16 friggin bits! So many bits! Let’s use them to make badass games.
- Probably Konami (1991)
The 16-bit console generation was a time of great competition, and great advancement in game design. Many 2D genres were created or refined during this era, spurred by the additional power that the new consoles possessed. Games could have bigger sprites, more enemies, more colors, better audio, and new special effects. Showboating became much more prevalent in this generation as certain levels or sometimes entire games would make heavy use of new effects to try to wow its potential buyers into a purchase.
Konami, riding high off of its successes on the NES, was still in it’s prime. Possessing some of the best game designers in the business, it continued to release a slew of great games and Contra was well represented. At the time, sequels still mostly took an iterative approach, trying to be a lot like previous entries, but better. Although both 16-bit Contra games used heavy special effects to impress gamers, they still featured the great gameplay that put Contra on the map.
At this point in the project, I was sold on the Contra formula, but a bit unsure of my ability to complete games that are considered much harder than the NES classic and I was a little nervous that my inability to complete them might sour my opinions of them. My memories of the brief time I spent playing these games didn’t help alleviate these fears, as I remember both games being quite hard in the time I spent with them. If being a gamer has taught me anything though, it’s that unfamiliar things can often seem difficult at first and that you are capable of much more than you think.
Win Conditions: Normal Difficulty
Time to learn: 6 hours
Single Playthrough: 35 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 6
Review Score: 6
As was the case with an NES, My family never owned an SNES, but we occasionally rented one and I remember putting a few hours into this game with my brothers shortly after it was released. I think we got to the stage 3 boss a couple of times, but never beat him. I remember being very impressed by the game however, and have always wanted to give it another crack.
I had high expectations for this game, based on my memories of it, and based on the many people that still sing it’s praises to this day. In many ways, those expectations were met. The game looked and sounded as good as I remembered, and with my new appreciation for Contra design philosophies, much of the game played even better than I remembered. The more I played though, the more pieces of the game started to sour and the less I began to look forward to the next playthrough.
The main thing I remembered about playing this game as a lad was how good it looked. That opinion hasn’t changed. Although channeling a bit too much of the brown/gray aesthetic for my tastes, the sprite work is excellent and enemy design is superb. Sound effects were also excellent and are a great fit for the SNES sound chip. I had mixed feelings on the music though. While some songs were excellent, several others had some odd note choices that caused their melodies to become a bit grating after several loops.
I didn’t play this series to look at pretty pictures and listen to soothing tunes though, so I’m happy to report that most of the side scrolling stages are pretty fun to play. Static enemy placement is well thought out and triggered or random spawns are appropriately paced. The levels are all broken up into several seamless sections where the terrain or enemies change, and keeps things interesting the first few playthroughs. Unfortunately, the Super C design practice of limiting the number of secondary platforms is used here, forcing you to a single path for the most part and reducing choice mainly to which weapons you will use. On the good side though, each level played vastly different than the others, so you need to watch for different things and use very different strategies depending on where you are in the game.
Weapons are also well implemented here as Contra 3 provides you with a great array of them to choose from. All of the weapons from the previous games are here (though most of them have been completely reworked) except for the original semi-auto pea shooter. They also added a new rocket weapon that is quite powerful. All weapons are viable in any situation, but some work better in certain situations than others.
Unlike in previous games, you have two slots to store weapons in. Though losing a life will still lose you your equipped weapon pick-up, you often have a back-up ready in the other slot, and even if you don’t, the default machine gun is quite capable of handling any of the game’s enemies. Autofire on every weapon is also a blessing that I was happy to see. In addition to the shooty guns, this game also adds bombs that will clear the screen of most enemies or take a modest chunk of health from a boss. While not game-breaking, I personally didn’t think the bombs really added much in the way of fun though.
Continuing the tradition of including alternate gameplay stages in Contra, Alien Wars includes two stages that take place from a top view. These are are not like the passable stages found in Super C and Operation C however. These top-down stages feature the worst gameplay the entire series has to offer. The worst. In an attempt to show off the SNES’s impressive mode 7 graphical effects, the game chose to rotate the entire level around your character instead of allowing your character free movement in a static world. This is made worse by awkward controls and areas of the floor in stage 5 that try to make your character spin endlessly when you walk on them. When the game was released I might have thought these stages were impressive looking, but a bit annoying. Today I find them exceptionally ugly and completely devoid of fun.
