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Hard Corps Uprising
Alright people, let's get this straight upfront. Hard Corps Uprising is not a Contra game... except it is... but not really. Parts of the Contra series have always held a special place in my heart. The original Contra was one of those rare NES games that I would play over and over again. I would memorize the location of every enemy and learn how to get through an entire level without ever taking a shot. All this led to what was, at the time, a proud boast: I could beat Contra without the Konami Code. That's right, just three lives and pure skill was all I needed to go from start to finish. So when Hard Corps Uprising came out on XBLA last week I was excited to find out that it's a Contra game... that's not called Contra.
Hard Corps Uprising is techincally a prequel to Contra: Hard Corps, a Sega Genesis game put out in 1994. Why Konami felt the need to make sure that this game fit into the official, um 'canon' of the Contra series, is quite beyond me. Does anyone really follow the story in these games? I was pretty sure they just fell into the 'aliens are attacking, kill them all' gameplay genre. Yet Hard Corps Uprising has some surprisingly well done anime sequences that bookend the game and provide some insight into the characters and story.
The game takes place in the year 2613 and the world is now being ruled by an evil empire known as the Commonwealth. These guys are led by the eeevvvill Tiberius and his army of super-clowns and robot snakes. Apparently other nations, tired of the Commonwealth's opression have formed a resistance, which is not going very well. But suddenly, four lonely heroes appear to single handedly topple the entire Commonwealth with nothing more than a gun and raw determination. OK, so it's nothing new, but it works as a motivation to keep pressing right and shooting things.
Uprising was developed by Arc System Works who are probably best known as the creators of the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue series. As such, most of the characters in the game are hand animated HD sprites. Most of the environments on the other hand are a kind of stylized 3D. Having always been impressed by Arc's work with 2D sprites, it should come as no surprise all of the character animations are wonderful. The design choices for some of the enemies is a bit ridiculous, with one robot looking so much like a Mega Man boss that it can't be a coincidence. The 3D in the background, on the other hand, is a bit tepid. It does the job of getting across what's happening, but never really stands out.
From an audio perspective, Hard Corps is a real throwback. Many of the grunts and screams of the enemies in the game have an interesting retro feel to them. Whether this was just because of inadvertently poor voice casting or a deliberate choice by the developers, it really helps to establish an old school, side scrolling feel to the game. The soundtrack is mostly forgettable, but there are a few times when it wanders pretty close to the original Contra music. I think the game probably would have benefited a bit from more of this nostalgia, if it was a Contra game, which it's not.
The gameplay in Uprising brings up a question that is becoming more and more relevant these days. Is old school tough-as-nails gameplay still viable in the modern gaming landscape? More specifically, with so many remakes coming out, should developers stay true to the gameplay style of beloved franchises, potentially alienating players not accustomed to a higher overall difficulty level, or should the gameplay be retooled and risk pissing off the die hard fans? While I'm pretty sure there's no agreeable silver bullet to this issue, Hard Corps decided to split the difference in a way that I think will satisfy everyone.
Hard Corps is divided into two gameplay modes, Arcade and Rising. In arcade mode you are given two lives, a small health bar, and a handful of continues and tasked with playing the game from start to finish. Weapons can be picked up and powered up along the way, but one hit will knock that upgraded spread shot out of your hands and put you back to the default pea shooter. This is obviously the mode for people who want a challenge. Arcade is all about skill and memorizing enemy placement, shot patterns, etc. It is not easy. Rising mode starts players out in the same situation but each time the player completes a stage or dies, the points they've racked up are added to a purse that can be used to buy upgrades. More lives, more health, more powerful guns, and special skills are all available from the in game store.
This is a very elegant solution to the issue of difficulty in a game like Uprising. The levels never get any easier, but the player is able to become more and more powerful. Each time you play through a level, you get more points with which to upgrade your soldier, giving the player a real feeling of accomplishment as this process continues. When I first started playing Rising mode, I was barely able to get through the first stage with the lives and weapons they gave me. Now, fully powered up, I can just about hold down the fire button and dash through most of enemies without a second thought.
But it's not all heavy machine guns and laughter, there are a few downsides to Uprising. First of all, it is a timed XBLA exclusive. As such, you won't see this title on the PSN for probably another three or four months. The multiplayer is a bit generic and I was disappointed that the levels are exactly the same with two characters. I mean, come on! Contra would always float two power up balloons when there were two players! Also, while there are four heroic characters featured in the story and cutscenes, only two are available when you purchase the game. The other two are $5 a pop DLC. Boo, Konami, boo.
Clocking in at about eight hours for the core campaign, Hard Corps is a microcosm of what I like about video games, reward for play. One of the most frustrating things in gaming, in my opinion, are titles that feature a sliding difficulty scale. One of the reasons that I was never able to finish Final Fantasy VIII was that I never felt like I was making any headway with the character progression system. No matter how much time I invested, I never really felt any more powerful than I was at the beginning.
On the other hand, I had no problems grinding out levels for hours in Fallout 3, because I knew that when I molded my character into a wasteland super-god there would be nothing that could stop me. Some players hate it when a game seems too easy, but personally I love it when a title that starts out hard and then gets easier as I put more time into it. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and growth. Now don't get me wrong, Uprising may get easier, but it never becomes a cakewalk. Towards the end of the game instant death traps and pits become much more frequent, keeping you on your toes and cursing like a sailor.
So if you're a fan of side scrolling shooters, this one is probably going to be a no-brainer. If you're not, give the demo a shot and that should tell you all you need to know. Now if you all will excuse me, I've got to get back to compulsively entering the Konami Code on every the screen of the game. Surely something must happen! It's a Contra game, after all... but not really.
Hard Corps Uprising is available for $14.99 on Xbox Live Arcade. It will be released on the PSN after a period of exclusivity on the XBLA.