Almost fifteen years ago, Konami brought an arcade action game home to the Nintendo Entertainment System. Featuring hand-drawn sprites, interchangeable power-ups, and a balanced challenge, Contra became a subject of video game lore. Konami would follow up Contra with four console sequels during the 8- and 16-bit generations. All turned out well with the same formula, minus the forgettable Contra Force. Super C in 1990, The Alien Wars in 1992, and Hard Corps in 1994 are all remembered at or near the top of the action heap on their respective systems. Konami was unquestionably the king of the genre, with Contra and Castlevania being as sure a bet in the early 1990s as the Dallas Cowboys.
Things change. Contra would return to the console world in 1996 and 1997 with Legacy of War on the PlayStation and Saturn. However, if the word were not on the packaging, on the disc, and on the title screen, no one would have believed that this was of the same pedigree as its predecessors. To be frank, Appaloosa Interactive should have been forcefully disbanded after dragging the Contra name through the mud not once but twice with Legacy of War and The Contra Adventure.
To add insult to injury, Contra’s decline coincided with the release of a new high-water mark in the run-’n’-gun genre, Nazca’s Metal Slug. That game and its sequels have taken everything that the Contra franchise did well and did it better. No longer were the old Contra games the best of the best, and their newborn brothers were laughable.
Fast-forward five years. Konami seeks to recapture lost glory with the release of Contra: Shattered Soldier on Sony’s PlayStation 2. In search of the successful formula of the past, the developers brought back the 2 or 2.5D gameplay. The vast majority of Shattered Soldier is spent heading left to right, either on foot or on a vehicle of some sort. This should be a breath of fresh air to anyone who saw through the ridiculous Mode-7 demo in The Alien Wars and the horror that was vertical scrolling in the PS1 mistakes.
The graphics, however, are a mixed bag. Gone is the wonderful hand-drawn art of the 16-bit era. In its place are polygons, animals that have no business ever appearing in a Contra game, or any other 2D game for that matter. This offense may have been forgivable had the polygonal graphics pushed the envelope of the PlayStation 2. They don’t. Contra could easily pass for a first-generation PS2 game, complete with rough edges and low polygon counts in the enemy models. This is not to say that the game is horribly unsightly, only that more should be expected if the trade-off is losing Contra’s sprite-filled history.
Shattered Soldier’s aural attributes also have their ups and downs. The music basically follows the 1980s speed metal theory that louder and faster is better. It was a flawed concept then, and it continues to be now. The video game tunes that stay with you have melodies that can be hummed. Konami knew this at some point, because the Castlevania series brought the industry songs like Bloody Tears and Requiem for the Nameless Victim. Even if the titles are not familiar, the tunes are to action gamers the world over.
Thankfully, the sound effects fit much better than the music. Enemies transform, bombs explode, and creatures shriek, and they all sound exactly as one would imagine they should had one ever been given the opportunity to witness Transformers hunt aliens first-hand. Many games give players the options to turn up the sound effects and to turn down the music. In Contra, those options are worth using.
In case the polygons and speed metal threw someone off, the difficulty may bring back memories of Hard Corps, perhaps the most appropriately titled game of them all. On the default “Normal” difficulty, Shattered Soldier gives the player three lives and three continues. While eventually this will become adequate to finish the game, that time is a long way and a lot of attempts away.
Contra is likely the toughest game on the PlayStation 2. It opens with four levels, which can be completed in any order. Completing those will open up a fifth level. Finally, achieving certain rankings on the levels will make a sixth and seventh level available. Only the best of the best will see and complete all Contra has to offer.
The question is why are rankings necessary to see the whole game? Rating the way levels are completed is a flaw in video games. It has been in NiGHTS. It was in GunGrave. It continues to be in Contra. In fact, Shattered Soldier rewards inefficiency. If the player kills certain bosses the quickest and most effective way, his hit rate will suffer, causing him to never see the last two levels of the game. If this doesn’t make any sense, then you were paying attention. If it does, see a shrink. The last time gross inefficiency was rewarded this much was in the 1996 Presidential Election.
It is often said that a game is greater than the sum of its parts, and this over-used thought is true of Contra as well. All of the above nit-picking aside, Shattered Soldier is one of the better action games available for any of the current consoles. While it does not measure up to its own history or to the current genre champ, Metal Slug, Contra will challenge the best players without frustrating them. That is worth a lot in this reviewer’s book, as it is what action games are all about.
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· · · Yoshi