Kevlar’s for kids.
Real men don’t hide behind bulky armor or health-replenishing cybernetics. When I was growing up, bulging biceps and a heavy-duty machinegun were all a hero needed, and the best battled without so much as a flimsy shirt. Crew cuts and bandanas were recommended. It’s been twenty years, but the legacy of the ‘80s lives on, propelling the men of Contra to fend off an alien armada with nothing but bullets and bare chests. Some people are just too tough for cotton.
[image1]The 2D Contra games represent the epitome of nuts-and-bolts platforming action. They demand skillful reflexes and determination, and they don’t make concessions for weakness. There are no life bars, no shields, and no free respawns. When you can’t handle another enemy, three more pile in for good measure. Whether you take a bullet to the brain or brush an enemy’s shoulder, one hit equals one precious life gone. If you walk in expecting a breezy, Mario-styled romp with guns, Contra 4 will shred your ego into dog food.
The first stop is the memorable Galuga Island, where Black Viper retooled his underling’s old base and bolstered its defenses. Within seconds, our hero is assaulted by a surge of suicidal henchman, bombs, and hidden turrets. Contra 4 covers every pixel of the DS, so it’s no longer enough to watch your six; every number of the clock is fair game for the Meat Puppets and Proboterrors. When they’re not dropping from the cliffs, they’re springing from the waters below. While you’re busy defending the flanks, missiles rain from the sky. This is dual-screen destruction – and it’s all aimed at you.
Black Viper even carved some treacherous new paths since you left. Previous entries had occasional, diverging platforms, but a few steps forward lead to the straight and narrow. In Contra 4, the new grappling hook and a good eye reward the nimble with multiple paths that might toss you further into the frying pan for a power-up, or mercifully spare your life for a second or two longer. For example, stage one has you running underneath a massive, bomb-dropping contraption. You can stand and fight, flee like a coward, or in one leap of death-defying precision, use your hook to get above the machine and hijack it.
The grappling hook is rarely a necessity. Instead, it’s a tool, and how it’s used is up to you. The same goes for the weaponry, which almost excuses giving Earth’s last hope a clip of glorified spitballs. Seven different weapons can be collected, upgraded, and swapped between two slots. There are plenty in each level, so if you don’t like the deathly precision of a laser, you can easily grab a spread shot and coat the screen with bullets. Your equipped weapon disappears when you (inevitably) die, but that leaves one question: Do you use it now, or stow it for later?
[image2]Contra 4 covers a lot of familiar territory from the original, but nearly every stage has been modified and raises the stakes a little higher. The waterfall climb gets the Indiana Jones treatment with tumbling boulders. The old hoverjets skim the water while you clash with enemies from above and below. You even get to ride a missile again, but this time it’s a skyscraper-sized warhead with a gargantuan beast tagging along for the ride. After that battle, it’s an acrobatic race from handhold to handhold and through a downpour of rockets as the warhead twists and plummets back to Earth. Let’s see Stallone do that.
Contra 4 is a beautiful tapestry of brutal, platforming pandemonium, with marvelously ravaged battlefields to back it up. Like Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, every platform, explosion, and throbbing mass of flesh has been pushed to the highest standards of the DS. As striking as it is, though, two stains keep catching my eye. The 3D base runs are back, and not much has changed. You enter the first room, cut down a shooting gallery of thugs, jump over some barrels, and blast open the lock to the next room. It’s classic design, but so easy that it seems three small stages were wasted for the sake of nostalgia.
The bosses don’t fare much better. From fire-breathing skeletons to city-stomping robots, the bosses are epic-scale behemoths, but they lack the power to match their size. I remember how the villains on every episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers transformed into giants, but never really became stronger – just bigger targets. Each boss in Contra 4 stubbornly sticks to its inept attack patterns. Once learned, victory is a simple matter of moving into position and firing away. Contrary to popular belief, super-sizing is not always the answer.
The rest of Contra 4 is built to break your will and snap your spirit in the most pleasant way possible. I hate to make such an unmanly confession, but I had to start on Easy for the extra lives and maxed-out weapons. The menu wasn’t kidding when it calls the Easy setting “boot camp”, because it won’t even let you finish the game. To see the ending, I had to tighten the boot straps and kick it up to Normal, with more enemies, more environmental hazards, and fewer lives. You have to respect a game with the guts to taunt the meek like that.
[image3]Either way, you won’t go away empty-handed, because victory on any difficulty opens Challenge mode. Forty mini-games will pit you against endless streams of alien teeth, races against the clock, and entire sections without weapons. Make no mistake. It’ll take true grit to get through all of them, but whether you’re looking for bragging rights or extra training, Challenge mode has some the greatest rewards anyone could ask for. (Anyone up for a round of Super C?)
Base runs and bosses aside, Contra 4 is the most punishing game on the DS, but also one of the most satisfying. There is no room for error, nor are there any cheap shots. If you die, you screwed up. If you survive, you are officially hard to the titanium core. It may not be the sadistic beast that Shattered Soldier is, but Contra 4 has more than enough bite to make an aging man proud to be old-school.