Contra: Shattered Soldier
by Polly

Contra. Is. Dead.

After November of 1996, any decent human being (read: Contra fan) would agree with this sentiment. After Konami had decided to hand off one of the most important properties in its lineage -- one of the very series that helped give them a hardcore identity -- to some jack-off of a studio who had no idea what the fuck they were doing, it was all over. With one mighty, crushing, and insulting blow to an entire fanbase, Contra: Legacy of War on the PlayStation and Saturn was able to singlehandedly signal the end of a great era. But Konami was not satisfied... No, they felt more damage needed to be done. So, two years later, the same company that brought us the polygonal abortion that was Legacy of War unleashed yet another completely and unnecessary full-on pulverizing attack with C: The Contra Adventure: A game so shitty it literally defies any description any review could give for it. I've TRIED to review that game, even in a joking manner, and the rage that builds up inside of me after typing more than ten words costs me a new keyboard and monitor every fuck time, not to mention that the happy pills I have to take afterward aren't fucking cheap.

So, the disgraced remains of a once great series lay dormant for nearly four years before it'd ever heard from again. Like one of those schlocky horror films, late one night in the summer of 2002, strange murmurs began to emit from an unmarked grave somewhere in Tokyo. Faint whispers and muffled gunshots and explosions haunted residents for the next few months until one night a white-knuckled and decaying hand grasping a rusty machinegun punched through the ground. A monstrous scream soon followed, sounding like a war cry, as something that everyone thought should be dead scratched, clawed, and blasted its way to the surface firing wrecklessly into the air and laughing madly.

Contra had returned. I hadn't been this excited for a game release in years, when I'd originally heard about it in 2002. The videos, the screenshots, the music...everything was primed for one of the greatest action titles of all-time (OF ALL-TIME!) to make its comeback and it was doing it in a big way. The royal 128-bit treatment. No more stupid-ass experiments in 3D or [REDACTED]ed characters nobody gives a shit about. Just a 2.5D explosion-fest that only the true die-hards of the genre were invited to. The months waiting for this game to come out were painful. It was all I could think about, and when that big, beautiful DVD case was finally in my hands on October 22nd of that year and I was rushing home to play it, you couldn't have found a happier person in the world that day.

Shattered Soldier, for all intents and purposes, was a return to form, but being that it was on shiny new hardware and ready to decimate an entire new generation of gamers packed in some new tweaks here and there to keep things fresh.

For one, the game got a huge bump up in the graphics department. Though all the action still takes place on a 2-D plane, camera rotation and panning were used to add that extra bit of visual excitement that previous iterations weren't yet able to pull off. Graphically, the colors used for characters and environments are a bit drab and dull and the models aren't the most complicated (most of the time), but the game still has a very gritty and distinct look. Every stage has its own unique theme and the enemies you'll face in them are varied enough to never get boring. The bosses in this game are just fucking ridiculous. I mean that in the nicest way. This game features some of the most grotesque and disgusting creations of all time (OF ALL TIME!). The boss of the first area, which is a remix of Contra III's first boss, is probably the highlight here. It starts out normal enough, then when the boss turns around to fight you for the second part of the fight, you're greeted with one of the most disturbing images the game has to offer. The fucker has A GIANT GRISLY PULSATING SKINNED-ALIVE FACE ON ITS FUCKING ASS! AND IT PUKES ALL OVER YOU AND SNEEZES UP MAGGOTS AND SHIT! Seriously, that shit could be the final boss in any other game, but they hit you with this fucker RIGHT OFF THE BAT! While other bosses may not be quite as gruesome, they all have a certain something that makes you want to look away, but you just can't.

Contra: Shattered Soldier may feature one of the most appropriate soundtracks of all-time (OF ALL-TIME!) as well, too. The tunes in the game will come in one of two flavors: BIG LOUD RIFFY FAST METAL, or amped-up electronic pieces. Seriously, the selections couldn't be more appropriate and compliment the action very well. While not every tune is exceptionally great, there's more than enough awesome tuneage here to make the soundtrack worth looking up (I actually bought it.) My only gripe with Shattered Soldier's audio department is that the sound effects of your guns and explosions are often way too damn loud for you to ever actaully hear the music. It can actaully get quite grating after a while, so they really needed to do something here mix-wise.

And here we are, the thick, juicy, still kinda bleeding steak that is Contra: Shattered Soldier's gameplay. If you've played Contra before, then most of it should be familiar: Press shoot button, do not let go, jump when there's a hole or some shit's gonna blow your head off. Konami did, however, try to spice things up a bit in moving from the old method of getting power-ups.

