This should have been the ultimate Contra experience. In many ways it still is. But god damn it, if it were not for one stupid change this would undoubtedly be the greatest Contra ever. Contra Hard Corps lives up to that name in more ways than one, some good, some bad.
Contra: Hard Corps was released for the Sega Genesis in 1994. By this point Konami had a solid Sega team cranking out Genesis versions of their popular franchises, all with a distinct look in terms of graphics and special effects. Set 5 years after the Alien Wars, the Hard Corps in the title refers to the crack team of commandos assembled to fight crime. The game starts off with rampaging robots running amok in the city streets due to a hacker attack and from there goes through many twists and turns, many of which you decide. Your first choice will be which character to control.
Unlike previous entries with the exception of Contra Force you have your pick from 4 soldiers, each with their own weapon load out and abilities. Ray and Sheena are the closest to past heroes Bill & Lance, Brad Fang is a wolf man with a machine gun arm and Browny is a squat Robot. The looks aren’t just for show: Browny can take advantage of his size to avoid attacks everyone else would have to duck under and can double jump. Brad has the strongest weapons but most require you to be in close range. All of them have access to a slide that makes you invincible temporarily which is a life saver.
Learning how to beat the bosses while overcoming a given character’s weaknesses is one of the game’s strongest points. With 4 characters comes a host of new weapons that are awesome in practice to figure out their best use. The Axe Laser is like a spread gun combined with homing missiles, Gemini Scatter can flood the screen with powerful bullets that return to you. You’ll need this impressive firepower as you plow through the 10 overall levels.
The levels take you through a range of locales, some evoking Contra III. Battling through the city streets while the landscape is torn down around you by Gundam sized mechs gets the blood pumping right off the bat. Your motorcycle ride starts off like the Alien Wars but quickly deviates into a trippy boss fight on a helicopter as the view point constantly changes. The level designs are its strongest suit and will have you constantly guessing as to what will come next. The bosses are very Treasure like in their design and attack pattern which is always good thing. Nearly every one is memorable, and the scenarios in which you fight them will leave a deep impressions, such as the forward scrolling fight down the highway against a mech or the multi-stage encounter against your nemesis Dead Eye Joe.
Another welcome addition: multiple routes. On many stages you’ll be asked how to proceed which will determine the levels you’ll see. Not only limited to being a stage select, they also affect the story and lead to one of 5 endings. How’s that for replay value? These aren’t just pure fluff either, they go as far as you even joining the enemy to take over the world!
How could it all go wrong? Because of a change made for the US version. See in the Japanese version you had a life bar and could take 3 hits as well as unlimited continues. For the US, you die after 1 hit and only have 3 continues to beat the game. That wouldn’t be so bad on its own but the difficulty wasn’t adjusted to compensate. The game still plays out as if you can survive multiple hits with an honestly overdone amount of attacks and enemies that appear out of the blue. All games involve a certain amount of trial and error, but here it’s frustrating as hell when the consequences of failing are so dire. Far too many bosses pull out “oh shit” attacks at random, depleting your stock of lives rapidly. I’m not opposed to a good challenge, but only when it’s fair. Here that isn’t the case.
Even in spite of the damage the changes in difficulty has wrought this is still a phenomenal installment of the series and is absolutely worth playing. I feel the change made is worth mentioning so you know what to expect beforehand. With fantastic graphics, an amazing soundtrack and multiple endings, you will get your money’s worth and then some. Too bad it could have been the undisputed king of the franchise.