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CONSOLE: Sega Genesis DEVELOPER: Konami PUBLISHER: Konami
RELEASE DATE (NA): August 8, 1994 GENRE: Run'n'Gun
// review by Jeff

How hard corps hardcore are you?

Contra was a pretty big deal when it was first released to the arcades in 1987, and later to the NES the following year. Its massive success transformed unexpectedly into one of Konami's more defining franchises, with subsequent games such as Super Contra (Super C on the NES), Contra III: The Alien Wars, and Operation C also striking a chord with fans, following the adventures of Bill Rizer and Lance Bean, members of the task force codenamed "Contra", against an onslaught of alien beings wishing to overtake the planet for their own. But while Nintendo consoles were gleaming from having these great run'n'gunners, Sega Genesis owners were likely a little disheartened by the lack of attention paid to their systems. Suddenly, in 1994, a life preserver was thrown to Sega, and fans of the series finally had something they could play on the Genesis in the form of Contra: Hard Corps. But, like their other Genesis adaptation of Castlevania (in Castlevania: Bloodlines), Contra: Hard Corps is not a direct sequel, nor does it feature any of the characters seen prior in the series. Instead, Contra: Hard Corps is a Contra game all its own.

Now look out! It's the year 2641, and still some basement hacker has made his way to the city's mainframe and has somehow managed to cause a group of robots to go berserk! (I believe the hacker's last name may be "Wily"...) There's only one group brave enough, strong enough, and skilled enough to combat this major threat to the city. That group is the Unified Military Special Mobile Task Force K-X... errr, actually, that name is too long and uninteresting. That group is the Contra Hard Corps, a commando organization tasked with handling major crimes as they see fit. There's Ray Poward, your stereotypical soldier type with a heart of gold and furrowed brows of justice. Sheena Etranzi is the female Ray but with long blonde hair straight from the prairies of Alberta. Brad Fang, the greatest 90s name in the world, belongs to a half-man, half-wolf creature with a pair of mechanical arms. And there's Browny, the chipper robot who can hover and be cute on command.

C:\BrownyOS\> cuteness.exe -attitude

Contra: Hard Corps follows in the footsteps of its predecessors, offering a LOT of action with little time to rest your weary fingertips. There ARE more brief cutscenes in this game than any Contra before, but they are short and merely act to tie together the constantly moving story, which advances and increases in complexity as the show goes on. Otherwise, you're on the mean streets with a gun in your hand and (hopefully) luck on your side. The cutscenes will be a relief between bouts of having to fend off soldiers from both sides of the screen, bullets from who-knows-where, and the astonishing quantity of boss battles that make up this hardcore/Hard Corps Contra experience on the Genesis. Your character can acquire up to four different weapons, including the Spread Gun and Homing Missiles, alongside explosive bombs, by collecting their respective falcon icons whenever they appear. Losing a life causes you to also lose whatever weapon you had equipped at the time of your death. If you're quick, you can tap the A button and scroll to the next weapon before your demise is recorded, leaving you with the gear you like. Aso new to the series is a slide move for dodging; you will be invincible while pulling off the slide.

And therein lies a key factor in this game: it's difficult to be point of being deviously so. Contra games past offered a high degree of difficulty, but they were reasonable about it in that any faltering was a result of player skill. Contra: Hard Corps, on the other hand, throws so much at you throughout the game, sometimes it feels as though the game is trying too hard to appear "badass" or, indeed, "hardcore". As a result, player skill seems a bit irrelevant as some boss battles and areas rely more on simply being in the right spot on the screen at the right time to NOT get killed. A point that validates this lies in the localization from Japan to North America, where the three-point hit bar, which would have made this game's difficulty far more reasonable for even the most solid of gamers to grasp, was reduced to a one-hit kill, effectively tripling the difficulty and ensuring that the game's completability factor would be limited to people on speed and cyborgs whose wiring was interconnected with that of the Genesis and could interpret the best move based on awareness of the game's code and an advanced run'n'gun algorithm.


And you thought Independence Day had a ton of explosions...

If you can get far in the game, though, you not only get to congratulate yourself for being a Contra übermensch, you get to experience just how much thought went into the design of the aforementioned bosses. Though the first stage is littered mostly with generic robotic designs (Oooh, what is this, 1994? ...Oh, wait, it is.), save for the absolutely giant beast that took up basically the entire screen and tossed whole cars at you while you fired away at its giant hardly unblinking eye, the game actually starts to get more interesting as you go along, and because some stages end in branching plot lines (you can either select to do one thing or another), you'll never see everything in the first playthrough. Or the second. Other stages have you riding on the back of a plane while firing at flying objects, climbing a rocket, or using jetskis on your way to a secret scientific base. That last one is tough than I would have thought, thanks to a mini-boss repeatedly popping out of the water without a specific pattern to follow.

Previous Contra games mainly involved either human soldiers or mutated creatures, but Contra: Hard Corps takes things one step further by including defective mechanical beings as a major source of trouble. Robot bosses are commonplace and your character doesn't even blink an eye at this kind of thing. (In the year 2641, would you?) Even in natural locales like the jungle, technology has taken over and plays a much larger role in the desecration and depravity of the world than expected. Could this be because of the Genesis' target demographic as being older and "cooler" than that of Nintendo consoles? Granted, in Europe, Contra games were modified to present only robots rather than humans as part of some wave of morality against the killing of living beings present within that continent (Contra is known as "Probotector" over there), but I think Sega's campaign of making their console look like the gaming equivalent of a pimped-out motorcycle compared to Nintendo's little tricycle may have had an effect on the design of this game.

And Konami definitely pulled off a more mature look. Contra: Hard Corps is a pretty eye-pleasing game with tons of explosions and large bosses. As with Castlevania: Bloodlines (as well as Treasure's Gunstar Heroes), Konami pushed the system to the limit with effects it definitely wasn't meant to do. Just the giant robot mini-boss in the first stage is a technological feat in itself. And, unlike many of today's powerhouse triple-A titles, despite the wild action that can be going on, there's no drop in framerate, no flicker, nothing except pure adrenaline flowing through that coaxial cable. The game also boasts a pretty powerful soundtrack, actually getting some decently rockin' tunes of that crusty Genesis sound chip. Believe it or not, this one game had five composers, including Michiru Yamane, who would go on to create some of Castlevania's most memorable audio moments in most of the series' future titles. There are digitized voices, but as this IS the Sega Genesis we're talking about, they sound as grainy as sin, like someone shoved beeswax in a man's larynx.

If you can overlook the fact that you'll probably never finish this, the technological marvel of Contra: Hard Corps alone makes it enough of a worthwhile curiosity. It is, as the name implies, a Contra game mainly for the hardcore; if we had only received the Japanese version with an actual health bar (not to mention infinite continues, something that could also have been a great boon), this one would be a much more reasonable gaming experience that wouldn't have players tearing their hair out within the first five minutes. Even though I can acknowledge how "cool" Contra: Hard Corps really is, with the negative tweaks done before being released to the overseas market, I now can only suggest to approach with caution.


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