Late to the Party: Contra Hard Corps

contra-hard-corps-characters

I played the Nintendo Entertainment System version of the first Contra game, Super C, and Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super NES growing up, but had actually never heard of the Sega Genesis Contra Hard Corps – which many apparently called the best Contra game, until many years later. I’m only just now learning the myriad reasons it’s so revered that involve what it does for the Contra formula as well as the circumstances surrounding its release.

Playing the game now, I’m astonished at how much it added to the series’ gameplay after Alien Wars. I think it’s officially known as a side game or a sub-series (it got a direct sequel on the PS3 and Xbox 360) but I honestly still think it’s close enough to its forbears to more or less be the “Contra IV” before WayForward made Contra 4 on the original Nintendo DS.

I guess I could start with the characters. Contra usually just has two palette-swapped characters who are only that way to support two players right? The first thing you get to control upon starting a new game in Hard Corps is a character select screen where you see their faces and names. Instead of two guys it’s a guy, the earliest playable female Contra character to my knowledge, a dog, and a robot. After a while though I started wondering why I should pick anyone other than the robot because his weapons seemed to be the most useful to me, he’s smaller, and can double jump. It wasn’t until I decided to try out the dog and robot that I realized everyone seems to have their own sets of weapons.

And those arsenals go way beyond the flame gun, spread gun, and lasers and whatnot you usually get in OG Contra or Alien Wars. I first realized this when I picked the dog and got some kind of flame fist weapon. The robot’s starting arrow-shaped regular shot that penetrates through multiple enemies seems cool, but then he gets this yo-yo thing that tracks enemies, and a shield that forms into a projectile that also tracks enemies. I probably saw not even half this game’s arsenal and it’s already the most imaginative I’ve seen in a Contra game. The level design and boss design to me didn’t seem too different from Alien Wars which is fine when Hard Corps tosses in its additional character and weapon variety.

What also caught me off-guard though is that Hard Corps has an actual full-blown storyline it tells in-game. I didn’t expect to see text dialogue (not to mention mission briefings) with choices that affect the ending. The game even cleverly sets up these choices so you don’t fully understand the consequences until later. Sure it’s all kind of basic by modern standards but it’s still a neatly-constructed storyline that’s probably deeper than anything else in a Genesis action game.

Looking back at Contra series release dates makes it a bit clearer why so many fans talk about Hard Corps. Released in 1994, it was essentially the last classic 2D Contra Konami made before Contra: Shattered Soldier on the PlayStation 2 almost a decade later. It sort of marked the end of the franchise’s heyday. Adding to this, its inclusion in SEGA’s Genesis Mini and Konami’s Contra Anniversary Collection represent the first time Konami has ever re-released it.

So, you have a game that was a significant shift for Contra, the last traditional Contra game in a long time, with no way to get it for decades other than a pricy physical cartridge. Let me just say the re-releases are certainly worth it.

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