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Hard Corps: Uprising Review

Review; Feb. 28, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Jenner David Cauton
The artstyle of Guilty Gear meets Contra

Hard Corps: Uprising is an old, side-scroller shmup, akin to the Contra series. It just doesn't look like it. But really, it is Contra. A quick glance at the anime style and look of the game might make you think otherwise -- that it's an entirely different series of its own. Make no mistake, this is Contra, just maybe not in name. Listen closely: You can hear a slight variation of the victory theme song after every stage -- that alone should prove it. Uprising is a prequel in story to the Sega Mega Drive hit, Contra: Hard Corps, whose main villain, Bahamut, is actually the main character in this game.

The anime intro cutscene only seems to make sense if you've read up on the game's prologue elsewhere. If you haven't, it looks more like a heavy-metal music video. The year is 2613, and the Commonwealth Empire, lead by Tiberius, wants to take over the world. The empire has met with little resistance, until Colonel Bahamut starts a rebellion after witnessing the Commonwealth executing innocent civilians. Tiberius' motive? You got me. But it's more than enough of an excuse to kick his ass.

Hard Corps: Uprising ScreenshotsClick the image to view game screenshots

Players can choose to be either Colonel Bahamut, who's defecting from the army, or Krystal -- a random villager with seemingly no combat experience who joined the rebellion ... after inexplicably figuring out how to fight after finding a dead soldier's gun on the ground among the wreckage of her home. There are two other characters, bike-riding, Pompadour-sporting Harley Daniels (it's not an anime without one), and samurai Sayuri; however, these characters are downloadable content. The intro clearly shows them and makes it very obvious that they're available from the get-go, but it's really just a disappointing tease.

Regardless, you don't need to understand the story to enjoy this game. As it is, the intro and ending are the only cutscenes. The only real storyline you'll get is a wall of text for each character during the load screens in between levels -- which all seem to take an insanely long time considering the game's graphic style and presentation.

Good ol' Spreadshot. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways ... five.

And it's a shame, too, because the style of the game is that of Arc System Works, (along with Konami) creators of anime fighters BlazBlue and the Guilty Gear series. The game uses a combination of both 3-D and 2-D styles and blends them to make one cohesive piece of eye candy. This game is gorgeous and doesn't stick to just a few colors. (You can even change the color of your character's outfit.) Backgrounds and other objects are rendered in 3-D, while characters and enemies are beautifully hand-drawn sprites. 

If the graphics don't get to you, the music will. If you enjoyed Arc System Works' soundtracks for their fighter lineup, you'll feel right at home here. The adrenaline-pumping heavy metal soundtrack that accompanies the game is spot-on and more than fits the mood. If you're into classic arcade and heavy metal (the kind without incomprehensible growling that passes for lyrics), you can kill two birds with one stone here, so crank that speaker up to 11 and grab your controller.

If you're still not convinced this is meant to be based on the Contra series, go ahead and try old faithful. You know what I'm talking about. Entering the famous Konami Code while the first stage is loading gives you ... a rendition of the theme song of the first stage of Contra I. Sorry, that's it. You know, leaderboards and all, you cheater you.

Nope, won't get you anywhere this time.

For those who are unfamiliar with it all, the gameplay has a simple premise: Dodge the bullets, collect powerups, hold down the fire button, and don't ever let go. Of course, if this is all Uprising was, it certainly wouldn't justify its price tag at 1,200 Microsoft points. Rest assured, Konami and Arc Systems Works have upped the ante with this one, throwing a slew of new features into the mix, and they're not just gimmicks.

If the last of your Contra experience were among the NES, SNES, or Sega era, you'll be glad to know that one of the many drawbacks of the series has been solved. In the old Contra, aiming at a stationary target at an angle was difficult because it also moved your character at the same time, more than likely to his death. With the added buttons of today's controllers, that problem has been axed. Hold down RT, and your character will stay in place but still give you the freedom to shoot in all directions. Alternatively, you can switch it around and hold down LT to lock your aim in place and move about freely instead. You can also use LB and RB to dash on the ground or do a quick hover in the air. These maneuvers are relatively new to the Contra series and may take a little time to get used to -- but don't take too long. These moves soon become imperative to survival, as early as the end of the first stage.

