Retro Gaming Project #3: Contra [NES]

Last year I announced the creation of a Retro Gaming Project in which I would finally go back and play through all of the classic NES and SNES games I missed over the years. This is a long work in progress with no set end date.

Contra [NES]

Contra
System: NES
Genre: Run and gun
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: February 1988

Super C, the 1990 sequel to Contra, may very well be my favorite video game of all time. I know a great deal of my love for the game is owed to nostalgia — it was one of the first I ever played — but I still love dusting off the old cartridge and playing it today. Amazingly, even after all these years, I had never played the original game in the series. In an effort to go back and kick-start this Retro Gaming Project, Contra seemed as good of a choice as any to get back into it.

I felt right at home instantly.

The run-and-gun, shoot ’em up gameplay fits in perfectly with the excess of 80s action movies, and the two dudes on the box art are even dead ringers for Rambo and Dutch from Predator. The plot is standard sci-fi/action fare — aliens have invaded Earth, and only Bill “Mad Dog” Rizer and Lance “Scorpion” Bean are bad enough to destroy them.

Contra [NES]

The gameplay basically consists of shooting everything that moves while dodging enemies and stray bullets. In fact, it’s most beneficial to keep a finger on the shooting button the entire time — you never know when an enemy will pop up out of nowhere.

There are eight levels in total, all but two of which are side-scrolling fare. The other two, the “Base” levels, place the camera behind the player, only showing one room at a time. Once the room is cleared of enemies, it’s onto the next one and then the next after that, ultimately culminating with a boss fight.

The boss fights are glorious as expected, with some really ugly mothers tossed in there. These are always some of my favorite moments in the Contra series, and they do not disappoint here. Destroying the alien heart in the final level is immensely satisfying.

Contra [NES]

Also as expected, Contra is one tough son-of-a-bitch. When I first started playing, I struggled to make it past the first level. I mean, three lives only last so far, especially since it takes just one hit to die. That’s when I remembered the famous Konami code:

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start

With that, I had 30 lives, and the gameplay experience became instantly more gratifying for a rusty gamer like myself. Although it felt a bit shameful to cheat like that, I was happy to make it past the second level and ultimately beat the game. Major props to Konami for realizing their game was hard as hell by throwing a bone for the rest of us.

Contra [NES]

I would be remiss not to mention the existence of the greatest weapon ever created in gaming history: the spread gun. It remains the best, most rewarding gun I have ever come across, and using it is one of the action genre’s greatest thrills. The other weapons (i.e. the laser gun and cluster shot) are effective as well, but nothing compares to the almighty spreader.

Contra still holds up remarkably well today, especially if played with a friend. The run-and-gun gameplay remains a blast (albeit an often infuriating one) on your own, but co-op is the way to go if you have that option. I’m glad that I was able to go back to this classic, even though Super C is still the better game for my money.

9/10

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Retro Gaming Project #1: Castlevania [NES]

Castlevania [NES]

Castlevania
System: NES
Genre: Platforming
Publisher: Konami/Nintendo
Developer: Konami
Release Date: September 26, 1986

My first Castlevania game was the PS1’s Symphony of the Night. I bought it on a whim, not knowing what to expect despite seeing great review scores. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the game’s mashup of action, platforming and RPG styles, all while providing a massive castle to explore. Even the notoriously bad dialogue did nothing but enhance the experience.

Since then, I have played many of the handheld Castlevania titles, most of which are near the level of quality of Symphony of the Night. I have always been embarrassed to say, however, that I have never played anything before SOTN. Wanting to play through this series from the beginning was a BIG reason why I started this retro project.

Entering the gates of Castlevania. So...much...burnt...orange.

It seems unlikely that Konami knew what they had on their hands while making the very first Castlevania. Surely they couldn’t have expected a seemingly generic horror game to spawn more than a dozen sequels spanning over 25 years. But alas, that is what happened despite its humble roots.

Castlevania begins with our whip-carrying hero, Simon Belmont, approaching the castle’s massive entrance gate. He makes his way through the courtyard, cracking open lamps to obtain hearts and weapon power-ups, before entering the castle itself. The castle shows its age right off the bat, as its wallpaper has random tears, exposing the brick beneath. Simon is quickly greeted by zombies, moving much faster than you would expect, but they can be eradicated by a simple crack of the whip. Candles can be broken for more hearts and items, and the path is generally straightforward.

It doesn’t take long for shit to get real.

Whipping a large skeleton, one of the more easier enemies.

