a review of Contra 4
a videogame developed by WayForward Technologies
and published by konami
for mobile phones and the nintendo DS
text by tim rogers
As human beings blessed with remarkable patience, we here at Action Button Dot Net didn’t immediately scream ourselves into comas when we heard that an American — that is, a non-Japanese — developer was being put in charge of Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS. With Zen-like resolve, we refrained from jamming out a pre-emptive review that centered on the fact that developer WayForward Technologies’ previous effort had, for the record, been Shrek the 3rd: Ogres and Donkeys (rated E for Everyone). For one thing, as a group of individuals so convinced that half of the people who do make blockbuster videogames should probably be imprisoned for petty theft, we’re all about handing out the benefit of the doubt to anyone who actually hasn’t had the opportunity to make a game that IGN is going to pretend to give a stuff about. Furthermore, while WayForward’s Sigma Star Saga was, in execution, a piece of greasy stuff, it was so full of out-of-left-field, balls-to-floor concepts (a role-playing game where the “battle system” involves “old-school shoot-em-upping” is welcome, by default, in a world where RPG “battle systems” are normally focused on selecting “fight” from a menu and then watching your dudes fight) that it gets a miraculous passing grade. If Contra 4 is these guys’ chance to work with a budget, more power to them. What’s next, Square-Enix putting a D-team of unknowns on Final Fantasy XIII? Go right ahead! Why not put the development team who brought us Marc Ecko’s Getting Up in charge of the next Silent Hill game, while you’re at it? (Being dead serious here.) Let’s put Darth Vader into Soul Calibur, too, while we’re at it. I mean, let’s face it, when it comes to Japanese videogames, “experience” usually means little more than “an octogenarian in charge”. Well, unless you’re talking about Contra‘s esteemed director / designer Nobuya Nakazato, still alive, still kicking, still brilliant, whose latest two Contra games for the PlayStation 2 were both amazing and written off by critics the Western world over as “not exactly the same thing as the original Contra“. That man — well, simply put, he’s a genius, and we’d like to marry him. Did you know he directed Vandal Hearts, the only strategy RPG you can play from start to finish without getting hit once? (The maps are small enough so that the enemies don’t possess “AI”, they just move in pre-programmed “patterns” to accommodate for the player’s actions.) Here’s Irem making R-Type Tactics, when Nakazato had already made Contra Tactics a decade ago.
Enough about awesome stuff, though, and on with the disappointment: it’s a shame that Contra 4 kind of misses the point all around. It’s got enough flow and enough snap, for one thing, though it really just doesn’t crunch enough. It mushes along. Whereas Neo Contra is the epitome of crunch, Contra 4 is too stop-starty for its own good. Review-writers whistling, yee-hawing, moosecalling, and hi-ho-ing about the game’s “extreme difficulty” need to dump a bottle of chill pills in their tomato soup tomorrow at lunch. What are these people doing, just holding right on the control pad, and tapping the Action Button with the stylus? Contra 4 is easily playable by anyone with a cool head (and, say, the ability to win Virtua Fighter 5 tournaments despite actually, methodically sucking at Guilty Gear) if you shift your damn paradigm for three seconds, stop in place, look at where the enemies are coming from, and rush the holes. Play it like a runningback, not a linebacker, for God’s sake. (Finally! A similie everyone in our readership will understand!) I hated the game, personally, for my first two clumsy attempts, and then went on to get all the way to stage five on my next credit, and lord knows I’m not a rocket scientist. When I got to the end, I was convinced that I’d had it all wrong when I said I hated this stupid game. In the end, it’s not worth hating. It’s just there.
Contra games have always been about sadistic locomotion. Hell, all classic Konami games are about locomotion. Observe how little this skilled player stops in his entire playthrough of the original Castlevania. Now check out Contra III. Or Contra. These are speed runs by highly skilled players, though really, it’s not impossible to think that these games can’t be cleared flawlessly on a first attempt by someone who’s just really good at videogames. It’s a tenuous point we’re trying to make here: Contra 4‘s idea of “insane difficulty” comes less from the actual heart of the Contra games and more from playground rumors — about this game called Contra that’s so hard because you die in one hit and there’s even a thirty lives code because it’s that hard. Contra 4 strives to make a difficult game by flooding every corner of every stage with endlessly spawning, somersaulting enemies and furious blinking bullets. The level designers tossed off each little monsterpiece probably without bothering to play-test them. Let’s see how the jerks like this! In the end, though, the game is missing the fleeting flow and motion that previous (ahem, Japanese-developed) Contra titles had all sharpened into perfection, maybe because the (Japanese) developers had originally conceived the games as arcade entertainment devices, or maybe because the (Japanese) developers just employed a lot of common sense. If breathing deeply and rushing the holes in the enemy lines (while never letting go of the fire button) is how the (American) developer wants us to play Contra 4, however, then we’ll have to call them more clever than we might have given credit for — and then scold them for making the game otherwise kind of flat and bland.
