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Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX

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A brief history lesson...

The Year is 1992.

Videogame developers Konami, recognized for their classic Castlevania and Gradius titles, among others, for the first time, along with a few designers of the soon-to-be created videogame company Treasure, set out to unleash upon the world what would become the 3rd console chapter in one of the greatest action series from the Side Scroller era.

That game became Contra 3: The Alien Wars, for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System.

Contra 3 not only became the first turn for the franchise on the recently released SNES, but also marked a new beginning and a true technological advancement in game mechanics, unseen before in action games on any platform of the time.  It helped usher in a new standard for which all Side-Scrolling Run-and-Gun titles would be based upon for years to come.

Taking place after the events of Operation C, 1991's Contra release for the Gameboy, a new threat had arisen in Contra 3, as the evil onslaught from space returned to obliterate our futuristic earth.

This time, to defeat them, our heroes were pushed to the max through six groundbreaking stages of alien attacks and mechanized menaces.  These stages featured 4 side-scrolling levels, and 2 rotating overhead levels, using the SNES' unique "Mode 7" Graphic capabilities, mixed in for equal measure.

Unlike Contra games of the past, players were granted the option of choosing 3 distinctive difficulty levels to progress and complete the game on, each harder than the last.  An easy way to jump in as a beginning, or as a player who had excelled to expert level, whether you wanted to play alone, or with a buddy.

To their aid, new features to the series are introduced, including a screen-shattering smart bomb to vaporize all in your character's wake, as well as duel-wielding firearms, including up to two different specialized weapons that you could alternate back and forth, such as the Homing Missiles and Crash Bombs, had been added to shake things up a bit.

The First stage consisted of a war-torn city, with a straightforward objective of getting from point A to B, while destroying mutant dogs, armed guards, tanks and blockades before reaching an evil giant turtle monster.

The Second stage, you made your way through to the first "Mode-7" level: A maze created from a demolished highway structure that was viewed from an overhead perspective.  In the end, finding yourself in battle with a massive, platforming creature that came crashing down upon you.

In the Third stage, things kicked up a notch.  Instead of simple left-to-right, and up-and-down experiences, you now needed to rely on your skills of clinging to rails, crawling up walls, climbing over ledges, and carrying on across ceilings, to avoid fast-paced attacks from enemies at all angles.

Stage four had you racing along the highway, while battling vehicles on the road, and enemies from above, including a massive enemy ship, before being thrust into battle with a sword-slinging alien, while strapped to a series of missile that was about to be shot across the sky, and somehow manage to take out the alien ship's defenses, without plummeting to one's death.

Leading on to Stages five and six, your characters found themselves in an overhead "Mode-7" sand-trap, before making way to the alien lair, mimicking that of the original Contra, where you not only battled enemies from games passed, but had to fight the evil... dreaded... alien eyeball monster!


All in all, the game was great.  An instant classic on the SNES.  Not only was the action fast-paced and frenzied, it pushed the boundaries for action and graphical effect on the system at the time, and even today, still holds up against practically any other game from the 16-bit era.

Who can forget the first time they saw the jet swoop down and blast off it's missiles, destroying everything in it's wake?  Or the "mode-7" rotation effects from the overhead levels, when comparing them to the top-scrolling missions of Super C and Operation C?

Certainly, a true classic such as this deserved to be shared with future generations who may have been unfamiliar with the original Contra series of days gone by, and the slightly older, but nonetheless nostalgic players, who dreamed of one day being able to pick up and play one of the greatest SNES games on the go with their Gameboy Advance systems.

10 years later, it was going to happen.  And, thankfully, Konami was willing to bring it to us.


The Year becomes 2002.

Even though Contra 3 was introduced early in the life span of the SNES, after a decade had passed since it was released, few games had managed to live up to the thrill of it's simple "Run-and-Gun" action experience, or it's graphical enhancements on the 16-bit hardware.

While there were other standouts, like fan-favorite Gunstar Heroes (GEN), and the technical wonders from Super Turrican 2 (SNES), the Contra franchise itself seemed to be losing it's leverage as the great series it once was.

Hard Corps (GEN) managed quite well, even more so considering none of the developers of the original Nintendo games had a hand in it.  And years later, Shattered Soldier (PS2) turned out fairly decent.  But titles such as Contra Force(NES), Legacy of War (SAT/PSX) and C: The Contra Adventure (PSX), had left a sour taste with many fans of the series for years after.

Could a port of Contra: The Alien Wars to the Gameboy Advance revive the illustrious gameplay of Contra's past, and help usher in a new era of Contra greatness once again?

The answer... unfortunately... is no.

ENTER -- Contra Advance: The Alien Wars EX

Somehow, somewhere along the way, Konami lost it's feel with the Contra franchise.  And in a most bizarre twist of fate, was able to extract all of the fun out of what could be considered by many to be the best title of the Contra series to day, as they were converting it to the Gameboy Advance.

But where could it all go so wrong?!?!

First thing is first... Konami decided to fiddle with the fundamental mechanics of the difficulty, by severely tweaking it from the original game modes, and not in the kind of way that benefits the player.

