lay your hands on lasers, homing missiles, concussion missiles, flame throwers, machine guns, and everyone's favourite; the spread gun.
The game plays pretty much like Contra III with a few dashes of NES Contra for good measure. Most levels have you running from left to right or from top to bottom to get to a boss at the end. The bosses in this game are a great mix between new and memorable, with a few series favorites making a triumphant return too. I was very pleased to see my favourite Contra boss ever, the skeleton from Contra III make a return. In a clever wink to the original title, there are three 3Dish levels that are a straight up homage to the original title.
The hook in Contra 4 is that weapons are upgradeable, a new feature to the series. While in past games you got your power up and continued on with taking names, Contra 4 doesn't make it that easy on you, unless you're playing on easy, which fully upgrades your weapons off the bat. On any other difficulty, you'll start off with a less powerful version of any gun you acquire, and will need two of the same power-up to have a fully upgraded weapon. Yes, you still lose your gun when you die, even if it's fully upgraded, so watch your back, and front, and above, and below, on both screens…
In terms of DS advancements, Contra 4 plays to the DS' strength's while still feeling completely classic in its design. Since gameplay takes place on both screens, you have to have your eyes jumping from screen to screen if you want to stay alive. It does kind of suck when a bullet wafts in from the dead space between screens, but this isn't a very common occurrence. Also, you're now given access to a grappling hook that allows you to jump from the bottom screen to the top.
It bears repeating that Contra 4 is one of the hardest games ever made, especially on the DS. This game is harder than a virgin in a bordello. This game is so hard that I've started cursing in Spanish just for a change of pace. While playing this game on the bus, I screamed out an expletive so loudly that I made an old lady knitting a sweater cry. Still, the great level design always ensures that you feel like it's your own fault for dying than the game being cheap. Every time you play, you'll get a little more familiar with the patterns, and make just a little further into the game. With that being said, I was only able to beat the game on easy and get to the last level on normal. The hard difficulty is for only for masochists and psychotics who love seeing the game over screen.
If you want to make things easier on yourself, find yourself a buddy with another copy of the game and go through it together. Contra has always been more fun with a friend, and on the DS it's no exception. It's too bad Wayforward wasn't able to implement download play with only one cartridge, but multiplayer Contra is well worth the second cartridge investment.
Once you manage to beat the game on any difficulty, you'll unlock challenge mode, which is exactly what it sounds like. These are forty various bite sized challenges that have you navigating a level without firing, maintaining a certain level of accuracy, making sure not to shoot hostages, beating a boss, or various other objectives. It's a very interesting twist on the standard Contra formula to not be able to shoot everything, and will make you completely rethink your tactics. Succeed at enough of these challenges and you'll unlock a sweet collection of extras worthy of the 20th anniversary of Contra. These include extra characters, interviews with developers, comic books exploring the Contra mythos. All these extras pale in comparison to the sheer awesomeness of unlocking pixel-perfect renditions of Contra and Super C on the NES. These games are still a blast to play today, and a great way to explore the roots of the series. It's too bad that the classic titles don't have any multiplayer, but at least the old Konami codes still work.
While the graphics aren't pushing the DS in any meaningful way, they perfectly encapsulate the old school mentality of the game. Contra 4 looks and sounds like a long lost 16-bit sequel. I would have preferred if they had gone with the pseudo 2D/3D hybrid look of Shattered Soldier, but at least the game is colorful, well animated, and always busy on screen.
Audio is also great in that charming, classic way. The boss themes in particular really get that adrenaline flowing, and truly add to the intensity of the game. The guns sound a little weak however, and not as punchy as an explosion filled fragfest should be. The characters are now voiced, with catch phrases like "lock and load!" or "let's party!" everytime you start up.
Contra 4 is meant for the hardcore old school crowd, and only for the hardcore old school crowd. If you've got the chutzpah for it, you'll find a superlative, action packed shooter experience for your DS that you simply will not be able to put down.