All the stages have multiple bosses. Some are huge -- one even pays homage to the first game -- and it's here where your memorization skills and quick reflexes will come into play. Attack patterns have always been a thing of the Contra series when enemy AI wasn't exactly smart, and they make a return here. (Yes, even the dumb AI, but we wouldn't have it any other way.) Eventually, bosses will suddenly become easy once you know how they tick.

Look familiar? It should, because it's still just as easy to bea- ... WTF?!

The game also sports hazard warnings, icons that flash on the screen that either indicate incoming hazards, or an action you must do in order to avoid getting hit or dying. Don't always rely on these, though, as some scripted sequences that can cause you harm will still happen without a warning.

The game isn't all strictly runnin' and gunnin'; there's also a lot of action set pieces to keep it far from repetitious. Cruising a highway on a hoverboard, running away from boulders Indiana Jones-style, and defeating a giant robot while clinging on to a subway train ... that's moving upward ... just to name a few.

Spoiler Warning (but may save you the trouble): One hazard in particular, a warning at the end of the first stage that simply says "JUMP!" appears rather borked. Miraculously, I made it my first time around, but only because I wasn't expecting it. After that, I seem to only make it about 10 percent of the time. Either the warning appears too early, or the warning neglects to mention that you may also need to move left or right while in the air in order to land properly. It could be a number of these things, but considering all other hazards seem to be easily avoidable, this one is a bit peculiar.  

In addition, one of the stages involves stealth. Yes, stealth. In a Contra game. The fifth stage decides to go the Metal Gear route and has you ignoring enemies' line of sight (indicated by cones) and allows you to hide in boxes smaller than your own body. Some of the cones are near impossible to avoid.  Do yourself a favor and just go in guns blazing at a distance. The alarms and backup that trigger are easier to handle than you might think. It's certainly better than getting caught up close. And as if the stealth wasn't bad enough, they even have you escorting a scientist who ends up slamming into pellets like a starving Pacman because he has to constantly follow you in rooms with no cover whatsoever. Oh, yeah, if he dies, you lose a life. Seriously Konami, were these elements really necessary? (End Spoiler)

If you've played any Contra before, or even Metal Slug for any given amount of time, you'll already know one thing: These games are hard, and Hard Corps: Uprising is no exception. But it's not all doom and gloom. For one thing, the game actually gives you a life bar. Not the Mega Man kind of life bars, but a life bar nonetheless. Don't take it for granted, though, as some hazards can still kill you in one hit. Whether or not you find the game difficult would be up to an individual, but I can assure you that no matter how many upgrades you have, it still won't get you through some real tough spots, as sometimes the game plays cheap. One certain boss is so damn cheap (looking at you, level 6), a single hit will knock you off a platform. I don't know any other game that can infuriate you more than one that can kill you 3 times in less than 10 seconds. At certain points, this game will still rip you to shreds, and its escalating difficulty after every new level will mock you with a, "You ain't seen nothing yet," attitude.

Nope, not even close.

The game takes its cheapness even further with wall climbing. In certain areas, your character will be able to climb walls, which is nothing new to the series. Whenever you get shot while climbing, you fall down. And yes, you guessed it: This game suffers from the old "move up the screen by a few centimeters so the floor disappears off screen and accidentally fall to your death just because the floor isn't there" crap. This is not a bug; it's on purpose. I can understand if you were shot off a platform, but when there's nothing else left to cling on to, that's insane. This wouldn't be so bad if you died in one hit anyway, but this 2-decades-old game design trick makes a life bar pointless. 

To add salt to the wound, some of the stage design thrives on this, such as climbing up a wide shaft. Inside are floating platforms that move around, and sometimes the walls are electrified. This area involves you switching between climbing the walls and jumping to the platforms to get around obstacles, but in some areas, some of the platforms are too far away if you haven't upgraded your character's air dash speed. This could have been prevented if you grabbed the other platforms below, but because the screen won't scroll back down, you're flat-out stuck. The only thing left to do is drop and lose a life. All of them -- because the game keeps spawning you on the trapped wall. I'm all up for challenge, but this is 2011. Not cool, Konami, not fucking cool at all.

