Contra Hard Corps (Sega Genesis, Konami, 1994)
It saddens me that whenever anybody talks about Contra, they speak highly of the first two on NES, and Contra III on Super Nintendo, and most of the time, it stops there. The Sega Genesis Contra game is among my favorite games ever. Contra Hard Corps is basically a textbook and how to make a truly amazing action game. This game is so phenomenal in every way. It’s a bit of a departure from the normal Contra game, and turned up to 11. It currently has a Metacritic score of 96%, so if you think I don’t know what I’m talking about, then just consider that. In Europe, Contra games were censored by replacing the main human characters and most of the humanoid enemies with robots and the game was referred to as Probotector.
First off, you (and a buddy if, unlike me, you have friends) choose between four characters. Ray and Sheena play more like standard Contra characters, but Fang is a cybernetic humanoid wolf, and Browny is a tiny robot with the ability to double jump. Fang also has SUNGLASSES. Deal with it. It’s one thing to be a werewolf with a gatling gun for an arm, but damn dude, sunglasses. Fang is by the far strongest, but seems to be the least agile and slowest. Browny is tiny and nimble, but has the weakest weapons. Ray and Sheena are boring old humans with weapons most similar to the past Contra titles, which are typically awesome, so it’s not a problem.
The controls are super tight in this game, which would ruin the experience if they weren’t. A game this insane must be as responsive as possible, or else it would be unplayable. In Hard Corps, A switches between weapons, B shoots, and C jumps. However, if you are shooting and press A, you switch between Shot I and shot II. Shot I allows you to run and shoot at the same time, while Shot II keeps you in place and lets you shoot in eight directions. It’s a very useful feature.
It’s been my experience that something that starts off with a bang does a better job at holding peoples’ attention. That’s why horror movies start off with somebody getting killed and martial arts films start off with some kind of fight. They set up what you can expect to see for the next hour and a half. Contra Hard Corps does the same thing, litterally throwing you into the fray right off the bat. Seriously, your car slams into a bunch of robots destroying the city and you’re launched out of the windshield, guns blazing. It never slows down from there. Halfway through the first level you fight a robot that, when defeated slams into and levels a building, that you then scale to fight the first real mini boss. By mini boss, I mean a cyclopean robot that’s destroying the city in the background, then leaps to the foreground to fight you. It shoots laser beams from its eye and leans down to throw cars at you. This game is so adept at making it seem like you’re fighting against truly impossible odds, when really most of the time it’s just things blowing up around you. It builds up this amazing illusion of a threat that’s more flair than anything. This isn’t to say that the game is easy, not by a long shot. It wouldn’t be a Contra if it was easy.
Another great feature of this game is the branching levels. There are a few instances where you have to choose what direction to go in. It keeps the game interesting and makes it worth playing through several times. One of the more interesting branches is a secret in the third level. There is a door you’re supposed to shoot down, OR you can climb the wall to be greeted by a man in a top hat. He asks if you want to join the battle game. Saying no puts you right back on track to play the rest of the game. However, if you say yes, you’re treated to one of the strangest video game experiences I’ve ever seen. You fight a trio of bad guys starting with…. Simon Belmont from Castlevania? Kind of? He seems to have an afro, cyborg parts, he throws fish at you like a boomerang, and has a guitar or something on his back. After you blow up his head and then murder the rest of his body, you fight a gigantic zombie with another monster in what looks like a shopping cart. Third is a brain that teleports around the stage and shoots spikes and energy balls at you. Defeating this enemy opens up a portal which sends you back to the stone age and you marry some monkey and become their ruler. Or something. I think… Scroll to the very bottom of the post to see it in action. It’s bananas (rim shot). When you complete it, it plays a sped up version of the Castlevania theme while the credits role. Unfortunately, hearing the Castlevania music is about the best music this game has to offer. Nothing in this game has the amazing music such as the Jungle level’s theme in the first Contra. The music isn’t bad, and some of it’s even pretty catchy. It’s just not that enjoyable compared to what came before it.
Gunstar Heroes came out a year prior to this title by a fledgling company called Treasure. It was their first title and a huge hit, and with good reason. It’s mind blowingly crazy and fun and does a ton of things right. Treasure was made up of ex-Konami employees. You can imagine that Konami was feeling the heat, as it seems like they were trying to emulate the Treasure experience. Anybody who enjoys old shoot’em up games should absolutely play this game at the first chance available.