Konami is seriously on a roll this year when it comes to handheld games. Sure, their booth at Comic Con last week centered on high-profile demo areas for the new Dance Dance Revolution, Karaoke Revolution, Dewey's Adventure for the Wii, and other big box console titles. But the games on the small screen were the ones that really impressed me.
Konami must be awfully confident in this DS version of their venerable sidescolling shooter. This is not "Contra DS" or "Contra: Portable Ops." This is Contra friggin' 4, no handheld subtitle required. They're putting it down as properly-numbered entry, Dragon Warrior IX style. And with good reason. Judging by the most excellent demo, Contra is back with a vengeance.
The game's visuals are in the grand old-school tradition of the NES original, evoking the look and feel of the classic while fleshing things out with DS-calibur 2D sprite detail and animation. The opening stage of the demo is very similar to that of the first game's, with our hero running and gunning across a series of grass-covered hills above the water. You still take aim at nondescript mercenary-types and steel turrets, pausing to shoot weapon powerups whenever they fly by. The two main characters still look like Ahnold & Sly.
But along with all these touches of nostalgia, there are also a lot of welcome updates to the game conventions. The two screens give this installment of Contra more vertical space to play with than ever, and it makes for increased depth in gameplay (no pun intended). Mastering muti-directional jump-shooting is now a must to hit those pesky turrets way above or below you—for some logic-defying reason, your soldier can only aim straight up or down while flip-jumping. Taking a page from Capcom's NES classic, Bionic Commando, an all-new grappling hook feature makes speeding across all that vertical space a breeze. And for the first time, you can hold more than one weapon, with two slots available if you just can't stand to give up the spread gun but still need that fire ball.
Overall, this looks like one of the strongest Contra games in years, a real effort to return to the series' roots, but not without appreciated refinements. There's even a rumored two-player co-op mode via local area wi-fi. The one-hit kills can be a bit unforgiving for gamers who've forgotten how tough the NES game could be at times, but it seems like a "just one more try" type of challenge that will prove fun more often than frustrating. This is shaping up to be an awesome entry in a classic series, and a must-play for 2D shooter fans.
Dracula X Chronicles
The legendary Castlevania game Dracula X: Rondo of Blood finally makes its way to these shores as a PSP remake. Since its 1993 release as a Japan-only title for the PC Engine CD, "Rondo" has been considered by many fans of the series to be the finest example of old-school Castlevania, when players guided a Belmont from level to level instead of freely moving through a huge castle in the more modern "Metroidvania" style. Dracula X does feature multiple paths through each stage, so in a way it's the best of both worlds. Some purists consider it to be the best Castlevania ever made, period. Based on what was shown in the Comic Con demo, I can see why.
The opening level title is "Dinner of Flames," as Richter Belmont strolls through a countryside ravaged by wildfires. Could've been set in Southern California this year if you ask me. Anyway, as he proceeds from the field into a castle (what else?), bats, ghouls, and other creatures of the night pop up to be whipped into submission. The graphics are glorious 2.5D, locked to a horizontal plane, but modeled fully in polygons, not sprites. This gives the backgrounds a nice dimension of depth and a solid, smooth weight to the enemy animations. In screenshots and trailers I thought the art style appeared a little too "CG" to be true to Castlevania, but in person it looked great running on the PSP. Mainstay enemies like the mermen have never looked better as they float along through translucent water before bursting out to attack.
Weapons and movement are done old school style, you won't find any dashes or soul collecting magic here. Besides the trusty whip, it's just the familiar daggers, boomerang, holy water, and other sub weapons. Richter stolidly plods along, smashing foes in his way and collecting hearts. You have to press up to climb ladders again, like in the NES days. There's something refreshing about the simplicity. And though Richter moves slower than Alucard or Soma Cruz, the PSP controls are very responsive and seamless. The third attack option is the "item crash," a special move that sends a barrage of your current sub weapon at the enemy, using up a slew of hearts. This comes in very handy for boss battles. And after the one-hit deaths of Contra, I was glad to see Richter sporting a decent-sized life bar.
Speaking of boss battles, the first stage ends in a confrontation with a flying dragon, intro'ed by a nice little cutscene of it swooping down from the sky for a Richter-snack. Instead I fed it a Dinner of Axes. After clearing the stage, bonus points are awarded for remaining life and hearts. It feels great to play a new (or remade) Castlevania with points AND levels again. The second stage, a romp through a cemetery and cathedral overrun by hellspawn, is called "God, Grant Me Strength." At this point, I realized I had to buy the game to see the stage titles alone.