While the first few levels aren’t too difficult, the game sees a drastic spike in difficulty about halfway through the campaign. Medusa heads fly through the air, determined to knock you off the ground and into the deep, dark abyss below. Tiny flea men bounce around as if all hopped up on caffeine, sporadically moving about while constantly bumping into Simon. Getting hit by an enemy in the later levels takes up a significantly larger amount of his health, often causing cheap and frustrating deaths.

Don’t get me started about the bosses. The battles against Death (level five) and Dracula (the final boss) are among the hardest I have EVER played in a video game. It took me a hell of a long time to just get to Death, but no matter what I tried I could not beat the bastard through conventional means. Dracula was just as bad, although his second form doesn’t hold a candle compared to the first.

Frankenstein & Igor, the bosses of stage four

There are unlimited continues, thankfully, but they generally place you at the start of the stage upon going through the original batch of lives. So yeah, Simon has to make his way past all of the Medusa heads, Axe men, flea men and random other horror enemies before facing that son-of-a-bitch known as Death.

What makes the game most difficult are its decidedly poor controls. Simon cannot control his direction once in the air, and he can only crack his whip straight ahead. When he is hit by an enemy, he goes flying several feet backward. This leads to some infuriatingly cheap deaths, particularly from those blasted Medusa heads or flying bats that show up at the most inopportune times.

Climbing the stairs to that son-of-a-bitch Dracula

Borderline extreme difficulty be damned, this is still Castlevania, and damn if it isn’t fun. The classic, sexy 8-bit tunes, the campy horror atmosphere, the random inclusion of cooked turkey hiding in the walls… this is what it’s all about. I haven’t been as pissed off at a video game as much as this in recent years, but I couldn’t stop playing it anyway. A great start to an impressive franchise.

8/10

Video Game Review: Castlevania: Lords of Shadow [Xbox 360, 2010]

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Mercury Steam/Kojima Productions
Release Date: October 5, 2010

It’s no secret that I love the Castlevania series. I got hooked thanks to the PSOne classic, Symphony of the Night, and had a blast digging into the older titles (not to mention the later SOTN-like handheld sequels). I even enjoyed their first 3D offering, Castlevania 64. So naturally, I was excited to play Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (LOS), last year’s title that Konami went all out on — sparing no expense in terms of presentation. While LOS certainly looks good, the problem is that this is a generic adventure game masquerading as a Castlevania title.

You play as Gabriel Belmont, a member of the Brotherhood of Light, a group of holy knights who protect citizens from supernatural creatures. After his wife is murdered by one of them, Gabriel embarks on a journey to bring back his wife while subsequently saving the world from evil. This storyline is a complete reboot of the franchise, but it still doesn’t feel like anything new. I never played the Castlevania games for their stories, but Lords of Shadow just feels like a generic fantasy plot that is anything but interesting. This wouldn’t be a huge deal if the game didn’t feel the need to shove cutscene after cutscene down your throat, almost begging you to acknowledge it as a respectable story. I couldn’t get into it, but this wouldn’t bother me if the gameplay were solid. Unfortunately, it’s not.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

The game plays out like a poor man’s hybrid of God of War and Uncharted. Combat is typical hack ‘n slash fare (using a chain whip), with buttons for both “light” and “heavy” attacks. As you kill more enemies, you can unlock new, more powerful combinations, and you are given a helpful handbook to remember all of them. The game also uses the same type of magic/health systems found in God of War, even going so far as to require collecting six cogs to upgrade your meters. If you have played God of War or any other hack ‘n slasher from this generation, you will feel right at home here. There’s nothing new to see.

The Uncharted influence comes in the way of its handling of platforming elements. Gabriel often has to jump from ledge to ledge while hanging around on the side of a building, occasionally using his chain to rappel him to distant areas. Rappelling is actually a bit of a problem — there were several instances where I was rappelling down the side of a building then immediately died after reaching some sort of imaginary boundary line. Apparently the rappel can only work at various distances depending on whatever the game feels like at that particular moment. This leads to obnoxiously cheap deaths. Thankfully, checkpoints are generous, but this is still an annoyance that could have been easily fixed.

