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Contras, Probotectors, and the legacy of war

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
No big mission statement here other than to talk about the perennial run 'n gun series and all its inspirational offshoots!

A year or two ago I had the great experience of wreaking havoc on my hand with repetitive stress injury through the process of completing every mission in Contra 4, as well as completing the game on Hard. Since then, there have been some movements in the series proper and outside of it, and the other day I felt the call to probotect once more, and dug into the Anniversary Collection for the duration. A relatively short order later, for these games of modest objective length, I've done all there is to do in this record of the series in its infancy and arguable prime, so here are brief miscellaneous thoughts on each game featured, in a descending order of personal preference.

Contra: The Hard Corps

Maybe it should lack the article for reflecting the North American release that I played for wanting to follow the textual narrative, but the Japanese title rings in the ear a little catchier. I played through this game four times in a row, charting all the route variants, endings, and playable characters (and missed a secret or two). At no point did it feel like a chore... okay, stage 4 which is immutable on every playthrough has a couple of bosses that spend a little too much time just idling to justify the prolonged entanglement, but other than that? This is a peak Contra for the expression of the form that it represents. I'm not interested in hashing out the eternal debate between the ingredients that make up the series and how there's a supposedly ideal mix of platforming spiced with fodder patterns and elaborate boss rushes, because it just isn't a static conclusion for me and never has been. Hard Corps is beautiful for going in maximalist for a niche hyperfocus, and tremendously inventive every step of the way in playing with a formula that even then had been a codified one. No shortage of praise for the aesthetics either; an equally expansive treasure trove of Mega Drive visuals and audio experimentation. It's a rollicking adventure that feels bigger than it is and by the conventions of the series it's already gargantuan, and that's a mix of ambition and mastery that doesn't often intersect.

Operation C

Opinions lean majority negative on Konami's earliest Game Boy games like Castlevania: The Adventure, but by 1991? They had the system on lock. The year alone saw games like Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge, Nemesis II, and yes, Operation C. What connects these games--other than factual aspects like shared development staff--is the way they embody that particular set of semiotics on the hardware, in that time and place, to create a sort of shared mythology without having any real intent or a line to follow between them; it's simply the creators coming through in their voices, through their work. What those common identifiers translate to are compact length and a general sense of distillation of the material to its absolute limits as to allow no opportunities to stumble in the execution. Operation C reflects its older, bigger siblings, to an authentic, aspirational fault at times, but it is also a flattering reproduction because only the best qualities are represented. The love I have for this incarnation of shared material over the others comes down to an infatuation with the specifics of time and place, as mentioned earlier--Konami on Game Boy in this era imbued the worlds it created with an inimitable sense of sheer texture, for want of a colour palette to embellish with. Depth-enhancing dust and haze particles permeate the environments, rolling on by at their own pace, and structures peer out from beyond the borders of vision. To make a game like Contra seem a little lonely, adrift, and even melancholy, is the result of particular personal preferences that twist the material to that interpretive end, but nonetheless a distinct aspect of the work that provided that catalyst.

Super Probotector: Alien Rebels

This collection allows for the European version of Contra III to be played in 60hz mode, so one can enjoy these pseudo-Patlabors at the proper velocity. This was Nobuya Nakazato's debut work in the series, and represents a passing of the torch in the Contra chronology for a new generation of developers who liked and respected the existing titles and wanted to continue the series the best way they knew how: by allowing it to change. This is then one of those almost-mythic inflection points in the guiding principles balancing the series between two extremes, and likely a result of Nakazato and his team's preferences interacting a little insecurely--carefully--with the existing paradigms in place, and so we have a game that often straddles the line in the perceived Contra formula and can often satiate all kinds of players, all at once. Platforming is not absent, but it is giving way to setpiece-minded design that emphasizes extended exposure to a single, solitary threat instead of managing the environment and approaching hordes all at once. The liminality of these differing schools of design can as easily dilute the other as they can act as complements, and so playing on the relentless hard mode, as I did, may open up the design in a way that the standard experience doesn't allow for: bosses especially take much more punishment, but the ability to engage with their heretofore unprecedented elaboration and patterns in the series is worth the pained struggle involved in overcoming them, and similarly, the Raiden bullet-esque accuracy of the supposed "fodder" also casts the ostensible intermissions and sighs of relative relief as terrifying walls unto their own.