Bosses in this game take a front seat, especially compared to previous titles. All side-scrolling stages contain several larger enemies that could be considered mini-bosses in addition to the always impressive looking end stage boss. Unfortunately in Normal difficulty, most bosses are a joke, even on the first try. This is becomes a bit annoying when several, are “haha, you can't get me” bosses that continue to attack you while being temporarily, but completely invulnerable, pointlessly extending an easy fight. The few bosses that do pose a challenge though can actually be quite difficult.
Between the bosses, and the levels themselves, the difficulty for this game is all over the map. Most of the game is surprisingly easy on Normal difficulty and, as with earlier Contras, heavily dependent on memorization. A few parts however, do require a high degree of execution, and so I found myself easily completing most of the game and then hemorrhaging lives to the same few sections on every attempt. In particular, the second form of the final boss can be a complete pushover, or a complete nightmare due to some of his patterns being laughably easy and others being maddeningly difficult. (Damn you blue worm thingy!)
It took me roughly 6 hours to learn the game well enough to be able to beat it’s six stages on default settings. The run I completed the game on could have been a 1cc, but I got a string of bad patterns on the last boss and lost a sizeable cache of lives. Afterwards, I decided that I didn’t really have the motivation to tolerate the weaker portions of the game and try for a 1cc run. I also played a bit of hard mode, but after playing partway through to the horrible second stage, I again found my motivation lacking. Perhaps in the future I will come back and give hard mode another try, but at this point I decided that it would be best to move on.
There was a lot of fun to be had in this game, but unlike the first two games in this series, it was beginning to wear on me by the end. A lot of people name this game as their favorite Contra, and when they do, they often sight the graphics, sound, theme, and set pieces, and I agree that they are all top notch. The gameplay however, fell short for me in comparison to the two older titles, especially when you consider the abhorrent top down levels that make up a third of the game. I think that if they balanced the difficulty a bit better or simply replaced the top-down levels with some additional side-scrolling ones, it would have had left a much better impression on me. It’s still a good game, it’s just not the pinnacle of the series I was expecting.
Did Not Play
I never even knew this game existed until a couple of years ago. Probably because it was an NES Contra game that was actually released several months after Contra 3. It looks like it might be fun at times, but runs terribly and is often ridiculed, so I decided to skip it for this project. Maybe someday.
Win Conditions: All paths, All characters, 1cc
Time to learn: 20 hours
Single Playthrough: 35 minutes (for the longest paths)
Difficulty Rating: 7
Review Score: 9
We owned a Genesis as youths, and I remember renting this game and having mixed feelings about it. I thought that the graphics were colorful, but weird, though many of the graphical effects were impressive. The sound effects were decent, save the awfully distorted voices. The music seemed good, though the style was all over the map. All in all it just seemed… inconsistent. I think we got the easy to obtain secret ending, but aside from that, only made it to stage 4 a couple of times. It was kind of a fun game, but we decided it wasn’t good enough to own.
What a difference a couple of decades make. When I started playing this game for this project, I was excited to move on from Contra 3, but was not expecting to like this game that much due to my memories of playing it as a teenager and it’s reputation for being one of the hardest Contra games. I figured that I would soldier through to one of the real endings, skip the 1cc, and call it good. Several days later, I had 1cc’d every path with every character, and I had a blast doing it.
I think the graphics are still weird, but a good weird with tons of character, instead of the bad weird I thought as a judgemental youngster. Individual sprites can still look a little awkward, but as a package, the whole thing just works (and the effects are still pretty cool). I found sounds are as good/bad as ever, which is pretty standard for a Genesis game. The music however, I found to be absolutely amazing. It does have a pretty large range in style, but it still seemed to mesh as a package and also complimented the game’s graphics. Each song seemed to fit it’s level or boss perfectly and I still hum some of those tunes many months later.
Of course, for me, the most important thing about a Contra game is how it plays, and this game plays amazing. For the first time in a Contra game, instead of going through the same levels each playthrough, there is a branching story where you choose a path at the end of certain levels to determine how the story proceeds. I was initially put off by this, as it seemed like a weak way to force you to play certain stages multiple times and add to the game’s longevity. In practice though, it just makes playthroughs more manageable as there are a ton of stages and playing all of them in a single playthrough could take hours.
