Contra 4 serves as an homage to the Contra franchise as a whole, as well as a reminder of a time when the difficulty of a game was borne more of memorization and reflexes than of complex control schemes and open-ended level design. While it probably won’t be appealing to casual game fans or those gamers that don’t remember anything before the PlayStation, it clearly wasn’t intended for those players to begin with. Aside from being an extremely difficult Contra game in its own right, it also contains two other classic games from the series, as well as a host of other unlockable content intended to make the package serve as an anniversary presentation of the franchise as a whole.
The game is anachronistically unforgiving, and like many games from the era of the original Contra, much of its replayability stems from its difficulty. Games of that time were able to be slowly mastered through repeated play and lighting-fast finger speeds. The chances of making it through one of those games without dying on the first play-through were slim to none. Titles like Ghosts and Goblins and Ninja Gaiden, then, presented a sort of difficulty that, while extremely demanding, was what offered those games longevity to begin with.
Given that Contra 4 so adoringly tries to recreate the experience of the first few games in the series, analyzing the design can really only be done insofar as discussing whether or not it still holds up in the current gaming landscape. The thing is, many games of that era do hold up, simply due to the fact that without the technological ability for the games to be long or the graphics photorealistic, focus was necessarily placed on the fundamentals of game design. Contra 4 excels, then, by using a tried and true formula, proving that that formula is not yet obsolete in this day and age.
Another point this brings up is in the appropriation of classic properties and characters into new game types. By and large, and with the notable example of the first-party Nintendo franchises, the transition of classic games to new, three-dimensional presentations has been a rather rocky road. Contra itself has seen more than its fair share of stumbles. As such, it’s refreshing, as a fan, to see another installment in what is likely the original vision of the game.
Explosions, giant bugs, and power-ups with wings. It’s
Multiplayer is really where the Contra games shine, and Contra 4 is no exception. Being able to coordinate with a friend, having them cover one part of the screen while you cover another is invaluable. Power-ups are either haggled over or divided equitably. And once a player runs out of lives, they can steal one from the surviving member of the team, either with or without consent. It’s unfortunate that multiplayer was excluded from the unlockable ports of Contra and Super C, since they were certainly made more fun with another player as well.
One of the only strikes against Contra 4 has to do entirely with the platform it’s on. Because of the gap between the screens on the Nintendo DS, it can be very difficult to be constantly aware of bullets that need to be avoided. Tracking them between the screens while trying to survive the already hectic gameplay is a burden that should not have to be shouldered. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good way around it. Given the nature of Contra, it certainly couldn’t have used an additional screen for a map or tacked-on touch screen controls or anything. Still, it does have a negative impact on the gameplay.
It will be interesting to see if the games industry is starting to run out of classics to update or revive, in the same way that the comic book industry is clearly starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel as it continues its foray into Hollywood. There are a few properties that seem ripe for such treatment, but if Contra represents a gaming formula that still bears entertaining fruit 20 years later, what properties are being developed now that will be able to do the same in the future? That question seems especially relevant given that we seem to be approaching some sort of asymptotic return as far as hardware is concerned. If the previous point about successful and entertaining games needing to have solid fundamental design given the limitations of the hardware holds true, it stands to reason that something similar will happen when graphics, for example, have gotten pretty close to as good as they’re going to get. In any case, Contra as it existed then and as it exists now is a very challenging and entertaining experience.