Contra comes to iPad trailed not only by a succession of earlier remakes, but a devoted following. For these people, the process of assessing the latest game will inevitably be comparative, an automatic balance sheet of pluses and minuses, additions and subtractions. To judge the game on its own terms given this history is a tricky task, made trickier by a game which is itself divorced from the cultural context in which it was made – semi-naked bodybuilders hauling large guns through jungles had a greater cultural resonance in the late ’80s.
Some degree of comparison is necessary, especially when dealing with a transition from traditional consoles to a mobile device. The typical issue is with the controls, a concern elevated when precision and responsiveness are so central to the experience. As far as responsiveness goes, there are no concerns. In the case of precision, however, there are problems. Basic actions will be smooth enough, but more considered moves (firing diagonally, for example) can be fiddly and awkward, especially in the heat of battle. The developers have, to their credit, found ways to adapt the controls, the most significant of which is the addition of an auto-fire option (turned on by default). While this may be considered a simplification, it’s a necessary one, streamlining things around two major loci of control (running and jumping) to make the experience more manageable on a mobile device. The developers have also provided three distinct control options (two analogue, one classic) for players to experiment with. Some are better at channelling the original than others, but ultimately that’s all it is: channelling. Attempting to replicate on a pane of glass the physical properties of a piece of plastic – it was never going to be perfect.
A lack of perfection, however, does not preclude an abundance of fun. And this game is fun. It’s a knowingly-ridiculous ballet of bullet-dodging, punctuated by furtive shots fired at seemingly insurmountable waves of enemies, all backed by a spot-on action movie soundtrack (re-recorded for this release), and a new art style which shines on the iPad screen. The franchise’s well-earned reputation for being hard is certainly in evidence, even at the lower difficulty levels, but that just makes it all the more rewarding when a level is beaten or aced. This sense of reward is boosted through Game Center integration and achievements, although another modern enhancement, in-app purchases, could be perceived as a less welcome infringement on the game’s retro credentials. They’re a fairly benign case, though, and they arguably do a better job of emulating its coin-shovelling arcade roots than previous home versions have done.
These roots are most apparent in the (appropriately named) Arcade Mode, which remains short enough to be played through in a single sitting. Longevity is to be found in Mission Mode – where levels can be mastered in exchange for medals and experience – and in unlocking additional characters. These aren’t groundbreaking modifications, but they turn what could have been a one-note nostalgia trip into a package which bursts with value and replayability. Most important of all, it feels fresh.
Contra: Evolution is a fine game. Not a “fine port”, or a “fine remake”, but a fine game. Those who have played Contra before should pick it up, and those who are new should find no barrier (not even that great, isolating barrier which so often surrounds Classic Games) to having a blast with it. And as much as devotees might find themselves lingering on the subtractions column (the lack of multiplayer, say), the game deserves to stand alone. Whatever its brightness in relation to its siblings, Contra: Evolution shines on its own terms.