Released: September 1992
US Cartridge ID: NES-CR-USA
Supported Peripherals: Controller
ROM Size: 2 megabit
Mapper: MMC3 (128k PRG, 128k CHR)
Contra Force, the fourth American console title bearing the revered Contra name, proved to be an unexpected NES release late in the system’s life cycle. Following Contra (NES), Super C (NES), and Contra III: The Alien Wars (SNES), Contra Force was initially announced in Japan as Ark Hound (アークハウンド / Aakuhaundo), an original concept bearing no relation story wise to any other existing Konami franchises. The game was never released in its native Japanese territory, but instead published as a US exclusive spin-off title of the Contra series, making it one of two official Contra games (the other, C – The Contra Adventure, 1998, PSX) to see an American only release.
Contra Force has a markedly different feel from the other games in the series, eschewing the futuristic alien invasion motif typical to the series for a modern-day mercenary shootout. In 1992, Neo City experiences unspeakable horrors at the hands of D.N.M.E., a brutal terrorist organization responsible for the kidnapping of the city’s police commissioner. Burns, the leader of the mercenary group of ex-military commandos known as C-Force, receives a worrisome call from an agent named Fox. Agreeing to meet, Burns arrives at a warehouse where he finds Fox murdered and D.N.M.E. thugs lying in wait. Left with no other choice, Burns and his three fellow C-Force compatriots swear to hunt down and eliminate those responsible.
The fight to reclaim Neo City covers five different stages, alternating between side-scrolling run-and-gun action akin to G. I. Joe and Code Name: Viper, and top down shooting similar to that seen in Ikari Warriors and Heavy Barrel. Though sharing some gameplay similarities, Contra Force differs significantly from its forbearers in many important regards. At the outset, the player is asked to select a player from one of the four members of C-Force, including Burns, the machine-gunning leader; Smith, a sniper with access to homing missiles; Beans, an explosives expert; and Iron, an ace with incendiaries. Through the command screen, the playable character can be switched instantly to another team member, a second player can join, or a solo player can enlist the help of a CPU controlled sidekick (who will remain onscreen for five seconds after selecting the CPU’s “Battle Plan,” used to decide the partner’s tactical role in combat). Each character can upgrade their abilities through a system identical to that in Gradius: picking up a suitcase will move the cursor on the weapon inventory bar up one notch, allowing the desired item, once highlighted, to be activated by pressing the Select button.
Contra Force‘s sound easily is its most impressive achievement. The soundtrack retains the trademark Konami style of catchy melodies layered over sampled drums and instruments, and the samples are far less muffled sounding than they were in Super C or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III – The Manhattan Project. Contra Force‘s graphics look incredible in still-shots, with detailed sprites, huge bosses, and great color throughout. Parts of the environments (crates, stairs, some walls) are destructible, and some of the set pieces (including jumping between the wings of huge airplanes in midair, riding on a lifeboat between ships) are impressively rendered with little flicker. Though the characters are impressive in size, well drawn and feature some excellent animation, it quickly becomes clear that Contra Force pushes the NES’ limits more than it should have. In single-player mode, the game runs significantly slower than the original Contra, with the game’s frame-rate regularly bogging down when something explodes, somebody shoots, or enemies appear on the screen. While this slowdown does make the game easier than it should be, it doesn’t render the game unplayable. Using a CPU controlled partner, or having a second player on the screen, slows the action down to a crawl, even with no enemies or projectiles on screen. The frustration stemming from this issue effectively ruins cooperative play, widely regarded as one of the most appealing aspects of any Contra title.
Contra Force has most of the makings of an excellent game – tight controls, an impressive soundtrack, and genuine innovation to the Contra formula are all welcome. Unfortunately, though it is a reasonably good single-player game, the crippling graphics issues deliver a two-player game that is a regrettable combination of misdirected ambition and a flagrant disregard for playability.