Just hearing the title or glancing at some screens, one might not realize that Hard Corps Uprising is a Contra game. Seeing it in motion - or even better, playing it - makes the connection to the venerated scrolling shooter series obvious. Art-wise, it doesn’t look anything like a Contra game. It looks like a brightly-colored anime, and for good reason: Konami brought in BlazBlue’s artists to create the game’s look. It’s never less than gorgeous, even if most of the bosses have some seriously corny character designs that make them less than intimidating.
Anyone who’s played a Contra game starting with Contra III or later will be able to pick up Uprising’s control scheme easily. For everyone, else, though, it will be a rough ride just getting a handle on your character, let alone dealing with everything the levels throw at you. Running, shooting, and jumping around without figuring out the special moves will only get you so far, and unfortunately there’s no tutorial or manual to speak of outside of a rudimentary “how to play” menu.
Among the things you need to know: you can double-jump, which is a huge game changer for a Contra game. It allows you to change direction in mid-air, which means you’re way more nimble, which means the game can be extra brutal when throwing bullets and jumping challenges at you. You can also dash with the shoulder buttons – on the ground you’ll sprint for as long as you want; in the air, you’ll perform a short horizontal burst. The air dash means you can double-jump and then go a bit farther before dropping back to the ground. You can even jump, dash, and then jump again, and painfully this becomes necessary maneuvering in later levels.
You’ll need to master the triggers, which “lock in” either your aiming or movement. So, the left trigger locks your aim to one direction so you can move and jump while firing at the same angle. The right trigger roots you in place so you can fire in all directions. These elements were introduced way back in the Super Nintendo version, but if you’re new (or haven’t touched Contra since the original), they will take time to get a handle of, but make the effort: it makes the game less difficult, but also more skillful and enjoyable.
There are a few other advanced moves, like the ability to backhand a bullet back in an enemy’s face, but these seem mostly for show, since we got through the whole game without mastering any of them. They’re there if you want to be a badass, which is good since these elements allow for additional ways to improve your play as you repeat the eight stages the game offers. And repeat them you will.
There are two main modes in Uprising: Arcade, and Rising. Arcade, strangely, is the much more hardcore mode. It’s insanely difficult because it gives you only the default lives, health, and weapons. Most players will focus on the Rising mode because it provides the same stages as Arcade, but brings in CP (the game’s version of experience) and doesn’t force you to start from the beginning each time. Only the super hardcore players will spend any time in Arcade, but everyone will enjoy Rising because it has that compulsive RPG grind to it. The things you can unlock really make an impact on the game, and the most important ones, like extra health and lives, are actually pretty cheap to purchase.
We’re decent Contra players. Not super great, but as an example, way back in the day we could beat the original Contra without using the thirty lives code. Uprising is way, way more difficult. It’s hard to say how hard it is when compared to Contra: Hard Corps, since the Rising mode gives you a lot of wiggle room with health and lives, but yeah, it’s along those lines. The last few levels get insanely difficult, and not always for the right reasons.
In order to enjoy Uprising, you need two things: patience, and a willingness to memorize patterns. Sure, these demands are staples of the scrolling shooter genre, but we’d say that Uprising ratchets up the difficulty just a bit too much into the “unfair” category. A lot of the time, it gives you generous warnings if something is going to come flying at you from off screen, but later in the game a lot of the attacks become so difficult to predict that it gets annoying. However, patience pays off big time: every boss in the game that made us at first say “Oh come on, how the hell can I avoid that!” eventually went down when we learned the patterns. We even discovered some “cheap” techniques for exploiting certain bosses, but these were clearly designed into the game intentionally, which is a nice old-school throwback of design.
One aspect of the overall design we didn’t enjoy was how the later levels were less fun for us than the earlier ones, and for multiple reasons. In the early levels there are a lot of hidden items that can be picked up in out of the way corners, but in later levels we found almost none of these, making the levels feel emptier and giving the sense we were just supposed to rush through them. There were also much fewer weapons available, and combined with a really annoying tendency to put the weapons in places where almost every time some enemy would ambush you as you picked it up (forcing you to drop it immediately) we spent the majority of the last half of the game with just the basic rifle, which is the most boring way to play any Contra game. We’d prefer if the difficulty focused on the enemies, not on depriving you of the fun toys to use.
The most important aspect of Hard Corps: Uprising is that it has the potential to appeal to the ultra-skilled gamers as well as the rest of us. Casual players could have fun if they can be patient and earn experience to make the game easier, but the game is rock hard from the first level onward, so patience is critical. There’s also the option for two-player co-op, which will appeal to any old-school shooter player, but we found that two people just make the game more difficult since it’s harder to see what’s going on. Still, the pure chaos and craziness of it will appeal to many players, and you can link up with others online if you don’t have a buddy nearby.
The overall feeling we got from Uprising is one of a game not quite up to the standard of the very best Contra games. If played “straight” – in the Arcade mode – it’s basically impossible for anybody but the super hardcore. In the Rising mode, it becomes a war of attrition: it remains impossible until you earn enough health and lives to make it bearable. When the game works – that is, when you pull off incredible close calls and survive the onslaught – it’s quite exciting. When it doesn’t work, which will depend on your frustration threshold and/or skill level, it becomes utterly exasperating. All of this means it is stubbornly old-school, for better or for worse. For those looking for a challenge, it will be a meal to chew on, digest, and savor.
Feb 15, 2011