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The Contra series has always been known for its brutal difficulty and awesome side scrolling set pieces. You shoot aliens, dodge projectiles, and try not to break your controller in frustration. The Contra series requires patience. Most of the games consist of trial and error gameplay and every death is your fault. No hand holding, no forgiveness, pure punishment for any mistakes. Developed and published by Konami, Contra: Hard Corps was released for the Sega Genesis in August, 1994. It was the first Contra game to be released for a Sega console and it often contends with Contra III for being the best game in the series. Both games have their ups and downs but one thing that’s definitely certain is that both games will kick your ass.
Contra: Hard Corps has no difficulty modes. It’s just pure punishment. A second player can ease the burden but even when I teamed up with Jeremy, we still got our asses handed to us. Just like all the mainline games, Hard Corps employs one-hit kills. You get shot, you die. Touch an enemy, you die. Contra veterans should be used to this and wouldn’t expect anything different. However, unlike previous games, Hard Corps does focus on the story, complete with characters and even brief cut scenes with overlapping text. The story is set five years after the events of Contra III: The Alien Wars. A terrorist group led by Colonel Bahamut has stolen an alien cell recovered from the war and they want to use it to produce weapons. You actually get to make choices throughout the story which also means there’s branching paths. There’s one secret area leading to a secret ending and there’s five endings total. The different stages and endings are a great incentive to replay, that is if you can even get past the second or third stage, which we normally can’t.
Instead of playing as the normal Contra protagonists, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, you have the option of four different characters. Each character has their own appearance and weapon set among other differences. Ray is your standard soldier, similar to Bill and Lance, and his arsenal consists of many of the classic Contra weapons we all know and love, including the spread shot. Sheena is a female soldier and guerilla specialist. Browny is a small combat robot with the ability to double-jump and he can slowly hover back down. Last but not least is Fang, arguably the most popular character out of the four. He’s definitely my favorite. Fang is a genetically and cybernetically altered wolf-like humanoid. He’s got a chaingun for an arm. And he wear’s sunglasses because that’s just what the great ones do. Because of the different weapons they can acquire, each character does feel a bit different, adding even more replay value atop the whole branching paths aspect. Figuring out which character works best for you is all part of the fun but you’re still going to die. Contra: Hard Corps is a difficult game. Some even say it may be the hardest game in the series.
Weapons play a big part in Contra: Hard Corps and they can make your life easier. That is if you can hold onto them long enough. You can store up to four weapons labeled by letters A through D, and one slot for bombs which do mega damage. Every weapon except the bombs have infinite ammo and like every other Contra game, you’ll always have the standard machine gun equipped and if you shoot the floating capsules, they’ll drop weapon pickups. As I stated earlier, Ray can acquire the standard Contra weaponry like the laser, homing and crusher missiles, and of course the spread shot. The other characters have some more abstract weaponry and which character you prefer will probably depend mostly on what weapons they use. You can switch between weapons on the fly but when you die, you will lose your current active weapon, unless it’s the machine gun. With that said, if you don’t feel safe, it’s best to switch to the machine gun because then you won’t lose the more powerful weapon when you die.
The gameplay in Contra: Hard Corps is almost identical to previous games. There are no top-down stages but one boss battle does have your character running towards the screen. Other than that, it’s your standard side scrolling shooter. It’s a very fast-paced game with little room for error. You can run, jump, go prone, climb walls and ceilings, and even slide. Sliding is an excellent mechanic for dodging attacks. You will need to memorize enemy and boss attack patterns to be successful and having good knowledge of the controls is a requirement. You can also lock your character in position and shoot in any direction by pressing the A button. You can still move about when not shooting, however. Press it again to revert back to moving and shooting simultaneously. The only thing I don’t like about the controls is that both the “change weapon” and “lock position” functions are tied to the A button on the Genesis controller. If you press the A button when not shooting, you’ll switch weapons. If you are shooting and press the A button, you’ll lock your character in position or even unlock, depending on what you already have set. This may seem like a minor gripe but in a fast-paced game like this, it’s very easy to press the A button at the wrong time, inadvertently switching weapons or locking position, which usually leads to your death and possibly even losing a powerful weapon. So mastery of the controls is a necessity for survival.
One of the more noticeable ways Contra: Hard Corps differs from its predecessors is the bosses. There’s a multitude of bosses and I guess you could say sub-bosses since most stages consist of more than one boss battle. You could even say Contra: Hard Corps is a boss rush. Your time against standard enemies is short and as a result they feel more like obstacles than anything. Basically, if you’ve played Alien Soldier, another excellent action game for the Genesis, this is similar to that except more punishing. In Alien Soldier, killing enemies usually rewards you with health. In Contra: Hard Corps, you’re rewarded with nothing. We all know there’s no health in Contra games. Although, the Japanese version of Hard Corps has a health gauge and unlimited continues. There is a scoring system in place, like most games from that era, with each kill granting you points. Earn enough points and you’ll be rewarded with an extra life. But I highly doubt you’ll be focused on a high score on your first playthrough. Now the boss battles are tough and at times they may even feel unfair. But that’s how Contra games teach the player. You do it right or you die. Now I can understand why some people may not care for this entry. It does feel like you’re fighting a boss every two minutes. You can only have up to a max of three lives to start with and if you lose them all, you need to use up a continue. Lose of all your continues and it’s game over. Thankfully, there are checkpoints so you don’t need to restart an entire stage after using a continue but knowing you may have to fight a boss all over again can be frustrating.
The standard enemies that are here are made up of humanoid and robotic baddies in the beginning of the game but as you progress, in that typical Contra style, things get weird. This goes for the bosses, too. You’ll end up battling what I think are mutants and other various alien-like creatures accompanied by trippy backgrounds and other crazy shit. Like any Contra game, Hard Corps is filled with excellent side scrolling set pieces. You’ll be riding a bike or even hanging from an aircraft as you fend off enemy attackers. One of the later stages has you riding on top of rockets shooting straight up into the sky. Luckily, the game consists of some great 16-bit visuals with excellent parallax scrolling and detailed backgrounds. When you reach the first boss you’ll first see him appear in the background, towering over the cityscape before firing a devastating laser of destruction. Then he’ll jump your way and land right behind you. In another stage you’ll be riding on top of a moving train and the giant boss will come running onto the screen before attempting to stop the train. It’s sequences like this that keep the series exciting and Contra: Hard Corps delivers in both action and excitement. The sound work is okay, the music is better. There’s some catchy tunes here and there, specifically the first stage and final boss battle. The only performance issue I noticed is some slowdown when things get super hectic. Other than that, Contra: Hard Corps is a solid performer.
Ultimately, Contra: Hard Corps is one of the best games in the series. It’s also one of the most difficult. There is no “easy” mode or hit points or health. You either win or you die. Do I think it’s better than Contra III? No. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand why Contra fans may prefer Hard Corps over Contra III. For me, personally, I just prefer the standard enemy gauntlets before reaching a stage’s end boss. But if you prefer or simply enjoy boss rush gameplay, Contra: Hard Corps should be on your list. I would definitely recommend this to fans of the Contra series, action games, and side scrolling shooters. Thanks to the multiple characters, branching paths, and five possible endings, there’s plenty of replay value. But only through memorization and dedication can one truly survive the punishment that is Contra: Hard Corps.