Konami is responsible for my top three games on the Sega Genesis console. I’ve covered Rocket Knight Adventures and Castlevania: Bloodlines already, but the third is Contra: Hard Corps. The thing is, while the former two titles are difficult trials in their own right, Contra: Hard Corps is one that I’ve never been able to fully consummate with. It’s hard. It’s right there in the title.
The biggest reason why these three titles are even difficult is that Konami had this strange insistence on using limited continues at the time. Contra has always limited how many continues you get on the console games, but Castlevania? That’s just dirty. But even then, Contra: Hard Corps is difficult beyond what I’ve experienced in previous games, and I’ll delve deeper into the reason. The biggest difference here is that it wasn’t designed to be.
Yes, I know what a Probotector is. Stop asking
Contra is a series of games about playing as Sylvestor Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they work to kill joggers and football dudes until aliens show up. Things kept getting weird and weirder in the games until we hit the Sega Genesis, at which point the developers were like, “This isn’t cool enough for this console, it needs more ‘90s. Someone get me a werewolf and graft a chaingun to his arm.”
For this entry, there are four selectable characters. A dude, a gal, a dog, and a robot. As much as Fang the half-wolf is awesome, he’s probably the most difficult to use. Ray stands in for Bill and Lance, so if you can’t fathom a Contra without the spread gun, he’ll fit you like a jockstrap. I stuck with Sheena, the lady, as I have difficulty believing aliens could be defeated by anyone incapable of live birth.
A lot of people say Gunstar Heroes is the best run-and-gun on the console, and it’s pretty great. But people probably only say that because getting past the first level in Contra: Hard Corps is a challenge. That’s because not only does your character bite it when someone bumps into them, but the gameplay changes rapidly. It’s like a police chase involving bumper cars.
Contra: Hard Corps a situation rush-style game where one minute, your feet are planted on solid ground, and the next, you’re riding an ostrich at breakneck speeds. It’s like Battletoads, and limited continues weren’t a good idea for that game, and they’re not a good idea here.
It’s pronounced “core”
And like Battletoads, things were different in Japan. Did you know that Contra: Hard Corps doesn’t have limited continues in Japan? You can continue as often as you want. It gets better, though, because your character can take three hits before they die.
It’s a completely different game. To be fair, the one-hit death thing has been pretty standard in Contra games, so having more rugged protagonists is actually a departure. I also only learned this recently, so I’ve taken multiple runs at it while playing as our porcelain protagonists. I completed Contra dealing with the limitation, so I just thought that was an expectation of me. However, I never quite had the patience to play and replay until I attained perfection.
Playing the Japanese Mega Drive version was a cakewalk in comparison. The extra health was enough to get me through many of the stages before I even realized that I could continue as often as I wanted. My concept of challenge is so warped by my prior experiences that I can’t even speak of the difficulty of the Japanese version. I feel like I plowed through it without faltering, but I could say the same thing about something like Super Castlevania IV. And when I was already cleansed in the crucible of the North American version, I suppose it would make sense that the Japanese difficulty wouldn’t have me breaking a sweat. I feel like I’ve been living a lie. I can’t even say which version I prefer.
The aural dream team
Is it easy mode, or is North America, like, hard or expert? It would have been nice if playing with the Japanese settings was an option. The fact that it was changed and even omitted is no doubt due to the rental market. While renting games was normal in North America, it was illegal in Japan. Publishers over here worried that someone would rent a game, complete it in a weekend, then wind up not buying a copy. The solution wasn’t to make the game longer, but rather more difficult, and the easiest way to do that is to just send players back to the beginning when they inevitably fail. The same thing was done to Dynamite Headdy, and I’m similarly upset about that.
For a lot of players, especially younger ones, this means not seeing a lot of what Contra: Hard Corps has to offer. It’s constantly pulling new situations out of its butthole to shove at you. It’s so rapid-fire and fast-paced that you have no time to get comfortable or even get a handle on its controls. It also presents multiple paths and hidden endings while all the characters have their own weapons and abilities, which means that it really isn’t short for content.
Its soundtrack is particularly outstanding. The list of sound design contributors consists of six people, and it’s a veritable dream team. Two of my favorite composers, Akira Yamaoka and Hirofumi Taniguchi, are on that list, alongside Michiru Amane. It’s hard to tell how much each composer contributed, and Hiroshi Kobayashi is usually named as the lead. Nonetheless, it’s a jampacked soundtrack with wall-to-wall quality. Better yet, its manic quality fits the gameplay perfectly.
What even is correct anymore?
Some people like to point at Contra 3: The Alien Wars as the pinnacle of the Contra series, but give me the absolutely batshit Contra: Hard Corps any day. I’d be saying that even if I hadn’t discovered the much more agreeable difficulty of the Japanese Mega Drive version. It’s just complete madness, and I respect that.
Contra: Hard Corps also feels extremely Sega Genesis, pushing everything that made the console unique. It’s a little ball of energy, ready to snap at your hand if you reach to touch it. It’s a congealed effort, and it’s so happy to be here it doesn’t care if it’s making a spectacle of itself. Be that spectacle, Contra: Hard Corps. Grab that blast processor by the tail and swing it around. Let’s rock!