Like the series it's based on, Hard Corps: Uprising is an unforgiving side-scrolling bulletfest designed to test your patience and your twitch reflexes. It looks like Contra. It plays like Contra. Actually, it is Contra…almost. This action-intensive 2D shooter dips heavily into the well of the classic shoot-'em-up series' past for inspiration, going so far as to feature character and story tie-ins to Contra: Hard Corps on the Sega Genesis. If the unmistakable opening prog-metal guitar riff and the frenzy of bullets that erupt from the get-go aren't a dead giveaway, the game's sadistic difficulty should be enough to jog your memory. Uprising adds a fail-safe or two to make its brutal eight-stage gauntlet of unending death somewhat playable for newcomers, but this retro throwback should come with a coupon for a free session of anger management classes.
This spiritual prequel to the similarly titled 1994 Sega Genesis game casts you in the reprised role of Colonel Bahamut, a former villain who has now taken to battling an evil empire of clown-masked soldiers and mechanical drones run by a futuristic dictator. Aside from a cool anime intro sequence, the story unfolds in brief text snippets that serve as a simple distraction during the game's lengthy loading screens. The Contra franchise has always been about raw arcade-style action, and Uprising doesn't disappoint in that department. You're dropped into the fray with guns blazing and offered immediate gratification as you run left and right, churning through droves of masked soldiers, flying robots, gun encampments, and nasty alien beasts. Familiar gun power-ups such as lasers, spread cannons, machine guns, rocket launchers, and flamethrowers help pleasantly speed foes to their graves. However, your own death rears its ugly head fast and frequently, even if you possess godlike reflexes. Some games are hard. Other games are ridiculously hard. Uprising's harsh difficulty curve manages to wildly overshoot such paltry levels of sadism and ventures instead into the magical realm of the purely ridiculous.
Each of the game's eight stages is lengthy and packed with minimal checkpoints and multiple boss battles. Successfully battling through the first level alone is a daunting task, and your threshold for anguish and frustration will determine which mode to play. Uprising's default Arcade mode is strictly for Contra purists. With meager health, three lives, and very little in the way of extra abilities, it offers an undiluted experience--one that makes you want to hurl your console through the TV screen. Rising mode is much more manageable. While it starts you out with limited health, only a few lives, and some basic abilities, every kill you make earns you points that can be spent unlocking new power-ups that help you push deeper into the game. You can buy extra lives, additional continues, more health, dash maneuvers, speed enhancements, and other crucial boosts. These upgrades take some of the sting out of plowing through a tough level only to die at the stage's last boss battle, since you keep your accumulated points until they're spent. A certain amount of grinding is required early on, but unlocking perks makes it a little easier to progress. Going alone is far more arduous than tackling the game with a friend in local or online two-player co-op. Playing with a teammate cuts down on a portion of the frustration. Having an extra gun on your side is useful on its own, though some of the trickier platforming stages later in the game require careful communication and near-perfect timing for both players to make it through in one piece.
A brisk challenge can be a great thing, but the insidious stage designs start off pretty brutal and grow exceptionally wickeder as you progress. This can make Uprising hard to stomach at times. Only one or two checkpoints are woven into the lengthy levels, and being forced to repeat a mid-stage boss battle you just struggled through because you ran out of lives only seconds after completing it is maddening. As spectacular as the boss encounters are, there are usually two or three per stage, and each boss often has multiple versions for you to defeat before it goes down for good. Regular enemies are no pushovers either. While common weaker foes take only a bit of your life away (and any weapon you have equipped), you encounter snipers that dish out one-hit kills, plants that spew life-draining poison, and other nastiness early on in the game. Things get worse from there. Throw in some sporadic platforming sections that require an inhuman level of precision, and it's tough to hold off the desire to snap the controller in half. Jumping back and forth to ride on detonating missiles rocketing upward through a massive elevator shaft is a very cool idea, but it's too difficult to be enjoyable. The grating metal soundtrack and awful voice-overs don't help when concentration is the key to your survival.
Despite its many cheap shots and frustrating moments, Uprising is a highly creative animal that changes constantly and keeps you on your toes. The beautiful hand-drawn art style has a pleasant anime vibe that updates the otherwise classic run-and-gun gameplay. Not only does each stage offer a stark visual contrast from the previous one, but they also throw in new and unexpected twists that break up the flow. Aside from hoofing it, you spend time riding a turbo-charged bike, battling away on a futuristic train network, boating along a river while blasting a giant mecha-sub, and riding missiles in space. While it'll probably be one of the most rage-inducing games you'll play this year, this Contra cousin rewards patient and skilled players with a nonstop glut of jaw-dropping, action-soaked moments.