Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review a Bad Game Day - Contra Force (1992)

If you press the Power button, you go back to sleep and 
forget all about this game.  If you press the Start button, 
you see how deep the rabbit hole goes and find out 
just what a nightmare you're in for.

Konami had a good thing going with the Contra franchise in the late 80's and early 90's.  They had 2 successful arcade titles, a pair of wildly successful (and critically lauded) conversions for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a solid Game Boy iteration of the Contra formula, and had just celebrated the release of Contra III: The Alien Wars for the Super NES console, which was both an excellent game and a technical marvel on the platform, showcasing the hardware's abilities.  In development was the Sega Genesis follow-up, Contra Hard Corps, which ended up being another excellent entry in the series.  As many already know, the franchise would go completely off the rails a couple years later with 2 rather poorly designed (and poorly received) PlayStation titles that Konami saw fit to outsource to an outside team.  It wouldn't be until years later with Neo Contra on the PlayStation 2 and Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS that the series would find its footing again in some meaningful fashion by getting back to its roots.

There's a bit of a forgotten chapter in the Contra series, however, and that is 1992's Contra Force.  Released only in North America, this game saw Konami using the Contra name for a game that tried its best to emulate the Contra formula to a certain extent, while adding new elements and changing up the play stile a bit to add something fresh to the gameplay.  To be fair, this game was originally developed in Japan to be called Arc Hound, but was never released there.  Instead, Konami slapped the Contra name on it and released it in the US to cash in on the series' popularity and sales numbers.  It was a poor decision from a company that was usually pretty good about what games it localized.  Why couldn't they have skipped this and given us the excellent Crisis Force instead?  I digress.

The game starts out innocently enough, with the familiar Contra logo on the title screen, with the word "Force" directly underneath, conspicuously in a different font, a whole different feel, look, and aesthetic than the logo it's paired with.  Still, one can easily overlook such trivialities if the game behind the title screen is good enough.  The first problem is that the title screen is only available for about 2 seconds, possibly less.  If you don't "PUSH START BUTTON", as you're invited to, within that short window of time, you're immediately pushed into the "attract mode" for the game.  Rather than a couple looping examples of gameplay, we get what is supposed to be a snippet of back story for the game and its main character, Burns.  Unfortunately, even though the gist of the plot can be discerned quickly from the 2 or 3 screens displayed, it's very stilted and not well done.  Ninja Gaiden had better cinematics and dialogue 3 years prior, so Konami was obviously phoning this one in.  In addition, with what limited "story" we are presented with, we find that we're not controlling muscular Rambo types to take on a large alien horde, but are part of what appears to be a spy/special ops division taking on human terrorists.  Who cares that we've had 4 wildly successful titles in the series prior to this installment, all based on alien invaders.  No, let's throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon the successful formula that has propelled our product to great accolades and sales by slapping this popular name on a game that has NOTHING to do with our franchise and tarnish its name and reputation.  Someone at Konami USA back in 1992 clearly needed to be slapped upside the head.  In any event, you can identify 3 flaws with the game within 30 seconds of powering up your NES console.  I wouldn't consider that a good start.

"This is the crack team that's going to take down my organization?
This is going to be easy, boys!" - Random Video Game Terrorist

The first thing you'll notice after you hit Start and begin the game is that you're presented with 4 different characters to choose from: Burns (the leader of the special forces squad), Smith, a typical 90's 'tude character, complete with manly 'stache and hip glasses, Iron, a tough looking dude who can wield what looks like a bazooka, given the right power-up, and Beans, a skinny fellow who also appears to have 'tude.  I mean, look at his cool hair!  All kidding aside, another minor issue crops up at the Player Select screen: rather than pressing Down on the D-pad to select the first character (traditionally the top-left), you press Up.  If you press Down, you get Beans instead of Burns.  In addition, rather than the ability to use the full D-pad to select characters by moving Left, Right, Up or Down, you simply press either Up or Down to cycle through the list, and it goes top-left to top-right, then bottom-left to bottom-right, assuming you're pressing Up.  Reverse that if you're pressing Down instead.  As I said, it's a minor issue, but since the game's stock is already plummeting at this point, it's a noticeable design flaw that becomes more glaring in context with the game's other flaws.

Once you select your character and press Start, the next thing I noticed was that the character walk animation is really goofy.  Kudos to the design team for at least trying to make something semi-realistic, but it really looks somewhat unnatural.  Not to be too cliche or gauche, but the walk has that "trying overly hard to pass gas" kind of look to it.  All 4 characters have that sort of walk animation, so you can't escape it.  It might seem to be nitpicking on my part, but it's noticeable enough to mention.  Here's a GIF animation to illustrate:

It might be hard to tell from this GIF, but the walk is
just kind of stiff and funny looking.

Once you get into the gameplay, things seem normal at first, as many of the usual Contra elements are present.  You can fire upward and diagonally, as well as downward and diagonally downward while jumping.  You walk from the left to the right and blast baddies.  You start with the usual single-shot "pea shooter" weapon and can collect power-up icons.  However, the first change you'll notice is that the screen can scroll back to the left, which should be a good thing.  However, one of the game's fatal flaws creeps in because of this new found directional movement.  Namely, that once you stop running to the right and go back left, sometimes it doesn't scroll correctly when you start running to the right again.  You'll need to backtrack to the left and move right again.  The screen's scrolling point of origin fixes on your character at whatever spot on the screen you're at, so if you're an inch from the right side of the screen, that's where it will scroll from and you'll be rushing into danger.  You can correct this by going left again to roughly the middle of the screen, then turning around and resetting this point of origin, but the fact that you have to do this at all is a major design flaw.  How did this issue get past beta testing?  Worse yet, if you're all the way to the right and you're on a small platform, you'll have no room to move back left, so you may have to jump or maneuver back across multiple platforms (which may or may not be available) in order to create enough area to reset the point of origin.  That, or you're forced to move left and right in tiny increments to keep resetting the position until you can feel safe enough to move on and have a larger area from which to reset it comfortably.  This is a huge design issue that should never have been included in a final product.

