Review: What has three heads, six tentacles and spits laser beams out of its eyes? I don't know what you call it, but it wants to kill you!
When Konami chose a name for the first Contra game on the DS, it was mighty ballsy of them to pick Contra 4. Setting up the first Contra title for the DS as a direct sequel to the game that 99% of the population believes to be the high watermark for the series is a tall order. Especially when the development of Contra 4 fell to WayForward Technologies, a hit-and-miss portable developer who unleashed the unplayable Ping Pals on the world. But fans have nothing to fear as WayForward has produced a bona fide hit and a new platform shooter for the ages.
Right away, you can tell the developers have a deep love for all things Contra. The game's presentation is based on Contra III and includes plenty of allusions and call backs to past Contra games. Contra 4 even attempts to reconcile Konami USA's blunder of renaming the main characters of the original NES Contra Mad Dog and Scorpion. Bill and Lance are the main characters here, but now the official Contra storyline recognizes Mad Dog and Scorpion as separate soldiers (and the heroes behind Operation C).
Not content to merely make something that could be considered Contra fan fiction, WayForward has added two major additions to the Contra canon: a grappling hook and a two-tiered weapon system. Contra 4 uses both screens as one field of play and the grappling hook enables your chosen Contra soldier to grab onto power lines on the top screen and pull himself up. This is a great new mechanic and it is put to good use in the game, I just wish there were more things to grab with the grappling hook.
The other major addition, the two-tiered weapon system, is another fantastic move by WayForward. Like Contra III, players can hold two weapons (and switch between them with L). But in Contra 4, grabbing two weapons for the same hand creates a super weapon. Two machine guns equals a dual machine gun, two spread guns equal double the amount of spread bullets, two lasers equal a super laser... you get the idea. The whole system makes weapon management and strategy that much more important. This weapon system also ties in to Contra 4's three difficulty levels.
Ask any old school Contra fan, and they'll tell you war stories about how difficult the original games were, with some debate over whether Super C or Contra: Hard Corps is the harder game. Contra 4 may just blow all of them away. The difficulty is insane, even on the Easy level. But WayForward has performed a few ingenious tricks to separate the three levels. Easy requires players to only collect one weapon eagle to obtain a super weapon and supplies more lives and more continues. Each subsequent difficulty level cuts the number of lives per continue in half and gives one fewer continue to start with. And, of course, enemies take more hits to die. The Normal and Hard difficulties also feature two final levels that are not present in Easy and take the word difficult to a whole new level.
The only real problem with Contra 4 is that occasionally it is artificially difficult. Dodging bullets and projectiles that originate on the top screen is a new part of the challenge of this Contra, but the two screens do not come together exactly and there is a slight gap where enemies and bullets can hide. It is frustrating to have them burst out of the gap kill you in a completely unpreventable way.
But WayForward has created a great Contra game and a game for platform shooter fans everywhere. They are truly students of the game. The running and jumping between platforms (and between screens with the grappling hook), the gunning down of all sorts of various alien uglies; this is Contra at its finest. And the bosses are spectacular, owing their design to previous Contra titles (but with a twist) and new designs that are just amazing. The boss at the end of the new waterfall is impressively drawn, super difficult and just plain cool.
Contra 4 is packed to the gills with extras, including the chance to play as the Probotector robot from the European release of the original Contra for the NES. Speaking of the original Contra for the NES, it's here as an unlockable as well as Super C. Contra comics and a ridiculously addictive Challenge Mode are also here. The Challenge Mode drops your Contra soldier into one of the levels and requires them to get to the end while fulfilling some preset condition. It could be hunting down all of the alien dogs, not firing your weapon, taking out a certain number of enemies in a set amount of time or something else entirely. Each challenge only lasts a minute or two, but you'll constantly be saying just one more as you try to complete them all.