Contra: Operation Galuga Review - Corps Run

  • First Released Mar 12, 2024
  • PC

Contra: Operation Galuga reimagines just enough to feel modern without losing the original game's identity.

More than almost any other game from its era, Contra made its name on being brutally difficult: a legacy with an impact that can still be felt today. Even cultural touchstones like the Konami Code owe at least some of their fame to the Contra series--after all, half the reason we memorized that particular sequence of button presses was to get extra lives for our battle against the alien hordes. With Contra: Operation Galuga, WayForward had a peculiar challenge: Sand off the rough edges of the original Contra to make it tolerable to modern audiences without losing the mystique that owes so much to its absurd difficulty. Thanks to some smart improvements, it's found an enjoyable balance, although it's not enough to elevate Galuga to greatness.

This is a retelling of the first game, which means that once again you're Contra operatives Bill and Lance dispatched to the island of Galuga to get to the bottom of strange goings-on there. After a slightly too-wordy introduction in Story mode, you're dropped right into the run-and-gun action, and despite looking and feeling very similar to the first game, the differences will quickly become apparent to series veterans. To start, you have a double jump by default, as well as a dash maneuver that can be used on the ground or in mid-air. Together, these make you much more nimble at dodging enemy fire, allow more room for error when crossing chasms, and turn combat into a quicker, more acrobatic experience.

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Now Playing: Contra: Operation Galuga | Character Trailer

Despite borrowing the most iconic weapons from the first three games--the Machine Gun, Spread, Laser, Flame Thrower, Homing, and Crush weapons--your arsenal has gotten an upgrade, too. Each signifies a considerable power boost from your default gun by itself, but each can also be upgraded by stacking another weapon pick-up on top of it. Picking up another Homing power-up when you already have Homing equipped makes it a Homing Lv 2, for example. Sometimes this extends the range or breadth of the weapon, like in the case of the Spread and Flame Thrower, while other times it can change a weapon's behavior more significantly. An upgraded Laser will ricochet off targets, while the upgraded Crush changes the weapon from an explosive missile to a firearm that opens small black holes that do continuous damage. And in a welcome quality-of-life tweak, picking up a new weapon will automatically replace a blank weapon slot if you have one. I spent half the game manually switching out of habit before I realized that little nice-to-have.

The weapons all feel rewarding and powerful, but in true Contra tradition, that also makes you feel all the more vulnerable if you happen to lose them. By default, if you're playing with the life bar option, getting hit once will downgrade your weapon, and fully dying and losing a life will cost you the weapon altogether. This encourages you to think and fight somewhat strategically or potentially contend with Contra's difficult fights without an upgraded arsenal.

This also feeds into Operation Galuga's other major update: a shop to buy various perks with the credits you earn during missions. You earn more credits the more risks you take, like playing on higher difficulties or turning on one-hit kills. Then you can use those credits to expand your health bar, purchase extra lives, or even start with a particular weapon--all of which you can buy for a relatively low sum. The bigger purchases, however, are absolute game-changers. I immediately saved up for the upgrade that automatically transforms any weapon you pick up into the upgraded version. With that secured, I began saving for another that would let me keep that upgraded weapon after sustaining a hit. Another, which I considered but ultimately bypassed, lets you keep your weapon even upon death. You can only equip two perks at a time, but finding a combination that suits your play style adds a light layer of character customization to what is otherwise a very straightforward action game.

The game balance feels built around these perks, finding a sweet spot of challenge that was satisfying. Even with everything working in your favor, it can be tough dodging reams of enemy fire while taking out various aliens who are both firing from a distance and charging straight at you, all at once. At the best of times, combat can be breathless and exciting. But the ability to select stages individually in Story mode makes it easy to fail out of a stage, reorganize perks, and try again. It also has a fairly generous checkpoint system, so even if you do mess up, you may not lose all your progress. The result is a game that recalls the feeling of overcoming the tough Contra challenge of yesteryear, without venturing into becoming too frustrating or reliant on perfecting a single run.

For those who do want the challenge, though, you can play with classic mechanics, including one-hit kills and even 8-direction aiming rather than the default omnidirectional aim. A separate Arcade mode skips the story sequences and just presents the levels back-to-back, granting a high score, with an increasing multiplier of credits to spend on the in-game shop the further you get. Finally, there's also a set of optional Challenge stages to fulfill objectives like getting through an area or beating a boss within a time limit, usually without ever getting hit.

The story is nonsense, but it's an enjoyable kind of nonsense. The original Contra was inspired by over-the-top action movie tropes of the 1980s, and this runs with that premise with anachronistic glee. Many of the story sequences go on at least a little too long, but it plays its absurd machismo for laughs and packs some strangely amusing surprises. If anything, it could stand to be even more on-the-nose with its satirical inspirations.

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Throughout the story, you'll meet other characters fighting on the side of the Contra, and for the most part, they'll ultimately become unlockable characters--either through the course of the story itself or as purchasable characters from the shop. Each character has a single specialized ability to buy in the shop as well--like a short dash invulnerability window for Bill, or a higher double jump for Lance--which makes a series of mostly identical army-men action figures play somewhat differently. The special abilities at least invite some mechanical reasoning for choosing a favorite playable character, but for the most part, your chosen character will likely only come down to which character model you like to look at the most. There's not enough difference between characters for any true strategic benefit.

And like action figures, these character models look shiny and plasticine, along with their backgrounds. The visual style is perhaps the least attractive aspect of the entire presentation because it often looks so generic and dull. There are individual moments in some stages that appear more visually distinct and interesting, and you can occasionally sense there may have been a seed of an idea to make these oily-looking character models reminiscent of a walking G.I. Joe. On the whole, though, it fails to show the panache that WayForward has become known for, which is disappointing for the revival of such a storied franchise.

Still, Contra: Operation Galuga has it where it counts. It feels like classic Contra in all the ways that matter, and a series of changes and upgrades--from minor tweaks like auto-equipping weapons to major new elements like the perks shop--are just enough to make it feel smooth and modern. This may not be a modern classic, but it shows how a classic series like Contra can feel fresh again.

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The Good

  • Recaptures the feel of classic Contra action
  • Smart mechanical upgrades, like double jump, make the original gameplay loop feel modern without sacrificing the classic feel
  • A perks shop lets you strategize a preferred playstyle and compensate for the game's difficulty

The Bad

  • The story is overly wordy, and not quite silly enough to be fully enjoyable
  • The visual style largely looks generic and bland

About the Author

Steve finished Contra: Operation Galuga in about eight hours, completing the Story mode and trying a few runs of the Arcade and Challenge modes.