If that wasn't bad enough, the hit detection is also dodgy.  There were times in the first level where I was clearly shooting at a bad guy, but he didn't fall.  Sometimes it took 2 or 3 shots to take them down, even when the previous play through of the stage only took a single shot.  There's a spot in the first level where an enemy is on a moving conveyor belt (though he is conspicuously NOT MOVING), and if you shoot the belt underneath his foot level, sometimes you'll take him out, sometimes you won't.  3 of the 4 characters crouch when you press down on the D-pad, but Beans does the full lay on the ground maneuver like the previous installments in the series.  However, sometimes bullets that are CLEARLY travelling above his body will clear him, and other times it will register as a hit.  The lift truck in the first level moves normal at first blush, but if you get behind it, it does this bizarre thing where it moves toward you when you're walking toward it, but purposely moves away from you if you're walking the opposite direction.  That sounds strange, I know, but you can tell the truck is actually moving, not just that you're walking toward or away.  Some ledges cannot be trusted as well: I was standing near the edge of a ledge where some boxes were dropping from the ceiling, and though my character wasn't touched by a box, he slipped off the edge though I wasn't touching the D-pad.  This happened more than once, so I'm fairly certain it's another design flaw.

"Why is it that I gotta keep moving, but these two guys
can stand on moving platforms and not move? - Beans

Less a design flaw and more a casualty of innovation without careful planning, the power-up system in this game is somewhat uneven and problematic.  The Contra series has seen its share of less than useful weapons (the flamethrower from the 1st game comes to mind), but some of the weapon choices in this game just don't make sense.  Adding a Gradius-esque power-up system was a cool idea, but the secondary and tertiary weapon choices are a bit off in some cases.  Burns can power-up to either a hand grenade, or a machine gun.  Go for the machine gun, because the grenade can be difficult to use and not very handy against enemies some distance away.  Beans has a landmine you can use, but BE CAREFUL with that, and plan to use it for areas where it could be useful.  There are spots where you have to overcome landmines, and if you jump and shoot diagonally downward at the mine, you can destroy it.  Good luck taking out enemy mines by attempting to drop your own.  Some of the other special weapons are handy, but nothing as awesome as the original game's spread gun, or Operation C's cool homing gun.  Playing devil's advocate, I can see how managing the power-ups provide an element of strategy, but it becomes very easy to paint yourself into a corner when you have only one weapon available at any given time, and it's one with limited range.  Speaking of limited range, why would they make the bullets disappear at a certain range?  This is a projectile weapon, not an energy weapon.  Not to get too scientific, because this is just a video game we're talking about, but any 8-year old playing a video game should be able to discern that bullets fired from a gun don't just disappear into thin air after 12 feet, they keep going until they hit something.

Now that I've completely trashed the game, let me point out a handful of good things about it.  The graphics are actually pretty good, with interesting level graphics, some decent moving water in the background of the first level, and nicely animated stuff like the mashers in the first level.  Equally awesome is the fact that many of the background objects and things can be shot at and destroyed, which adds an additional element of realism.  Rather than having to try and run through the mashers (not possible), you can simply shoot them at the top and destroy them.  Partially broken pieces of scenery and be blown away, and even some other bits that look just fine.  It's a nice touch in a game riddled with so many flaws.  The music, while not very memorable, at least retains most of the Konami signatures such as the pacing, energy, as well as the general sound and feel.  In addition, despite the fact that it's not well implemented, the strategic element and augmented weapons system was at least Konami doing something different in this type of game.

"Now you see you don't!" - Iron

Perhaps my biggest issue with this game is not with the game itself, but the fact that Konami saw fit to localize it as a Contra title.  Before everyone cries foul and we get into an endless Doki Doki Panic! and Super Mario Bros. 2 debate, let's take a step back and remember that DDP began its development life cycle as a SMB title, and was changed to something different partway through.  This was never intended to be a Contra title, insofar as I've been able to discern through various Internet resources.  This was a shameless cash-grab on Konami's part, and unfortunately they only figured us stupid Americans would fall for it.  Thankfully, we responded in kind and the game didn't perform well.  I remember renting this game with a friend as a kid and being frustrated with it, and finding very little fun factor compared to Contra or Super C on the NES.  None of my other NES-owning friends rented or bought it, and I don't know anyone else who owned a copy as a kid, at least not that has told me they actually spent money (or their parents did) on a copy.  The existence of C: The Contra Adventure and Contra: Legacy of War tells us that Konami didn't learn their lesson here, unfortunately.  We can still take solace in the fact that poor sales of those titles helped to steer Konami back in the right direction with more recent Contra games, however.  Had this been released as anything other than an established franchise here in the US, it may have performed okay and been recognized as a game with good ideas marred by some bad design choices.  Or perhaps it could have spent more time in development and localization to work out those bugs before going to market.  We'll never know, and that's okay, because this game can stand as a good example of poor design and marketing choices.  This is most definitely a "try before you buy" kind of game, so take no shame in emulating it before you plunk down your hard-earned cash.  This one's not easy to find on the cheap.

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