So you just released the biggest, loudest, most violent action game the world has ever seen on your brand new next generation game console. You know you need to keep the ultra-violent mood alive at any cost, so what are you going to do? If you're Microsoft you pair their newest action game, Gears of War, with one of the best-loved shooters ever conceived. That's right; you release Contra on the Xbox Live Arcade.
Contra is one of Konami's most beloved franchises; it's been around for nearly twenty years and has spawned countless sequels. Gamers old enough to remember the 1980s still have fond memories of this action game, it's the type of game you never get sick of, no matter how many time you've played it. And it's not just popular; it also spawned countless copycat games, including Data East's Midnight Resistance and SNK's Metal Slug series.
Unfortunately the version of Contra found on the Xbox Live Arcade is not the same Contra most people know and love. This is not a port of the classic NES Contra that is still considered one of the greatest action games of the 8-bit era. This is the arcade version of Contra, a slightly different game that looks better but isn't as much fun as you might think. That's not to say you won't have a good time playing Contra on your Xbox 360, but fans expecting to relive their youth will no doubt be disappointed by this arcade port.
In case you have no idea what Contra is all about, it's basically a two-player action game where you control either Lance or Bill as they take on hordes of aliens looking to destroy Earth. As an NES game Contra was a lengthy battle between good and evil; many consider it one of the hardest 2D action games ever created. As an arcade game Contra wasn't nearly as long or hard, and certainly didn't feel like a complete package when put up against the console port. There's a reason most people remember the NES version of the game and not the arcade original, and you'll see the problems the moment you turn this Xbox 360 game on and start killing aliens.
The first thing you will notice is that the button placement seems a bit wonky. While it's something you can get used to, the button layout in Contra just feels wrong and there's no way to change it. It's also worth mentioning that neither the D-pad nor the analog stick work especially well for this type of game, it just has a floaty sensation that is nothing like the NES cart. None of these problems are deal breakers, but they are really just the start of what can only be described as a mediocre Xbox Live Arcade product.
The game is split up into a few different 2D levels where you run from the left side of the screen to the right while dodging slow moving bullets and shooting everything that is on the screen. In between these levels you will run into these weird stages that are in something of a faux-3D. Instead of firing left and right, these 3D levels have you firing into the screen while enemies storm your location and barrels try to trip you up. Regardless of its camera perspective, Contra's levels are extremely short, which means that the game itself is extremely short.
The fun of Contra was that you could bring a friend along and play two players cooperatively at the exact same time. Thankfully Konami kept that option intact on the Xbox 360 … but not without a few major problems. The offline mode is pretty much exactly what you would expect, it's two players ganging up against the aliens in hopes of finishing the game before they run out of continues. But not everything works as promised, for one thing when one player dies they have to wait until the other player loses before they can continue. What's even stranger is that the "Press Start" reminder is constantly blinking at the top of the screen while you wait for your friend to die. It seems like you should be able to continue at any time, but Contra isn't interested in making the two-player experience user friendly.
As is true with most Xbox Live Arcade titles, Contra can be played with friends over the internet. In theory that sounds like a lot of fun, who can resist a quick game of two-player Contra? But the online support in this game is just a mess, to the point where it's practically unplayable. The game has more than its share of strange kinks it needs to work out, including a major problem where players become out of sync and end up seeing two completely different things while they play. If a game gets disconnected one of the characters on screen will start to do all kinds of crazy things, like jumping around and generally act nutty. Needless to say, this kind of problem keeps the online mode from being enjoyable. Sadly this didn't happen just once or twice, this problem plagued every online game I tried. Hopefully there will be some kind of patch, but really this game should not have shipped (or been uploaded) in its current state.
The game does boast a few superficial upgrades that you will probably not even notice. Microsoft advertises this product as featuring "enhanced graphics", but the only thing that is really different is the smoke and bullet effects. Otherwise the game looks exactly like it did twenty years ago in the arcade. The music also received an upgrade, but unlike the graphics you will probably notice the different music. There's nothing technically wrong with the music, but when the upgraded tunes are the best part of your game you know that you're in for a rough time.
And then there are the achievement points. All Xbox Live Arcade games are supposed to offer 200 points, and Contra does not disappoint. Some of the achievements are for doing basic things, like beating the first level or killing a boss. But other achievements are a bit tougher, like trying to beat the game on one continue or finishing the game in less than 12 minutes. There are a couple of online achievement points too, but beating the game with an online friend will drive you insane if you continue to be disconnected. Most Contra fans will be able to get most of these points in only a few times through the game. Once you've picked up all 200 points it's hard to justify playing the game again, even if you're the biggest Contra fan on the planet.
The good news is that Contra is only 400 Microsoft points (which is $5), so it's not like you're going to break the bank when it comes to buying this game. But then, if you're going to spend the money to buy an Xbox Live Arcade game you might as well spend a little extra and buy something that isn't fundamentally broken. Perhaps it's time to give Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 a try, or maybe see why everybody loves Geometry Wars. Whatever you do, don't make the mistake that this is the NES Contra you remember from your childhood. This is not the classic everybody loves; this is a broken arcade port that is only fun for a few minutes.