Hard Corps: Uprising
Title aside, Hard Corps: Uprising is everything a Contra game needs to be. As a prequel to Contra: Hard Corps – arguably one of the best shmups of the 90’s – this Xbox Live Arcade game has a lot to live up to. At first, it seems the art direction would run the risk of alienating long-time fans. Everything is hand-drawn, in the style of anime. This comes as a stylistic trademark of Arc System Works. Although the developer may be new to the Contra brand, their art style will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever played their Guilty Gear or BlazBlue fighting games. The characteristically rich hand-drawn animations are absolutely stunning. Although it may not bring on the most positive of reactions from Contra purists, the softer, less-rugged art style certainly reminds us of the title’s Japanese roots in a positive way.
“The characteristically rich hand-drawn animations are absolutely stunning”The game tells the story of Colonel Bahamut, a Resistance soldier who is invariably led down the wrong path, and becomes a ne’er-do-well villain for the Commonwealth army (as he’s seen in Contra: Hard Corps). Alternatively, you can play as his partner Krystal, although it doesn’t really matter beyond cosmetic differences, as many of the enemies will often make remarks as though you’re playing as Bahamut. This is the prologue nobody asked for, filling in both characters’ backstories with vague text descriptions that appear during the questionably lengthy loading times between levels.
Uprising does a lot of good for a franchise desperately in need of a renewed focus. The style may be less manly and rigid, but that doesn’t mean the gameplay has changed. After completing a single level, you’ll likely come to the same conclusion: this is still a highly-challenging game. Thankfully Arc System Works have found a meaningful way of bridging the gap between newcomers and the hardcore, by doing away with difficulty settings and opting for two gameplay modes: Arcade and Uprising.
There are some decent RPG mechanics at work in the Uprising mode. Through killing enemies and nabbing power-ups, players will be able to apply persistent abilities to their chosen character, adding a new layer of replay value to the action. The upgrades will make the game much easier for newcomers, providing a range of options such as the ability to deflect bullets, some extra slots on your life bar, or improvements to the array of weapon pickups. While traditionalists may want to stick to the beaten path and fight their way through the challenging Arcade mode, having the option to continue your progress where you left off and applying the upgrades is a welcome change of pace.
The Elusive Konami Code
The Konami Code is a crucial piece of Contra history. The necessity for the 99 life cheat in the original game is part of what created the franchise’s image of a hardened shmup. As of this writing, we still haven’t found a purpose for the code. With the more forgiving pacing of the Uprising mode, interest in the code is now more out of nostalgia than necessity.
I found it necessary to play through on Uprising mode, as there are some tedious bits of platforming interspersed between the game’s eight levels. Most of this doesn’t come in the way of legitimately satisfying challenge, but in the form of a botched wall-climbing system. In general, the level designs hit most of the notes of traditional run-and-gun level design. You’ve got your desert, jungle, ancient ruins, and high-tech research facility levels. One level is even designed around the concept of stealth, providing the option of sneaking past patrolling guards under the guise of a box, paying homage to another popular Konami franchise.
“One level is even designed around the concept of stealth, providing the option of sneaking past patrolling guards under the guise of a box”There are several flaws in the games presentation. The level names remain in Japanese on the level select screen for Uprising mode. Otherwise, the menu information is poorly organized. Some upgrades are never fully described and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere to find the names of all the weapons, along with what their upgrade tiers look like. Granted, finding this information out on your own is part of what makes the game enjoyable.
At the heart of the game is the multiplayer, which has always been a big draw for the series. Blasting through missions in co-op with a buddy helps to alleviate a lot of the pressure that the constant swarms of enemy robots and pirates inflict during single-player. You’ll be overwhelmed either way, as the game takes a good few hours to complete, even if you opt to play through the more player-friendly Uprising mode. From the few levels I played in multiplayer, it seemed clear that having a friend along is the clearcut way to play.
Hard Corps: Uprising is a nice change of pace for the Contra franchise, strong enough to be the upstart of a new spinoff series, if Konami’s willing to keep pumping them out. Uprising is a surprisingly solid run-and-gun title for Arc System Works’ debut entry to the genre. There are a lot of good things to be said about the game’s recognizable aesthetic. In HD, the hand-drawn animations look terrific and resonate with the idea of a Guilty Gear title fit into Contra clothing. Unless you’re holding out for a balls-out return to the masculine superiority of Contra: Hard Corps, you’ll have a pretty decent time with this prequel.