Nothing in life ever stays the same. If you've ever had a good friend that you've lost contact with, it can be a mixed experience to meet them again after a long separation. On the one hand, there's nothing like seeing a familiar face that's been missing from your life. On the other hand, you might find it difficult to have the same kind of relationship you once had after years have passed. If you can reconnect on a significant level and find something to build on, then your fond memories can serve as a strong foundation for the future. If you come together only to find that you've gone very separate ways, it might be better to simply cherish your shared past and move on.
Much like meeting that long lost friend, playing the recent reincarnation of Konami's legendary Contra franchise has been a similarly bittersweet experience. Make no mistake, its incredibly gratifying to see one of videogames greatest action series (quite literally) restored to its former glory. After being horribly distorted and dragged through the gutter not once, but twice by two craptastic farmed-out PlayStation sequels, I thought my old shootin' partner was gone for good. However, its back and Konami has played it extremely safe by returning to its roots and not taking many risks with the formula, for better or worse. Its understandable, but also disappointing.
For those who havent ever experienced the frenzied glory of Contra on the NES, SNES or Genesis, its basically a side-scrolling twitch action game with lots of shooting, jumping and one-hit deaths. In Shattered Soldier there are two characters to pick from, a male and a female, although both are identical in every way except appearance. Each comes equipped with three weapons: a machine gun, flamethrower and a grenade lobber. All three are capable of a "charged-up" method of fire as well. Unlike earlier games, these weapons cannot be lost and players are free to cycle through them at any time. The downside to this system is that there are no other weapons to collect and no upgrades to acquire.
There are four levels at the outset that can be tackled by either one or two players in any order. Once clearing these, a fifth level opens up. If players are on the Normal difficulty and have achieved a sufficient ranking in these five levels, there are two more that can be unlocked along with corresponding endings.
After sitting down and spending time with Contra: Shattered Soldier, its clear to see that older gamers are the ones who will likely enjoy it the most. The graphics are solidly rendered in 3D, but they're not anything that will impress or engage people more accustomed to the visual flash prevalent on today's powerful hardware. The gameplay itself is the real draw here, and its taken directly out of the late 80s with an emphasis on memorizing patterns of enemy fire in order to remain alive. Such tactics are practically the definition of "old-school." While there are certain advantages in switching between weapons, the key element necessary for staying alive is to know when and where a boss will strike next.
This "Try, Die, Repeat" type of structure is incredibly hard to deal with in the beginning because of the insane amount of times the learning process will reduce you to fleshy slag. Once you learn the patterns, the difficulty of the game comes down to a somewhat manageable level. Its all about knowing whats coming up next. In fact, after some serious frustration at a few key points, I was able to finish the game the first time after only three hours. After a few more tries, I found that the entire game could be completed from start to finish in under one hour. It took a while for my long-unused Contra brain cells to fire back up, but the old reflexes were still there.
Another reason I think Shattered Soldier will have a stronger connection with old-timers is that the game is chock-full of nods, references and even complete sequences taken from the older games, but this was both good and bad.
There's a not-so-fine line between being an homage and being an amalgamation of old content, and I think that this line was crossed. Nearly everything that Contra was known for over the course of the series has been included here, whether it makes sense or not. Things like suddenly finding yourself snowboarding down a hillside or hanging onto a missile screaming through the skies may leave newcomers scratching their heads, but most of these elements are unforgettable moments if you've seen them before. However, rather than being excited or thrilled, I found myself a little disappointed that Konami chose to recycle so much from the past and cobble it into the ill-fitting mishmash seen here. I'm a huge fan of references and giving little tips of the hat, but there's such a large amount of reused material that it felt like I'd already "been there, done that" only minutes after starting level one.
In fact, thats really the feeling I had about the entire game in general. Quite unlike other successful old-school resurrections such as SpyHunter or Defender, Contra: Shattered Soldier seems content to merely recap its old formula without changing much of anything, despite the radically different audience playing today's modern consoles. That's not to say that the gameplay doesn't hold up, but compared to the greater depth and creativity displayed re-imagining other classic titles, its pretty obvious that Contra: Shattered Soldier is little more than a gussied-up fossil. For an older gamer like me, I can appreciate it for what it is, but nostalgia can only carry a disc so far. I've already played the source games and have fond memories of them, but I don't need to relive them at $50 a pop with so much incredible competition on shelves already.
Similar to what Konami did with Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night, I'd like to see Contra taken to the next level while retaining its identity. Keep the core elements and build a next-generation structure around it, in other words. Give me something besides a carbon copy of action that has already been done, and done to perfection on older systems. As it is, it strikes me as one of those old friends who just hasn't done much with themselves since high school; you've had some good times together, but you just don't have much to say to each other once you're done reminiscing.
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