Wait, there’s a 3rd dimension!!!!???? No one will EVER play a 2D game again so we gotta take our big IPs and somehow 3D-inize them. Hurry!
- Probably Konami (1995)
Most modern gamers know what the word polygon refers to when talking about computer graphics. This was not always the case though. Before SNES Super FX games started appearing, many people had seen the little buggers employed in a handful of arcade and PC games, but not many of these people knew the industry terms to describe the tech behind the games. As the end of the 16-bit console generation approached however, more and more people were learning the terminology. By the time the Sony Playstation and Sega Saturn launched, you could barely read two paragraphs in a gaming magazine without seeing the word.
It was a time of excitement and uncertainty for game publishers. They had a firm handle on 2D game design, and now they had to rethink everything. Early in the generation, gaming journalists and reviewers would harshly criticize games that used pixels or restricted movement to a single plane, so many published felt compelled to design games for 3D space, even if they weren’t exactly sure how to yet. Many of the publishers that previously seemed unstoppable, suddenly began to misstep. Konami was one of those publishers.
To help make the transition to 3D and to bolster their output, Konami began to utilize more outside studios to work on their properties, including Contra. Appaloosa Interactive, developers of Ecco the Dolphin, developed Contra: Legacy of War for release in 1996, and even after poor reviews of that first game, they were cleared to develop C: The Contra Adventure for release in 1998. Both tried to force 3D movement into the series with awkward results, and both were considered failures. Years later during the next console generation, Konami would finally bring the Contra series back in house with Contra: Shattered Soldier in 2002, and Neo Contra in 2004. Both received mixed reviews and Neo Contra remains the last Contra developed in house by Konami.
When considering these two generations for this completion project, I was in an interesting place. I had actually completed Legacy of War years ago, but based on reviews and gameplay footage, was not excited at all to try The Contra Adventure. Looking ahead to the Playstation 2 games, the high difficulty in Shattered Soldier seemed to drive much of the divisiveness in its reviews, yet the low difficulty and top-down perspective of Neo Contra seemed to have the same effect on its own scores. However I decided to proceed, it seemed like things were about to get weird.
Did Not Play
Contra: Legacy of War was the first Contra to ever be developed by an outside studio and is justly considered by many to be a poor Contra game. I picked this game up for my Saturn at a deep discount at Toy’R’Us back in late 97. My expectations were not all that high, and though the game was extremely rough, I ended up having a decent enough time with it, eventually playing it to completion.
The entire game used a top down perspective, similar to the alternate stages in Super C. The camera was bad, the controls kind of sucked (there was no way to aim up, so you jumped A LOT to shoot high enemies), and the graphics were pretty ugly, but some of the bosses were fun to fight. I don’t know that I ever played it much after I beat the final boss, but I think it was worth the $10 I paid for it at the time. I originally planned on completing it again as part of this project, but I changed my mind after playing it for a few minutes. Yikes.
Did Not Play
I’m not sure how Appaloosa Interactive convinced Konami to give them another shot after Legacy of War, but they did, and the result was even worse. I’ve never played this game, but most people consider it the worst game in the series. Gameplay videos seem to confirm that. Looks horrendous and got horrendous reviews. Pass.
Win Conditions: Normal Difficulty, A Rank Ending, 1cc
Time to learn: 17 hours
Single Playthrough: 40 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 7
Review Score: 8
Contra: Shattered Soldier seems like the kind of game I would have loved when it first released. The high volume of quality titles release at the time, combined with my general lack of Contra experience caused me to pass on it though. Years later, I would consider picking it up on the cheap, only to read the reviews of many a gamer praising its design, but others lamenting its crushing difficulty and I decided to skip the likely frustration. It still tops many gamer’s lists as the best game in the series though, so there was no way I could skip it now, and once again I found myself lacking in confidence and concerned that I was about to hit a roadblock in this trip through Contra history. On the plus side, with many people considering this the most difficulty Contra, I thought that if I could complete Shattered Soldier, I had a pretty good shot of handling any game in the series.
One of the best things for me about trying a new game is experiencing that moment when the game “clicks” with you. That moment when you are confident that you understand what the devs were trying to accomplish and you can forge ahead into uncharted territory with a confidence that you’ll eventually prevail. Despite my initial (and obviously chronic, if you’ve read previous entries in this series) apprehension, and a few questionable design decisions in the game, Contra: Shattered Soldier clicked with me early and remained fun throughout.
The graphics were decent enough, and manage to do a better job of using 3D graphics for a 2D game than most modern attempts. Most things are a bit grey and washed out, but the enemy designs were great and the game makes good use of the PS2’s hardware. Music was pretty good, but I it depended a little too heavily on riffs for my taste, without enough melody. The game has a ton of mid-level cinematics, many of which were very cool, but some were pretty long and all were unskippable, putting unnecessary breaks in the action and adding boredom to an otherwise exciting game. The game also tries to get you to care about its awkward story with a handful of skippable cutscenes between levels, but I never watched these more than once.
