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The Memory Card .79: Inside the worm

4:00 PM on 12.23.2009 // Chad Concelmo

“The Memory Card” is a seasonal feature that dissects and honors some of the most artistic, innovative, and memorable videogame moments of all time.

As a huge fan of old school videogames (SNES 4 LIFE!), I love when I play a recent release that reminds me of a retro game. Usually this whiff of nostalgia’s sweet scent comes from playing a new game in a series that has been around forever (e.g. Mario, Zelda), but sometimes it is much more surprising than that. Sometimes a new game just feels like a retro game wrapped in a super fancy, high-def package.

The best recent example of this is Gears of War 2 for the Xbox 360. I know, I know -- before any of you cry foul that a game most retro lovers think is the definition of what is wrong with videogames today could ever remind anyone of the good old days, hear me out.

Gears of War 2 is a remarkably well-designed game under its tough, trash-talking exterior, and there are parts of the game that feel exactly like what a modern, 3D Contra game would feel like -- even outside of the over-the-top guns, gigantic bosses, and chiseled main characters. I may hate to admit it, but the Gears of War series feels like what the next generation of Contra would be if it moved into the hardcore world of cursing and Unreal Engines.

This observation is never clearer than in one particular sequence from Gears of War 2. Hit the jump to revisit a creative, surprisingly nostalgic level in a game I never predicted I would love so much. A word of warning, though: This sequence is so manly that you might need to chew some tobacco or chop down a tree before continuing. It doesn’t get anymore badass than this.

The Set-Up

Gears of War 2 is the bloody sequel to the ridiculously successful original Gears of War released on the Xbox 360. Although the third-person shooter’s graphics are much better, Gears of War 2 works hard to focus on presenting a much stronger story. Not that the original’s was bad, it just ... well ... let’s just say the story in Gears of War 2 is a lot more interesting this time around.

In the game, you again play as one of the manliest videogame characters of all time: Marcus Fenix. (I mean, he is seriously manly. I think even his voice could beat me up and push me into a mud puddle.) At the end of the first game, Marcus and his fellow soldiers were successful in detonating a massive bomb, destroying the tunnel system of the Locusts, an evil race of aliens hell-bent on annihilating the planet.

Sadly -- as with most not-quite-final videogame endings -- the tunnel system was only a piece of the entire Locust population. At the start of Gears of War 2, Marcus and some old, familiar allies begin their mission to exterminate the nasty Locusts once and for all.

You see, the gigantic explosion that destroyed most of the Locusts at the end of the first game triggered a strange chemical reaction, infecting many surviving humans with a horrible disease called Rustlung. Not only that, two major cities mysteriously disappear into the ground, sparking major concern from the COGs (Coalition of Ordered Governments), a group that Marcus Fenix is a part of.

After some research, COG discovers that the Locusts are using a giant worm to burrow under the ground and eat the foundations under all the major cities of the planet. After the worm does this, the cities collapse into the newly formed hole, killing millions.

Jumping into action, Marcus Fenix and his fellow soldiers (Delta Squad!) make their way through a ruined city to try to figure out a way to bring down the unbelievably huge alien worm. Needless to say, it is a very overwhelming task.

When they finally reach the worm, it is in the process of eating the ground under the fortress of Jacinto, one of the last remaining cities for humans to live. Marcus and his Delta Squad know they must act now or Jacinto -- and the human race -- will be gone for good.

Unfortunately, the worm is so massive that none of the Delta Squad’s weapons do any damage. But before they even have a chance to think of a new plan, the worm turns towards Marcus and his crew, ready to attack.

As they try to evacuate, Delta Squad is overtaken by the giant alien worm and swallowed.

It is here when this week’s Memory Card moment occurs: Inside the worm.

The Moment

Lucky for them, the Delta Squad is not killed instantly after being devoured by the worm. Instead -- like most videogames -- they land on a soft piece of innards and are able to walk freely around the inside of the massive beast.

At this point in the game, a huge level is presented to the player (cleverly titled “Intestinal Fortitude”), all of it taking place inside the long body of the giant worm.

After checking if his allies are okay, Marcus and three members of Delta Squad begin slowly moving through the darkened, disgusting insides of the slimy alien. At first they really have no idea what to do -- they are just thankful to still be alive and hope they find something that will help them escape their ridiculous situation.

Aside from looking absolutely beautiful -- with its glistening textures and dripping environments -- the inside of the worm level is full of many different creative sequences.

As Marcus and his companions start to walk through the worm, they notice massive pieces of buildings scattered everywhere, some even sticking in the side of the beast. These buildings are part of the cities the worm has led the charge in destroying.

Marcus, being the tough guy that he is, realizes that this may be their one opportunity to stop the creature that has its sights set on bringing down Jacinto. Instead of just finding a way to escape, Marcus wants to also kill the beast from within. It’s a great plan, but the rest of the Delta Squad thinks he is insane. Hesitantly, they all agree and continue making their way through the worm’s insides.

Traveling over and around some various body parts (ew!), Delta Squad eventually makes its way to a section of giant teeth -- teeth assumedly used to crush all the food the massive worm eats. The teeth move up and down rapidly, forcing Marcus and the crew to run as fast as they can under each tooth to make sure they are not crushed by the heavy body parts.

Once they accomplish this, Delta Squad moves through even more platformer-like sections involving other crazy, intricately designed insides of the worm. It is as gross as it is fantastic.

