Over three decades have passed since Contra made its debut in arcades, before becoming a household name thanks to Nintendo and NES, not to mention a quintessential staple of ‘80s pop culture in the same breath as Arnold Schwarzenegger films. With numerous sequels over the years on nearly every gaming platform, Contra last saw a canonical entry nearly a decade ago on Nintendo Wii as a digital exclusive title, Contra ReBirth.
After much silence Konami have finally brought the legendary shooter back into the limelight with the excellent Contra Anniversary Collection, which is fantastic value for both fans and newcomers alike. The collection was certainly a perfectly curated reminder of how the franchise still remains the absolute best of action video games. To add to the momentum of this resurgence, Konami has now also given us a brand-new entry in Contra: Rogue Corps, announced and launched within a space of a few short months no less.
Unlike other recent retro resurgences, Contra: Rogue Corps isn’t a classic reboot like Sonic Mania or a traditional sequel like Mega Man 11. Instead, it is a serious sequel looking to move the series forward rather than rehashing its own past gameplay mechanics and design conventions. For better or for worse, Contra: Rogue Corps takes a substantial departure from what is normally expected of a Contra game, yet at the same time there are genuine (albeit brief) moments which convincingly capture the series’ iconic brilliance.
Contra: Rogue Corps comes from developer Toylogic, known for lending a helping hand or two on a pretty impressive selection of games which include the likes of Kid Icarus Uprising, The Evil Within, and even Super Smash Bros. Brawl. This time they work under the helm of Konami to revitalise Contra with their own interpretation, but all under the careful supervision of Contra original, Nobuya Nakazato, who lead the development on Contra III: The Alien Wars, Contra: Hard Corps, and even Neo Contra. Although Rogue Corps does feel like a major departure from series’ conventions in many aspects, a lot of these new choices come under the directive of Nakazoto himself. So even if diehard Contra fans have a few objections about this latest entry, they can at least be assured that the entire game has had Nakazato’s blessing, and it is perhaps his involvement which helps it to retain the spirit of the legendary franchise.
Contra: Rogue Corps takes the gameplay to 3D, as a twin stick shooter played primarily from the top-down perspective. The initial reaction towards the game was a mix of surprise and disappointment, and yet this is hardly the first time this particular game design was explored in the series. If anything, the latest Contra entry is a natural, albeit long overdue, successor to Neo Contra on PlayStation 2 (2004) which introduced the top-down 3D shooting gameplay. Contra: Rogue Corps takes those ideas to a new direction by not only making full use of twin stick shooting mechanics, but also adding surprisingly deep RPG elements and customisation options, an idea which was first explored in the spin-off, Hard Corps: Uprising.
What this translates to is a pretty functional twin stick shooter; it gives you all the tools you need to make the most out of overwhelming combat situations, such as being able to dash/dodge and, of course, action the iconic Contra rolling jump. Perhaps the most jarring gameplay mechanic, which makes absolutely no sense when you first get into the game, is the idea of weapons overheating due to extended use and needing time to cool down. Anyone who has ever played any Contra game knows the thrill is in going in guns blazing, and yet this weapon cool down system immediately offends by breaking the flow of action. It takes a long time to come to terms with this, but as you get used to the game and its design you start to appreciate – or at the very least understand – the deliberateness of this gameplay interruption.
The core gameplay strategy in Contra: Rogue Corps involves swapping between two weapons (the selection of which is also part of the strategy) and making sure they’re both being used efficiently without overheating. It becomes a blessing in disguise, because the fine art of mixing up two weapons and timing attacks can create a rather intuitive shooting rhythm. In addition to the two main weapons, there is also a screen-clearing bomb attack and a special attack unique to each of the four playable characters. Although you primarily need to make do with the two weapons you bring to each stage, there are occasional special pickups which resemble the epic power ups seen in Contra’s past, such as the electro gun.
Speaking of pickups, there are a ton of materials to pick up and collect during each of the game’s stages; all the materials needed to upgrade weapons and characters. Thankfully, these upgrades also mean that you can remedy the weapon overheating issue to some extent using the right weapon upgrades. This isn’t a simple stat upgrade system as seen in most action games, as there is a level of thought and detail which you can’t help but feel a little intimidated by at first. To micro manage character stats and weapon upgrades between levels is practically unheard of in a Contra game, and yet this emphasis on loot gathering and level grinding – as weapons level up with experience points – makes Contra: Rogue Corps less about skill and level memorisation as per the series tradition, and instead more akin to a Diablo-esque grind.
Speaking of Diablo, the level design usually involves progressing through rooms filled with enemies to clear before moving on to the next. This idea does vary a bit with platforming segments, gallery style shooting, and other neat gimmicks, but for the most part you are just clearing enemies, fighting the occasional mid-boss, and collecting loot… a major far cry from the razor sharp and ingeniously designed levels the series had become famous for. The game’s difficulty isn’t offensively challenging either, as even if you fail a mission you still retain experience points needed to level up your weapons.
Boss battles were always a standout moment in previous Contra games. Sadly, in this one most of these are fairly bland mid-bosses with pretty similar attack patterns. However, you do occasionally face truly epic behemoths which pay homage to the style of encounters the series became legendary for. Still, the brief moments of thrilling action and awe-inspiring boss battles are generally overshadowed by the grind-heavy gameplay. The repetitive gameplay approach is emphasised even further in exploration missions where the goal is to collect as much loot as possible. Even when the core missions try to change things up a bit with different mission objectives, the experience feels largely the same.
Still, despite the bland and repetitive nature of the core game design, there are plenty of gameplay modes on offer here, such as the online and offline co-op modes for up to four players. This is officially the first time Contra has gone fully online, and although just having online co-op would have been plenty, there are dedicated competitive multiplayer modes on offer as well. These offer a different style of gameplay where players can go against each other in a traditional death match affair, and even an interesting mode resembling a football match but with guns. It’s just a shame you will need to find eight players for a match.
Contra: Rogue Corps has a ton of personality and humour in its presentation though, especially the vibrant cast of characters which includes a cyborg panda armed with a machine gun. These characters are interesting, and have different starting weapons, but aside from their special attacks they are mostly identical especially once you get into the upgrades. Despite the art and visuals demonstrating personality and flair, the graphics are mostly underwhelming with the textures and character models looking incredibly dated. The music is standard fair, as it doesn’t really do much to standout, even with the occasional brief cameos of classic Contra music remixes.
If you’re after the Contra of old, then Contra Anniversary Collection has got you covered. If you’re after a pristine 2D action game akin to the Contra of old, then the recent Blazing Chrome will give you the fix you need. If you’re ready to get on with the times and embrace change, then Contra: Rogue Corps will provide entertainment with its own unique interpretation of the Contra spirit. Put it this way, we’ve only recently wanted our favourite classic gaming franchises to go back to exactly what they once were, but a kid from the ‘90s playing the original Contra games was probably dreaming up a sequel as unusual and feature-heavy as what we have right now.
Contra: Rogue Corps on Xbox One is, for better or for worse, a forward-looking sequel which won’t make everyone happy. For what it is, this a twin stick shooter jam-packed with things to do and collect, especially thanks to the comprehensive RPG elements.