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Casual observers must be baffled when they watch someone play through tough old-school games. They see the tense hands, the parched eyes, the tight scowl; they must wonder, why would anyone subject themselves to this? Is it a determination to succeed, or a desire to suffer?
Sometimes, even the player doesn’t know. When the deaths start piling up, frustration can obscure the distinction between a worthy challenge and a cheap wringer. For some, it doesn’t matter: if the game can be beaten, they will beat it.
I once had that unshakable tenacity, but I won’t put up with cheap traps anymore. I’m learning how to spot the dirty tricks that games use to torture players. And Contra 4 is a hell of a teacher.
The 2007 DS game is a throwback to the first Contra for NES, itself a home conversion of the original arcade game. Now, as then, the player runs and guns through a 2D jungle of infinite danger, enemies attacking from all directions at all times. The arcade game was designed to rob players one quarter at a time, with unpredictable traps every ten paces waiting to kill your fragile Rambo. Other than “tradition,” I’m not sure how Contra 4 excuses its sucker punches.
Enemies spawn infinitely in narrow pathways, pouncing from front and back and above all at once with a split-second to respond. Tiny red bullets camoflauge themselves among the soft, colorful backgrounds, often creeping from the top screen while the bottom has your attention. Boss encounters rely entirely on pattern memorization, where repeated failure is the only way to learn. Behind-the-back stages mix 2D sprites and 3D environments, making collision points impossible to discern. As a whole, the dangers of Contra 4 are arranged specifically to cheat the player their first time through.
Each death is not only infuriating but devastating as well. Whatever special weapon you had equipped gets demoted to the standard issue rifle. And if your Spread shot or Homing missiles weren’t enough to survive, what hope do you have with your pea-shooter? You’ll find out after an all-too-brief invincibility period when you respawn at your worst among the chaos that defeated you at your best. Momentum is everything: stay alive long enough and you can stack some indispensable weaponry, but one mistake usually leads to more.
And because Contra 4 operates on a limited continue system, be prepared to restart the game over and over again. I finished the game on medium difficulty in five hours, four of which were spent replaying the first five stages repeatedly, just to get back to the second half of the game. There’s a satisfaction that comes with mastering the early stages, and you can stockpile extra lives and upgraded weapons in preparation for later challenges, but the limited continue system is still just a leftover from when games were built specifically to waste time and money.
It’s not all bad, but even Contra 4’s strengths come with downsides. Wayforward Technologies is one of the last dedicated 2D art studios in gaming, but their lush take on Contra backgrounds and character sprites often obscure bullets and missiles and other dangers. The tall, dual-screen layout of the action makes for some creative vertical scenarios, yet scanning both at once is nearly impossible. And the level design exhibits impressive variety, almost never using an enemy type in more than one stage. That also means each learning experience is one-and-done, never combining or layering obstacles in a traditional difficulty curve, instead shifting gears completely in every stage.
As a full arcade-adventure experience, Contra 4 is an amusing relic at best. But in brief pieces where failure only sets you back fifteen seconds, the frantic shooting gallery style can be worthwhile. As evidence, the DS card includes 40 Challenges, unlocked after finishing the main game, that infuse extra rules and wrinkles into minute-long excerpts of the adventure. It’s a Super Meat Boy setup where one mistake ends your run, but success is never so far away to discourage completely. It’s in these short Challenges where Contra’s survive-by-the-second style can thrive in the post-arcade world. Beating these Challenges unlocks extras that celebrate the series's 20th anniversary, including emulations of the original Contra and Super C for the NES.
For all my complaints, it felt good to defeat the game in the end. Really good. That’s one of the dangerous allures of sadistically tough games: the hours of suffering make victory all the more sweet. But Contra 4 taught me that it’s more important to consider your mood when you turn the system on. When I see that Capcom logo before playing the tough-but-fair Devil May Cry 3, it inspires determination and anticipation. With Contra 4, the Konami logo merely primed me for resignation. Next time, that’ll be enough for me to hit the power button again.