All the iterative practice and mastery required in interacting with the game on this level is earned entirely by the experience of taking in the sights and sounds: as Konami developers were distinguishable on Game Boy and other platforms, so they were on the SNES especially in these early years. The music employed here is a major showcase for the composer team, and a landmark for how an action game of the vintage could sound, as the tonality shifts and weaves between a sort of expected apocalyptic driving pulsation, to funky and lively asides showcasing the great rhythmic capabilities of the composers and hardware, to the mesmerizing, filmic medley that evolves throughout the final leg of the journey, bringing the entire venture to a sonically earned climax. The mixture of solemn seriousness and goofy irreverence lives in the soundtrack as much as it does elsewhere in the game, leaving it as a record of how the series was never before and would never be again.

Super C and Contra

When Super C is brought up in almost any context, it's inevitably assessed and understood in a comparative sense to the earlier Contra for the Famicom/NES. I have no particular cause to break from that convention, as so similar are the two games superficially that examination of the specifics is often the only way to glean out the relative merits of both. In that twosome, it is Super C that nearly unanimously comes off looking the better, in a single-minded effort to improve upon a formula: more topographically interesting stage layouts; better thought-out set of weaponry; less sudden gotchas in the level design; a more legible secondary play mode; a better soundtrack; a more elaborate and visually interesting set of bosses (the legacy of Beast Kimkoh starts here--all bow). There's very little here that could be seen as a downgrade to what came earlier, and so I'm not even compelled to individually line out Contra for the NES in this informal ranking: a good game in its own right, and one that is not "made obsolete" by a sequel that may be a wholesale improvement, but through their close kinship a tough one to relate to with enthusiasm when taken together.