Unlike the old school Contra, you won't find an options menu in which you can tweak the difficulty, number of lives, or continues you'll have. The game only has one difficulty (turn-you-into-a-little-school-girl difficult) and two game modes, arcade mode and rising mode, both of which can be played solo or co-op via online or local. Arcade mode is for the Contra elitists or for new gamers who want to experience what gaming was like in the early '90s. Start the game with a puny amount of lives, continues, and pre-set abilities; rack up your score, and pray you'll make it to the end. Rising mode, on the other hand, sets this iteration of the Contra series apart from the rest and makes the game a whole lot easier, if not more attractive.

In rising mode, game play is largely the same, but all the points you accumulate are also transferred over into CP points. CP points act as currency; between stages you can buy upgrades for your character. (For an just arcade game, there's a surprising amount of those.) These range from weapon upgrades, character upgrades, or additional moves you can unlock, such as deflecting bullets. However, the most important ones you'll probably go for first (if you ever intend to finish the game, that is) are the defensive upgrades which give you additional hit points, start with extra lives, and even continues. That's right, an in-game Game Genie store. In addition, every upgrade you buy can then be toggled on and off any time you want should you feel the need to up the challenge a bit but don't want to reset your character.

One important upgrade that's recommended early on is rapid fire. With the exception of the super machine gun, all weapons fire at a slower rate if you hold the button down rather than pressing it repeatedly. Combined with the heavy use of the shoulder buttons on the controller, spamming the fire button over and over just to shoot as fast as possible (and there are many times when you're going to need to do this) is going to get you quite a thumb work out, so it's recommended to get this upgrade as soon as you can to relieve some of the tension. Mainly, this is useful for the default weapon, which has a really slow rate of fire to begin with, making it a bit more bearable.

Welcome to my highway, and this is my pet flamethrower, "Hell."

So unless you're some gaming god, Uprising will most likely give you a tough challenge that you haven't felt in a while -- at least on your first run. The difficulty might turn causal players off, but it should be reiterated that rising mode makes the game much more manageable and fun without changing the difficulty. The amount of health, extra lives, and continues you can buy are quite generous. Add to it the fact that you can start at any previously unlocked stage and using a continue mid-level will start you off at a checkpoint, not at the beginning, with fully stocked lives intact. You may lose a lot, but you can rest assured that every game over will reward you with a better chance the next time just for trying. This game will kick your ass, chew you up, and spit you out ... but you'll love every minute of it.

Presentation - 8

A wide variety of level design make this game feel like it's not the same thing over and over. The action set pieces will keep you on your toes.

Story - 5

Evil person wants to take over the world, rebels strike against him, yadda-yadda-yadda. At least the intro is cool, but a few cutscenes or at least text-based conversation between characters would have been nice. 

Graphics - 9

The game looks very attractive with its combination of 3-D and 2-D. All in all, a very pretty game.

Sound - 7

Get ready to bang your head from start to finish. This game will make you want to play it more and more just for the music. Sound effects are OK -- not so much on the main character's guns, though. I can't tell how well the inevitably bad English voice-over is because the characters rarely talk, and when they do, it's often one-liners that get overpowered by the music. It also gets very irritating to keep hearing "aah! aah! aah!" when killing so many enemies.

Gameplay - 9

Arcade at its best. Shooting things, shooting things, and shooting things. Collect the occasional power up, and make careful decisions while upgrading so you can continue shooting things. (Hint: The game's about shooting things.)

The wall climbing bits are bullshit, though, which unfortunately tacked off a point. And I hate to say it, but it would have been a perfect 8.0 then.

Current Stability - 9

No bugs here, with the exception of that one awkward jump. May or may not be a bug -- might just be me. 

Lasting Appeal - 8

Arcade mode might be for Contra purists, but rising mode is there to save the day. The upgrade system that also doubles as a robust options menu endgame will keep you busy for a long time.


Review Score


Titles rated T (Teen) have content that may be suitable for ages 13 and older. Titles in this category may contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language.

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