Hard Corps: Uprising Konami, Microsoft Xbox 360 Live Arcade, February 2011
$15 (1,200 MS points)
With the advent of digital distribution, a company can make pretty much whatever game it wants and not have to worry about the investment of physical media preventing a game from being successful. Hard Corps: Uprising is a game that probably wouldn't have worked as a full retail product, but as a $15 downloadable title is quite the treat. It plays a lot like a lost descendant of the 16-bit generation, effectively referencing Contra III: Hard Corps in an adventure that's Contra in gameplay, but not in theme. (That is to say, an evil empire of future Earth has replaced the aliens of the older games.
From the outset, you can play as either a young woman with an eye patch or an anime dude with spikey hair in this run-and-gun 2D blastfest. The heroes are introduced through some really animation from Studio4OC... who has been tapped to do the new ThunderCats cartoon. The game itself is about 1 gigabyte, and it's safe to assume a lot of this is the animation hogging up your hard drive.
What you need to know: The Arcade Mode is effectively impossible for mere mortals, and is for hardcore shooter enthusiasts only. The Rising Mode allows you to upgrade your character with more lives, hit points, and stronger weapons and is actually possible to complete. Minimum completion time for Gods of the genre will probably be a couple of hours, but an average player can probably expect at least 10 hours of fun from this one. The game plays so much like Contra that you're probably going to love it-- if you love Konami's older titles.
Have you played a Contra title? Well, you'll grasp this one pretty much immediately. Run, shoot, jump. Also strafe, aim from a non-moving position, and swap weapons. A double-jump has been added, and you can climb some walls. Basically, it's a superior version of what Contra IV on the Nintendo DS had to offer.
Special stages offer slightly different controls, as there are points where you'll be driving a futuristic motorcycle or engaging in battle on a hoverboard much like the Sewer Surfing levels in the old Ninja Turtles games. If your ability to play games has not advanced much since 1995, I think you'll still be comfortable here-- once you get past dying repeatedly against the punishing level design.
Graphics & Sound
Prepare to be impressed. Most downloadable titles have polygon characters, because hand-drawn sprites were deemed too expensive. Not so in Hard Corps: Rising! The playable characters and the bulk of the villains are actually hand-drawn and look gorgeous. If you've played games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and its descendants where some characters are hand-drawn while a few elements are actually 3D models, it's a lot like that. The animated characters in the game look fantastic, and may be some of the most finely drawn sprites I've seen in recent memory. Granted, I don't play everything but it's impossible to look at this game and not at least say "wow, that's really gorgeous."
The music is appropriate for the genre, with thundering guitars and a lot of bass blaring while you march from left to right and kill things. The game is born from a 1980s ancestor, and the rocking soundtrack feels like something of a throwback too. It's loud and in places, maybe a little corny. It suits the genre well, as does the voice acting. The voice acting for this game is so bad, it's awesome. Some character quotes have the inflection all wrong, and sound like the sound engineers spliced together multiple takes of a three-word quote into a single, awkward whole. The first stage of the last boss battle will likely end up a popular gag online if enough people actually make it that far, as the final villain's accent is an odd mix of quasi-European, British, and someone who only just recently acquired the ability to speak.
A nice easter egg: if you enter the classic Konami code on the loading screen, the stage which follows will change its background music into an arrangement of Stage 1 of the original Contra. It's pretty awesome, so I suggest you try it at least once. (Heck, you can probably even try it on the demo.)
Other Modes and Achievements
While multiplayer modes are present, I did not try them for the review. Due to the fast-paced visually-packed nature of the game, I don't necessarily think it would be improved by adding a second player to the mix. It's tough, and extra bullets will make some stages, including a Bullet Hell-inspired boss, increasingly difficult boss.
As to the achievements, you can pretty much forget collecting all 12 unless you're a master of the genre or someone with plenty of time. I managed to unlock three at press time (one for finishing the game on Rising Mode, one for beating stage 1 on Arcade Mode, and another for defeating 10 villains) and of those, I'd say only one qualifies as easy. Other achievements include beating the game without dying on Arcade Mode, or beating the game with only killing 50 or fewer enemies. I can't fathom trying this.
The game itself has a number of exciting gimmicks to try out, including one stage where you don a cardboard box and sneak around a factory like in Metal Gear Solid and another where you take flight and attack a quasi-Gradius-style boss whose attacks will remind you of some of the meaner bullet hell shooters released as of late. With only 8 stages, there's a decent amount of variety.
Is it worth buying?
PASS OR FAIL?
YOU GOTTA TRY IT!
If you love games that make you as happy as they do angry, this is the title for you. With tons of awesome weapon upgrades and inventive stages you will hate yourself a little each time you come back for more, and in Rising mode the impossible eventually morphs into "just incredibly difficult." Keep at it, as certain weapon upgrades will make the difference in the final boss battle which, at first, will seem like something that was not meant to be beaten.
Make no mistake, this isn't some adventure/explore game, this isn't an RPG. It's a shooter, and as a shooter it excels in doing what the genre does best: encouraging you to swear at the TV while every pore of your being wants to hit "continue" after dying for the 19th time.
I had so much fun with this game that I fully expect to dive back in and play some more in the future. For $15 it may seem a little short, but if it ever hits $10 or less you really do owe it to yourself to pick it up. If nothing else, grab the demo and prepare to do battle against a game with razor-sharp fangs.
(I would love the people responsible for the visuals to tackle a future 2D CastleVania title, and would be absolutely ga-ga over seeing them do an entire Salamander game. Get to it, Konami.)
--Adam Pawlus Review posted March 7, 2011 Review copy provided by the developer
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