Contra: Hard Corps

Contra Hard Corps is the epitome of the Contra series in many ways and one could argue the best title in the series.  If you were speaking of the Japanese version I would agree.  It has everything you could possibly want in an action game: kick ass graphics, a great soundtrack, and non-stop action.  The only thing holding it back is its insane difficulty, a product of Konami’s tampering with the western release.  If you have the courage to persevere in the face of ridiculous odds one of the best action games of the 16-bit era awaits.

As odd as it may sound there actually is a story to follow this time.  Set five years after the Alien Wars the Hard Corps are an elite team of commandos created to fight crime worldwide.  What begins with a hacker attack causing robots to rampage in the streets will eventually blossom into something bigger, with an outcome you largely decide. 

All four members of the Hard Corps are selectable and come with unique weapon loadouts.  Ray and Sheena are the Bill and Lance of this game.  Wolfman Brad Fang is equipped with a machine gun arm and has some of the most powerful weapons such as the flamethrower and power punch.  It’s a double edged sword as his weapons are limited to melee range.  Short little Browny is the best character bar none.  His diminutive size allows him to avoid bullets easily while his double jump almost breaks the game.  Browny’s weapons aren’t too shabby either.

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If Contra Hard Corps is Konami’s way of proving they hadn’t lost a step after the departure of the Treasure employees they did so in grand style.  The game wastes no time living up to its name as it literally tosses you into the action from the back of a speeding van.  From there it moves from one inventive scenario to the next and rarely lets up.  The set pieces become more extravagant the deeper you progress.  The city streets give way to a hover bike chase that ends in a trippy boss fight on the highway.  The rumble in the jungle leads to a fateful encounter that sends the game down multiple paths.  Throughout all this there are frequent boss encounters, not to the degree of Gunstar Heroes but close.  The game shows the same degree of creativity as that title and even surpasses it in my opinion.

Contra Hard Corps doesn’t completely rely on spectacle to keep you entertained.  At the end of almost every level you are presented with two options.  These choices not only lead to new levels but also changes the game’s story as well.  It is impossible to see everything in a single run and with up to five endings Contra Hard Corps has serious replay value.  The endings aren’t just fluff either.  There’s even one where you ultimately become the villain!  Toss in a few hidden levels and you have the ultimate action package.  What could go wrong?

Contra as a series is known for its unrelenting difficulty.  Personally I don’t think it’s that bad but after watching some true scrubs play I see why the Konami code exists.  Contra Hard Corps takes it to another level entirely.  It is easy to get lost in the constant explosions and catch a stray bullet.  Death comes frequently as enemies spawn suddenly, attack in great numbers, and don’t quit.  The bosses go through multiple phases, sometimes as many as five which is brutal.  You have three lives and a mere three continues to see this beast to the end. 

These are problems largely exclusive to the American version of the game.  The original version of Hard Corps has a three hit life bar which makes the game for more manageable.  In addition you also have infinite continues.  I wouldn’t have minded the changes made if the game were rebalanced to make up for it.  But that isn’t the case.  Some of the more drawn out boss battles such as the fight against Dead Eye Joe are grueling rather than exciting as a result.  The challenge should come from good design, not artificial constraints.  Watching someone who has mastered the game is a sight to behold.  But the journey to reach that point is filled with more frustration than fun.

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Konami pushed the Genesis hard with every release but this is truly their pinnacle.  The game effortlessly pushes a ton of sprites and explosions simultaneously with no slowdown.  The art is dark and gritty and fantastic.  Special effects abound at every turn and run the gamut; scaling, rotation, there are even polygonal bosses thrown in just to show off!   All of this is backed by an amazing soundtrack as well.  Too bad most won’t have the patience to see it all.

In Closing

Contra Hard Corps suffers a bit due to its cruel difficulty.  But aside from that it is almost a masterpiece.  Either go for the Japanese version or swallow your pride and use the 70 (!) man cheat code.  The game is too great not to see all of its content.  You will definitely get your money’s worth.

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