Review-writers all over the internet were able to excuse the so-called “insane difficulty” because the game has plenty of “old-school charm”. Huh. “Old-school charm” is a tough demon to quantify, though I’m pretty sure they’re all talking about the little quippy liner notes strewn all over the game. I’ve removed the game from my DS since playing it, and there’s a copy of Dragon Quest IV lodged in the cartridge slot right now and it will require surgery to be removed, so I can’t check and make sure, though I vaguely remember the “help” text on Contra 4‘s title menu proclaiming that “Arcade Mode” is “All about beefy dudes and spread gun. Just what the Contra ordered. Heck yeah!” (Warning: embellished.) The (black-and-white) instruction manual cringingly recalls fond memories of the over-the-top, rage-against-the-Reaganomics leveling-with-the-kids Konami instruction manuals of the 1980s. It’s like, man, when we were kids, this stuff was hilarious! Now, it’s kind of like your uncle flying three thousand miles to come to your wedding, and then dying on the plane (drug overdose) while wearing a Santa Claus suit.
That’s the way Konami classics were, way back when — stone-faced beef-dudes with spread guns raging against nameless alien threats while their instruction manuals ranged from cheeky to lippy to jerky. Now, the global climate has mutated; scientists and the police have determined that precisely half of the anonymous saps stepping forward to type “lol” at the latest regurgitation of the “eternal battle between pirates and ninjas” meme as reported by Kotaku.com either played high school football or tried out for it. We’re sixteen years away from a generation of Al Bundys who would rather play Guitar Hero than watch John Wayne as “Hondo”. John Wayne never needed a hecking spread gun.
We can’t really blame WayForward for pandering to these people, anyway: they’re where the money is at — all of the money. Still, once again, an innate quality of Contra is lost on these new Western overlords: though it’s exceedingly hard to tell from the first couple of installments, the entire Contra series — big dudes, big guns, big monsters — is a gradually accelerating elbow jab directed at the ribs of American pop culture. Exhibit A would be that your dual-rifle-wielding Schwarzenegger-like hero motherhecker, arms heavier than nuclear missiles, manages to somersault no less than nine times in the air every time he jumps. Contra Hard Corps, with its ladlefuls of bizarre, should have gotten the message across that the over-the-top violence in these games was clearly a gleeful pastiche. It seems that in America, a country where half the people can’t read, 75% of the people can’t locate the North American continent on a map, and 95% couldn’t succinctly explain the difference between Jerry Lewis and Alan Greenspan, it just didn’t get through. Kids genuinely thought that “beefy dude hanging onto soaring intercontinental ballistic missile with one arm while shooting a shotgun with an endless supply of ammunition with the other arm” was a worthy role model, like they were going to be able to pick up a brochure at the career fair. (In the case of Neo Contra, the brochure’s cover would read “Beefy dude who takes on an entire air-force-worth of planes with just a machinegun while running in place atop spinning helicopter blades”.) Years later, we had the “stylish hard action” of Devil May Cry, and years after that, we had Devil May Cry 3, which kids on the internet squealed about: the hero, Dante, is such a badass, like when he surfs on that missile and stuff, though what the heck is with the pizza in the first cut-scene man that stuff is so hecking gay. Lo and behold, Devil May Cry 4 casts a CG scientologist pederast in the role of Dante and a tight-faced emomaniac in the role of the main character, Nero.
Neo Contra, most poignantly, casts a katana-wielding black samurai as one of its beefy heroes. There’s a CG cut-scene (essential viewing) where said badass black samurai cuts a group of rushing soldiers in half with his katana — “Awesome!” shout the YouTube kids. Then a Hummer comes blasting at him full-speed — with a shoulder-thrust, he knocks the hecking thing over. “BADASS!” shout the YouTube kids. Then a group of a hundred men come charging at him — with one vicious slash, he turns them into a volcano of blood. “heck YEAH!!” shouts YouTube. Then a huge, monolithic threat shows itself, and our very black, very samurai hero summons power from the depths of his soul, and unleashes a slash that cuts the very planet earth in half. “TOO heckING RADICAL!!” ejaculates YouTube. The screen grows black. Ten seconds later, we see our two heroes swimming through space in their underwear. Like, somehow, the destruction of the planet earth had also stripped them of their clothes. Suddenly, the internet is afraid — deathly so — that mass media might, as their preacher insists, be intent on turning them into homosexuals:
“WTF??! That was great up to the point those two appearing swimming in space humming. Eww.”
“WTF!? is this the reward for getting overall S rank in the game… are you kidding me!!! I lost my respect for the S rank after seeing this -_-“
“2 gay guys swimming on space WTF!!!”
“It went from pretty cool to real gay”
(Ignore the comments that call the video brilliant. Those people are obviously from the UK.)
So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: Contra, in the words of its most treasured (and paying) fans, “went from pretty cool to real gay“. This is why an American team was called in to handle Contra 4 — to keep this eternally told tale of shirtless men with large machine rifles as heterosexual as possible. There is to be no hecking with the average gamer’s grip on sexuality.
