I, like many others, watched with befuddlement as a brand new Contra was revealed during a Nintendo Direct. Sure, Konami has been back on the radar with games like Super Bomberman R and its line of Anniversary Collection sets, but it’s still weird to see Contra of all things popping back up. With nearly a decade passing since the last game in the series, a lot has happened in gaming. So what does it mean to release a new Contra in 2019? The answer this time appears to be loot, multiplayer, and a healthy dose of post-ironic, crass humor. This is Contra: Rogue Corps, and I’m totally here for it.
What is a Contra? A Miserable Pile of Bullets
Contra has been through a lot over the years, but the core has always remained intact. Aliens are ravaging Earth, and it’s your job as either an 80s action film hero or 90s comic book cybersoldier to blow ‘em all away. It always starts with a machine gun, but thanks to special pickups, golden eagles providing lethal goodies from his holiness Uncle Sam, the running and gunning takes on different forms. The spread shot is the most famous of course, as it made the original game’s unrelenting difficulty much more manageable. Aside from this molten core, Contra has taken on other forms over the years.
That said, Contra has never exclusively been a sidescroller. Even the NES original experimented with perspective, having sections that looked more like the NES’ other “shooting gallery” games. Super C introduced top-down levels, and Contra III: The Alien Wars expanded on that thanks to the SNES’ fancy scrolling juice, and games since have dabbled further. While Contra is best known for scrolling and shooting, it has always been a space for light experimentation. So while it was jarring at first to see Contra: Rogue Corps, with its loud visuals and obvious twin-stick gameplay style appear out of seemingly nowhere, it makes plenty of sense that the developers (led once again by longtime series director Nobuya Nakazato) didn’t just take the same path WayForward did with Contra 4. There’s nothing traditional here in Contra: Rogue Corps, yet at the same time it still feels like it fits right in with its older siblings.
Somehow, the Contra series has an official timeline, which even includes Hard Corps. Granted, most of the games after Contra III are various forms of “bad shit happened after the Alien Wars,” and that’s exactly where Rogue Corps nebulously falls until further clarification. Sometime after the alien invasion is thwarted, a new threat literally rises from underground, corrupting the surrounding area and forming Damned City. Simply existing in this space makes the average person lose their mind due to all the bad alien/monster juju, but small groups with apparent immunity to those effects make a living out of scavenging the area for resources. You, your friends, and online randoms (or just you by yourself) control a squad of such vagrants, all of whom are heavily armed, gross-looking, and only marginally human. One of them is a panda with a human brain, and little panda drones. He’s my favorite.
Contra isn’t exactly a known vehicle for storytelling. After all the most renowned entries are basically about Rambo cosplayers shooting at H.R. Giger references. Rogue Corps takes the piss a little, dialing up the 90s corniness to a level past longing nostalgia and stopping just short of self-parody. It’s crass and vulgar, but it isn’t gross or creepy. Even the stoic narrator has a filthy mouth, but many of the worst tropes of the era just aren’t present. It isn’t full of pop culture references either; Rogue Corps is happy to just have fun being stupid, without trying too hard to be cool or edgy. It’s almost like a less self-indulgent Borderlands.
Bobbing for Brains
Speaking of Borderlands, Rogue Corps’ whole schtick (as Nakazato has stated in interviews) is taking elements and the general vibe of Contra, and modernizing it. The whole twin stick shooting thing isn’t really modern, but a lot of Rogue Corps’ infrastructure sure is. This is a score-chasing shooter with power ups and local co-op, but it’s also an online multiplayer game with loot-based progression. Just like in, well, any other game with bullets these days, you’ll be picking up color-coded drops from enemies and containers, and managing your loadout in-between stages. The weapon stuff is pretty straightforward, with each character having their starting weapons (although you can swap them around which is neat) and upgrades comprising feeding crap parts to boost stats, and equipping good parts as your capacity increases. The other set of equips is much less straightforward, but much more fun.
