We’ve written about Contra in the past as one of the classic Nintendo Hard games. Dirt simple gameplay mechanics elevated to psychotic difficulty levels, it popularized not just the run and gun genre, but the fabled Konami Code. Hard Corps Uprising is Contra HD in everything but name, but when you tackle a beloved franchise like this, there is always the threat that you will stumble. We’ve spent some time with the title, so let’s see how Arc System Works did with it.
The old Contra games – including this game’s spiritual predecessor, Contra Hard Corp – had famously varied visuals, but these were mostly dedicated to the numerous and hideous alien and mechanical bosses. The graphics of this game are definitely one of its high points. Every aspect of the game is heavily anime influenced, most notably the fully animated intro and ending sequences, and the results are unfailingly lush and vibrant. Most of the stage enemies are frame by frame cell animated, and often portray an impressive range of personality. This is especially true of the grunts, who are as hapless as they are humorous. The way in which they befall many of the same hazards that would claim you, no doubt in order to illustrate the threat to the player without the need for a tutorial blurb, is reminiscent of Metal Slug. The player characters are slightly different, seeming to be assembled out of independently moving cell shaded elements that facilitate a wide range of motions and postures. Again like Contra Hard Corp, you are given more visual variety than “Shirtless Man in Red Pants or Shirtless Man in Blue Pants”. This time around you have your choice of a man and woman, both of typical anime future-soldier type, and the fmv scenes feature the ubiquitous samurai and a man who can only be called “Badass Egon.”
The animation is slightly limited but gorgeously detailed, and most bosses break the dimensional barrier by featuring polygons. They keep true to the spirit of the games, though, with massive vaguely anthropomorphic robots, flesh horrors, and various heavily armed vehicles. Other references to the earlier Contra games abound, including the weapon logos, weapon types, and point badges which frequently resemble the all-too-rare life markers from the game. The environments begin with a desert and move through jungles, ruins, highways, subways, and even the sky. For my, dollar, though, the game is never so beautiful as when the level is utterly littered with ordinance from both sides. I really enjoyed the look of the game.
The gameplay of the Contra series has a few requirements to make it feel true and authentic. You need to throw legions of enemies at the player, you give the player an arsenal just barely sufficient to mow them down, and you need to make death a perpetual possibility. This last aspect, generally evidenced as a “if you get touched, you die” mechanic, can get really old, really fast. In order to update the game for modern audiences, the makers split the difference with different game modes. For those interested in a more traditional Contra game, there is “Arcade Mode”. This mode gives you a few lives, a few continues, and a basic set of attributes, including a three notch health bar, a double jump, and an air dash. Your weapons, as always, are dropped from flying capsules, and are varied, yet familiar. The Super Machine Gun is a constant stream of weak bullets. The Heat Plasma is a short range fireball that can be charged to deliver a massive miniature sun rocketing across the board. The ever popular spread shot needs no introduction. There is also a Crash Gun that is a powerful grenade lobber. Then comes a ripple gun that does devastating damage in its short range and reflects most projectiles back to their source. Finally there is the laser, which was a horrible piece of crap in the original Contra, but this time around passes though obstacles and tracks enemies automatically now. Every weapon can be upgraded to level 2 or level 3 by collecting a second and third matching powerup. At their highest levels they take on a terrifying killing capacity, but taking one hit knocks you back to your default pea shooter. Even here, though, there is the ability to save weapons for boss fights by protecting them in a secondary weapon slot that stays with you even after you die. I tended to keep a laser holstered in case of a rainy day, myself.
For people looking for a game more willing to give them a feeling of achievement even when they fail, there is “Rising Mode.” In this mode, your score isn’t just bragging rights, it is currency, enabling you to purchase permanent upgrades. These range from the mundane “extra lives and extra health” to the standard “move faster, gain triple jump” to the staggeringly useful “start with laser” or “only lose your weapon if you fall”. You can even gain the ability to reflect bullets or become invincible for the rising portion of a jump. Every single ability or stat can be individually activated to custom tweak your difficulty or playing style, and the prices grow to extremely high levels. At the very top of the scale is the cleverly referential 30 live powerup, bringing back memories of the nearly mandatory Konami Code.
Despite the fact we are talking about a game that is extremely fundamental working extremely well on the old two button NES controller, HCU takes full advantage of the extra buttons on the controller. One trigger allows you to keep your character planted and just aim the gun, eliminating the need to jump to shoot down or move forward to shoot diagonally. The other trigger locks your aim and lets you move while shooting in that direction, so called “strafing.” Other games have taken care of both of these problems by using the (in this case unused) second thumbstick for aiming, but that wouldn’t work here because of the mass of other actions that must be utilized while constantly shooting. You can fire, jump, switch weapon slots, or activate an “action” which could be a dodge, vault, tackle, or bullet reflect.
The levels are varied, from standard running and shooting to hoverboard and motorcycle fights, to fights standing on the roof of a train or bizarrely clinging to a train climbing a vertical track. There is even a boss fight done entirely in freefall. The level design wasn’t entirely perfect, though. For one, every now and then you’ll enter a portion of the game where the presence of a health bar means nothing, since one hit will knock you into a bottomless pit. That was o-kay. Less okay were the mandatory quick time events, which while rare and occasionally well played, often show up at a time when you thought you were home free, stealing the victory from you. Keep your eyes peeled after boss fights, your escape often depends upon you jumping to the rungs of a helicopter, and missing it WILL cost you a life. The worst offense, though, is the lab level, which makes the ill fated attempt to inject stealth gameplay into a run and gun shooter. (You can even hide in a box.) I actually didn’t notice that I was supposed to be taking it slow at first, just thinking that for some reason there were alarms going off at random. The stealth was forgivable, but who in their right mind has ever said, “Hey, Contra was good, but you know what it could have used? An escort mission.” Seriously!? You have to babysit a scientist with the survival skills of a lemming, and his deaths come off of YOUR life counter. Fortunately, he can take way more hits than you.
These represent the only black eyes in an otherwise excellent single player campaign, which keeps you coming back with “grades” for each level and the promise of enjoying them all with friends both local and over Live. I spent far more time with this game than I probably should have, clocking well over 10 hours, despite the fact that a full playthrough doesn’t take much more than an hour. Fantastic.
What can I say, really? Like the visuals, the audio is anime inspired, which boils down to soaring, heroic guitars and bizarre sound bites. One boss taunts you during a certain move by saying, “Go to he-e-e-e-ell” in a vaguely effeminate way, but it loses some dignity when it says it exactly the same why, seven times in a row, rapid fire. The audio isn’t stellar, but it fits the setting, and it did its job well enough. I particularly found the audio cues for weapon lock on useful, and the start screen audio was straight out of my memories.
The story is a step up from the earlier games in the series, but that’s really not saying much, since the earlier games had the plot “Here is a gun. Go kill everything.” In this case there is an evil empire, and you are either a former soldier or a besieged citzen seeking to help the resistance overthrow it. Dialogue regarding this is limited in-game. Most of the story shows up as bumpers during the one (very long) load per level.
I truly enjoyed this game. The arcade mode is there to offer you the challenge you expect from the title, and the rising mode gives you a feeling of progression and strategy that will help the less skilled or less patient players stay interested. A few missteps in level design are mercifully limited to one or two levels, and the rest is an experience that was downright addictive. Great job.
9.5 / 10: Hard Corps Uprising is a spectacular tribute to a classic genre, updated with enough features to keep you coming back.