The Contra series holds a special place in my heart. I have been hooked on the series ever since the first game launched in arcades back in 1987. My childhood is filled with fond memories of playing cooperative with my older brother at both the local 7-11 and Aladdin’s Castle (complete with an Orange Julius next door). Since it’s original launch, Konami has the ported the game and its many successors to nearly every platform imaginable. The latest title in the series, despite its lack of the 'Contra’ name, brings the action to a new generation of gamers and truly breaks the mold Konami built for the franchise.
Konami has been handing off the development of Contra titles to various developers over the past decade to groups who have added their own personal twists and takes on the games. The latest selection may have been the most surprising both in terms of the studio selected and what they managed to produce. For the development of Hard Corps: Uprising, Konami handed the reigns to Arc System Works (ASW). Arc is perhaps best known for their recent work on the BlazBlue and Guilty Gear series, though their resume includes numerous other titles dating all the way back to 1990. ASW decided to take the world of Contra and give it their own artistic spin, including fully animated, Anime-style cutscenes and incredibly detailed, hand-drawn animations and graphics. They managed to take all of the classic run and gun action of the previous 12 games and present it in an amazing fashion that is sure to please gamers young and old.
Hard Corp: Uprising is a direct prequel to the classic Sega Genesis title Contra: Hard Corps. The original title, perhaps best known for its unrelenting difficulty, truly set the standard for the series and remains one of the best games in the lineage to date. Players take controller of one of two soldiers, Bahamut and Krystal, as members of a resistance fighting against the oppression of the Commonwealth and its vicious leader, Tiberius. Bahamut, who was actually the boss of the Genesis game, is a former Commonwealth soldier who saw the light when he witnessed Commonwealth squads mercilessly executing innocents in the various villages and towns. The same story applies to Krystal who witnessed the devastation of the squads in her home town. Both characters turned to the cause of the dwindling resistance in order to try and make a difference. Sure enough, their dedication drove them to the top of the ranks where they are spear-heading a last ditch effort to to take back their world.
While the game may not look or be titled as a traditional Contra, as soon as players pick up the controller and start firing bullets the pedigree will be clear. Uprising brings everything that fans know, and perhaps even hate, from the Hard Corps game back in spades. The game is filled with non-stop run and gun action, an assortment of powered up weapons, and an unrelenting difficulty sure to send the most seasoned gamer into a fit of rage. Players are given two modes of play: Arcade and Rising. The Arcade mode is the series’ staple run “run through a set number of levels with 3 lives and a couple of continues”. This is the classic gameplay that brought fans running to the titles back in the 80‘s and will likely bring those same fans back today. New fans to the series may find this mode lacking in its offering but it pays homage to the pedigree in a manner that will undoubtedly be appreciated by old fans.
Throughout the adventure, players will battle endless waves of enemy troops across a wide variety of environments. Every stage has its own unique setting, complete with full animated backdrops and multiple, large scale boss fights. The variety of enemy changes as much as the scenery does, as each board features numerous unique enemy designs that suit their setting. Just like the Contra games of old, players will want to keep an eye out for the occasional power up container flying across the screen; shooting one down will award them with an upgrade to their gun. All of the classic gun variations are here including the machine gun, spread, flamethrower, and laser rifles... as well as a few others which fit right in with the classic arsenal. You can stock up to two separate gun types on your character and alternate between them with the press of a button. In vintage gameplay style, one shot from the enemy will reduce your weapon back to the standard rifle which, while effective, is horrible compared to the stronger firepower in the game. It is also possible to power up your weapons by collecting multiple power ups of the same type; collecting a second machine gun power will increase your weapon’s level and allow it to fire more bullets which are faster and stronger.
I really like the limitation of two weapons as it creates a great gameplay aspect of properly managing your inventory. This becomes even more important when playing cooperatively with a friend, which is available both online and off. Everyone is sure to find their favorite guns in the game and gravitate to them whenever they are offered. When you combine the classic limitations of a set amount of lives and continues with the ruthless challenge of the game, you will find one of the most frustrating gaming experiences of your life. This game is hard. You will die and you will be set back on your journey numerous times in Arcade mode. The game’s checkpoint system leaves a lot to be desired and only furthers the frustration experienced by making you replay difficult mid-boss battles thanks to cheap deaths and unforgiving action. I found it to be practically rage-inducing at times, but then again, that is sort of how Contra has always been.
Thankfully, ASW recognizes just how frustrating the game can be and has created the Rising Mode to ease the frustration of players. Rising Mode allows players to accumulate points as they play the game which can be spent to power up their character(s) to make them more effective and better suited for the challenge. You will play through the exact same stages that appear in the Arcade Mode but are offered a chance to swing the tide of battle into your direction with improvements to your character(s). Every single enemy that you kill and checkpoint that you reach will net you points which you will spend in the in-game shop. There is plenty to buy and if you manage to acquire all of the upgrades offered, you will have one hell of a soldier on your hand that will cut through the competition like a hot knife through butter. Upgrades available in the store included things like stronger weapons, additional lives and character health, and even physical abilities which make your soldier more capable on the battlefield.
While Contra-purists may not appreciate the resulting gameplay after the numerous upgrades are applied, action game fans in general will bask in the insane action create dance your character is capable of reflecting bullets towards enemies while bounding over obstacles and dashing through the air. It takes quite a while to not only acquire a wealth of upgrades, but to master the various techniques and abilities opened up to you over time. As you learn them though, the fun factor of the game begins to rise steadily as the difficulty level decreases.
The game is meant to be played over and over and over again, which is something that may not appeal to the modern gamer. As modern as this game looks, the gameplay harkens back to the classic days of video games when titles were played repetitively and retained their charm with each and every replay. That old school charm is wrapped up with a sleek, new-school visual style and a rocking soundtrack that is as frantic and moving as the action. If you have played any of ASW’s recent games, you will be familiar with the work of Daisuke Ishiwatari who composed the score for Uprising. Ishiwatari also scored the various Guilty Gear and BlazBlue titles.
Hard Corp: Uprising sets a new standard for the aging franchise. Konami and ASW have managed to take everything that made the original titles great and make it “modern enough to stand up (technically speaking) against the competition in today’s market. Be warned though, this game isn’t for everyone; there is a part of me that almost wants to classify fans of the this game as masochists as the difficulty can be that brutal. Those who choose to join the fight are in for one hell of a battle but also a whole lot of fun. I truly hope that this is just the beginning of a major resurgence for the franchise and look forward to more punishment like this.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Hard Corps: Uprising is a treat for fans of the original Contra series. The game pays homage to the older titles in the series while making its own mark with modern additions and improvements. Expect a challenge though as the difficulty level of the game has been turned up to eleven. As long as you know what you are in for going in, you should be thoroughly happy enlisting for this battle...