E3 2007: Hands-on with Contra 4

I thought there wasn’t much more I could say about the upcoming Contra 4, having already posted screenshots (OMG!) and first gameplay footage (ZOMG!) of the game a couple of weeks ago.

Well, gosh be darned, I just got to actually play the thing and there is no way I am just going to sit back with my own, private thoughts about the game. I have to express my feelings to the world!

So, what’s the verdict? Did my over-hyping of the highly anticipated sequel ruin the experience for me, or did I infuriate Konami by salivating all over the Nintendo DS they let me borrow to play the game (here’s a hint: Niero, I told them to bill you for the damages)?

Hit the jump for the full report.

Unfortunately, only the first level was available to play, but, boy, was it one magnificent experience!

Just like the original, Contra 4’s first level takes place in an enemy-filled jungle, complete with waist-deep water and multiple, man-made bridges. As the game begins, a helicopter lowers your main character above the trees, dropping you right into the fray.

The first thing I noticed about Contra 4 was how truly old-school it really feels. Honestly, it is just like playing the classic games in the series (except with some updated, very slick animation).

Controls are completely mapped to the d-pad and buttons, so there are no pointless touch-screen antics to deal with (well, at least not in the parts that I played). Just fire with the “Y” button and jump with the “B” button.

Quickly into the opening stage, the classic Red Falcon-shaped gun power-ups slowly sneak on to the screen (and, yeah, I swooned a little). Borrowing a page from Contra III: The Alien Wars, in this sequel, you can carry two different weapons at once (by easily switching back and forth with the “L” trigger).

In an effort to take this game to the next level, though, now you have the ability to upgrade each individual gun (rather than just getting a new one). Basically, what I mean is this: say you have the Machine Gun equipped (an “M” for those not familiar with the cool Contra lingo) and you pick up another Machine Gun along the way — instead of the “M” being a waste and not doing anything (like in the old games), your Machine Gun is actually upgraded to a more powerful version that utilizes massive, screen-filling bullets (and sports a fancy blue icon in the HUD, as opposed to the traditional red).

What makes this feature even cooler is that these upgrades don’t take up both gun slots in your inventory. Technically, this means that you can carry around two upgraded guns at one time. Since a huge part of the fun I had with the game today was just finding out what the classic Contra weapons would do once upgraded, I will save you the spoilers. I will say this, though: having an upgraded Spread Gun is pretty much the greatest thing ever. You thought the old Spread Gun was a hot commodity? There is going to be a lot of (probably not friendly) two-player competition once that “S” floats on the screen in this new game.

Another new addition to this Contra game is the ability to use a grappling hook at any time. By just pressing the “X” button, your character will shoot a grappling hook straight into the air. If it hits a surface that can be latched on to, the grappling hook will immediately pull you in the air and safely place you on the higher platform. Granted, because it can only be shot straight up, the mechanic is not as deep as something like Bionic Commando, but it adds so much to an already awesome game and also makes traveling between the top and bottom screens of the DS a whole lot easier.

That being said, though, since only the first level was shown, who knows, maybe the grappling hook will be used in even more creative ways than just to move up and down (hanging under a boss, perhaps?)?

Another great feature in Contra 4 is the ability to ride vehicles. However, at least during the first stage, riding these vehicles is completely optional. At one point in the jungle you encounter a huge tank that is actually suspended on rails above you (filling the top screen). As you fight through the level on the bottom screen, the tank shoots these giant lasers at you. Keep in mind, you have to avoid pits and incoming enemies while you are also dodging the tank’s fire, so this section is challenging, to say the least.

With the support of the Konami representative, I decided to stand my ground and actually fight the tank, rather than just keep running and avoiding its lasers (which is the easier option). After a tough battle, I finally destroyed the tank … but instead of a dramatic explosion, the driver simply ejected, leaving the machine empty. Using my grappling hook, I grabbed on to the tank and pulled myself into the driver’s seat. At this point, I had full control of the tank and could avoid a huge section of bottomless pits and enemies just by riding the tank until the rails holding it up ended (and, of course, I could shoot the devastating lasers at the helpless soldiers below).

I have to admit, I had no idea I could get into the tank until my new Konami B.F.F. let me know, but that is what made the game even cooler. Hopefully all the levels in the game will be sprinkled with these kinds of rewarding secrets.

Once I made it to the end of the level, my character was, of course, confronted by a huge boss. Actually, it was the exact same boss from the original Contra (the big fortress with two gun turrets and a weak point at its base). Even the two raised platforms in front of the classic boss make a grand return.

Defeating the boss was pretty easy, since I easily knew the techniques needed to destroy it. But this time, right as the core was exploding, the fortress actually rose up out of the ground, displaying an even more massive fortress underneath (with multiple, moving cores).

Right when I got my fingers ready for an epic battle, the demo ended, leaving me wanting so much more (I think I may have even cursed in front of the Konami guys once the screen unexpectedly went black – nobody takes away my Contra!).

Needless to say, the experience was completely retro and pretty much perfect. But the good news did not end after the demo faded out, oh no. Before I walked away I asked the Konami reps some questions about Contra 4, including how many levels there would be. After answering with an expected, but still kind of disappointing, low number of nine, he also added that three of those levels would be classic “tunnel” levels like in the first game.

Yeah, let me give you all a moment to let that retro-tastic awesomeness sink in. The behind-the-character, pseudo 3D tunnel levels from the original Contra are coming back! I had not read or heard this anywhere, so let’s just pretend (for my sake) that you are hearing it here first.

Not only is this exciting news for retro fans like myself, but, using the new technology of the DS, you can pretty much bet that these levels will look great (I am guessing smooth, forward motion and maybe even some clever touch-screen implementation).

Even though I was surrounded by all the flashy, next-gen games on the conference floor, I was almost mesmerized by the old-school loveliness of Contra 4 more than anything else. It offers such a sweet trip down memory lane while still providing some really challenging, really fun gameplay. Just from the little time I had with the game, I cannot recommend it enough. October 15 (confirmed when I asked about a release date) cannot come soon enough.

Chad Concelmo