A tried and true staple of the hack ‘n slash genre are epic boss battles. Lords of Shadow tries its hand at this in the form of Titan battles. By all means, fighting these Titans should be badass. They are HUGE, not dissimilar from some of the gods in God of War. LOS’s problem is that these boss fights are painfully boring. It doesn’t take long to figure out the pattern to take them down one limb at a time, and winning ultimately amounts to climbing up them, hitting some relics and dodging their attacks. This wouldn’t be so bad if the entire sequence wasn’t horrendously slow. These fights go on far too long since the Titans take their sweet time doing anything, and every time something happens the game feels the need to show a pointless cutscene. Thankfully, there are only a handful of these segments in the game, but I can’t help but feel there was a lot of potential wasted with them.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow

That’s really the story of Lords of Shadow: wasted potential. It all starts with the new envisioning of Belmont — this kid is devoid of any personality, has poor voice acting and looks like Generic Video Game Hero #3999573. The game’s environments, while absolutely beautiful, feel hollow and uninviting. The game attempts to create the feel of a wide open world, but it actually comes across as boxed in. Only narrow sections of the massive environments are open for use, which makes the gameplay feel like it is stuck a generation behind. LOS also uses a fixed camera, and it is absolutely horrible. The camera angles have a habit of changing at the most inopportune times, causing more cheap deaths and hiding crucial game elements.

Simple tweaks here and there would have led to an infinitely more rewarding experience. It’s not that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow is necessarily a bad game, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything particularly well. Everything here has been done before, and the total sum of all parts is merely average. It’s a shame that Konami felt the need to add the Castlevania name to this title because Lords of Shadow simply represents another failed effort to “upgrade” the series.

5/10 – average

Video Game Review: Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
System: PSP
Developer: Climax Studios
Publisher: Konami Digital Entertainment
Release Date: December 8, 2009

Let me begin by saying that I haven’t played a Silent Hill game since the original PSOne classic came out in 1999. Apparently I am missing out because I have heard nothing but rave reviews for most of the PS2 games. As a way for me to get back into the series, I picked up Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Some will say that this is a bit of an odd choice to begin with since the game labels itself as a “revisioning” of the first game, and it is quite a bit different from the the rest of the series. Still, I got sucked into the psychological side of Shattered Memories, and that’s what maintained my interest throughout.

Right from the start, the game opens with a red “Psychology Warning” screen similar to the FBI warnings that preface movie DVDs. The message claims that “it gets to know who you really are” and that “the game plays you as much as you play it.” Bold statements to be sure, but I have to admit I was intrigued by this idea.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

The game uses psychology in the form of therapy sequences in which you answer a series of personal questions. Your answers to these questions ultimately shape the game around you, and there will be several differences in the game depending on your responses. Some are subtle, such as a tavern turning into either a sports bar or an Irish pub, but others are significant and can lead to some pretty wild endings. It’s a neat feature, and I would love to see more games do something like this.

Just like the original Silent Hill, you play as Harry Mason as he searches for his missing daughter in the eponymous town. Some familiar faces pop up but they are completely different than you may remember. This is a brand new adventure, and the story is a fresh take on the original concept.

The game is decidely split into two styles of gameplay. The main portion revolves around Harry searching frantically for signs of his daughter, finding clues and asking people for help. These segments are completely devoid of combat, which takes some getting used to. Whereas typical survival horror games rely on the unknown and keeping an eye out for unwanted surprises, Shattered Memories has none of this. In the main segments, there are no enemies and it is impossible to get hurt. Instead, occasional puzzles are thrown in the mix to keep interest while Harry is exploring the town. This could get pretty boring actually, but Climax keeps the suspense in tact by throwing a bunch of plot curveballs your way while focusing on some interesting character development.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories [PSP, 2009]

The other style of gameplay comes in the form of nightmares. In these scenes, nearly everything in the world turns to ice, and Harry has to escape these environments to get things back to normal. The catch is that there are enemies in these areas, and they can kill you. You can’t fight back other than to throw them off your back. This can lead to some frantic situations when a bunch of them hunt you down and jump you at the same time. Unfortunately, while these segments are meant to provide some sense of thrills in the game, they are very poorly executed. The nightmares essentially turn into a series of trial and error sequences where you quickly run from door to door with no clear idea of where to go next. There’s nothing you can do other than keep trying to find the exit while hoping the enemies don’t catch up to you. After a while, I began to dread these moments. Not because they were scary, but because they were just not fun.

It’s a shame that the nightmare gameplay is so tedious because I really enjoyed the rest of the game, even with its lack of real combat. The story kept me interested throughout, and the ending was just phenomenal. Seriously, the end made me glad I stuck around for the entire game (which admittedly is very short). Shattered Memories is a good effort that utilizes unique psychological aspects, but it will surely alienate some gamers since it isn’t a proper survival horror title. Still, it’s worth a shot if nothing other than to see “how the game plays you.”

7/10