In a move that was probably considered bold at the time, Shattered Soldier goes back to the series 2D side-scrolling roots and contains no stupid alternate gameplay modes or other major jukes. It works well and though your character animations can make them look a bit stiff and mechanical at times, control is precise and deliberate. The enemy placement is challenging, but not trolly, with relatively relatively infrequent RNG. When RNG does show it’s face however, it can make things difficult, especially when considering the rank system I’ll discuss later. There is also a good amount of enemy and stage variation without things getting too gimmicky
The bosses are a real treat too, with a slew of often predictable, yet still challenging attacks to dodge, each of the bosses in the game’s extensive roster feels fresh and different. They all look pretty good too. A handful of these fights make up the majority of the game’s difficulty spikes though and are probably a significant source of the game’s reputation. As with the stage proper, the RNG that you sometimes run into can be a major source of difficulty.
Once again, Konami decided to mix up the weapon system, and I think it made for a better game. Unlike in previous games, in Shattered Soldier there are no weapon pick-ups, you have access to all weapons at all times, which helped minimize the punishment of losing a life in an already tough game. There are only 3 of these weapons, but all 3 are all fun to use and have different utility. Many encounters are also designed around one or two weapons strengths and experimenting to find the perfect one(s) for a given situation can be a lot of fun.
As for infamous difficulty, it’s reputation for being one of the harder games in the series is well earned, though it managed to be pretty fair, most of the time. One of the biggest contributors to difficulty, and one of the biggest annoyances in the game, was the previously mentioned rank system. For each stage you would get ranked on the percentage of enemies you were able to kill, as well as lives lost. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if higher ranks weren’t required to see the higher levels in the game. For this reason, if you wished to see all 7 stages and get the best ending, every mistake was amplified and simply surviving was not nearly enough. You had to kill almost everything and not die in the process. The difficulty seemed to depend on a fairly even split between memorization and technical execution to stay alive, but to earn a good rank and a chance to see the whole game, technical execution became much more challenging to pull off and could often be influenced by RNG.
Even considering the disappointing ranking system, the game was not quite as tough as I thought it would be, though it did take a decent number of playthroughs to learn. After finally downing the true last boss, I think it took another 6 wins before finally squeaking out a 1cc victory. The fact that they included a training mode, where you could practice any previously completed stage helped shorten the time to learn the game. Also, in another interesting mechanic, as the number of game overs reaches certain milestone, your starting life count is increased for future playthroughs. This feels a bit patronizing, but getting a 1cc without these extra lives would have probably taken me much longer. The game is a bit stingy with extra lives compared to other Contra games and losing a life tends to snowball because your invulnerability time is very low, it’s often hard to see your guy after a respawn when he’s blinking, and the screen can fill up quickly while you are waiting to respawn.
Overall, I found playing through Shattered Soldier to be a lot of fun and a big relief. I was expecting a fun, but frustrating run n’ gun, and while the difficulty was pretty high, I was having a ball for most of the 17 hours I played it. If the restrictive rank system had been absent, or simply handled differently, it may have even come close to dethroning Hard Corps as my then favorite. As it was released though, it feels like a dance that you must learn and then execute to precision, with deviations from your routine almost always resulting in punishment. Thankfully the dance is fun, but sometimes, I just wished I could mix it up more.
Win Conditions: Normal Difficulty, A Rank Ending, Machine Gun Weapon Set, 1cc
Time to learn: 6 hours
Single Playthrough: 40 minutes
Difficulty Rating: 4
Review Score: 7
This was the final Contra developed by an internal Konami studio. I always thought people hated this game, but looking at some old reviews, I guess it fared better than I thought. It was actually pretty well received for what it was, but just wasn’t the Contra game that people wanted. I always had a interest in giving it a try, so this was the perfect excuse.
I didn’t quite know what to think of this game when I first started playing it. It clearly didn’t feel like Contra, but it was not the first entry in the series to exclusively use a top down view and was an obvious improvement over Legacy of War. It wasn’t long though before was able to ignore its title and its ridiculously stupid story, and judge it on it’s own merits.
The graphics were definitely one of said merits. I thought the graphics were quite impressive for a PS2 game, and the enemy design was top tier as well. I would actually say it easily surpasses Shattered Soldier on both accounts, and that game was no slouch. The sound effects and music were of similar quality as the previous PS2 entry, with the OST being a bit more techno and less metal. Cinematics are back, and often focus on the even worse story in this installment (ok, Animal Contra did get a chuckle out of me). Even mid-stage cinematics are thankfully skippable this time though, so they really didn’t bother me as much as the much cooler, but non-skippable ones in Shattered Soldier.