Instead of giving the player a set of three different difficulty modes, that were balanced evenly for newcomers and experts of the game, Konami stripped them down to 2 selectable modes: "Novice" and "Normal".  Both of which have been altered to make the game harder, no matter which one you choose.  And as a sheer crime, "Novice" mode simply ends after the fourth stage, forcing gamers to select the "Normal" mode, with its horribly difficult playability, to finish the game.

Once you actually start up the game, two very important pieces of gameplay from the SNES release will become immediately apparently in their absence.  The first of which is that alternate weapon.  You no longer have the option to carry a back-up weapon, as you're confined to one and only one gun at any given time.  The second is the lack of smart-bombs throughout the entire game.  Gone forever is the pleasure of watching the screen erupt in a mist of devastating radiation.

And, unfortunately, for some unknown reason, Konami decided to yank the awesome, overhead "Mode-7" stages from the new Alien Wars EX release.  Stages 2 and 5 from the SNES are no more, replaced by what Konami promised gamers as "2 new stages" for the game.  However, that statement itself is bogus, as neither of the stages are new, but instead ripped straight out of Contra: Hard Corps from the Genesis.

And while Contra: Hard Corps remains to this day as one of the best games for Sega's system, the transition of these stages to Gameboy Advance do come with their problems.  Much like all of the stages in the game, everything has been dumbed down and downsized.  And Konami failed to acknowledge that smaller sprites and larger screen space on the Genesis would not bode well for a smaller screen and larger sprites on the GBA.

The stages themselves have become so compressed, as if Konami was determined to try and cram everything from the original game into the smallest space possible.  This leads to an exceedingly frustrating inability to move around freely based on the constraints of where the screen will allow you to move, throughout much of the entire game.  This leads to bad gameplay, as you often won't be able to see enemy fire, or enemy presence, until you've already been struck by it.

An example: The first "new" level of Alien Wars EX takes place on a train.  Upon starting, you'll be required to jump over a few hurdles as enemies approach from both sides.  Originally, on the GEN version, this was very easy.  But because of the screen compression and larger sprites from Alien Wars, it is impossible not to cling to the ceiling while jumping, where controls are nowhere near as fluid as they should be, and you are in an awkward spot to defend yourself.

To top it off, Konami couldn't even go to the expense of changing the Hard Corps levels to better suit the GBA's 32,000-color palate, by sticking with the same old 92 colors of the Genesis version.  But even the overall visual quality of the SNES stages have taken a downgrade from the once luminary visuals, when compared side-by-side.  The sound quality too, seems to be missing much of the magic that the original Alien Wars release once displayed.

Of course, it's easier to overlook a lesser sound quality and a lesser visual quality, if the gameplay itself stands up to the test of time.  But the controls aren't as fluid, and with a scrunched screen, it is hard for your character to move where he needs to move, before it is too late to take action.

And when you die, which is something that will happen quite often, there will be no forgiveness.  You have no more than a split-second to regenerate and move out of harm's way, because you have virtually no invincibility upon re-spawning into a mass of alien baddies.  And heaven forbid you get killed against the last boss... expect to use a good 20 men in reserve, just for instant re-spawn deaths alone.

Perhaps with so much being taken out of the game, it would have been a better idea for Konami to just start anew with something Contra related, like they did with the Castlevania titles, or Gradius Galaxies, or even their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles releases, instead of trying to port something that would inevitably be hampered in the process.

Even the most trivial of things, such as the introductory sequence, have been omitted from the game.  Remember the awe-inspiring graphical intro with the massive space ship looming overhead and obliterating the entire city below?  Why wouldn't they at least leave that in?  How hard could it have been to keep that, of all things, inside the game?

The one *almost* positive thing that Konami added in, was a password feature.  Since you're going to die a LOT, it is nice to be able to jump into the game at a specific point, in a moment's notice.  But requiring the memorization of an 18-point sets of randomized characters you'll need to input, one has to wonder why they didn't just stick with the save feature of their other games.

Overall, Konami dropped the ball on Alien Wars EX.  The removal of things that in no way needed to be removed, the compressed and unfinished feel of the levels, the overall lack of fun and excitement that was found in the original SNES release, only helps Alien Wars EX join the growing ranks of sub-par Contra games Konami has released since the glory days of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming.

If you're a collector of Contra games, such as I am, and haven't already picked up this 3.5-year-old release, you might want to consider nabbing it for cheap.  If you're new to the Contra series, or Gameboy Advance/Nintendo DS and are thinking of this title, it's probably best to skip it for any number of the hundreds of better games out there.

But if you're a fan of the Contra series, old or new, and are expecting to gain something new from this release.  Do yourself a favor and pull your Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis out of the closet, and play the original Alien Wars and/or Hard Corps on them instead.

At most, the best this title can afford to be considered, is that of a guilty pleasure.  Therefore, CONTRA ADVANCE: THE ALIEN WARS EX gets a lackluster score.




-Christopher Denner (spooie)