First Impressions: Looks like we won't have to wait 30 lifetimes after all...
One of the most notable Nintendo DS titles exhibited at this year's E3 was the long overdue sequel, Contra 4. Many veteran fans of the classic Contra games have fond youthful memories of blasting aliens in the original NES action packed side-scrollers. When Konami released Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super Nintendo, complete with its vehicular combat and Mode 7 effects, it seemed to indicate a bright future for the series. Unfortunately, the series saw some of the worst 2D to 3D translations during the 32-bit era. Even Contra: Shattered Soldier, Konami's initial 2002 attempt to bring Contra back to its 2D roots, deviated in many areas that made the original trilogy so great. As a result, it stood as a general rule among fans that Contra III was the series' last truly great installment. In many ways then, labeling Contra 4 as an official numbered sequel is telling since with the DS title Konami is attempting to revert back to the winning formula of the 8 and 16-bit incarnations.
According to a Konami press release the game's story takes place two years after Contra III: The Alien Wars. This time Contra heroes Bill Rizer and Lance Bean must save the world from a new alien menace named Black Viper. They will be aided in this endeavor by mercenaries Mad Dog and Scorpion. Fans may be confused by this since Mad Dog and Scorpion are now separate individuals whereas previously they were the names given to the aforementioned Contra heroes Rize and Bean in earlier Contra games in the U.S. Nevertheless, just push it aside and keep in mind the plot is just an excuse to exterminate as much alien scum as possible in a manner that only Contra could provide.
In general Contra 4's gameplay closely mirrors that of Contra III. This includes all of the original titles' familiar elements: floating power-ups (which were strangely absent from Shattered Soldier), hordes of enemies, a high yet rewarding difficulty, and a good dose of platform jumping. Boss battles will also be less frequent than in some of the more recent Contra titles. This is a good thing since games like Contra Hard Corps neglected the run and gun action in favor of numerous boss fights. Clearly Konami's strategy with Contra 4 is that quality bosses take precedence over quantity. For simplicity's sake Konami also decided to forego any of the Nintendo DS features such as stylus or microphone support.
This is not to say though that Konami is foregoing any innovation. Contra 4 stands out from other installments through its use system's two screens during gameplay. Similar to Yoshi's Island DS, the top and bottom DS screens combine into one to create a huge vertical environment with two different levels. The effect is similar to the first stage of the original Contra where the player could choose to progress via either the water or land. This naturally factors into gameplay. Switching between levels is necessary to avoid some attacks. Additionally some boss battles the character's placement also determines which sort of attack the player may face. Fortunately the designers added a Bionic Commando-style grappling hook that makes climbing to the higher level a breeze.
Even though Contra 4 is still early in development, the game's 2D graphics are excellent. The closest approximation would be Contra III, although they are arguably more detailed and more colorful than that game. The backgrounds in particular are well-drawn and at times quite beautiful.
Stages range from the traditional jungle in the vein of the original Contra to an ocean stage where characters battle on jet skis. As with previous games, some of Contra 4's levels will depart from the sidescrolling action and move to different perspective. In Contra 4 this alternate gameplay style is similar to the over the shoulder corridors of the original NES game.
The game will also support a wireless four-player mode. It is easy to see how cooperative play would be helpful in this installment since one player can cover the bottom screen and the other the top portion. Rumors persist about other multiplayer options but Konami has not revealed any further information on this point.