As you may have gathered from our rather stinging review of Contra's PS2 debut, we don't have much time for this recycled style of memorise 'em up gaming when the platform and the developer are clearly capable of so much more. However, Konami's decision to port the last SNES Contra ("The Alien Wars") to GBA is a more understandable one, and we do have some excitingly positive, dewy-eyed recollections of how much time we spent with that one - so in some respects, we're less inclined to slag it for the same reasons; for being a ten-year-old game.
Nevertheless, a few hours with The Alien Wars EX doesn't leave us as pumped as it used to. Things really have moved on since this sort of basic, side-on shoot 'em up action was cutting edge, and unhelpfully several of the more explosively visual scenes (yep, the Mode 7 overhead ones which added some variety) have been cut to make things easier on the humble GBA. Word is that we have more side-scrolling levels from Contra: Hard Corps on the Mega Drive in their place.
War: What is it good for?
Sadly, The Alien Wars are just as unfairly difficult as they used to be, and the mechanic is virtually identical to the PS2 version. You run from left to right (without the occasional aesthetic variation of the PS2 version) blasting enemies before they can blast you, and if not, retreading your steps and having another go. Halfway through each of the game's six big levels, you get a mid-level boss, some of which are quite clever. At the end, there's the big, screen-filling mother of a boss who won't stand for any of your crap. You get a certain number of lives, respawning on the same screen until you run out, and if you can't finish the game with them, then hard luck - try again. Fortunately, there's a password save system to keep you happy. Hang on, passwords? 18-character passwords? Cripes fellas, splash a bit of cash on some battery backup!
Visually it's the same as the SNES version. That means that you get the wonderfully realised backgrounds and fairly pixelly characters/enemies for the most part - the problem being that the Mega Drive levels look pretty shoddy by comparison. Think of it as porting Tomb Raider Angel of Darkness to some handheld in ten years' time and sticking some PSX levels in to fill the gaps, without making any effort to touch them up. These are grainy, and poorly detailed by comparison.
As with the PS2 version, there's a two-player co-operative mode for link cablers, but you need two cartridges for that, and the six levels won't take you more than a handful of hours to overcome. Much less if you know what you're doing.
Stop destroying our memories
Ultimately, in this day and age Contra: The Alien Wars EX is flagging badly. It uses outdated visuals with no changes, cobbles together levels which the GBA can handle in order to avoid problems, uses a lazy password system which is totally unwieldy, and continues to rely on a ten-year-old gameplay dynamic.
Yes, yes, yes, we know that some people don't have a problem with inching further and further into a game by repeating it over and over, sketching diagrams of the layout and so forth - and in terms of reward, finishing any given level is like having an in-growing toenail removed. You will be immensely satisfied if you manage it. But the pain and frustration you'll have to endure in the process - particularly those of you who weren't even around for 16-bit and before - is beyond agony for us. Sorry folks, but that's how we feel. If you can put up with it, then go ahead and buy it.
So why do we prefer Contra on the GBA to its PS2 sibling, you're probably wondering. Well, it costs less, obviously, and we can remember enough of the levels that it isn't such a chore getting through them. No, to be fair, we still enjoyed The Alien Wars EX to a certain degree. It wasn't as disappointing as its PS2 sibling. Then again, that's hardly a recommendation, is it? One for nostalgics, we reckon, and those of us who never stopped playing Probotector. Otherwise, leave it alone! Judging from GBA software sales figures, you probably will anyway.