Contra: Shattered Soldier

At the end of the PlayStation era Contra as a series was in danger of fading away.  What once stood for some of the most bad ass action games on the planet had been reduced to a joke after two disastrous 3d games.  Yes, they really were that bad.  For its PlayStation 2 debut Konami dug deep and created a title worthy of the name, full of the nail biting action the series was known for with great presentation to boot.  Were it not for its insane difficulty Contra Shattered Soldier would be one of the best games in the series.  Still this is a worthwhile endeavor but beware.

Unlike its predecessors Shattered Soldier is a little more story heavy.  After the Alien Wars Bill Rizer is arrested and jailed for crimes against humanity and the murder of his partner Lance.  His imprisonment ends five years later when a terrorist organization named Blood Falcon attacks the world.  The Triumvirate, the Earth’s ruling body, offers to commute his sentence if he cooperates.  But all is not as it seems.. 

Mechanically Shattered Soldier is a mix of the old and new.  Rather than collecting weapons from item blimps you start with all three.  Your options are limited to the machine, flamethrower and grenade launcher, each with a cool secondary charge mechanic.  While it sounds limited the game is designed around it.  It is up to your discretion when to use each one.

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Despite bearing the Contra name Shattered Soldier has the pacing and style of a Treasure game.  Each level is mostly composed of long boss battles interspersed with short bouts of fodder enemies in between.  Every so often the pace is broken up by a vehicular segment but otherwise the focus is squarely on its bosses.  This is a slower, more methodical action game and not the Contra we are used to.  Some will appreciate that change while others will miss the faster action pace of the older titles.

Personally I like it.  The game leans heavily on nostalgia while also putting a twist on familiar scenarios.  Area 1 is a long homage to the best moments from Contra III, down to its end level boss, Slave Beast Taka.  But as soon as you think the fight is done it turns around to reveal the real boss.  The game wisely sticks to a 2d side scrolling view the majority of the time.  Not only does it evoke the look and feel of classic Contra it keeps gameplay tight.  When the camera does shift it is often done for spectacle, creating many memorable action sequences. 

The majority of time is spent facing the various bosses and Shattered Soldier does not disappoint.  Each boss features many mechanics and must be taken down in sections consecutively.  These fights go through multiple phases and often take close to ten minutes to complete.  Outside of a few lackluster minibosses Konami have truly outdone themselves in this regard. 

Your performance is graded at level’s end and is largely based on your hit percentage.  As enemies and parts of bosses are destroyed it increases.  Every level features enemies that need to be dealt with quickly to earn the maximum score but there are other factors as well.  Dying and continuing drops a letter grade which is harsh.  You need higher ranks in every stage to access some of the content and unlock bonuses such as a character database, cutscenes, and art gallery.  It’s nice for replay value but you’ll b replaying each level countless times for a different reason.

You’ll need nerves of steel to see the game’s best moments unfortunately.  Contra is noted for its relentless difficulty but that is taken to another level here.  Shattered Soldier is one of the most difficult games of all time.  The game is rigid in its structure with very room little for improvisation.  If you aren’t using the weapon the developers intended at the precise moment you will die.  At times the game seems as though it were designed around a life bar but alas, no dice.  As much as I like a good boss rush this borders on the absurd.  Stage five features a whopping six in succession with no breaks.  It is also the one level where an A or S ranking is needed to reach the true conclusion.  With a mere three continues or less it will take weeks to earn your way to the end.

Needless to say you will need to spend hours in the practice mode learning every particular pattern in order to progress.  I don’t mind a steep learning curve so long as it is execute well.  Here it seems as though the game were designed to be cruel for the sake of it.  I’m also not a fan of locking away some of the game’s content behind such a stringent grading system.  That reeks of trying to stretch out its content.  Replay value should come from good gameplay, not artificial means. With a mere three continues or less it will take weeks to earn your way to the end.

I will say this: as frustrating as Shattered Soldier can be it is incredibly satisfying once you have mastered its intricacies and can complete levels with little effort.  The rewarding sensation of defeating what seemed like an impossible enemy is akin to Dark Souls.  Going back and earning an A or S rank in each level is an amazing feat worthy of praise.  It’s just a damn shame that the road to reaching that point aggravating that I don’t blame anyone for giving up or cheating.

In Closing

Contra: Shattered Soldier redeems the series legacy and is a fantastic ride if you stick with it.  Had the difficulty been balanced it would have been one of the greatest action games of its era.  There is such a thing as going too far and this crosses that line and brings down an otherwise excellent title somewhat. 

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