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I think Contra games were at their peak during the the 16-bit era of consoles. Contra III was released for the Super Nintendo in 1992 and Contra: Hard Corps released for the Sega Genesis in 1994. Console owners had plenty of side-scrolling action to enjoy and I’ve seen arguments for both games in terms of which Contra title is the best. Contra III’s overhead stages weren’t exactly popular and Contra: Hard Corps’ intense difficulty and boss rush style wasn’t for everybody. There’s no denying both games require skill and memorization to beat and I suck at both. Beating a Contra game provides you with an extreme sense of satisfaction that only dedicated players can hope to achieve. Hard Corps: Uprising is the latest entry for consoles and is a prequel to Contra: Hard Corps and even the original Contra. Developed by Arc System Works, published by Konami, and released for Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network in 2011, Hard Corps: Uprising retains the classic side-scrolling action and brutal difficulty the series is known for. For this review, I played the Xbox Live Arcade version on Xbox 360.
It’s 2613, twenty years before the original Contra. An empire known as the Commonwealth is ruling the world and resistance fighters have risen up only to fall at the hands of the enemy. A group of elite soldiers band together and develop a plan to stop the Commonwealth once and for all. This group is lead by Bahamut, a soldier who was once part of the Commonwealth army. After witnessing Commonwealth imperials execute innocent people he decided to betray the empire and join the resistance. Bahamut shares the same name as the antagonist in Contra: Hard Corps but I’m still not clear if it’s the same person. Like all Contra games, the story is just a backdrop for the gameplay and an excuse to kick alien and robotic enemy ass. Uprising comes with two playable characters – Bahamut and Krystal but you can download three more via DLC – Harley Daniels, Sayuri, and Leviathan. Sayuri is the standout because she uses a katana rather than guns and even though her attacks are powerful, I’d rather not have to get up close and personal with the enemies so I didn’t play as her often. There’s not much voice acting but the little voice work that is here is just awful. The characters will often say things during combat and after defeating bosses and it just sounds like the lines were translated to English and the voice actors clearly don’t know how to speak the language. It’s not like there’s a ton of voice acting in the series in general but at least in Contra 4 the characters sound badass.
The Contra series has always been about the gameplay and that’s where Hard Corps: Uprising delivers. There’s two modes to play through. Arcade is your typical Contra experience. You need to blast your way through all eight stages in one run without losing all of your continues. You get hit, you lose a life, lose all of your lives and you must use a continue to progress. Enemies are relentless so skill and memorization are the keys to success so be prepared to replay the same stages repeatedly until you can get through each unscathed or at least without dying too many times. Needless to say, I’m awful at this game and can barely make it through the second stage let alone getting out of the first without dying at least once. Other than choosing your character, you don’t have many choices in the arcade mode and there’s no hand holding whatsoever. You win or you die. That’s how the Contra series has always been and I wouldn’t change a thing. You can rack up points for a high score and if you can make it to the end of a level your score will be tallied up for a ranking. For me, I think just making it through each stage would be satisfying enough.
Rising is the second mode you can play through and is obviously the highlight of the game. In Rising, the gameplay is identical to arcade except now you will earn Corps Points by killing enemies and these points can be spent in the shop on upgrades and abilities. You can purchase things like more health gauges, more lives, more continues, and weapon upgrades to make to your life easier. Some of the more unique upgrades are the Action Chips. These give your character abilities like bullet reflect, vault, dodge, tackle, and ambush. Because I suck at the arcade mode, I spent most of my time in Rising and it’s also the only way I could beat this game in a timely manner. I really enjoyed this mode because it’s actually quite engaging and doesn’t feel like it was just slapped on. By the just playing the game you’ll acquire points and upgrading characters becomes addicting. If you want to buy all of the upgrades for each character you need to play as each one so it may feel like a grind if you’re a completionist. Although, the series has always been about repetition until you get it right so it may not be that big of a deal for veterans of the series. Rising mode also has a stage select which is tied to each character. So if you managed to make it to a certain stage with a specific character, you can only start from that stage with that character. Health packs and food items can be acquired throughout the stages to replenish health if you’ve upgraded your character with multiple health gauges. Medals can also be found throughout the stages and reward you with bonus points if acquired. They’re usually hidden or in dangerous spots.
