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Contra 4

Aliens have invaded Earth and only four manly men with their big, sexy guns stand a chance in hell against them. Forget about an original plot-line; Contra 4 is all about shooting anything and everything. You wanna kick ass? Hah! If anything, your ass will be kicked so hard that it’ll melt into a puddle of lard . . . but you’ll love it!

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Contra 4 is a brand new, DS-exclusive sequel featuring more of the same run & gun action that no hardcore Shmup fan should be able to resist. As one of four Contras, you’ll have to shoot your way through waves upon waves of relentlessly spawning alien soldiers. Not only that, but you’ll also have to contend with a variety of environmental hazards such as falling boulders, lava surges and the usual bottomless pits. A single hit – any hit – will do you in, taking away whatever powered-up weapon you were holding and placing your ass in a somewhat precarious situation; you’d better be damn careful at all times, and keep an eye out for anything that looks remotely shining and is coming your way. Lose all of your lives and you’ll have to restart either at the beginning of your current stage or, if you’re lucky/skilful to have gotten far enough, at the mid-level checkpoint. You only have so many chances at continuing, though, and if you botch it up one too many times, it’s game over and back to square one.

Without a doubt, Contra 4 is one of the toughest games of this generation. Gamers who have been weaned on excessive health bars and too forgiving save systems will be shocked when they meet the game over screen within a few seconds of starting up this game. But for more seasoned players who laugh at the mere sight of a dozen or so bullets screaming towards them, Contra 4 is as good as a Shmup can get.

Contra 4 is one of the toughest games of this generation”Guns have always played a big part in the Contra series and it’s no different in Contra 4. You start off with a puny machine gun with a poor firing rate and the firepower of a peapod, but over the course of the game you’ll come across a number of floating power-up emblems that yield flame-throwers, spread-shots, lasers, rapid-fire machine guns, homing rockets and grenades. You can carry two weapons at a time and switching between them is simply a button’s press away.

You can also stack power-ups on top of each other to produce a suped-up version of each gun; spread-shots spread further, machine gun bullets are doubled up, and flame-throwers stop sputtering pitiful spiralling embers and start spewing out massive fireballs that Ken and Ryu would be proud of. Upgrades are absolutely vital. After all, you want to kill things as fast as possible because the more time you spend dilly-dallying, the greater the chance that a stray bullet will bite you up the ass. The famous Konami Code can be used to instantly upgrade your weapons to their charged states, but it will kill you if you use it more than once per credit (I’m serious). Better strategise wisely then!

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In Easy Mode, your weapons are automatically stacked and levels have both fewer enemies and environmental hazards (some which are completely absent which can make things kind of boring at times). Overall, this baby mode poses less of a threat to your ego than Normal and Hard. It is a perfect start for beginners, though (still one-hit deaths), but unless you grow a pair of balls, you won’t get to see the final level which is in one word – superlative.

But even so, Contra 4 is a really short game. It only takes about a half hour to see it through to the end. Sure, it would probably take most people a wee while longer as a result of frequent deaths and/or boss fights that last forever because you bring in useless weapons (or simply die too much to retain the better ones), but it’s still a short game nonetheless. Granted, the previous Contra games (or any Shmup for that matter) weren’t that much longer, but one can’t help but wonder why some of the levels weren’t fleshed out just a bit more.

You get to hang onto a rocket, blast away a clingy alien, and as the rocket curves through the stratosphere in an inverted parabola motion, you’ll have to either dodge or shoot down a barrage swooping missiles before bringing the hulk-sized weapon of mass destruction back down to Earth where dozens of extraterrestrial suckers have set up camp. You are then ready to take on one of several ginormous, dual-screen spanning monstrosities. But it’s all over too soon. In the example I just used, everything takes place within all of two minutes. Quality over quantity, I know, but more mind-blowing action wouldn’t have hurt, much.

Once you finish the game, though, you’ll unlock Challenge Mode. These are bite-sized scenarios that use existing levels from the main game as a template for some rather brutal challenges. There are forty of them in all, but since they are oh-so difficult, a lot of time will be spent here. You may be asked to shoot up all of the dogs in a level, survive a constant barrage of alien scum, reach the goal without a gun, finish up with an accuracy rating of at least 90%, or 100%, and even perform a mini speed run! This mode is extremely addictive and it’s actually pretty good practice (for both hand-eye coordination and memorisation) so that you can tackle the harder difficulties of the main adventure like a pro in no time. You’ll also unlock various 20th Anniversary goodies including emulated versions of the NES Contra and its sequel, Super C, as well as a new character to play as (they all play the same, though) and several interviews.