Super Contra and Contra

These are troubled games because they are so close to being a consumptible thrill, but the very specifics of the production before the formula for the series had gestated act gravely in counter to the strengths present. Namely, both of the central verbs of the Contra package, and ones that moreover are esteemed for their precision in ideal circumstances, in jumping and shooting, are loose concoctions here, providing little succor in scenarios that even for the series are hardy. They are one of the few times in Contra's entire history when the games in question feel they are not up to the task of reflecting the instructions one gives them, in due haste and accuracy, and consequently breed resentment in interacting with them for any extended period. And the want is there, because the aesthetics in place are so deliciously corny, even for a series steeped in camp sensibilities--the narrated attract mode of Super Contra alone is one of the "ha ha, how absurd" highlights of the series, and a sincere moment of admiration for the music composition and how amped up it can make the observer through its sheer excitement factor, and the same goes for practically the entire soundtrack. These are the aspects that carry the games now, potentially, and they surely were what served to act as the impetus to take this rough around the edges formula and make something out of it suggested by the potential of the components. They are very interesting and worthwhile games to experience on that basis.

~~~
That's about it. Talk about Contra! For myself, I might want to put some real time into Hard Corps: Uprising, because that's a game that's sat ignored for way too long, and I don't see it ever crawling its way out of the PS3.

A final message to sign out with: play Super Cyborg and Blazing Chrome, everyone.
 
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ShakeWell

Slam Master
(he, etc.)
That's about it. Talk about Contra! For myself, I might want to put some real time into Hard Corps: Uprising, because that's a game that's sat ignored for way too long, and I don't see it ever crawling its way out of the PS3.
I, somewhat infamously, did not like Uprising upon release. Only after much badgering from MCBanjoMike did I give it another try, and if you approach it more as a Contra-adjacent game (which is probably correct, as it doesn't carry the series moniker), I think you may enjoy it more than I did on first blush. That said, I haven't finished it yet, but my re-assessment is that it rules, actually. And it's pretty great looking, because ArcSys. Also, I could be wrong, but I *think* the 360 version is backwards compatible/downloadable on Xbone.
 

Kishi

Little Waves
(They/Them)
Staff member
Moderator
I, too, recommend Blazing Chrome. I tend to be hyper-judgmental of faux-retro games like that, but this one actually delivers a professional-grade experience in all respects, from the art to the gameplay and even the ambitious flirtation with rudimentary 3D that often gets left out of such throwbacks. I've been thinking of going back to it soon.


For myself, I might want to put some real time into Hard Corps: Uprising, because that's a game that's sat ignored for way too long, and I don't see it ever crawling its way out of the PS3.
Let me know if you want to play co-op. I've never been able to get the Trophy for beating it with someone online.
 

LBD_Nytetrayn

..and his little cat, too
(He/him)
Also, I could be wrong, but I *think* the 360 version is backwards compatible/downloadable on Xbone.
Yep, it's on the list.

I should give it another go sometime. I didn't get too far into it (I think? I'm not sure, but based on regular Contra length, maybe?), but I think I was playing it wrong.

Seeing others talk about it, I think maybe it's designed in a way that you're almost supposed to fail? And then you take what you've gained from the last run, and put it towards buying stuff to improve your next?

If so, that's pretty different for Contra, and I'm not sure I grasped that when I played it before.
 

Kishi

Little Waves
(They/Them)
Staff member
Moderator
All the permanently unlockable progression stuff is in Uprising Mode. There's also Arcade Mode, where you just have what you have. It's been a while, but I want to say that Uprising starts you without even some of the things you have by default in Arcade—so in that sense, you do need to unlock some things to get up to speed. But you don't strictly need any of it to succeed.

As for the length, it's pretty long for the series. There are eight stages, and a single stage might take ten minutes at first—but that time goes down as you learn the stage and figure out how to flow through it with the many movement options available to you. That's where the real replay value is.
 

ShakeWell

Slam Master
(he, etc.)
Seeing others talk about it, I think maybe it's designed in a way that you're almost supposed to fail? And then you take what you've gained from the last run, and put it towards buying stuff to improve your next?
Yeah, it's almost a roguelike thing where you earn credits towards unlocks even when you fail a level, so you can upgrade your guns and add stuff like a longer lifebar and starting with a certain weapon, which helps.
 

Peklo

Oh! Create!
(they/them, she/her)
I cleared Uprising on Uprising Mode, as Krystal. It was good! But I do think the extreme length for a game demanding this level of mechanical attentiveness and execution is too prohibitive for approaching it in Arcade Mode as a contiguous experience as most of the rest of the series calls for, for straining both the mental attention span and physical endurance in all the tap-tap-tap that's required. It does go well as a compartmentalized string of levels and setpieces to dip in and out of for practice, though.

The fondest mechanical wrinkle here is the contextual O-button input, alternating between a projectile parry (!!) when standing still and multiple variations of evasive invincibility frames that take you through obstacles, enemies, and set up counter opportunities and the like when used with precision. The highest skill ceiling I can see is mastering the pace of the level flow in combining those actions with the ground-level dash and airdashes, for an unbroken, stylish stride to the goal. It's a very different way to play and strictly isn't required--to do so starting off would act counter to learning the game, in fact. But it's this whole another world of interactions bubbling under the surface in a way that I really like, to be applied in increments, all the time, or not at all, based on player preference.

Aesthetically and tonally I think it does well. There are enough series conventions and big-fan embellishments (like the pseudo-prequel and inspirational nature of the entire thing to The Hard Corps, of all things) in place that mark it as attuned to the whole, but unafraid to mostly define its own identity through music composition, enemy designs, and the general look and feel of the world. Overt referentiality and reverence tends to gnaw at me in works acting under long legacies and expectations, and this is just on the right side of confidently forging its own way. It's also such a pleasure to have a Contra with multiple playable women where neither is presented in leotards or swimsuits as the defining visual, nor does any other sort of cheeky sexualization creep in regarding them. That alone kept me wanting to play when things got rough.

Maybe 2011 wasn't this game's time in my personal lineage because I barely touched it then, but now it's easier to place its worth in relation to the rest of the series, and why it stands out as a positive example of experimentation with the formula by an outside developer with their own distinct voice.
 
I think it's really great, I played it earlier this year on backward's compatible. I opted out of Arcade mode as I'm a long way from mastery of Shattered Soldier or Contra 4, but I think uprising mode is a good way to make it "playable" for old burnouts like me. I also love the graphics, reminiscent of other Arc System works stuff. Really underrated game!
 

Riot.EXE

Fighting Game Enthusiast
(He/Him)
Just coming in to say that Contra Hard Corps is literally one of my all time favorite video games, period, and that it gives me EXACTLY what I want out of a run-n-gun game.
 
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