It takes more than a look at the title for most to recognize Hard Corps: Uprising is actually part of the venerable Contra series. The original Hard Corps a Sega Genesis game that was well-received but never made it to the level of greatness that its predecessors on the NES or even Contra III on the Super Nintendo did. Like an increasing number of retro franchises Xbox Live and PlayStation Network have given Hard Corps a platform for a follow-up game and thus Hard Corps: Uprising was born.
Producer Kenji Yamamoto said that the intent was to make Hard Corps into a brand new franchise. Does Uprising launch this new series into the stars or is it a failure to launch? Hit the jump to find out.
Story hasn’t historically been a defining trait of the Contra series and understandably all we get is a backdrop to give us an excuse to arm ourselves. It’s the year 2613 and the world is ruled by an empire known as the Commonwealth. An opposition group creatively known as the Resistance has been falling beneath the Commonwealth’s military might, but an elite group of soldiers under defected Commonwealth war hero Bahamut and fresh combat recruit Krystal have launched a desperate counterattack. In lay terms the story is to move to the right (or sometimes up or down) and shoot whatever moves, and I wouldn’t have it any other way with Contra.
Uprising represents a significant shift in presentation for Contra. A distinct anime visual style has been introduced and the game looks absolutely beautiful. The hand-drawn characters are crisp and detailed, while the 3D environments are colorful and diverse taking you through environments barren deserts, lush forests, dark laboratories, and futuristic highways. There are little details in the background like massive wreckage from battles in the desert or the sprawling future metropolis of the highway level looks really nice, but never gets so busy that it interferes with the action.
If you’re a fan of side scrolling shooters, old school bullet-hell shooters, and general quintessential arcade formulas that involve enemy spamming and a lot of bullets Hard Corps: Uprising is the game of your dreams. Side scrolling shooting is a fairly easy gameplay type to design but it’s rarely designed with as much finesse as is on display here. Your character moves fluidly as you face an onslaught of enemies, environmental hazards, and constant barrages of enemy weaponry. The game feels and controls smoothly with the ability to double jump, dash, and carry two weapons at once to switch on the fly.
The standard Arcade mode is appropriately what puts the “hardcore” in Hard Corps. You have three lives and a health gauge that lets you take three shots per life. If you get hit when carrying an upgraded weapon, you lose that weapon. When you’re out of continues you get hit with a game over screen regardless of how far you’ve gotten. As a series Contra has always been aware of its own difficulty and I can’t fault it for wanting to keep true to its formula, similar to how Mega Man 9 is difficult. It’s challenging but generally the enemy spamming and bullet waves rely on careful analysis and timing to dodge.
There are also plenty of things that can’t hide behind the excuse of being an intentionally hard shooter. Cheap deaths happen as often as fair ones and this is the part that can get very aggravating. One time during the Ruins stage I was walking across a bridge that gave way with no warning and immediately cost me a life. A few select enemies have the ability to instantly take all of your life away as opposed to one piece of it and there’s very little warning about which ones until you’ve lost a precious life. Sometimes debris can be a problem because certain debris from destroyed enemy vehicles falls into the background but other times it’s an obstacle you need to avoid, and sometimes the only way to tell this is when you’ve lost another piece of health.
The worst example is early on, when you need to jump to a helicopter from a crashing hovercraft very quickly. I died twice because the sheer speed and momentum of your jumps can be difficult to predict and both times I just barely missed the helicopter even with a double jump. As much strategy is involved with Hard Corps: Uprising it also involves a considerable amount of trial and error. Checkpoints are also extremely unforgiving and sometimes a little arbitrary. There was one sequence where the only checkpoint was before a chase sequence and two bosses, meaning if you die you have to start all over again because there are no mid-boss checkpoints.
Thankfully, Uprising makes an effort to accommodate more casual players through Rising mode. Rising mode lets you start from new stages as you unlock them, so if you make it from level one to four on your first playthrough you’ll be able to access the first four levels after a game over. More importantly Rising mode lets you store up and accumulate points and purchase upgrades that softens the difficulty. This was a great way to offer the ability to make the game a little easier and also reward people for playing.
The Rising mode shop offers a slew of helpful upgrades. Chief among these is the ability to make guns stronger when you first pick them up. You can also increase your health gauge, unlock special abilities like reflecting enemy bullets, and increase the number of available lives per credit. If you’re willing to be thrifty with experience points or grind a few levels, there are some expensive but extremely helpful power-ups such as the ability to make every weapon fire in full automatic mode or to put a Laser Gun in your empty weapon slot at the beginning of each stage.
The shop strikes a nice balance in Rising mode. Playing through a level in Rising mode just once nets you plenty of experience points and something as simple as buying two extra pieces of health makes a huge difference as you adjust to the difficulty of the game on your own. I never had to grind levels in order to purchase enough upgrades to do well, and just padding your health or getting the Bullet Reflect ability is all you’ll strictly need. From that point you have much more flexibility to prioritize your purchases since the game is challenging in a reasonable way most of the time. I’m not sure why upgrades are specific to one character rather than applying to both Bahamut and Krystal, though.
Different weapons all have different useful situations but some are much stronger than others. The Crash Gun launches a short range bomb similar to a grenade launcher and while it was extremely useful in a few unique situations that took advantage of its firing arc I generally ignored it in favor of the standard gun. Conversely the Laser Gun fires a ridiculously strong laser with an extremely fast rate of fire and it auto-locks onto enemies. It’s an infrequent drop but once you get one you can comfortably spam the fire button and take out most enemies before they fully appear onscreen.
What I really like about Uprising is that it takes a fairly simplistic run-and-gun formula and applies it to a creative variety of different situations. The Jungle level features some really tense sequences with snipers concealed within trees that can take away your life in a single shot. The Highway has your character riding a hovercraft and, among other obstacles, you need to carefully maneuver around several cars channeling electrical currents. The underground train level has a train at the bottom of the screen and the top, and you’ll often have to jump between them as segments of the trains are destroyed by enemies. Even if the bulk of gameplay just involves shooting the developers did a lot with it.
Other times the developers tried changing the gameplay formula altogether and it’s where the game goes off the rails. The Capital Laboratory features a quasi-stealth section where you can avoid combat by avoiding searchlights and enemy guards, but it makes no sense. Why would I avoid fights in Contra? Stealth segments in 2D are as awkward as they sound and I just found it easier and more fun to purposely trip the alarms and take care of enemies manually. Towards the end of the same level there’s a mercifully brief escort mission with a scientist whose sense of direction is severely addled, which misses the point of Contra harder than I thought possible.
Hard Corps: Uprising can get very frustrating but it’s that particular brand of frustration that makes you feel exhilarated when you finally take down a merciless boss. As far as side scrolling shooters go it’s wonderfully designed, and more importantly it’s a lot of fun. As long as you’re aware that Uprising won’t hold your hand through gameplay, go into it with the right mindset and you’ll have a great time.
The new anime look is crisp, colorful, and a fantastic reinvention for the series for our modern times.
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The game deviates occasionally from its excellent shooting, but when it works it's a blast to partake in.
Music is suitably intense for the fast-paced action of stages, and most of the sound effects are excellent even if enemy guard sound bites are annoying.
There's a bit of trial and error but individual stages are really fun, especially when you max out your characters in Rising and blitz through segments that gave you trouble.
Hard Corps: Uprising is bar none one of the best side scrolling shooters of this generation. It's slick, intense, and a lot of fun.