Words cannot describe how disappointed I am with Contra Force. When I first saw it in magazines I was excited but could not find it in stores anywhere. Which makes sense as the 16-bit war was heating up and the NES was rightly pushed to the side. It would be years before I finally tracked it down and all those years of anticipation only added to my disappointment. Contra was one of my favorite action series growing up and to see it like….this was a shame. Konami were better off cancelling the game like they did its Japanese release.
The first thing you should know is that this was not a Contra title in the first place. Contra Force was originally called Arc Hound. Some genius decided to slap the Contra name on it to probably bolster sales. I can see why; there are definite similarities in their look and play mechanics. But the name comes with certain expectations that Contra Force can’t live up to. Even if you were to divorce it from the series this would still be bad. Stay the hell away from this game.
Unlike most titles in the series Contra Force is a group effort. You have a choice between four characters: team leader Burns, Smith, Iron, and I shit you not, Beans. I suppose that is supposed to be a nod o Lance Bean, but no, they aren’t clever. There are numerous differences between the characters such as Burns ability to jump higher and Beans perennial crouching position which makes bullets fly by but most of it is centered on their weapons.
The weapon system present has more in common with Gradius than the other titles. Rather than the familiar weapon pods you collect suitcases to progress on a Gradius style weapon bar. Each character has their own weapons however three of the upgrades are shared with only two armaments unique to each member. Burns has a machine gun for rapid fire or hand grenades. Smith has a sniper rifle which means his shots travel the length of the screen and homing missiles. Irons has a short range flamethrower and bazooka while Beans is equipped with either time bombs or timed mines.
This system is actually a pretty cool idea but in practice is simply not interesting. Most of the weapons are just terrible. The hand grenades are thrown in an arc which is good for getting enemies behind cover but useless otherwise. I like the homing missiles but they spend more time circling enemies rather than taking them out. At least the sniper rifle is useful but you shouldn’t need an upgrade so bullets travel farther. Both of Beans’ weapons only make sense in the overhead levels and there are only two of those. There is also the fact that you have to really search to find briefcases to even earn upgrades. There are plenty of destructible objects in the environment and just as many have cases placed over bottomless pits. I could keep going but there are other problems I haven’t even described yet.
Before I do that however I do have to point out a few cool features. You can switch between characters at any time which is needed for a few reasons. Each has a separate stock of lives and the game does not automatically switch over if one dies. You can also set up one characters to follow you as an AI companion in one of six formations. These last a six seconds but can be spammed if you choose. The chances of you doing so are nil however.
That is because Contra Force runs at an abysmal frame rate. The game runs entirely in slow motion and I wish I were joking. It seems Konami were aware of this as there are rarely more than two enemies on screen at once. Blowing up the environment makes the game chug even harder and introduces some of the worst flicker I’ve ever seen on the system. It makes the side scrolling levels, which comprise the majority of the game, almost completely unbearable. When you think of Contra you picture fast action and certainly not this.
The only stages that do not suffer are the overhead levels which is small solace. These levels would not have seemed out of place in Super C and are the game’s best. But they also suffer from being far too long and full of repetitive scenery. That about sums up Contra Force; for every one decent element there are two bad ones that drag it down.
It’s too bad this entire production suffers from so many flaws as there are some ideas buried under terrible execution. Don’t let your precious memories of the series be tarnished by this bad game. Contra Force is a terrible game and one that would have been better off cancelled. The sad part is this isn’t even the lowest the series falls, it gets much worse after this. But that is a story for another day.