The core gameplay in Uprising is relatively unchanged from that of previous games. You run, jump, shoot, and just hope to survive the onslaught of enemy attacks. You can still lock your character in position and aim in any direction as well as strafe forward and backwards while aiming in one direction. You can perform a dash move now which proves extremely useful and holding the button will make your character sprint. Sprinting is a great way to get yourself killed if you don’t know what’s up ahead. Environmental hazards are common and become more prevalent as you progress. Quicksand, spikes, falling off ledges, and massive boulders are just some of the dangers in Hard Corps: Uprising so you’ll always want to be mindful of your surroundings. Mastering the controls, memorization, and never letting go of the fire button are crucial for survival. Each stage varies in theme which helps the game remain interesting all the way through. You start out in a desert before progressing through a jungle, highway, and railway before finishing the game on a massive battleship. The first stage has you fighting standard soldiers, brutes, and robotic creatures but once you get to the second stage, things will ramp up quickly. Snipers will be hiding in the trees, robotic crocodiles or alligators, whichever, will be ready to swallow you hole, and eventually soldiers manning turrets behind shields will become common threats. Each stage normally has a mid-boss which usually double as checkpoints if you were to use a continue. Each stage also has a massive end boss and as expected, the bosses may seem impossible at first but once you’ve memorized their attack patterns, they don’t seem so tough.
What would a Contra game be without weapons? Most of the weapons from previous games return but some of them have different names. Shooting the floating capsules will drop weapons that can be picked up. Acquiring multiples of the same weapon will upgrade it, making it more powerful. You start out with a basic machine gun but can swap it out with other weapons found in the stages and all characters except Leviathan and Sayuri can hold two at once and switch between them at any time. The spread shot returns and is still as awesome as ever. The super machinegun fires rapidly, making it extremely useful. The chain laser will rip through enemies and the heated plasma is similar to the flame weapon in previous games and can be charged up for a more powerful attack. Crash missiles are extremely powerful projectiles but lack in range and the ripple is a new attack which is excellent for short range and can deflect bullets and other projectiles. If you die, you lose whatever weapon your holding and that can suck if you’re up against a boss.
The Contra series has always had excellent side-scrolling set pieces and Hard Corps: Uprising is no exception. You’ll be speeding down a highway on a hover board while being chased by police cars and helicopters. If you can survive the ruins you’ll speed along the water as you fight the end boss. One of the later stages has you chasing a boss through burning rooms while running, jumping, and dodging enemy attacks. You’ll be riding on a train and need to jump onto different train cars as others are destroyed. There’s no shortage of action in Uprising and you’ll always be in the middle of it. I’m all for Contra kicking my ass and most of my deaths in this game were because I didn’t know what was coming or because I wasn’t paying attention. All of the challenges you face can be overcome but the end of the game includes a lot more platforming and because the enemies just get more and more relentless, the platforming starts to make your deaths feel unfair. In Rising mode, upgrading your character with more health, lives, and continues is absolutely helpful but since falling off ledges always results in an instant death, the platforming becomes the biggest challenge later in the game, making the said upgrades feel almost meaningless. Yeah, you can take a few shots without dying now but you won’t be worried about that anymore because the challenge is now about making precise jumps. You can easily drain lives rapidly if you’re not careful and because everything is so fast-paced you need to make decisions quickly so dying because of an improperly timed jump gets frustrating. I don’t mind repeating stages if I’m going to be blasting through them and dodging attacks but the final two stages in particular include several platforming sequences and having to replay through those over and over again becomes tedious.
Hard Corps: Uprising has this whole Anime art style going on. I’m not a fan of Anime and that’s the reason I didn’t get this game when it released in 2011. I finally caved about a year ago because I just wanted more Contra and I’m glad I did because Uprising is one of the best digital games you can get. I may not like the Anime style but even I can’t deny this is a gorgeous looking game. The art, itself, is well done and the animations are just excellent. It’s bright, it’s colorful, and there’s plenty of detail in the environments. The game runs super smooth and I only wish I didn’t have to play with an Xbox 360 controller because the dpad isn’t exactly amazing. I probably should have bought the PlayStation Network version but, ideally, I’d rather play this with a Super Nintendo controller. Regardless, the controls are responsive and the controls can even be adjusted to your liking in-game. The sound effects here are a mixed bag. On the one hand, explosions and anything that gets destroyed sounds fantastic. But on the other hand, some of the gunfire sounds weak and you’ll be shooting ninety five percent of the time. Another thing I noticed is that when killing enemies, their death screams sound louder than they should. The sound effects just weren’t balanced properly. Now the music consists of heavy metal tracks and they all just sound awesome. Almost every song is catchy and memorable and they really help emphasize the action. Seriously, it’s an amazing soundtrack.
The only thing missing from Hard Corps: Uprising is the “Contra” title itself. I’m not sure why the developers didn’t include it in the name but I would imagine it could of helped sales if people knew it was a Contra game without having to looking up the details. Uprising delivers on everything that makes a Contra game so excellent and it shows that the series can still hold its own. Its brutal difficulty may turn people away but the Rising mode is an excellent addition to the series, perfect for newcomers. For those that enjoy a sadistic challenge, you can always play through the Arcade mode which is your typical Contra experience and it will keep you playing for quite some time. The sometimes ridiculous platforming and minor audio problems are the only real issues I have with the game but they can easily be overlooked. Hard Corps: Uprising is an excellent entry in the Contra series and amazing in its own right and I would highly recommend it to fans of the genre or action games in general.