Contra Returns doesn’t completely sacrifice its identity on mobile

Contra Returns impressions

Contra Returns impressions

I’m getting a pretty powerful sense of déjà vu playing through Contra Returns. Last month, I sat down with Mega Man X DiVE and found myself enjoying the franchise’s transition to the mobile, free-to-play format. I thought Capcom did a pretty good job of capturing the essence of Mega Man X before shackling it to the features typical of F2P games. It controls well, the characters all look wonderful, and while it didn’t provide much of a platforming challenge, the game did manage to bring about some joy on my various breaks and lunches.

I thought that might be the only free-to-play I give such praise to this year, and yet, here I am less than a month later, having nearly the exact same thoughts about Contra Returns.

Contra Returns comes to us from Konami and TiMi Studio Group, the latter of which is also behind the recently released Pokémon Unite. The game first debuted about four years ago in China and is just now reaching our shores, bringing with it a level of polish you’d hope for in a game that’s been on the market for this long. Like with Mega Man X DiVE, Contra Returns controls quite well, uses auto-aim in addition to a mostly reliable manual aim, and shows a certain level of appreciation for the franchise’s history.

The story isn’t all that special — aliens, evil soldiers, corrupt scientists — but story has never really been the draw of the series. At least not for me. I’ve more focused on the tight run ’n’ gun gameplay and the fact the franchise featured two sexy, muscular men named Bill and Lance, which together sound like escorts you’d find in the classified section in old issues of Honcho. Players start with Bill unlocked, but you’ll need to earn Lance, as well as several other characters from the franchise. Sheena from Contra: Hard Corps and Ray Poward from Contra: Legacy of War are up for grabs, as are original characters like Jean and Code 018, both of whom look like they got lost on their way to the game they’re supposed to be in and just settled on being gacha pulls here.

Each playable character can double jump and equip two guns they can alternate between in battle. Guns have a cool-down meter that needs to replenish after you’ve exhausted all its bullets, so if you’re quick enough to change out your weapon, you can keep those guns-a-blazing without stopping. Within each level, there are power-ups to unlock like the Spread Shot or Flamethrower, just as you did in the original game. But now, those abilities are also found on dedicated guns you can unlock. Each character also has two unique attacks and a shared super weapon that can be used once per level. As you should expect by now with free-to-play games, all of your heroes and weapons can be upgraded and promoted with all the shit you collect playing through the campaign and completing challenges.

And it’s clear the developers want to keep people playing for a long time. There is a solid handful of supplemental modes you unlock as you level up your profile, some of which you probably won’t get access to for several days or longer, depending on how much you play. I’m particularly fond of the One-Life Mode, which challenges players to make it as far as they can in a level without getting hit, channeling the days of Contra before everybody leaned about the Konami Code. There is a stamina meter that will limit how much you play per day, but the game is so damn generous with recharges early on that my phone actually ran out of juice before my stamina meter did.

As much fun as I’m having with it (which I’ll admit is a decent amount), some big minuses go along with all those pluses. First of all, Contra Returns has some rather bland art direction. The heroes look fine, if a bit dated, and some of the recreated boss encounters are nice, but they’re stuck in a game with incredibly generic backgrounds. As for the levels themselves, they’re brief and lack the challenge of the past 2D games. There is some variety in level type, including fast-paced auto-scrollers, but I don’t think anybody is going to go gaga over any of the stages here. There are also the requisite PvP modes that I don’t really care for and co-op modes that are fun but take too damn long to unlock.

Of course, there is also a great deal of free-to-play nonsense associated with the title. This includes a buttload of ads, a menu that feels like it was designed to confuse players, a questionable season pass, and a good amount of gacha. I would advise all players to refrain from spending money on this game until you’re absolutely sure you want to deal with all that. And even then, maybe sleep on it.

With all that in mind, I do have to say it is nice to see a free-to-play mobile app that actually looks and feels like the franchise it’s based on, even if it can’t match the exact gameplay style of its forebearers. That’s a thought that’s been on my mind following the uproar Kotaku caused recently over its coverage of XCOM Legends. The original headline to that story was certainly provocative, but the fallout following its publication proved to be worthwhile as some mobile developers took the opportunity to provide a little schooling on the reality of the business.

The truth is, concessions are made when any IP makes the jump to mobile. It’s just up to the developer and publisher to decide how many concessions they want to make. Looking at Contra Returns, it fares better than most. There are noticeable sacrifices, but a clear effort was made to retain the essence of the series and the game is better off because of it. Playing it actually feels like you’re playing a Contra game, even if it’s not quite what you remember. And until Konami gives the keys of the franchise back to WayForward Technologies to make Contra 5, that’s the best we can hope for right now.

CJ Andriessen
Just what the internet needs: yet another white guy writing about video games.