After a little bit of confusion, Contra: Evolution (Free) is finally available on the App Store for all the world to play. This is an official remake of the original NES Contra game (as opposed to the arcade original), developed by Konami’s Shanghai studio and published by CocoaChina. This isn’t a straight port or simple graphically enhanced version, however. Some changes have been made to try to make it more of a modern game, and the results are unfortunate.
For those who need an introduction to Contra, first of all, shame on you. Second, Contra was a largely side-scrolling shooter that could only be born in the 1980s. The alien overlord Red Falcon attacks Earth with his huge army of soldiers, freaks, and Giger/Alien-influenced creatures, and only Bill “Arnold" Rizer and Lance “Sly" Bean can stop him. And ladies, they’re going to do it shirtless.
Contra was a pretty fun arcade game, but the reimagined NES port was a true classic. It was probably most famous for great co-op gameplay, tight controls, an awesome array of weapons, crazy challenge, and the ability to use the legendary Konami code to give yourself 30 lives (it’s how most people saw the ending for the first time, I suspect). Well, at least Contra: Evolution has the awesome array of weapons.
There are two gameplay modes available: Arcade mode and Mission mode. Arcade mode is a remade version of the NES game, with all the stages and bosses you remember, though not necessarily as you remember them. The graphics are nicely enhanced, and the game looks great. Each stage also has a new remixed version of the music from the original stage. The music is pretty good, but some of the songs end earlier than they did on the NES, and the looping is handled a bit awkwardly.
Mission mode has you running through the stages trying to clear them with a certain number of points, lives lost, and under a time limit. You can play on one of three difficulties, and each difficulty has three eagle points to earn based on these conditions. To play a stage in Mission mode, you’ll need to clear it in Arcade mode first, so that’s probably where you’ll want to start. Perhaps expectedly but still unfortunately, there is no way to play co-op, so you’ll be going solo on this mission.
I think the first concern people have when you suggest a Contra remake on iOS is the method of control, and rightfully so. Side-scrolling shooters were a dime a dozen back in the day, and one of the reasons why Contra stood out so well is that you had precise and smooth control over your player.
The developers have done their best here, giving a few movement options such as an on-screen classic directional pad, a fixed location stick, and a floating stick. They’ve also added auto-fire so you have one less button to worry about, though you can turn that off if it offends you. Unfortunately, it’s still not really good enough, with diagonals in particular causing quite a bit of trouble.
Another problem is that the real estate the stick uses covers a sometimes busy part of the play area. The famous boss of the waterfall stage is more troublesome than he ought to be thanks to this, especially if you’re not playing on an iPad. I’ve played games with a worse implementation of virtual controls, and you can learn to manage, but there’s no question the original game was never intended to be played like this.
CocoaChina seems to have picked up on this, because although they’ve preserved the game’s original stages for the most part, they’ve cut down considerably on the amount of bullets whizzing around and enemies popping out of nowhere. They’ve also abbreviated the stages somewhat, which is very noticable in the last few stages, and cut back on the number of shots it takes to kill most of the bosses. Contra: Evolution is a much easier game than the original, apart from the control issues. Clearing it on one credit is still quite challenging, but as there are continues you won’t have to do that.
The continue system ties into the “Evolution" part of the moniker. One thing you’re sure to notice when you start the game is that you have experience points, levels, and two types of currencies. Stop me if you recognize this one: One type of currency (coins) can be earned in game and is used to purchase certain weapons and continues, while the other type (diamonds) seemingly must be purchased with real money and is used to purchase better weapons, better continues, and, sigh, to buy 30 lives.
Yes, the beloved Konami code has been replaced with a $50 IAP. The cost of continuing goes up depending on how far into the game you are, but it’s never really prohibitive to use your coins as long as you don’t die too often. You can also use your coins and diamonds to call items on the spot with on-screen buttons, prominantly featured in case you forgot you could.
As you level up, the game will reward you with certain bonuses, mostly in the form of one-time use weapons that you’ll lose if you die while holding them, but sometimes with more permanant bonuses like letting you start with one more extra life. There are four characters available, but your experience meter and level is shared between them, so you don’t have to worry about losing all your progress if you want to try another character.
You can initially choose from Bill and Lance, who play identically and have the same assortment of weapons from the original game, including the almighty Spread Shot and the useful new Homing Shot. You’ll unlock Ricci Erica by completing Arcade mode, and Sally Inohara by collecting 55 eagle points in Mission mode. Both ladies come with their own versions of the classic weapons, which adds a bit of variety. And gentlemen, they’re going to do it with their shirts on, albeit barely in Ricci’s case. The new characters are definitely welcome even if their weapons don’t feel quite as effective as those designed for the original game.
The original game still shines through enough in Contra: Evolution that it’s still a good time. It looks and sounds fantastic, and the new characters fit in pretty well and give the game replay value. Mission mode is a nice addition, and of course Game Center achievements and leaderboards add to the experience. That said, the game has lost quite a lot in this Evolution, with no co-op and much of the challenge stripped out. And all of the IAP borders on the offensive, however unnecessary it might be. Add in some unavoidable control issues, and you’re left with something still quite enjoyable, but well short of the game it seeks to evolve.