Rogue Corps’ goofier take on Contra‘s usual post-apocalyptic cyber warfare is best represented with its bizarre characters, but in second place comes the body parts loadout. Remember when I mentioned the panda? He’s the result of cybernetic experimentation gone wrong, but that doesn’t stop the scavengers from taking on comically dangerous transplant operations in the name of righteous destruction. Instead of the usual pouches and body armor, you’ll be upgrading your brain, eyeballs, heart, so on and so forth. And mucking around with your organs in a mind-altering wasteland isn’t a smooth process. You can just transplant your new parts for free from the one sketchy surgeon, sure; but if you toss some coin at the more deranged medical professionals in the surgery shack, you might get more bonuses. Or… well, the surgery won’t go as planned and something completely different will happen. Ultimately it’s just more stat and passive boost tinkering here, but the craven diegetic set-dressing rules. Especially since you can sit and listen to all the horrible squelching sounds of your own body being desecrated by mad science.
As much as I like the setup and narrative justification for all the uh, shlooting, there is one major issue. This game is all about fast and frantic action, as it should be. However, upgrading your equipment bogs things down quite a bit. I’m a Diablo guy, so I don’t mind screwing around in menus every now and then. But the grind here is a bit unbalanced. See, in addition to messing with parts, your weapons also net experience points from finishing levels. You need those levels to upgrade weapons to the next grade, which boosts stats, but more importantly increases the limit for more parts. It feels like it takes way too much time to get the ball rolling there, especially to get to the first opportunity to upgrade. I was stuck with one part on my panda’s starting machine gun for several levels before I could get to two parts–and there are plenty more slots to unlock. That’s a lot of dedication Rogue Corps wants in order to get real stronk.
I Forgot to Try the Konami Code
Luckily, actually playing Rogue Corps is a real blast, especially with a crew. I got to play some co-op, both local and online, and it was a blast. There are a couple different ways Rogue Corps quietly pushes you to play with other people, and the payoff there feels good. For example, there’s a set of special collectibles in each level, but they only appear for a limited time before vanishing. Even if you only have one other player, it’s easy to coordinate one person chasing the goodies, and the other maintaining the enemies long enough for the first person to snag the prize and get back to work. Splitting enemy attention also helps navigate the game’s tight spaces, and seeing everyone’s different weapons and abilities pop off is just exciting. There’s also a versus mode, which actually has some interesting modes considering how bad “versus twin-stick shooter” sounds on paper. It’s not something I’ll really go back to, but the cooperative play is where the spirit of Contra truly lives.
Speaking of Contra’s spirit, Rogue Corps is full of it. While most of the game avoids nostalgia pandering, there are definitely nods to the series in fun ways. The music occasionally dives into rearrangements of familiar tunes, the golden eagle with the bright red “S” makes multiple appearances, and the original game’s ridiculous, spinny jump animation is even sillier in 3D. Special weapon power ups are more like say, Metal Slug (limited ammo), but boy howdy does that spread gun still rule. Sometimes the twin-stick action changes to “shooting gallery” mode, which are brief setpieces that nod towards the perspective swapping of old. Again this isn’t about recreating the old school Contra style, but the DNA and love language for the series is still all over Rogue Corps.
Despite my initial hesitation, I found myself really digging Contra: Rogue Corps. My fears that it looked like a cheap, grody-looking, nothing game trying to cruise on a classic IP ended up being completely unfounded. Instead, what I got was a game clearly under Kawazato’s supervision, but with younger blood coursing through its veins. Rogue Corps understands the appeal of revisiting gratuitous 90s cheese, but filters out all the tropes we’ve grown out of since. By injecting actual, creative humor instead of edgy cynicism or boring references, Contra: Rogue Corps really has a personality of its own despite most of the storytelling living in the background. And while some of the progression can feel like a grind, the loot systems get cute and tie into the theme, which is more than I can say for most other boilerplate loot systems. Add smooth and productive multiplayer modes to the mix, and you have a game that can easily soak up a game night or two. I know all the Konami drama was rough for a while there folks, but this is good stuff.
Contra: Rogue Corps review code provided by publisher. Version 1.00 reviewed on a Standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy .