By James "What? I died AGAIN?!?!" Wiles
There were several things one could be sure of in the last generation of consoles: most everything available on the N64 would be kiddie-fied; Anything made by Squaresoft would sell like hotcakes; and any game with the Contra name on it would invariably suck beyond all conceivable levels of suckiness. That last one was a pretty bitter pill for most gamers to swallow, what with having been raised from the days of the NES to believe that all things Contra would be good, solid fun, no matter what the system.
Fortunately, that old adage finally is true again. Get ready, kids… the old addiction is back.
Shattered Soldier turns out to be a very fitting title for this entry in this series, as it is in effect trying to pick up the mangled pieces of a franchise that had been thought to have been ruined beyond all redemption. Gone are the failed attempts at 3D combat, lackluster graphics, crap-tacular control, and sub par-at-best level design. This Contra goes back to the series pure 2D roots, while at the same time streamlining and enhancing the gameplay into the tightest form imaginable. The game even goes so far as to attempt to bring a cohesive storyline into play: After being nice enough to save Earth from aliens, Bill Rizer ("Player 1" or "The Blue Guy" of Contra III: The Alien Wars fame) was apparently accused of destroying a large portion of the planet, as well as murdering his former partner, Lance Bean ("Player 2" or "The Red Guy") and was sentenced to some ungodly long stretch in cryogenic prison. Now a new threat has emerged to threaten the remainder of Earth's population, and the planet's toughest soldier has been called in from the deep freeze to mop them up, under the watchful eye of the busty cybernetic soldier Lucia. Quite a lot of plot for a Contra game, but the game is fully playable without knowing a single scrap of it. And in the grand scheme of things it all still boils down to "There are things to shoot. Go shoot them repeatedly until they fall down."
Some of you may want to sit down for this next bit: There are no longer any forms of power-ups to be found. Yep… you start with all the firepower that you get for the entire game. Now, before the purists in the crowd get ready to storm out in a huff, keep in mind all of the times that previous Contra experiences were ruined by losing that pivotal homing or grenade weapon in a time of need.
Still with me?
Excellent. Now that that shock's out of the way, we can move on.
Even though it's sad to see the classic power-up system go by the wayside, the constant availability afforded by the new weapon system definitely opens up the game to new levels of playability and challenge. From the start, the player is armed with the standard machine gun, a grenade launcher whose shots are capable of rolling along walls and floors, and an exceedingly badass-looking flamethrower which can pass through barriers and enemy shields, as well as dealing massive damage. Each weapon also has the ability to execute a more powerful "charge attack" by holding the new charge button down for a few moments, which adds a 360-degree gunpod attack, homing rockets, and a flaming bazooka shot to your arsenal. 6 pieces of weaponry…. And you'll need every one of them. As an added challenge, the player is now graded based on what percentage of the level destroyed and how completely the enemy forces were annihilated. This adds a nice extra incentive to continue playing and score those coveted "S" rankings.
Thankfully, this Contra captures every bit of the gameplay that made the series great, weaving the new elements in perfectly: Tons of enemies, destructible environments, and HUGE bosses (some of which are based on bosses from past Contra games… another nice incentive for fans) hearken back to the glory days of the run-n-gun shooter. Every bit of the game has looks to match the sweet gameplay, with plenty of flashy weapon effects, nice animations, and loud, fiery explosions galore. Speaking of explosions, the sounds of war are plenty loud and powerful, with a grinding Metal soundtrack spurring the player on every inch of the way. Top to bottom, it's tough to find a single chink in this game's armor… save one.
If anything in Shattered Soldier can be called a flaw, it's the difficulty. This game is hard. And we're not talking a little hard… we're talking thumb-crunchingly, hair-pullingly, controller-tossingly hard.
Getting those S rankings involves destroying everything in the level, as well as NOT DYING, as each life lost and continue spent costs precious percentage points in the end of level tally. And naturally, not dying is a much harder task than it seems. There is an "easy" mode of the game, but in reality all this does is provide the player with an inordinate number of lives and continues and turns them loose, without actually reducing the difficulty at all. And as an added kick in the teeth, nothing can be unlocked while on easy difficulty…. No endings, no new levels…. Nothing. In fact, only about half of the game can even be SEEN on easy. To get any extras, the player has to beat the game on normal difficulty, armed only with 3 continues and 3 lives per continue. And then there's HARD difficulty to get through.
Suddenly that nice new arsenal looks decidedly less comforting….
Regardless of the painfully high challenge level, Shattered Soldier is a very
rewarding game, with tons of great moments and plenty of replay value. The first
few plays can be pretty disheartening as one finds out how badly contemporary
games have spoiled their once finely honed reflexes. But once the old groove is
back, the new Contra becomes quite a wild ride.
Welcome back, Bill… Hope to see you in the sequel.
James' score: 4 ½ (out of 5)