Contra: Evolution Review

Shot through the heart…

Once upon a time, there was a game called Contra. While it wasn’t the first run-and-gun scrolling game, it was probably the best of its kind. It featured Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, whose flagrant machismo and Rambo-esque exploits made them stand out amongst other arcade heroes. With their trusty, oversized guns at the ready, they bravely ventured forth into a futuristic wasteland and systematically slaughtered an invading alien horde. It was a grueling, harrowing task. Not only were the enemies and landscapes unforgiving, but the heroes could die with a single hit. Beating Contra quickly became the stuff of childhood legend; no one would blame a young gamer for resorting to the now-famous Konami Code and all the extra lives it offered. The game’s reputation only grew from there, spawning a long-running series that spanned decades and consoles alike. With the advent of smartphones and tablets, Contra was poised to make a triumphant return for a whole new generation…

And it failed miserably.

The problems with Contra: Evolution begin before the game even starts. Due to a programming bug, the app crashes almost every time you make it past the first menu. It looks so full of promise; a few bonus modes, a couple of unlockable characters, flashy colors…and a loading screen that takes so long that it freezes. After being kicked back out into your phone’s home screen, you summon enough patience for a second attempt. The official Konami logo pops up, almost reassuring you that no, this was all just a silly misunderstanding. The title screen appears again, giving you shadowy glimpses of the alien queen and desolate, fiery wasteland. Eagerly, you start up Arcade Mode and watch the little red loading icon spin merrily in the corner…and suddenly you’re back on the home screen, this time with a slight but ever-growing headache.

When the law of averages (or just blind luck) finally works in your favor, the game will load and you’ll be thrust into Contra’s world. If you grew up with the older game, it’s easy to be swept away by the nostalgia; the iconic levels have all been revamped with updated graphics and backgrounds. The rocky outcroppings and tree lines have better textures and scaling, and that first wall boss actually looks metallic. The characters look better proportioned and animated. Not bad, you might think. Maybe this will be worth it after all! Then you try actually getting through the first level, and you realize how horribly wrong you were. As a run-and-gun game, the original Contra required accurate directional inputs; responsive controls allowed you turn around, duck under enemy fire, aim at different angles, jump to avoid attacks, and manage the uneven terrain. In Contra: Evolution, the controls are mapped to a touch screen directional pad and a jump button. It would’ve been fine, if the buttons actually responded to your fingers. Missed landings and ducks, accidental kamikaze runs into enemy fire, and abysmally inaccurate diagonal shots are common.

The control layout makes things physically worse as well. The original Contra was built as an arcade game, with a large display and easily-accessible buttons. When you try to cram all of that into a smartphone screen, everything becomes cluttered and difficult to see. The buttons obscure huge chunks of either side of the level, which potentially leads to unnecessary deaths. Not that it’ll matter much, though; there are fewer enemies to kill, and your characters fire their weapons automatically. As you’re frantically wrangling with the controls, you might mow down a small army unintentionally. The game has the usual assortment of laser beams, spread shots, and machine gun power-ups, but you probably won’t need them. Since you spend in-game gems on extra lives, it’s possible to finish the game in a single blind run. However, using those extra collectibles can come back to haunt you; without gems, you can’t earn as much money for weapon upgrades or character levels. That’s where the game tries to trick you into using in-app purchases. You can either grind through levels with the frustrating controls, or you can spend a few more dollars to max out all of the stats. But you don’t need to; the game is beatable without additional upgrades. It’s just thinly-veiled attempt to fake longevity and get your money.

The game desperately tries to keep your attention with its extra challenges. The Mission Mode puts you back into the same levels, but with focus on high scores, completion times, and the number of deaths. Elite Mode does something similar; the weakest cannon fodder enemies take more hits, explode after dying, etc. It’s a welcome twist on the otherwise bland gameplay, but still lacks creativity. Nostalgia-prone gamers will likely dive right into Boss Rush, though the luster fades quickly. There are trophies and leaderboards to contend with, but they’re probably not worth the time. Your efforts also result in more funds for weapon upgrades, as well as medals that go towards unlocking another character. Unlike Bill and Lance, Ricci and Sally have more unique play styles; the former can dual-wield guns, and the latter a katana and shurikens. They exist for the sole purpose of adding variety and bragging rights – killing an alien queen with a shuriken is pretty cool – but offer little else. It would’ve been interesting to see a story mode, some dialogue, or anything resembling a reason to keep playing.

But there isn’t. Contra: Evolution is easily the worst version of its classic predecessor. It’s as if the designers attempted to capture everything that was awesome about the arcade experience, only to completely miss why it was great. Yes, the graphics look amazing for a cell phone game. Yes, there’s plenty of nostalgia go around. But the joy of Contra didn’t come from its graphical details; it was due to the satisfaction of surviving the brutally difficult levels and mastering the controls. There’s none of it to be found here; the touch screen buttons are clunky and unresponsive, the continue system makes it easy to blindly charge through levels, and there’s no reason to bother with any of the extra features. The hardest part of the game isn’t the bosses, but actually getting it to run in the first place. It’s so glitchy and broken that it makes you want to quit before you even begin. Ironically, Contra: Evolution is anything but.

Originally posted here.

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