For hardcore — or Hard Corps — fans of the series, the resurgence of Contra is long overdue. After a great run on the NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis, the franchise laid low for a while as the world of videogames went three-dimensional. It wasn’t until recently that developers started making decent Contra games again, such as the 2009 WiiWare hit Contra: ReBirth.
And now Arc System Works gives us Hard Corps: Uprising, a sequel to1994’s Genesis classic Contra: Hard Corps and a true Contra game in all but name. It is everything longtime fans are looking for, though newcomers to the series will be put off by its old-school feel and insanely high difficulty.
It’s interesting how Arc updated the game without changing the basics. You still run through a set of 2D side-scrolling levels, laying waste to everything in sight with your machine gun, collecting powerups that make your weapon more useful, and taking on humongous bosses in multi-phased fights. Each screen is a carefully constructed maze of bullet hell, with enemies coming from everywhere at once. You’ll have to memorize the best way to get through each level, and this usually requires lots of precise ducking and jumping around bad guys and projectiles. Individually, the non-boss enemies are mechanical and stupid — their patterns of walking and shooting are remarkably simple — but taken as a whole, they present a daunting challenge. Two-player co-op (local or online) is available if you can’t handle them all yourself.
The controls, however, have seen a few tweaks. Most importantly, you can now double jump, dash, and deflect bullets by timing a button press correctly. These features make you a bit more nimble and the game slightly faster and more modern, though the overall clunky responsiveness of the controls is more in line with the older games in the series. From time to time, you will fail to spin around fast enough to shoot the guy approaching from behind you, even though you swear you hit the button in plenty of time. And that’s fine if you like that punitive, old-school feel.
Our one complaint about the controls is that we’d have liked the option to use a two-joystick setup, with the left joystick used for movement and the right one for shooting. With the default setup here, the left joystick controls both functions, so you have to use the trigger buttons to separate them, which is awkward. The right trigger makes you stand still, allowing you to shoot at an upward or downward angle without walking at the same time; the left trigger locks the direction your gun is pointed, allowing you to move in other directions while you’re shooting. The Contra-like (but rather easy) indie game Weapon of Choice employed the dual-joystick setup, with jumping mapped to a trigger button, and it worked quite well.
There’s also a new game mode, called Rising. Unlike Arcade mode, which plays like classic Contra — no saving, no health bar — Rising lets you take a few hits before losing a life and saves your progress after each stage. In addition, the points you earn in Rising mode can be used to purchase various upgrades to your health and weapons (for example, the Spread powerup can always start at Level 2, which fires more bullets). These make the game a little bit like an RPG; the more you grind, the more you improve your character. Fortunately, you don’t lose points when you hit the Game Over screen, and the upgrades are reasonably cheap to purchase, so troublesome levels get easier the more you try them.
Don’t think these changes make the game anything approaching “accessible,” though. The new abilities to double jump and dash are merely an excuse for the developers to make the stages tougher, and the levels are long and hard enough that it takes tons of practice to get through them, even one at a time and with a health bar. We wouldn’t have minded an infinite continues option. Even the comparatively easy first stage took us several tries (and many, many curse words directed at the too-infrequent checkpoints) to conquer; the eight total stages can easily average more than an hour of work apiece, all considered. We frankly can’t even imagine how someone could get through the game in Arcade mode, with one hit per life, starting all the way from the beginning whenever their continues ran out.
The graphics are a departure for the series, shunning the somewhat gritty look of the older games in favor of a colorful 2.5-D world, which isn’t surprising given that Arc is the developer that brought us BlazBlue. The visual style is certainly interesting, but we found it a little too light and cartoonish for an action title. We’d have preferred something truer to the series’ history.
The sound, unfortunately, is a low point for the game. For music, there are rock versions of classic Contra tunes, but the recordings sound overly hyper and synthetic, as though they were recorded for a corporate-training video or Saturday-morning cartoon in the 1990s. The voice acting is annoying, with repetitive groans whenever an enemy dies and overused dialogue clips.
All in all, because of the difficulty, we suggest that those uninitiated to Contra stay away from Uprising unless they’re really up for a challenge. Despite the improvements, many aspects of the gameplay are still antiquated, and without a soft spot for Contra in your heart to keep you going, there’s little chance you’ll see this tough-as-nails title through to the end. Try Weapon of Choice instead for a far more bearable, if also shorter, side-scrolling action experience.
However, Hard Corps: Uprising is a love letter to Contra fans, a distillation of everything they love about the series augmented by some control and visual updates. If you have a history with the franchise, a hankering for explosive 2D action, and a whole lot of patience, it’s a great buy for your $15.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 3.2 Graphics
The art style is interesting, but it’s a little too cartoonish for Contra. 4.1 Control
They’re true to the series’ roots, but we would have liked to see a dual-joystick option. 2.3 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The music is cheesy, and the dialog clips are annoying and repetitive. 4.3 Play Value
Thanks to the intense challenge, the eight stages take hours to work through. 3.8 Overall Rating – Good
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend|
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid||2.5 – 2.9 = Average||3.5 – 3.9 = Good||4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy|
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor||3.0 – 3.4 = Fair||4.0 – 4.4 = Great||5.0 = The Best|