We could say that, ever since Nobuya Nakazato breathed life into Contra, Japanese videogame designers’ respect for the medium in general has been dwindling into a razor-sharp point. Game characters’ hairstyles come to resemble behives on top of layer cakes; robots crafted by pedophile scientists to look like little girls and wear skirts short enough to show off their panties utter bone-dry dialogue as cogs in a rat-hecking nonsense-plot machine forged by a supercomputer bent on intergalactic terrorism. Contra was too subtle for the times it occupied, and Contra 4, as a bald-faced re-painting, sure as hell isn’t any less subtle. Mind you, there’s nothing terrible about it. It’s not worth a groan — just a little, high-pitched sigh. If anything, it’s nice enough anti-proof that if ever there was a time for literature in videogames, it might as well be right now.
Reading Contra 4‘s Wikipedia page is a headache and a half. Particularly the section about unlockable characters. Apparently, when the original Contra was released in the US, Konami of America, missing the point as they would many times again in the future, altered the game’s storyline so that it took place in modern times. When Contra 3 was released, with stages that were obviously set in some far-off future, Konami of America had no choice — they had to admit to the future setting, and rename the main characters so that they were “descendents” of the main characters from the original Contra. Now we have Contra 4, with its lovingly compiled unlockable encyclopedias on the history of the series, with two playable characters named “Mad Dog” and “Scorpion”, names that were originally used in the American versions of Contra and Super C as the code names for Bill and Lance. Contrary to the game’s supposed “respect” for the series “canon”, they are treated as “new characters”. Furthermore, Mad Dog is black, which is cool, though that doesn’t change the fact that he’s just a palette-swap of all the other characters, for stuff’s sake.
In short, the missteps of Contra 4, on its short trip from concept to videogame, or bill to law, or whatever, can be summarized by this paragraph from Wikipedia:
“The continuity of Contra 4 is based on the Japanese canon that was adapted into the English localization of series with the release of Contra: Shattered Soldier. However, the game’s producers took a few mild liberties with the established canon by integrating elements of the American localizations of the older games. The alien Black Viper was originally mentioned only in the American manual of Operation C, whereas the original plot of that game was about an unnamed superpower creating new weapons using an alien cell. In the timeline presented in the manual and official website, the events of Operation C are interpreted as a previous mission of Mad Dog and Scorpion (the new characters in the game) against Black Viper (whereas the original game was a solo mission of Bill Rizer).”
The inverse erection caused by reading that has officially punctured my bladder. I just did a test urination, and I predict I will be pissing blood for six weeks at the least.
WayForward Technologies said in interviews with “gaming blogs” all over the place that they were really glad they’d been offered the chance to make a Contra game, and they promised they wouldn’t mess it up. On the surface, they kept their promise. Though we kind of wish they would have tried to, you know, make up some actual compelling game concepts instead of gazing at their shoes the whole damned time, dead scared of pissing off people who know the difference between Red Falcon and Black Viper (people who probably can’t tie their shoes, don’t have jobs, and are playing your game via an emulator and a flash cartridge, anyway). Instead, all we get is this lame little tacked-on grappling hook, which the official site proclaims “allows for new combat situations and dramatic set pieces that underscore the game’s adrenaline-soaked pedigree”. Actually, it just lets you slurm up to the top screen whenever there’s a grabbable platform up there, and usually only at points where you absolutely have to go up there, anyway.
It’d be nice to say something, right here, about the two-player co-op, though the game requires multiple god damned cartridges, so there goes that.
Really. Is “it’s old-school” or “bound not to disappoint fans of the original Contra” the best praise WayForward could have hoped for? What kind of world are we living in? For Contra‘s 20th Anniversary, if you’re not going to put something new on the table, why not just release a cartridge with all the old Contra games on it? I’d take a compilation with flawless emulations of Contra III and Hard Corps both on it over Contra 4‘s vanilla remake of the original Contra any day. Thank god MegaDrive emulation on PSP is so perfect! Hard Corps and Ranger X are probably all a man needs, to be honest.
If you arrive at the end of this still looking for the evolution of Contra, look no further than Gears of War. Remember the last stage, on the deathtrain streaking under a blood-red, post-apocalyptic sky? There’s a cut-scene where a subhumanoid alien monster berserker freak charges through a stack of crates. The crates shatter and explode, and for an instant, their contents are revealed: boxes of cereal. With 98% of the world’s population wiped out, someone is still shipping cereal from one place to another. That’s a classy little jab right there. That Cliffy B guy gets it.
paragraph i couldn’t fit anywhere else: Likewise, when From Software released Metal Wolf Chaos for the Xbox — a game in which the hotshot president of the United States sets off on a continent-spanning giant robot battle against a coup-staging vice president — the internet’s children didn’t go “heck yeah! Satire!” — they went “heck yeah! Awesome!”