Back in its heyday, Contra did everything right on the console: fast-paced co-op gunplay, vibrant environs, explosions, lots of jumping and of course, a killer rock soundtrack. This late-80s masterpiece from Konami raised the bar for action games when it launched, and continues to inspire and influence titles to this day. 2013 marks the 25th anniversary for Contra’s console release, and a remaster of sorts for mobile devices seems like a fitting way to celebrate.
For those who weren’t around in 1988: Contra follows a loose plot centered around two commandos named Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer and Lance “Scorpion” Bean who are tasked with taking down an alien force that has its sights set on planet Earth. Skip forward to the present day, and Contra: Evolution is pretty much the same, save for updated graphics and two new playable characters. The game allows you to play through all levels with a finite number of lives in Arcade mode, or take on individual levels in Mission mode to earn Eagles and unlock a character.
Like the original, Contra: Evolution is a 2D side-scrolling run-and-gun platformer with a decidedly macho vibe. The Contra franchise has never been about subtlety, and this iteration follows suit. Environments, characters and boss stages look gorgeous and feature classic sprites all over the place that fans will recognize; the cheesy-but-awesome synth-heavy soundtrack will make you feel right at home playing this retro adventure, and all the signature graphic elements that made Contra special are here too: airborne gun upgrades, wall-mounted spinning attack turrets, and plenty of things that that go boom!
The levels have always been the real heroes in Contra, and things are no different here: from vast jungles to winter landscapes to what looks like the digestive system of an alien life form, there’s a variety of environments to marvel at. Enemies come in many shapes and sizes, including stationed machine gunners, cyborgs and lots of sentient robots with serious firepower. There’s a lot of retrofuturistic design to geek out over, and it’s a delight to see the classic Contra art style revived in a playable title that’s executed as well as this.
You’ll need to pick a character to begin, and until you finish Arcade mode, your choices are restricted to Mad Dog and Scorpion. All four muscle-bound mil-spec badasses play pretty much the same way — run, shoot down anything and anyone in your path, destroy the boss, and get to the next level. Most Contra levels are designed with platforms at various heights, which means you’ll have enemies and fire coming at you from above, below and all around you. The only way to survive is to keep your finger on the trigger as you dodge and weave through the chaos — lucky for you, your ammo is unlimited and there’s an auto-fire option to help level the playing field some.
There are three control schemes to choose from, of which I found the classic 8-direction control to be the easiest to work with. Fans of retro titles will find a healthy challenge in beating the game with only the five lives that are granted at the beginning of a round of Arcade mode; what they might enjoy less is the fact that long jumps are pretty hard to pull off, and things aren’t made easier by the unforgiving (and perhaps slightly less-responsive-than-ideal jump button). Still, once you get used to how things work, you can really sink your teeth into this excellent platformer that rivals the best of its contemporaries.
Contra will not only demand every ounce of attention you can muster, but also requires dexterity and precision: across levels, you’ll encounter both mobile enemies and projectiles that can follow you around and kill you with a single hit. Plus, some turrets and bosses will require you to either stay in one place and fire at them or aim while running and jumping to dodge attacks big and small. There are times when the game seems impossible to beat — thankfully there are…
Before you skip reading the rest of this review, let me state that the average player won’t find it absolutely necessary to shell out extra dough on this game. However, with Contra: Evolution being a mobile game, you can buy your way out of a tight spot: pick up from where you left off for a couple of diamonds or get some additional firepower to take down a boss. The in-game prices for these are actually very reasonable, and you can totally ignore the store if you’re not down for IAPs.
Lost in translation?
While the graphics and gameplay are largely what you’d expect from an HD update of a retro favorite, developers Punchbox Studios could have done a better job with the UI, IAP menu and copy all through the game. Arcade mode could also have been a bit longer — it won’t take more than an hour to complete. Plus, a game with all this simultaneous running, jumping and shooting could seriously have benefited from more refined controls and support for external controllers. I really hope that an update will address these issues, but given how short the game is and that I’ve finished it a few times already, I won’t hold my breath.
Contra: Evolution is an action-packed thrill ride that’s fun all the way, and will appeal to both fans of the original and newcomers to the franchise alike. The UI and controls could do with some work, but they aren’t so terrible as to ruin the experience. This is a fine title for the low price it’s available at. Get this game now — that’s an order!