They are the side-scrolling games of 16-bit legend. Contra 3: The Alien Wars and Contra: The Hard Corps saw Konami's run-and-gun series reach the zenith of its powers but since then, the franchise has been neglected and the magic has gone. Until now. Brazilian indie developer JoyMasher has produced the 'spiritual sequel' we need - and indeed deserve - in the form of Blazing Chrome, a love letter to Contra and other 16-bit classics. It's a perfect blend of detailed, period-appropriate 2D pixel art, expertly crafted stages - and it's available now on all modern platforms, from Switch to PS4/Xbox to PC. But what makes it succeed and what did it take to build it?
I'm finding the game to be massively enjoyable and eager to find out more, I spoke to JoyMasher directly to find out what it took to make the game, and what the 'secret sauce' is in creating a new experience that also feels so authentic to the Contra classics. After all, Relying on modern technology can produce beautiful results but perfecting an experience that feels like it is running on older hardware is more difficult. Sonic Mania is an example of how to get this right, but many others have failed.
Thankfully, Blazing Chrome is equally as successful - it's a game that feels genuinely authentic to the mid-90s in every way while expanding upon what makes those classics so good. In many ways, this feels like a follow-up to Contra: The Hard Corps as it might have existed on Sega Saturn. That makes sense when you check out the early prototypes for the game. Blazing Chrome's initial builds were built using art from both The Hard Corps and Contra 3. Like the best games on the Mega Drive, there's a focus on deep parallax scrolling with a limited colour palette, but the developers have opted to push beyond this spec introducing huge numbers of sprites, scaling and rotation and other tricks. Obviously though, it's the game design that's of crucial importance.
First, let's consider the Contra games - one of the defining elements in Konami's classic series is the variety. Each stage offers a unique challenge with over-the-top set-pieces, boss fights and variations on the central gameplay concept. You're never facing the same challenge for long before something new comes along - variety is key to any Contra game.
Blazing Chrome takes the same approach - running and gunning serves as the foundation, but the developers mix things up on a regular basis. From the Metal Slug-inspired mech suits and speeder bike stages to the super scaler-esque tunnel battle and eventual showdown in cyberspace, it's a game that serves up constant surprises.
Finding the right balance is always a challenge, though. Make no mistake, Blazing Chrome is a challenging game, but each section is broken up into digestible chunks that can be mastered. And it's this mastery that is so satisfying - the levels are created in just such as way that when you do fail, it often feels as if you were just one step away from success. There's this feeling of 'one more try' that pervades the game right up through to the end credits.
Getting the visual language 'right' was also a tough challenge. One of the key elements of any retro style game is the low pixel resolution. Artwork is designed for this low resolution and scaled to fill a larger, higher resolution canvas. In the case of Blazing Chrome, the target resolution is 427x240 - the idea is to retain the same pixel size as a classic Mega Drive game while expanding the view to widescreen 16:9. On all systems, this is scaled up to native 1080p or 720p when playing portably on Switch. This requires a 4.5x scale to reach 1080p and a 3x scale on Switch to reach 720p. The image is handled in a way that shimmering is not an issue during scrolling.
The artwork is designed within a limited colour palette to avoid pushing too far beyond the limitations of classic 90s hardware. The art is designed with an eye for fine patterns and the use of dithering is kept to a minimum, while the colour schemes skew towards darker shades, lending it more of a Mega Drive look than Super NES. JoyMasher's 'virtual target' was more along the lines of a Konami arcade board from this era - like the technology that powered Salamander 2, a game that was another direct inspiration for Blazing Chrome.
Beyond this, some of the artwork was created through the assistance of 3D modelling. 2D stages drawn with a 3D perspective where indeed modelled in three dimensions, before undergoing colour reduction and colour swapping. A final touch-up by hand from an artist puts the finishing touches on the completed pixel art asset. This is actually the same method used by many Japanese teams back in the day to create a sense of perspective in two-dimensional art.
Sprite rotation and scaling also plays a huge role in this game and it eschews the modern bone system can lead to overly fluid rotation - something you might describe as 'Flash-like'. In Blazing Chrome, these effects are programmed to work very much in the same way as older arcade games instead, using actual scaled sprites.
On the whole, Blazing Chrome is an impressive homage to Contra and the cream of the 16-bit run-and-gun shooters, and its implementation across every platform is impressive, but there are some minor differences to discuss. PS4 and Xbox One users get an experience that's virtually perfect in terms of performance and visual design. The Switch version is also excellent, but does have a few compromises - which is not to say that they won't be addressed in the fullness of time.
Performance is flawless on PS4 and Xbox One - it's actually smoother than many comparable games from the 90s era and runs exactly as you'd expect, but Switch has a couple of hot spots that JoyMasher is looking to fix. During the snowy stage, I ran across several moments where the frame-rate just wasn't able to hold at 60fps leading to subtle drops. The developer tells us that the scaling and rotation of individual snowflakes hits the Switch CPU hard, so a new solution is planned that should correct the issue.
Secondly, there's a spider boss that basically runs in slow motion on Switch throughout the entire battle. Unlike many modern games (but rather like the original 16-bit classics) Blazing Chrome continues to draw all frames but gameplay speed is reduced as a result, so you get actual slowdown. This too is being fixed and the slution is fascinating. Basically, in its current form, the flame effects rely on particles - the collisions of which present an issue for the Switch's CPU. The upcoming patched version uses sprites instead, which run faster and for my money, looks better too.
There are three other things to note - firstly, the Switch version is missing animated ejected bullet casings due to the collision calculations - this is being added in the patch but - in the worst case - without collision detection. Blob shadows are also missing - these are designed to travel properly along the floor and objects and, yes, they're being optimised to work on Switch. Lastly, in the first stage, the Switch version is missing a background layer - according to the team, this is a bug and will be addressed.
So, Blazing Chrome is flawless on PS4 and Xbox One, and still great on Switch - but the issues it has have been identified and are being worked on, and the good news is that the Limited Run physical release of the game will have the fixes included on the art.
Looking at the big picture, I feel Blazing Chrome successfully delivers everything it was designed to do. This is a game worthy of the Contra name and based on my experience with the official sequel - Contra Rogue Corps, which I saw at E3 - this is the game that should have taken up the mantle. Thankfully, even without the franchise backing, Blazing Chrome is just as brilliant. If you're a retro enthusiast - or even if you just remember having a great time with Contra back in the day - I strongly recommend that you give this a look. Yes, it's challenging and difficult to master, but keep at it. Once you learn the game, it truly shines.
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