This time around both characters start with the game's only three weapons in their inventories and they never lose them upon dying. You can switch between all three on the fly and each gun has two modes of fire: A normal shot and a charged shot.

The trusty Machinegun will probably be the most used of all. Its concentrated rate of fire is faster than any the series has seen before, it puts out great damage in a short amount of time, and has a nice quick arc when moving around to hit any stray baddies. The charged shot, however, is mostly useless, as it just spits out a little ball that sprays one pullet in all directions and goes away. Not worth it at all. The new rolling mine is more of a utility weapon than anything and you'll likely only depend on it for boss fights that pretty much require it. Its charged shot is also quite useless in most normal situations. It sprays a burst of homing missiles toward any near target and does a decent amount of damage. There's really only three or so places in the game where you really need to use this to get by. Last is the flamethrower which is fuck-all broken. Though its normal shot has a very limited range, the damage output is fucking crazy. Its charged shot can completely annihilate the entire game as it's sort of an X-Buster type attack. This is your boss-killer. Most bosses will crumble after 10-15 shots with a fully-powered flamethrower charge shot. The whole selectable weapons system adds a new element to the game, but the weapons themselves need just a bit more balance for it to really separate it from its predecessors.

Though the odds seem strangely stacked in your favor for once, don't be fooled. Contra: Shattered Soldier is just as hard, if not harder, than Contra: Hard Corps and may only be topped by Contra 4 in terms of overall difficulty. Adding a second player to the mix makes enemies and bosses even more formidable and there's an amazing sense of accomplishment when you end up working with someone in sync to wax off some of the game's tougher obstacles. Enemy placement in stages can be downright devious at times and it should go without saying that the bosses can become an absolute nightmare. Just like any Contra game, however, if you stick with it you will see results from constant trial and error.

If there's one gripe I can make about the gameplay, it would be that it's entirely too boss-rushy. The game's bosses are a blast to try and tackle, but like Hard Corps, every stage is just chock-full of them. Some with as many as seven forms, Jesus Christ! I've always loved Contra bosses, but the run 'n gun aspect is what really makes the game shine and this game is sorely lacking much of it. The instances that do feature good run 'n gun play are chaotic and cleverly put together, but get interrupted prematurely by another set piece only moments after the action heats up to a good degree. The set pieces themselves are all quite splendid and are some of the most over the top shit ever seen in a Contra game, but I can't help but feel they missed the mark here just a bit.

Something that should help people initially put off by the game's sometimes punishing difficulty is the ability to play the game's first four stages in any order. It doesn't affect the flow of the game much, as there's no real reward for completing any stage, but it can help if there's one particular stage you kinda suck at and just don't wanna look at right now (Stage 3...Oh God Stage 3!).

Also new is the Hit Ratio system. I can't say I was ever all that psyched about it, but I've also never been a fan of games that think they need to grade every fucking thing I do. Every stage has a possible hit ratio of 100%. There are critical targets in each stage that you must shoot down in order to achieve this, whether they be various pieces of a boss or seemingly pointless objects and enemies that only appear for a brief second. Of course, completing a stage with a 100% Hit Ratio won't do you any good if you're dying or using continues. For each life lost and continue you use the game penalizes you and both your Stage Score and Overall Score drop. The problem I have with this system is that it can make the game impossible to complete if you miss some dumb random enemy or sandbag you had to shoot or just got unlucky on a boss fight. In order to see past Stage 5 you HAVE to maintain an overall ranking of A or higher and I feel that's just shitty. The game does afford you the opportunity to replay the original four stages (only before you complete Stage 5) to try for a better score, but all in all it just feels like a cheap way to extend gameplay.

So, what have I missed? Oh yeah, story crap. Well, it's dumb and doesn't matter and the only cool part is that Bill's got a hawt cyborg girl for a partner now that you can play as. There's the Alien Cell from Hard Corps and for some dumb reason Lance is the bad guy. This shit only got more [REDACTED]ed in Neo Contra and isn't even worth delving into, trust me.

If you couldn't already tell, Shattered Soldier is fucking fantastic. It's solely responsible for bringing Contra from the realm of stagnating rot and death and since its release, Contra fans have had reason to actually look forward to any new coming sequels. Neo Contra was a bit dry but still enjoyable, Contra 4 was fucking fantastic, and I've yet to play Contra: Rebirth, but while it does look a bit blah, it's far from trashy. You've come a long way, baby.

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