The first Contra game is fondly remembered for many reasons. The bizarre amalgam of Vietnam-era commando imagery melded with an alien invasion was certainly memorable. The cooperative 2-player wherein it was possible to dip into your partners pool of lives to resurrect yourself from the dead was a fun gameplay mechanic. Of course, the Konami code, which was actually introduced in Gradius, was arguably made iconic in gaming history via Contra, a game nearly impossible to defeat without the 30 lives that it granted. Contra didn’t originate the run-and-gun or bullet hell subgenres, but it certainly was influential entry to both.
While the series’s glory days were undoubtedly on the NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis, it was revitalized by Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS. Coming at a time when nostalgia for the relentlessly difficult platform and action games of earlier console generations was rising, Contra 4 successfully renewed excitement about the property among fans. Contra ReBirth for the Wii, the series’ first downloadable installment, continued this trend. Hard Corps: Uprising, a prequel to the well regarded 1994 Contra: Hard Corps for the Sega Genesis, brings the Contra formula to the PSN and XBLA, and it’s largely a successful effort, though some of its quirks do take some getting used to.
What strikes the player first about Hard Corps: Uprising is the art style. The opening cinematic sets the stage for an anime-style approach to the game’s design, but it’s difficult to fully appreciate how well that it’s realized until you see the game in motion. The experience of playing the game is very much that of controlling an action cartoon. It’s an interesting choice, since having this style of game presented as a cartoon seems, on paper, like something much more associated with the Metal Slug series. But where Metal Slug’s art design wears a sense of humor on its sleeve, Hard Corps: Uprising takes itself seriously in a perfect, over-the-top, 1980s-cartoon kind of way. The animation is absolutely gorgeous, not surprising since developer Arc System Works was behind the BlazBlue and Guilty Gear series, both known for stunning 2D animation.
Despite the visual overhaul, Hard Corps: Uprising is immediately recognizable as a Contra game, from the moment the shredding guitar version of the start screen jingle first plays. Gameplay is characterized by moving from left to right, shooting anything that moves, with the ability to aim in any direction. Power ups fly across the top of the screen in little capsules that inexplicably travel along a sine wave. Any Contra fan will crack a grin the first time that the spread gun makes an appearance. Hard Corps: Uprising also features both local and online co-op, an absolute necessity for the full Contra experience.
The musical portion of the soundtrack is outstanding overall. The arrangements are actually very reminiscent of the style of cult gaming band, The Minibosses. The audio production, as a whole, however is somewhat uneven. The voice acting is certainly over the top, but it seems unfair to paint this as a negative when cheesiness in other aspects of the game is welcome. However, some of the sound effects, particularly the frequent enemy death squawks, start out as repetitive before continuing onto (and completely overshooting) grating.
The most welcome addition to the Contra formula comes in the form of “Rising” mode, an RPG-esque affair that allows players to level up weapons and unlock additional moves, characters, lives and other upgrades using points accrued through previous play. These RPG-style mechanics make the game much more approachable to newcomers. The game also features an “Arcade” mode which is much more similar to the classic Contra presentation in terms of difficulty, but players will likely spend a lot of time in “Rising” mode, getting used to the game’s physics and boss patterns before making any real headway in “Arcade” mode.
Some of the gameplay mechanics certainly take some getting used to in order to take full advantage of the player’s updated arsenal. Double jumps, dashes, and reflections certainly change the tactics of the game, but many of these tricks are largely ignorable, making them seem like well intentioned yet shallow attempts to make Hard Corps: Uprising feel more different from other entries in the Contra> series than it really is.
Overall, Hard Corps: Uprising offers a fresh take on the Contra series, bringing the challenging, 2D, run-and-gun gameplay that the series in known for, wrapped in a gorgeous new package, and with enough new mechanics to alter gameplay tactics. It’s certainly not the level of reinvention that Namco brought to the table with successive, brilliant iterations of Pacman: Championship Edition, but it does well by the legacy of the series. Hard Corps: Uprising seems positioned to be the beginning of an all new franchise, however, and it will be interesting to see where Konami takes it from here.