It's nostalgia that binds me to the Contra series. Since I first played "Gryzor" in a caravan park's amusement arcade in the late '80s I've been a fan of the series, enjoying a great Amstrad CPC port, the brilliant 16-bit Probotector titles and then gritted my teeth through 13 years of terrible Contra games.
Thankfully, Contra 4 has been produced by California-based Wayforward Technologies (developer of Sigma Star Saga and, er, Ping Pals) with an eye on faithfully recreating the feel of the original Contra titles. They've succeeded in doing so, but whether that's truly a good thing or not is debatable.
The Case For: Nostalgia
If you have any nostalgic feelings for the Contra series at all, you're going to feel right at home with Contra 4. For one, it's hard. Brutally hard. Just like the original Contra titles, there's very little leeway for mistakes (you die on collision with virtually everything) and success is simply a matter of rote-learning the levels and then using your memory (and dexterity) to make your way through the levels doing your best to never, ever lose a life. Much like as in Konami's Gradius series, the minute you lose your power-ups, you might as well give up completely.
As long as you gel with this kind of unforgiving design, Contra 4 has well-designed levels with gorgeous 2D graphics arguably better than anything we ever saw during the 16-bit era. The new additions, such as action on both screens of the DS, a grappling hook and the ability to stack power-ups only add to the intensity of the action.
Multiplayer, too, is classic Contra. Although two copies of the game are required, the vicious battles for power-ups (and the ability to steal your partners extra lives) lead to a co-operative multiplayer that's as unfriendly as any deathmatch.
Yep, Contra 4 is a true successor to the Contra name in every way.
The Case Against: It's 2007
Contra 4 may well be a true successor to the Contra name, but frankly, fetishistically recreating the feel of the original arcade titles on Nintendo DS probably wasn't the most sensible use of resources. While the levels are well designed, unless you're very good at working out trajectories it's easy to be scuppered by a stray bullet thanks to the massive blind spot between the two screens on the Nintendo DS. This makes the levels where you move vertically often much more frustrating than challenging.
In addition, using only a continues-based system is terribly outdated. While it's true to the past, why on earth should I be forced to play through the game from beginning to end in one go to complete it? Although you can shut the system off and resume later, it actually costs you one (immeasurably precious) continue!
Honestly, though, it's likely that 90 per cent of gamers won't make it past the second level on normal difficulty. It features an absurdly difficult boss that's almost impossible to beat without a powered-up weapon, straight after a ludicrously hazardous trip up a waterfall positively full of bullets and boulders falling from the top screen.
The game is worth playing through in easy mode, however. It's still quite a challenge, and although you won't get to see the final two levels of the game, you will unlock Challenge mode, which offers 40 missions asking the player to navigate levels pacifistically (no shooting) or especially quickly. Sadly there's a nearly vertical difficulty curve thanks to the requirement that you complete missions on only one life. Unlocking the first couple of rewards, the NES versions of Contra and Super C is at least possible, and the NES titles are a nice little bonus, with good emulation. Admittedly they were never that great to begin with, but it's a saving of 1000 Wii Points if you wanted them already!
Like many things, the truth lies somewhere between nostalgia's rose tint and the present's grey reality. While Contra 4 is, at its core, a great 2D shooter that's refreshingly difficult, there are too many places where it stays true to its past in the face of innovations that could only make it a better, more accessible game. For example, would it really have killed them to include a level-select?
We're told Contra 4 may still see a release in Europe (even though the titles have never had the hardcore following here they received in North America), but if you think you're hardcore enough to play it, you're definitely hardcore enough to import it. Contra 4 is a true successor to the Contra name in every way - for better or worse.