I was particularly excited that, for the first time in a Contra game, no “alternate gameplay” stages are shoehorned in. It’s 100% run’n’gun. Well ok, maybe it’s like 20% run’n’gun and 80% boss fights. The run’n’gun on tap here is as good as ever though. I was sad to see the lack of platforming had carried over from the 3 previous games, but the stage and enemies were so varied that things stayed interesting, even after multiple playthroughs.
Then there are the bosses. As mentioned above, the bosses in this game play a major role, enough that it feels like a boss rush game with some run’n’gun thrown in. In previous games, I much preferred the level proper to the boss fights, but in this game, almost every one of the huge selection of bosses is executed so well that I didn’t mind. Nearly all of them balanced difficulty and fairness so well that I never left a session in a bad mood and only rarely did my now patented Contra eye roll make an appearance. In my opinion, they are simply some of the best designed bosses you’ll find in the genre.
Even the best designed stages and bosses won’t cut it if the weapon you use to fight them aren’t any fun though right? Well, Hard Corps has you covered, because there are four characters that you can play as and each of them has 4 unique weapons in addition to the default machine gun. Some of these resemble weapons from previous Contra games, some are brand new, all are a blast to use. Autofire for all weapons is also thankfully carried over from Contra 3. In addition the guns, your character gets a slide move, which can be very useful supplement to your arsenal. Oh, I guess they have bombs again too, though I forgot they were there most of the time.
New to the series, Hard Corps has a slot dedicated to each weapon. You’ll still need to grab a weapon pick-up to fill its designated spot, and you’ll still lose that pick-up if you lose a life while you have it equipped, but you no are no longer limited to just 2 slots. You can carry all of a character’s weapons and choose whichever suits you for a given situation, or if you are fairly certain you’re going to lose a life, you can choose a weapon that you don’t mind losing temporarily.
When ranking difficulty of the Contra series, Hard Corps and Shattered Soldier are often listed by people as the hardest. I definitely found the game difficult, but I didn’t encounter a single part in the game that halted my progress for more than one or two playthroughs. While a player will still heavily benefit from memorization, technical execution plays the largest role yet out of any of the previous Contras. Enemy attacks are always telegraphed and with higher skill than I possess, could likely be learned on very few continues with safe play and little loss of life. Once learned, execution is still important however, and the vast array of bosses are so diverse, that the game never grows stale.
I found Hard Corps to be the hardest Contra I’ve completed thus far, but I also found it to be the most fair. Frustration set in a few times in the NES games and many times while playing Contra 3, but this game gave me none of that, so while it was technically harder, it was emotionally easier. Although I originally would have been satisfied with a victory of any path using any character, I had a really hard time putting the game down until I had spent roughly 20 hours learning to 1cc all 12 stages with every character. The only thing that consistently annoyed me during this time was switching weapons, which shares a button with shooting modes and is contextual depending on whether or not you are shooting when you press it. Many deaths were caused by this. The game actually supports the extra buttons on the 6 button controller, so why they couldn’t have a button dedicated to switching weapons is beyond me.
All things said, though there are a few small issues, I found this game to be my favorite Contra yet and a true gem that I am genuinely disappointed I didn’t appreciate more when it was released. The graphics are weird, but charming, the music is exceptional, the levels were well designed, and the super fun bosses stole the show with spot on difficulty that balanced memorization and execution. Each day, I looked forward to playing this game, and likely would have continued playing if I didn’t have several other Contra games to play through (oh, and several hundred other games in my backlog).
Although I am still a gamer, the 16-bit generation was my wheelhouse. I owned a Genesis, but it didn’t stop me from playing and appreciating the many great SNES games being released and Contra 3 was one of the first games I rented for that system. It’s interesting that for years I have considered it a much superior game to Hard Corps and had actually expected that Contra 3 would end up one of my favorite games of the series at the end of this. I also had hoped to get a better appreciation for Hard Corps, but never actually believed I would like it as much as I do.
Whether it’s a better appreciation of gameplay over graphics, or simply seeing the entirety of both games, my opinions have reversed and suddenly my expectations for the next games are a bit less defined. This was probably a good thing though. While I had looked forward to the 16-bit Contra games with excitement, my knowledge of, and experience with Konami’s 3D Contra games made me a bit nervous. Maybe I should I just skip the next generation? Hold on, things might get a bit bumpy.