Back in the day, when I was young, and the Nintendo Entertainment System was the only console you needed; Contra was the must-have action title that was every bit as compelling as Gears of War is today. Contra was challenging, had two player co-op, tight controls, and great visuals relative to the competition. Well, it seems that Konami still cherishes those glorious days, because Contra 4 is virtually identical to the original games in the series in practically every respect. Your ability to enjoy Contra 4 will therefore be dependent on your reverence for exceedingly difficult two dimensional shooter action that feels so much like one of the classic Contra games; it could have been developed 20 years ago.
Contra 4’s graphics are vibrant and attractive despite resembling the arcade titles of yesteryear.
That’s not saying that newcomers won’t find anything to enjoy with Contra 4, and it’s surprising how good the game looks and plays after all these years. In addition to the standard jump and shoot mechanics, players are given a grappling hook that allows the levels to take advantage of the dual-screen setup by latching on to designated areas of the map, allowing the player to instantly carry themselves up to the other screen. Players collect weapon power ups, and can alternate between any two modes of fire at a time with the X button. On Easy mode, you only get to experience 7 of the 9 levels, and will get the most powerful version of every weapon every time with a single pickup. Medium and Hard difficulties, however, use an upgrade system that allows players to improve upon each of the game’s weapons by finding two of the same item. It’s a good system that adds a bit of depth to an otherwise straightforward experience. Another helpful game play mechanic is the ability to hold down the Right shoulder button to lock your character in place while shooting in any direction, which is vastly superior to the old method of shooting downwards, which required the player to jump.
The levels are attractive and frenetic, despite being strictly two dimensional. In particular, boss battles are impressive in scale and take advantage of the dual screen capability of the system. Contra 4 has players revisiting familiar locations, which have appeared in other iterations of the series, but while the locations are familiar, it feels incredibly nostalgic rather than copied or ripped-off. The sound is highly reminiscent of classic Nintendo games, featuring enhanced remixes of Contra’s standards with some limited speech clips thrown into the mix (which purists can turn off.) All and all, Contra 4 presents an audio/visual package that is familiar enough to appeal to fans of the classic Contra games, while capitalizing on the modern hardware enough to let it stand alongside other modern 2D games as an equal.
One of the things that you can’t help but notice when playing Contra 4 is that old school 2D action games are really, really hard by modern standards. In fact, most games used to be a whole hell of a lot more challenging than recent 3D action titles, and this trend is something Contra 4 unabashedly revisits. Not all of this difficulty is intentional, though. There are some problems that arise from bullets seemingly changing their trajectory as they pass from one screen to the next, but it doesn’t really happen enough to diminish the ultimately positive experience of having two screens.
Contra 4 is not impossible to play, but it is still incredibly tough by modern standards, even on the lowest difficulty setting. And while the classic Contra code for 30 lives doesn’t work, pressing “up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start” does maximize the level up on your weapon in the medium and hard difficulty settings, which is a nice little homage. There is a cheat for gaining 99 lives, which requires the player to get an extra life at the same time that they die without any remaining lives left, but in my experience this was so hard to pull off its practically useless.
While Contra 4 is one of the more challenging DS games I’ve ever played, it’s never unfair. If you die, it’s usually because you screwed up, and not because of flawed game design. Contra 4 requires a lot of level memorization, but persistent players will be rewarded with a sense of mastery absent in many of today’s more ’accessible’ games. Nevertheless, you will die. A lot. Eventually, you’ll adapt, keep enough lives to survive the epic boss battles, and then die a whole hell of a lot in the next stage where the cycle repeats. It sounds brutal, but this philosophy makes for a true challenge that will test your skills as much as any game in recent memory. I could see this system frustrating some gamers, but with a bit of persistence, anyone with a penchant for action can enjoy the experience.
The new grappling hook feature allows the levels to toy around with verticality more than previous games in the series.
Contra 4 supports multiplayer with a friend, but sadly both players will have to have a DS and their own copy of the game. It’s a shame, too, because having a buddy alongside you certainly helps shave off some of the difficulty. There’s a historical timeline that shows screenshots and summaries of every game in the series that players can select initially, but if you complete the core game on any difficulty you’ll be treated to some additional challenge modes. Once you beat these modes, you unlock both the original Contra and Contra Super C (which is what they called Contra 2 during the Iran Contra scandal back in the 80’s.) Considering Contra 4 essentially comes with 3 full length Contra games, old school Contra fans will find it hard not to appreciate this amazing portable package.
Contra 4 is a great value for fans of classic 2D action, or anyone who wants to take a challenging game with them on the road. Even though skilled Contra players could conceivably blow through Contra 4’s 9 missions in a matter of days, the fact that the cartridge included the first two games in the series makes for a package that shouldn’t be missed for series fans. In an era in which games are being made increasingly forgiving, it’s nice to see a game that requires players to push themselves in order to improve. It’s not for everyone, but if you love 2D shooter action, it’s hard to do better than Contra 4.