Putting the shattered series back together.
Maybe their moms didn't hold them enough as children or perhaps they bruise easy, but the seemingly tough Contra soldiers sure can't take a beating. Here they go again, jumping through acres of jungle, diving through the seediest underbelly of a red hot Alien Hell, and then oops, some winged alien accidentally nudges them and they keel over.
And I wouldn't have it any other way.
Battling through two utter disasters bearing the Contra name on the Playstation, Contra has returned to the 2D ways that made the series a classic of the 8-bit age. Contra: Shattered Soldier brings some respect back to this once proud game. It's about time.
Bill Rizer, hero of the Alien Wars (Contra III) has been called back into battle. Teamed with the cyborg Lucia, the two must halt the return of the sinister forces of Blood Falcon. Essentially, the story is just a cardboard prop. It's all about explosions, people.
The game follows the formula of its forbears. Most levels have you side-scrolling from left to right, blasting the constant stream of baddies with your big guns. There are also top to bottom levels and the occasional head-on perspective. All of them maintain the single 2D plane.
Amidst all this chaos, there's a pattern to learn that will get you out alive. In some ways, the strict memorization is the backbone of the entire game. The levels in earlier Contras or the Metal Slug series had some free-flowing, run and gun areas that would build up to the stage boss. Shattered Soldier is more tightly wound with less of this on-your-toes gameplay and more memorized maneuvering, especially with the added mid-level bosses (much like the Genesis' Contra: Hard Corps).
These various bosses call for effective usage of your arsenal of weapons. Instead of weapon upgrades, Bill and Lucia come pre-equipped with three interchangeable and chargeable weapons: the standard machine gun, a flame thrower and ground-cruising missiles. Different situations call for different weapons, and maximizing your artillery is part of the pattern play and difficulty of this new Contra.
Indeed, Contra: Shattered Soldier is balls to the floor hard. Enemies rain down in droves from all sides. Shots of shrapnel and explosion litter the cruel wasteland of 6 levels (2 must be unlocked). Sometimes Bill and Lucia will have the aid of a vehicle, like a futuristic motorbike or some flying missiles, but even then, the menacing onslaught just keeps on coming.
The difficulty is furthered by the hardcore but tasty limitation on lives and continues. You are given only 3 lives and 5 continues on Normal - and these aren't your namby-pampy "start-from-where-I-was" continues. These are the traditional continues that boot you all the way back to the start of the level or the halfway point if you even made it that far.
Easy mode gives you 8 lives and 99 continues. Even then, it's no cakewalk, but it's just enough to force you to learn the patterns and figure out how to survive. Contra: Shattered Soldier definitely isn't something you'll squeak through cleanly on your first go. You'll play for a bit, then die, then start over, get a little bit further, and die again. Each time, you'll be a little more prepared as you discover more of the shot patterns.
In addition to a classic 'point' score, performance is letter-graded at the close of each stage. Successful grades throughout the main stages will unlock the later stages. Nabbing a good grade requires minimizing deaths and continues and maximizing the kill rate - nearly every robotic menace, wayward missile, or festering pus mutant boss counts toward your hit percentage.
Most bosses are wretched abortions that writhe and ooze with toxic venom. They're pretty gross and are segmented with different parts to destroy. Total annihilation of every form of a boss will net the most percentage points. The other boss characters are massive, screen filling mechs, armed to the teeth.
And what's Contra without a teammate by your side? Keeping with tradition, the game can be played co-op simultaneously. While two-player mode does stir up all those fun, old school memories, both players had better know their patterns, because even with the added aid of a pal, the weaving and dodging against the diabolic forces of Blood Falcon remains relatively the same. Both players contribute to the same hit percentage scale, so if one guy sucks, your percentage will drop. A record of how much each player contributed would have added to the competition, though there's still the traditional score accessible through the pause menu for those of you keeping tabs.
Contra: Shattered Soldier captures an apocalyptic drabness with muted tones, but explosions aplenty brighten things up. Some of the object models look too flat without enough varied lighting, hindering the illusion of 3D. Bill and Lucia's animations are a little stiff, but the various bosses fare better with sharply animated undulations and metallic transformations. Let's be frank, though - you're not playing Contra for the graphics.
A heavy metal rock beat drives the game, which oddly works well as an accompaniment to the showering spray of destruction. Some of the classic sound effects and short musical riffs are back in full form as well, so the veterans will be right at home.
In the same way that Castlevania: Symphony of the Night built upon the Castlevania legacy without really changing the core gameplay ideas, Shattered Soldier marks a return to the series' roots while still bringing something new to the table. It's fun to learn the patterns and hone in on that perfect game, though the limited gameplay and the shortness of the actual experience make it well suited for a rental.