Every stage in the game uses a top-down perspective that looks like it should be a twin-stick shooter, but the right stick ends up lonely. Instead, Neo Contra uses the stupid lock position or lock direction control system that Shattered Soldier used. While it’s a pretty great system for a side-scrolling run’n’gun though, it’s a pretty terrible system for a top-down shooter. I found that locking your direction and strafing seemed to be the easiest way to play, but whenever simultaneous dodging and accurate shooting was required, the frustration kicked in and I ended up running in circles until I could get the next clean shot. Proper kiting was pretty much out of the question. The inclusion of a roll dodge and a spin dodge was kind of interesting, though they were awkward enough that I never really felt that comfortable using them outside of a few parts where their use is strongly encouraged by boss attacks.
It feels weird to talk about the camera in a Contra game, but here we go. Being a top-down shooter, the camera should be a gimme on the list of things you’ll get right, and most of the time it is. For cool points or something though, some fights give you a “low” angle that makes dodging a minor nightmare. It probably wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if they didn’t tend to use these low angles on boss fights that have more projectiles to dodge than usual. They also sometimes needlessly make a camera follow you during a boss fight, which does more to enable off-screen attacks from the boss than to give you better visibility.
Despite these minor issues, the game is a pretty fun jaunt. The levels themselves are mostly linear, but have a few short branches to venture into along with some twists, turns, and changes of scenery. I never really tired of them. Enemies are well placed, and generally fun to fight. The constantly present RNG enemies are unfortunately annoyingly abundant for my taste, with similar spawn rates to Super C. Bosses are impressive looking and mostly pretty enjoyable to fight, requiring more than just mindless shooting. Hitboxes in the game were mostly good save a few surprisingly large or lingering ones.
The weapon system is changed up a bit for this entry. Similar to Shattered Solider, you use a single set of weapons for an entire playthrough, though this time there are multiple sets to choose from, with various advantages. Interestingly, these weapon sets are not balanced in any way, with some offering a moderate challenge to get through the game, and others making the game a relaxing frolic through the game’s then helpless denizens. I don’t necessarily think that they NEED to be balanced though, as the best weapon sets are initially locked, and all are fun to use.
Of course you can’t have a review of a Contra game without talking about difficulty. I had read previously that this game was considered too easy by most Contra fans, but I found myself a bit surprised at the challenge of getting a 1cc, at least with the machine gun weapon set. While it was noticeably easier than Shattered Soldier, the annoying return of the rank system and your rank’s effect on your ending prevented it from being a complete cakewalk. Killing 100% of the enemies is a lot easier to do than in Shattered Soldier though, and the percentages needed for various ranks have been eased, increasing the allowable mistakes before a run is effectively ruined. The fact that the game throws extra lives at you like candy helped to ease things, but since lost lives lower your rank, they only help so much.
It took me about 6 hours to learn the game’s 7 stages well enough to 1cc with the basic machine gun weapon set, though I went back and completed the game with every other weapon set immediately after. There is an Easy mode that you are required to complete for a character unlock, but by the time I played it, I had already 1cc’d Normal, so I have no perspective on how easy it actually is. Also similar to Shattered Soldier, they included a training mode for practicing individual stages, but while it was my main avenue of practice in the previous title, I didn’t really use it as much in this game.
Neo Contra was an interesting game to review amongst all of the proper Contra games. The fact that it looked, and in the end played, completely different than Contra was definitely disappointing after the amazing, but flawed Shattered Soldier. The sad thing is that they seemed to consciously correct many of the things that garnered complaints from their previous game, and apply them to a completely different style of game. We can only wonder what Contra game we could have gotten had they made a proper follow-up. As it stands though, I agree with the masses on this one. With Neo Contra we did get a pretty cool, enjoyable game, it just wasn’t Contra.
The first 3D console generation was not kind to the Contra franchise, with two games that barely resembled the amazing games the series was known for. In the end, this failure is on Konami, but the push from games journalism and review scores to transition properties into 3D was very strong at the time, and I blame Konami more for quality control than trying something new.
Later, Konami would attempt to do right by their valuable IP with a couple of decent, but flawed games on the PS2. As close as they got to a winning formula though, they would decide to shelve the the series for a few years and never again develop a Contra game in-house. Thankfully, the series did not die then though, and by transitioning from in-house development to hiring studios that clearly had a lot of respect for the series, maybe the former heavyweight IP could get back some of the magic that fed its success. Whatever the case, I was about to find out, because at this point, I was all in on finishing this completion project.