Contra: Hard Corps
Going through the original entries in the Contra series it has seemed like the series was perfectly content just cranking out the same kinds of games over and over again. The series hadn't really evolved from the original Contra, and while some games added in ideas -- weapon switching in Contra III: The Alien Wars, a team mechanic in the Contra in name only Contra Force -- it was hard to point to any game in the series that really tried to push forward and really strive to be a new experience after that initial release.
And then came Contra: Hard Corps.. It's hard to say if this game would have been the title it was were it not for some behind the scenes machinations, but it was clear that the team had a fire under their ass and wanted to release something truly great. This title is the first to feature selectable characters, an even greater arsenal, branching paths, and all done on a 16-bit console that could actually keep up with the ambitions of the development team. It's the first truly great Contra game to come out since the original title.
What was the cause of this: well, while its hard to get the full background development story it's pretty easy to piece it together secondhand. Two years earlier a large portion of the development team left Konami and went to form their own company: Treasure. Anyone that knows gaming should recognize that company because they created one of the all time greatest run-n-gun shooters ever: Gunstar Heroes. This goofy little title featured fast shooting, swappable (and combining) weapons, giant bosses, and so many cool ideas that it feels overstuffed. It basically saw Contra and did it better. It wouldn't surprise me if one of the things the developers wanted to do was make a good Contra game, had all their ideas shut down, and went to do it themselves their way. It's a great game.
When you play Contra: Hard Corps. it's easy to see the influence of Treasure's masterpiece on this game. Both titles were developed for the Sega Genesis (this being the only Contra game on that console), and so many ideas seem to draw from Gunstar Heroes. The game isn't a one-to-one copy of Treasure's title but you can easily see where Konami said, "oh, you think you can play in our sandbox?" and decided to try and on-up Treasure's game. While I don't think this game is better than Gunstar Heroes it is a masterpiece in its own right. The competition did Konami a lot of good.
Set a few years after the events of Contra III, Hard Corps. finds four heroes -- more traditional Contra warriors Ray and Sheena joined by wolfman Brad and robot Brownie -- following on the heels of an evil organization that has stolen the alien cells from the Alien War and is using them to create their own bio-mechanical monstrosities. The heroes have to take on this evil terrorist group and defeat them before the terrorists are able to destroy the world.
The first thing you'll find that's new and special about Hard Corps, right off the bat, is that this game has selectable characters. It's not just a cosmetic coat of paint, mind you, as each character plays different. Ray has the standard Contra load out while Sheena has a variation of similar weapons. Brad's attacks are generally shorter ranged, or require build-up, but they can be the most devastating. And Brownie is a mix of these various styles but with a shorter stature (making it easier for him to dodge) plus a hover ability that can keep him alive. Brownie is kind of broken.
If you were playing on the Japanese version this game deviated even further from traditions because, in that region, this was the first game in the series to feature an actual health bar. Now, instead of the characters suffering one-hit-kills they could take damage and still go on shooting. This was removed in the Western versions, mind you, as apparently it was though our players wanted harder titles, but even having health in the game at all showed Konami was willing to really play around with what it meant to be a Contra title.
And then there was the game's length. While previous adventures in the series were twenty- to thirty-minute affairs, Contra: Hard Corps would take an hour, or more, to explore all its various avenues. Sure, a single play-through of the game would only take thirty minutes or so but then you'd only see one version of the game. What made this title so exciting was that it featured branching paths, each one with different levels, different bosses, and new endings to see.
Seriously, the depth of this title is staggering. Each path would have options for you to pick and, playing through them, would give you up to six different scenarios. There were bad endings, and good endings, and all kinds of story features to the game. There was simply so much more to see and do in this game than had been in any previous adventure in the series, making this a true high water mark for the Contra franchise, bar none.
If we're being fair, though, this game isn't perfect. The first real flaw is with the bosses. While all of them are big, and weird, with a lot of stylish creativity (and a fair smattering of silliness), none of the bosses are really all that hard to deal with. Where in previous games the screen could be peppered with bullets and waves, making survival a matter of good dodging and a lot of skill, the bosses here are far easier to deal with. I'm not that great at these games and I managed, more than once, to go deathless in the U.S. version's bosses. If I can do that then the bosses simply aren't hard enough.
The other issue is really a problem with the hardware. While the Genesis had its own level of power that could, at times, take on the SNES, the one thing it really lacked was good graphics scaling and rotation. The big, chunky bosses look interesting at times but they don't always animate well, more a collection of pieces stung together than a seemingly smooth whole. I like the ideas on display but the final results are sometimes lacking in design. This is all just due to the hardware and Konami doesn't really deserve a lot of blame here, but it did make me long from some of the big set-pieces and their cool designs from the SNES entry in the series.
Overall, though, this game was everything I'd been looking for from Contra. Konami saw where the genre was headed and knew what they had to do, and then delivered. In fact, they did such a good job on this game that its still stands, for many fans, as the last great game in the series (despite a number of sequels and spin-offs to follow). If you were only play one Contra game ever you absolutely have to play Contra: Hard Corps.