Eventually, Marcus and his allies reach a clearing (or, whatever it is you call the section of a worm’s body that is filled with fewer organs). Here, boils pop up all over the inside of the worm, breaking open and unleashing monsters that look a lot like the facehugger creatures from the Alien films. Now Marcus not only has to deal with the moving innards of the worm, he has to handle fighting back a seemingly nonstop barrage of alien creatures. Dammit!

After sawing, wading, and squishing their way through the entire exhausting, creative level, Delta Squad makes its way to the heart of the worm. Using the Lancer (a gun equipped with a chainsaw), Marcus severs the major arteries connected to the huge heart.

Blood pours everywhere.

At this point, the game switches to a cutscene showing the worm flying up from the ground, shaking and screaming in horrible pain. Its giant body slams to the ground.

All of a sudden, a faint whirring sound is heard. From the side of the worm, the chainsaw part of a Lancer breaks through the worm’s skin. With a disgustingly satisfying ripping sound, Marcus cuts through the side of the worm’s dead body.

Blood and guts shoot out of the worm like a geyser.

Marcus and Delta Squad slide out of the throbbing open hole and find safety on the red-stained ground below them.

Standing up, Marcus looks back at the deceased monstrosity, calls for immediate backup, and immediately journeys to his next location to put an end to the Locust threat.

Driving away, Marcus flashes a twisted grin. He may have just survived a ridiculous journey through the entire insides of an alien worm, but he knows the worst is yet to come.

You can watch the out of control level unfold in the below two videos:

The Impact

If you are a Contra fan, you have to agree that the sequence inside of the worm in Gears of War 2 is remarkably reminiscent of the classic retro shooter. It would not surprise me in the least if Cliffy Bleszinski (the designer of Gears of War) was inspired by one of the past Contra games (my guess: Contra III: The Alien Wars).

Sure, the entirety of Gears of War 2 is very Contra-esque. There are huge guns, manly main characters, and over-the-top bosses, but all of that stuff shows up in many action games. It might not necessarily be specifically Contra-related.

But the sequence in the worm? That is an entirely different story.

Let’s start with the obvious: the look. There are many Contra games that are set in a similar environment to the interior of the worm in Gears of War 2. They aren’t necessarily set inside the body of an alien, but most final stages in all the old Contra games look just like “Intestinal Fortitude.”

Here are a few examples from Contra, Contra III: The Alien Wars, and Contra 4, respectively:

Look how similar the level aesthetics look (despite the 8- and 16-bit graphics)!

Of course this could just be a strange design coincidence, but let’s get more detailed. Even the enemies in the Contra stages are almost identical to the ones in Gears of War 2. Both games contain facehugger-like alien creatures attacking muscular main characters. Even the giant hearts in both games are similar in both size and design!

But this isn’t an article accusing Gears of War 2 from stealing ideas from Contra. That might not even be the case at all. Instead, this is an article celebrating Gears of War 2 for making me feel so wonderfully nostalgic while playing it -- whether it was a fortunate coincidence of not!

It really is very rare to play a modern game with such a refreshing retro sensibility. And especially when it’s something like Gears of War 2 -- a game so absorbed into the mainstream world of modern gaming that most people who play it have never even picked up an NES or Super Nintendo controller. The irony of it all makes me really happy.

Even gameplay-wise, the inside of the worm feels a lot like a Contra game. Gears of War 2 is known for being all about shooting, shooting, and more shooting, but, strangely enough, there are a lot of platformer-like sequences while traveling throughout the interior of the worm. Marcus is required to dodge giant teeth that chomp up and down; he must navigate his way through thick pieces of membrane. He even has to run from a flood of acidic fluid in a completely inspired, almost out-of-nowhere sequence.

Most importantly, though, the level inside the giant worm is absolutely creative. Contra is known for level after level of one-of-a-kind set pieces and over-the-top action. Whether you are riding on the bottom of a missile or scaling the side of a building, Contra rarely bores in the level design department. All of this can also be said about the inside of the worm level in Gears of War 2.

Despite its similarities to Contra, traveling through the worm stands on its own as one of the most badass, exciting, visceral videogame levels of all time. Every section of the stage is cooler than the one before, with everything ending in an awesomely satisfying (yet totally disgusting!) conclusion.

There are a lot of people out there that refuse to play (or support) games like Gears of War 2 because they are too “hardcore” or too much a part of the mainstream. Heck, there are people that think the game is nothing but mindless shooting and designed without an ounce of creative thinking. Hopefully reading about this sequence will change these people’s minds. The amount of creativity in Gears of War 2 and its refreshing moments of retro inspiration may surprise you.

I know they certainly surprised me.

The Memory Card Save Files

.01 - .20 (Season 1)
.21 - .40 (Season 2)
.41 - .60 (Season 3)
.61: The dream of the Wind Fish (The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening)
.62: Leaving Midgar (Final Fantasy VII)
.63: Auf Wiedersehen! (Bionic Commando)
.64: Death and The Sorrow (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)
.65: A glimpse into the future (Space Quest: The Sarien Encounter)
.66: Taloon the merchant (Dragon Quest IV)
.67: Scaling the waterfall (Contra)
.68: Anton's love story (Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box)
.69: TKO! BJ! LOL! (Ring King)
.70: Giant robot fish! (Mega Man 2)
.71: The rotating room (Super Castlevania IV)
.72: The collapsing building (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)
.73: Death by funnel (Phantasmagoria)
.74: Crono's trial (Chrono Trigger)
.75: The blind fighting the blind (God of War II)
.76: Brotherly love (Mother 3)
.77: Prince Froggy (Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island)
.78: The statue of a hero (Dragon Quest V: Hand of the Heavenly Bride)

Chad Concelmo,
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