Thursday, June 18, 2009

Genesis look: Contra - Hard Corps

When Konami announced their support for the Sega Megadrive fans speculated that titles from the publisher's most popular franchises would make an appearance. Sure enough we saw a new Castlevania as well as a new Contra. Hard Corps shares the same concept and mechanics of past Contra games but goes in a different direction in terms of aesthetics and more importantly game design.

The Contra series has always held a reputation as being the premier game in the "run & gun" genre. Essentially these games boil down to lots of running around and shooting. Other popular games in this genre include the Metal Slug series and Gunstar Heroes. When someone picks up a Contra game they're going to expect certain things: One hit always equals death, tons of heavy firepower, and aliens. Hard Corps delivers all of that and more.

This game takes place after The Alien Wars(Contra 3 for the SNES) and stars four playable characters with up to four selectable weapons each. You have Ray who is your standard blonde-haired dude. He's the most balanced of the group in that his weapons are good for most any situation, but never exceptional. Sheena is the woman and she has slight advantages over Ray in some weapons, less so in others. Brownie is a little robot who differs from the rest of the cast in that he has a double-jump. His weapons are unique but mostly rather weak, but thanks to his size and maneuverability he has the highest survival rate. Fang is as you can imagine a Cyber-Wolfman. This guy's weapons are tricky to use but they're ultra-powerful. 

The entire cast controls basically the same. They can run, jump(with mid-air control of course), and slide. The slide is a very useful move as everyone is invincible while doing it. There's a bit of recovery time after a slide and you can't fire while performing it but still it can be quite important for survival. Everyone starts off with a basic cannon that shoots rapid-fire and is decent as a last resort. By finding power-ups each character can access their four weapons and switch between them as they see fit. These run the gamut of spreadfires, homing shots, and even some odd ones like a fiery punch and what is essentially a homing yo-yo. Dying will cost the currently equipped weapon however. Bombs can also be found which are good for damaging bosses and not much else. Also while holding down the fire button the player can hit weapon-switch button to switch firing modes. One mode acts as Fixed where they stand still while firing at angles and the other is Free where players can move while shooting. There's obvious advantages to both.

Hard Corps takes place over the course of six stages but only three of them will be the same everytime. After a couple key levels the player will be offered a decision to make and these decisions lead to four possible endings(there's also a hidden fifth one and even a bad ending). With these multiple endings come multiple final stages, making this one of the largest Contra games ever. Like Alien Soldier and unlike the other Contra games, Hard Corps pays most of the attention to boss-fights. It's not uncommon for many levels to be simply a series of bossfights broken up by a few enemy soldiers and maybe a couple powerups in-between. 

With this in mind the expectation is that the bossfights would have to be excellent and require all of the tools at the player's disposal. Needless to say Hard Corps delivers on this front. All of the bosses are intricately designed and feature a large array of attacks and abilities to keep them unique and loaded with personality. They share a certain common element in that all of their attacks must be jumped over, slid past, or otherwise avoided by being in the right spot at the right time but they're all very creative and challenging.

Hard Corps is certainly a hardcore game in this respect. The original Japanese version actually had a health meter which could take three hits(along with a bunch of codes for extra lives and such). Needless to say all of this was taken out for the International releases. Until the player understands the patterns or has the reflexes to dodge everything thrown at them they'll go through many lives, continues, and even playthroughs before they can get a handle on this game. 

Unfortunately when a large part of the challenge in a game is in knowing boss-patterns the game starts to become much easier. When dealing with regular enemies multiple factors can be put into place(level design, types of enemies, etc). Through some combination of these factors an element of randomness can be introduced to keep the player on their toes and wary of something bad happening. Hard Corps however is so focused on bosses and their patterns that once the player has learned a level they can breeze through it with no problem(except for the possibility of player error). On the other hand if the game were to introduce random elements(like the boss firing bullets while performing certain attacks, changing up their patterns) it could possibly lead to the game being broken. Hard Corps is a very tight affair and with a lot of fights even the slightest deviation can lead to untold amounts of bad design. While the game doesn't produce a level of challenge that grows with the player(there aren't any selectable difficulties) it also doesn't throw any curveballs that would be unfair to someone who has spent a long time with the game knowing its every intricacy. All told I really don't think having the game focused on patterns is that much of a problem. There's more than enough levels to master and even after a gamer has beaten the game without dying they can still push themselves further by relying only on certain weapons or by going for the fastest completion time possible. Throw in the multiple playable characters and there's plenty of depth to this game even for the people who can accurately predict every step of the game.

Despite the focus on boss-fights I consider this game one of the best action titles available on the Genesis. Aside from offering a large assortment of levels it showcases impressive usage of the hardware, tons of amazing battles, good character balance and weapons, perfect controls, and is just an absolutely incredible piece of work. Frankly I don't care what your opinion is on boss-fights or the lack of running in your run & gun you simply have to check this game out.

By the way Konami what's with the lack of this game, Castlevania Bloodlines, and all three Rocket Knight games on the Virtual Console? It'd be a guaranteed $40 out of my wallet at least.

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