Even though you've probably heard of the Contra franchise, there's a chance you've never played any of the original games. Contra and Super C were in the arcades and on Nintendo's NES console in the mid to late 1980s, while Contra III: The Alien Wars and Contra: Hard Corps settled onto the Super NES and Sega Genesis in 1992 and 1994 respectively. It's been nearly a decade since a true 2D Contra has been available on store shelves.
When Contra III: The Alien Wars was released for the Super NES in 1992, it raised the standards by which subsequent 2D action games would be measured. Its graphics were beautiful, featuring postapocalyptic landscapes and massive alien bosses. Most of all, the gameplay was simple and addictive. Earth was awash in alien creatures and corrupt soldiers, and your job was to shoot them all. The latest game, Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX, is a remake of Contra III. Its graphics are nearly as impressive today as they were nearly 10 years ago, and the gameplay is nearly as exciting.
You play the role of Billy, one of the few remaining soldiers left over after the alien forces of Red Falcon initiated a cataclysmic invasion of Earth. It's up to you to launch a suicidal counterattack through six stages teeming with alien soldiers, bosses, and hazards. Unlike many modern action games, Contra Advance doesn't bog you down with overly complicated weapons or control schemes. You can run, jump, and shoot, and sometimes you can climb. You can carry only one weapon at a time, but pods that give you the option to swap for another weapon fly past at various intervals. Available weapons include a machine gun, a spread gun, a flamethrower, crash missiles, homing missiles, and a laser, as well as temporary force shields.
The challenge is to figure out how to get through each stage without running out of lives, which isn't an easy task considering the hundreds of armed aliens trying to kill you. Contact with enemies and their bullets, or with hazards such as spikes and flames, will cost you a life. Each stage also has two boss characters you'll need to defeat. Some are massive and most have multiple forms, which means that you'll have to duck under appendages and scale walls in order to fight them. Every boss has its own set of patterns, and some weapons work better than others against them. Overall, this mixture of intense action and selective strategy makes for a game that's both fun and fast.
The visuals in Contra Advance are equally satisfying. Backgrounds are colorful and have multiple layers of scrolling. Screens constantly fill with enemies, bullets, and explosions. Even with dozens of objects onscreen at any given time, the action never bogs down or becomes choppy. The huge screen-filling bosses are just as impressive today as they were almost a decade ago, perhaps more so since few games have done better in the meantime. Contra Advance does show its age in some aspects, however. The level of detail in some backgrounds is simplistic compared to a number of modern action games, and the amount of animation isn't on par with the likes of Metroid Fusion or even Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance. As a result, Billy and the alien swarm aren't as lifelike as they could be.
One aspect that didn't quite survive the transition was the game's music. While the sound effects fit the situation and are the right mix of loud explosions and bloodcurdling death screams, the background music has suffered a loss of range and depth that also eliminates most of the orchestral feeling behind the soundtrack. This downgrade of music quality is unfortunate, but you'll probably be too busy slaughtering aliens to let it influence your enjoyment of the game.
If indeed you're just now getting acquainted with the Contra franchise, then you'll likely find yourself very pleased with Contra Advance. Although there are just six different stages, they vary widely in terms of presentation. Where one stage will have you running along the street or walking hand over hand above bonfires below, another will have you scaling the side of a building or dangling from a helicopter in midair. As an added bonus, the game supports the GBA link cable, so both you and a friend can play along simultaneously.
Still, there are a fair number of people who not only remember the original Super NES game but also continue to play it to this day. That said, Konami has made a number of alterations that further distance Contra Advance from Contra III: The Alien Wars. You can no longer carry two weapons and swap between them. Instead, you can only carry one at a time. More problematic is the total removal of the aura bomb, a rare item that you could unleash at any time and that would fill the screen with a blinding explosion and obliterate any weak enemies or projectiles that were onscreen. The aura bomb is considered by many to be the symbol of Contra III, and its absence is sure to displease a fair number of fans. Contra Advance is also missing the two Mode-7 stages from the Super NES game, both of which had an overhead viewpoint. Konami has replaced these stages with side-scrolling stages from the Genesis version of Contra: Hard Corps. One of these is an awesome firefight aboard a moving train that culminates in a battle with a giant robot in front of the locomotive's engine. The other, however, is a bland laboratory area that too closely resembles the stage before it.
Contra Advance is also less difficult than Contra III. It takes fewer shots to kill most enemies, bosses don't vary their patterns as quickly, and you'll acquire a bushel of extra lives just by killing standard enemies. These changes were probably made to compensate for the loss of aura bombs, which could get you past a number of sticky situations where you'd otherwise have to fight through a group of aliens. There is a surprise waiting for you at the end of the game, however. Contra Advance has only two difficulty settings, which means that you'll have to fight the final form of Red Falcon on the "normal" setting.
How much you enjoy Contra Advance depends on your history. If you've played Contra III: The Alien Wars to death, you may find yourself spitting daggers over the various alterations. But there are plenty of people out there who have never played the original. For those people, Contra Advance is a good, solid 2D shooter, even if it is over before you know it.