Everything the title promises and more.
Like a sneeze, Contra: Evolution made an abrupt appearance on the App Store at the start of June. But as quickly as you could say "gesundheit," CocoaChina removed it from the service, stating that "The version that was (briefly) available was the version built for the Chinese app store, but CocoaChina is building a version optimized and translated for western audiences. They’re still in the development stage of that version, but the plan is to launch it at some point later this year." CocoaChina added that they were "definitely considering the best available options for people who purchased the earlier version."
One would reasonably believe that this could have been cause for some concern, especially with the rather sour first impressions left on those who had the opportunity to try the early release. We weren't able to get our hands on the game during that brief period, and so cannot offer an opinion on the version available at that time. With that being said, the version officially released to the App Store recently has been about as good as one can expect Contra on the iPhone to be, and we mean that in the best possible way.
Contra: Evolution feels like a student of the same mindset which brought Sonic the Hedgehog and Sonic the Hedgehog CD to iOS, followed by great acclaim. While Chris Whitehead, Stealth, and their associates rebuilt those Genesis games from the ground up but maintained the original graphics and style, developer PunchBox Studios have not only rebuilt the classic NES version of Contra (rather than the less-popular arcade original), but also incorporated all new graphics and sound to go with it. The updated graphics feature some enemy redesigns, while the sounds include death screams which sound like the ones used in Contra 4.
It isn't a straight port, however, as there have been numerous tweaks made along the way. For instance, the Homing bullets from some of the series' later installments have been incorporated here, as well as rare "Super" versions of each gun. More substantial is the inclusion of in-app purchases, which drew much ire in the early release. However, these are completely optional here, and don't even require any real money at all, unless you really just want to speed things along and/or make things easier.
The purchases can be made with gold coins or the rare diamonds, both of which can be earned just by playing either of the game's two modes. You can use coins to continue, but the price goes up each time you have to do so. You can also use a diamond to continue, which comes with such perks as retaining the last gun you had, nuking all the enemies on the screen, and providing you with a barrier for good measure. Between the two options (and, if we're not mistaken, earning extra lives along the way), we had absolutely no trouble reaching the end of the game in a single run, and all without spending a dime of our own money.
Further perks include the earning or purchasing of weapons to form a stockpile you can call upon at virtually any time, including the aforementioned Super versions of different guns. Or, if you don't mind the luck of the draw, another icon brings you a random gun at the cost of some coins. Other items available for purchase include adding to your overall life total, or even going all-in with the IAP version of the Konami Code and getting 30 lives (albeit without entering the code).
As you set off on your mission to destroy Red Falcon and his alien militia in grand "Aliens meets Rambo meets Predator" style, your initial choices are between classic Contras (defined in these games as "a title awarded to a superior soldier possessing almost super human drive and ability, while excelling in guerrilla tactics," in case you were wondering) Bill "Don't Call Me Arnold" Rizer and Lance "Don't Call Me Sly" Bean. These two are your standards, and while they look a little different, they still play exactly the same as each other, and as you might remember.
Shaking things up are the additions of two new female Contras, Ricci "Flame Rose" Erica and Sally "Moonshadow" Inohara (sorry, Lucia fans). To play as Ricci, you must beat the game's arcade mode, while Sally requires earning a whopping 55 medals in Mission Mode, wherein you play individual stages from the arcade mode on one of three difficulty levels to earn up to three medals for each. Or, you can drop a wad of cash – about five bucks – to quickly get enough diamonds to unlock one of them.
And while it may not be worth the cash to some, it may be worth the effort to longtime Contra veterans, as these two are not merely re-skins, but bring their own unique style to the game. Ricci specializes in dual-wielding pistols, which allows her about two bullets per shot to the guys' one, and her special weapons vary even more considerably. The flamethrower allows her to toss grenades overhand when she's not moving, while her Spread gun – which fires a spray of five bullets for Bill and Lance – to launch a larger blast which explodes about mid-screen, sending shots flying in multiple directions.
Getting Ricci was easy enough, but we don't have Sally unlocked as of this writing, and can't really say how she plays. However, the character select screen kindly illustrates their sprites in action, and rather than guns, she utilizes shuriken. Suffice to say, using her will hopefully provide an even more interesting variation on the classic Contra style of gameplay.
The previous release met with some contempt for its controls, but we were pleasantly surprised by just how well they actually work in this version. You have three styles, featuring a standard thumbpad (our preference), a floating thumbpad, and a more NES-styled D-pad. None feel as good as using an actual physical controller, but they're more than sufficient for the job at hand here, save for when you wind up moving behind one of them. Similarly, you have a choice between allowing autofire and manual; autofire gives you one less button to worry about, and really, when has not shooting in a Contra game ever been desirable? Exactly.
With all that said, the game actually feels a bit easy, at least if you're the type of player who has fought in the Alien Wars, joined the Hard Corps, and become a Shattered Soldier, among other titles. Given the slight (and we do mean slight) downgrade of the controls versus console versions, it makes sense that they would try to balance out the difficulty. Still, you can go for subsequent rounds after beating the game and even amp it up further in the Mission Modes if so desired.
The original NES Contra has become something of a rarity for the digital age, having only been released recently as an unlockable in Contra 4 several years back, while Xbox Live Arcade only received the arcade version. Even the Wii Shop never received it, only three of its sequels. As a result, seeing it resurface in such a splendid fashion on the App Store is sure to make some people happy, though a more finely-tuned version playable on our HD televisions would still be most welcome.
There are only two real downsides to this release. The first is no 2-player action, something of a series staple. The other is that currently, the iPhone and higher-resolution iPad versions are being sold at separate prices, which isn't really the kind of thing we like to see.
In the end, while CocoaGames might have released a version of Contra that wasn't ready for prime time at the start of June, we can honestly say that the one released less than 30 days later should more than make up for it. The game isn't quite perfect, but it still comes really close. Now we just need to cross our fingers and hope Super C(ontra) receives the same treatment.
- Classic Contra gameplay. Added weapons. New characters with distinct styles. Updated graphics and sound. Surprisingly functional controls for iOS. Difficulty balanced for controls.
- No 2-player mode. Could really use a manual to explain some things, since tips sometimes go by faster than you can read. Arcade mode is kind of easy. Separate versions for iPad and iPhone.