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That bolsters the longevity by a lot, but it still doesn’t quite make up for the lacking length of the main game.

Contra enthusiasts are probably ready to fasten a bullet into my skull right about now seeing as how I’m complaining about such a trivial thing when it comes to Shmups. Of course, high replay value is a direct consequence to shortness, and if you have a few minutes to spare and are in need of a quality arcade-like experience, you can’t go wrong with Contra 4.

There are only two other gripes I have with Contra 4 and the first one is the weapon pick-up system. As soon as you touch an emblem, you automatically switch to that weapon and permanently lose the one you had equipped. When things get especially chaotic (which is most of the time), it is hard to keep track of your own bearings and you may accidentally switch to a gun you don’t want which can be quite annoying, especially if you were hoping to stack the one you are currently wielding so that so have a chance of beating that boss on hard.

My second problem is the dead space that lies between the upper and lower screens. Since the action takes place across both of them, there are times when enemy bullets are completely hidden from sight leading to some rather unexpected deaths. This usually occurs in the ascending sections, but these bits aren’t all too frequent and given time, one should be able to memorise their layout so that they can take down the offending aliens ASAP.

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Apart from that, the dual screen display works very well. The switches are subtle and you really have to be on toes to catch wind of bullets or charging aliens that insidiously approach from the top and/or bottom in addition to the usual left and right — this is what makes Contra 4 one of the hardest Contras yet.

It is very handy if you have a manly mate by your side. Through DS wireless connections you can shoot up alien butt together. There are times when one player can take a top path, clearing away airborne foes and doing away with snipers, whilst the other takes care of everything down below, such as diving mongrels that persistently jump up from the watery depths below. Co-op play represents the true Contra experience and in the case of Hard Mode, perhaps the only way to beat the game without having to resort to cheats… but I’m sure I’ll be proven wrong.

If you are a big Contra fan, I can guarantee that you won’t be disappointed with Contra 4. Most of the eight stages here pay tribute in some way to previous Contras. The first stage throws you out of a helicopter and right into a jungle, much like in the original Contra. It even plays a similar sounding BGM track and when you try it in Hard Mode, if you’re a lover of the first Contra, you won’t be able to stop yourself from smiling. There are also corridor-type levels where you’ll have to shoot up several nodes in order to progress further in until you reach the boss waiting at the end. One of the bosses here should be very familiar to those who have played Contra III: The Alien Wars.

“Co-op play represents the true Contra experience and in the case of Hard Mode, perhaps the only way to beat the game without having to resort to cheats…”It’s all very much fan-service (similar to what was done for Castlevania’s 20th Anniversary with Portrait of Ruin). In a way, you could say that it’s rather unoriginal, but the level designs are mostly new (not to mention they look fantastic) and the proof of this is in the fact that even if you have played the oldies to death, you will still get your ass beaten for a few rounds before it all comes together again. Most of the bosses have two separate attack phases too, which is quite cool, and the DS’s power to generate some really spectacular fireworks among the top-notch 2D animation really shows up in these colossal battles.

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While I’m on the subject of audiovisual, I have to give a round of applause to the sound team. In particular, Virt – the guy who composed Contra 4’s rip-roaring soundtrack. Not only do the insane compositions fuel you to shoot stuff up like crazy, but there are some fantastic remixes tucked in there too. The relentless action is constantly backed by some equally mad electric guitar riffs pulsing with hard-pressed energy. It never lets up and there’s nary a moment when you’ll want to turn it down. This is definitely a DS game that you should be proud to turn up the volume for.

This is a DS game that you should be proud to own, too. For a 20th Anniversary celebration, you get an all-new revival of the series not seen since Contra: Hard Corps (which is still the hardest Contra game in my opinion), some excellent (albeit solo-play only) memorabilia in the form of emulated Contra and Super C, a bunch of bite-sized extreme challenges which are tough as nails yet addicting as coke, and a brief portfolio of the entire Contra legacy. The main game is swell, but not quite swollen. It is loaded with tons of excitement and the harsh challenge (it’s not that hard, though) is a breath of fresh air in a market inundated with games you could complete with one hand tied around your back. It’s great to see that well-made games that are entirely capable of kicking our asses can still be made and here’s to another 20 years of Contra-ing to come… hopefully.

9 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2007.

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