I can still remember a Christmas Day back when I was in elementary school, unwrapping my very first video game console: a Nintendo Entertainment System. Until that day video games had been forbidden in our house (they aren’t educational!), so my siblings and myself were a bit confused at the gift in front of our eyes.
Santa had finally made my wish come true!
After our parents hooked it up to our television, we took a look through the various games that we also received that day. The very first one we wound up playing (after struggling to get it to run, because, you know, the NES and its famous blinking screen) was a little game by the name of Contra. My brother and I each picked up a controller, loaded in to the first level…and were immediately slaughtered.
Contra is still a game I fondly remember to this day, despite having yet to beat the game without using the 30 lives cheat code (don’t hate me please). I dabbled in a number of other entries in the series, but the original is one that I (and my brother on occasion) still play to this day.
After a slew of hit-or-miss titles during the PS1 and PS2 eras, the franchise went into hibernation. Now, nearly eight years after the previous release in the series, Konami has decided to give the Contra name another shot…and a rather massive retool.
Developed by Konami and Toylogic, and published by Konami, Contra: Rogue Corps was released on September 24th, 2019, for Switch, PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The PS4 version was played for this review.
I Wanna Be A Macho Man
Rogue Corps sets itself up in the story “continuity” of the original Contra series, rather than any of its more recent spin-offs. Taking place after Contra III: The Alien Wars, the alien invasion plaguing the Earth has been fought off, but a new threat has emerged from beneath the planet’s surface.
“The Damned City” suddenly emerged from the ground, and it has brought with it new creatures bent on destroying humanity. Those that enter the City are slowly driven insane…except for a few people naturally immune to the City. Enter the Rogue Corps, a group of four people immune to the City, on a mission to destroy monsters and get rich.
The plot of Rogue Corps is rather shallow, but I can somewhat give it a pass, as the Contra series has never been one for storytelling. It’s all about shooting down aliens and monsters in the most macho way possible, and this new release takes said macho up to 11.
Rogue Corps is an obvious send-up of adrenaline-fueled meathead action movies, from the over-the-top violence to its liberal use of the (gasp) ‘F-word’ in dialogue. Characters include a woman with an alien for a stomach and a panda bear with the mind of a scientist. The plot is silly, the dialogue is stupid, but it all fits the kind of presentation the game is going for, and is also easily skippable for those just interested in putting bullets through skulls.
The Contra series has become somewhat famous with its multiple ill-fated gameplay experiments during its transition to 3D. Rogue Corps goes down the experimental route as well, eschewing its predecessor’s side-scrolling action for a full-3D twin-stick shooter style.
Base gameplay has you controlling your character with one stick, while aim is handled on another. The right trigger button fires off your guns, while the other is dedicated to a dash maneuver…which is probably the most important move in the game. You can carry two weapons into each stage, swappable at the push of a button.
My first hours with the game left me with the impression that Rogue Corps was a pretty solid twin-stick shooter. It certainly wasn’t anything groundbreaking, and it was missing the energy that I associate with Contra games, but it was serviceable.
As the hours went on, though, cracks began to form. Enemy waves became predictable and tedious. Late game creatures were more bullet sponges than any credible threat. Major bosses were all about aiming for weak points, with far too short of a timing window to hit them. Stages were also reused often. For example, half of the game’s second set of missions are retreads of previous missions.
To put it short, the game just started becoming more and more boring and tedious. Most stages are essentially hallways leading you between rooms where you’re required to kill every enemy to continue. Once Rogue Corps started repeating levels, I decided to just start ignoring enemies in the “hallway” portions, rushing right past them to get to each required room.
Surprisingly, doing so hardly affected my ranks on each stage. Despite getting ‘C’ or ‘D’ ranks on number of kills, I’d more than make up for it with constant ‘S’ ranks in stage clear speed.
Rogue Corps does try to mix it up with a variety of weapons, as well as various customizations you can apply to weapons and characters. There’s quite a number of stat boosts and alterations you can make, but I just wound up focusing purely on attack power and defense. It was really all I needed.
Weapons can be created from “blueprints” you find in stages, and once I found one for a bladed hula-hoop that spun around my character, I stopped experimenting with others. Pumping attack boosts into this weapon broke much of the game wide open for me. Weapon usage is usually balanced out by a heat gauge – use a weapon too long and it’ll overheat, forcing you to wait for a few seconds. This hula-hoop of death has an extremely long usage time, letting me just hold down my attack trigger and walk through enemies ’til they died.
I did have a chance to try out some of the multiplayer offerings, and I can admit they pumped a bit more life into the game…mostly because of the people I was playing with rather than the game itself, to be quite honest. Coordinating attacks and slaughtering hordes in co-op was fun for a bit, if a bit easy as my character was much more upgraded than those I was playing with.
There’s also a competitive team-based mode, mostly focused around a soccer-like game using guns, and it’s pretty obvious Konami is trying to prop this up as an eSport. It was decent, if a bit unwieldy, and I had more fun trash-talking the opposing team than actually playing the game. There’s a basic deathmatch mode as well, which was frustrating as it seems that weapon loadouts were completely random.
Unfortunately, the visual presentation of Rogue Corps also adds heavily to the bland and repetitive feeling of the game over all. For a weird soul-sucking monstrous metropolis, there just isn’t much variety to the environments in the Damned City. Also, again, being forced to repeat levels definitely does not help.
On the positive side, the story cutscenes are much more visually interesting. The game’s plot is presented in a comic book style with art from comic artist Emilio Lopez. These short segments perfectly capture the feeling that Rogue Corps seems to be going for, and unlocking each one was what really pushed me to play through the game.
As far as music, that’s a bit of a mixed bag. Honestly, it was hard to make out much of the soundtrack amongst the cacophony of flying bullets. There were a few moments during larger-scale fights where the music would cut through, though, often with swelling brass that helped create an occasional feeling of, for lack of a better term, epicness.
Series Gone Rogue
Overall, Contra: Rogue Corps isn’t really a bad game, but it is a disappointing one. I’m not one to complain for an artist trying something new with an established franchise, so the switch from side-scroller to twin-stick shooter didn’t really bother me. It just feels that Rogue Corps plays it too safe and doesn’t bring anything all that interesting to the table.
There are some glimmers of inspiration here. The stupid macho tone and the comic-style cutscenes were particular portions that I enjoyed. Having them wrapped around such boring and repetitive gameplay and environments feels like a waste.
If you’re looking for something to play with friends and kill some time, Contra: Rogue Corps may be worth a look once it goes on sale. For such a beloved franchise, though, this really isn’t the best way to reintroduce Contra after a near-decade hiatus.
Review copy provided by Konami for PS4. Screenshots taken by reviewer.