Many an old-school gamer will happily praise the Contra series when brought up in discussion. Games like the first NES entry or Contra III: The Alien Wars on the Super NES are regularly mentioned as highlights of their respective systems’ libraries, and held up as masterpieces of the 2D run-and-gun shooter genre. For various reasons, unfortunately, Contra: Hard Corps doesn’t receive nearly as much attention when discussion of the series takes place.
Admittedly, Hard Corps is an odd release for the series. Being the second Contra to be directed by Nobuya Nakazato after his work on The Alien Wars, as well as the first Contra game to not see a release on a Nintendo system, it instead graced Nintendo’s direct competitor, the Sega Genesis, with its presence. Hard Corps was one of several Konami games that came out for the Genesis, after the company had initially avoided the platform during its early years.
While previous games in the series focused largely on run-and-gun action against minor enemies, Hard Corps builds on the gradual shift The Alien Wars had previously begun to take toward focusing on boss fights, and makes them front and center to the experience. While other action games will usually throw tons of smaller enemies at the player, with occasional boss fights at the end of each stage, Hard Corps is more like a series of boss fights, that have occasional battles with smaller enemies interspersed within.
Moreso than any prior Contra game, Hard Corps is a game that’s all about setpieces. Almost every level throws new obstacles and enemies at the player with little respite. Hard Corps isn’t afraid to toss several boss fights at the player, one after another, each with unique attack patterns to learn and work around the hard way. One will almost never see the same enemy twice, so players will need to keep on their toes throughout. It’s clear that the development team had a great sense of imagination and love for their work, when planning out these encounters.
Unlike every previous Contra, you have four separate characters to choose between when starting a new game. Each character has a machine gun equipped by default, and are also each capable of sliding, which is a new addition to the series. Ray Poward and Sheena Etranzi, the male and female human characters, are relatively normal in design, with Ray playing the most like a standard Contra character (complete with the fan-favorite Spread gun), while Sheena’s weapon set revolves heavily around lasers. Complimenting them is Brad Fang, a cyborg werewolf wearing sunglasses, whose attacks have limited range and mobility, yet are the most powerful available. Finally, there’s Browny, a tiny little robot who has quirky unconventional weapons like an electromagnetic yo-yo, and is the only character to be able to double-jump.
Your tactics during each enemy encounter will need to change depending on the character you’re currently using, as well as what weapons you currently have available to use. This in and of itself adds to the replay value, and gives extra incentive to play the game with every character, but another major addition to Hard Corps‘ design is the branching level paths. There are a couple different choices made during the game’s story, that affect both which stages the player will encounter, as well as which of several endings/final bosses the player will face. Altogether, there are four standard endings, a hidden secret ending, and an optional bad ending in one particular level path.
Contra has never been known for holding back its challenge, but Hard Corps is something else entirely. The game was actually released in Japan with a health bar for whoever you chose to control. You could take three hits before losing a life, which in practice means you have essentially nine lives before needing to use a continue. The overseas releases in North America and PAL regions, however, did not feature a health bar for the player.
Instead, the same system as the other Contra games is used, where if you get hit just once, you die, and when your initial three lives have been used up, you need to use a continue. Some have argued that the non-Japanese versions of the game have an unbalanced level of difficulty because of this change. It’s definitely still doable, speaking as someone who’s beaten the game without dying… but there’s no doubting that it’ll take awhile to be able to make it to the end of any of the several paths featured in Hard Corps.
Altogether, Hard Corps‘ scope as an action game is massive. Each single level is visually impressive, making the best usage possible of the Genesis’ graphical limitations in comparison to the Super NES. While The Alien Wars had some graphical tricks of its own, thanks to the Super NES’ hardware capabilities like Mode 7, Hard Corps utilized flashy effects like sprite scaling and rotation, which were truly a sight to behold on the several-year-old Genesis hardware at the time of the game’s development. With Hard Corps, Konami succeeded in creating a game whose visual design gave The Alien Wars a run for its money.
It’s clear Konami hasn’t entirely forgotten Hard Corps‘ existence, as Sheena appeared as an unlockable character in WayForward’s Contra 4 on the DS, and the game even received its own specially-branded prequel (sans the “Contra” title) as a digital-only Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 game by Arc System Works, known as Hard Corps: Uprising. However, given the company’s continually shifting focus away from video game development towards its other products such as pachislot gambling machines, it is doubtful that much will happen in the future, either for Contra as a whole, or for the possibility of seeing a digital rerelease of Hard Corps specifically. The only gasps of life the series has seen since Uprising, have been a couple mobile titles such as Contra Evolution and Contra Mobile (the latter of which isn’t even planned for release outside of China), and various gambling machines that have the Contra brand attached to them.
Sadly, a rerelease of Hard Corps seems exceedingly unlikely. It stands as an oft-overlooked entry in the series, thanks to its release platform and the fact it has never been ported or released anywhere else. For these reasons, I say “Bring It Back!” More people deserve the opportunity to play such a well-crafted and fully-realized game as Contra: Hard Corps. If you ever get the chance to play it, and are looking for a considerable challenge, I highly recommend giving it a go.