Contra 4 Creates Terror Through Two Clever Mechanics
Contra games are hard. There’s no denying it. It’s hard to stay alive when alien beings are trying to gun you down, robots are trying to stomp you, and gruesome creatures want to devour you. Contra 4, I’d argue, is one of the hardest among them. Nine stages of relentless mayhem mean it’ll take a massive effort to see the game’s end. It does make for an incredible experience in dread and fear, though, as you struggle to stay calm and clear-headed when you know the slightest mistake will cost you dearly.
Arguably, that one mistake can end an entire run at the game.
This DS outing brought a few interesting elements to the Contra formula. On top of the usual onslaught of creatures and entrenched weaponry, you also have to tackle these things across two screens. The pair of DS screens each have things happening in them – mainly enemies throwing things, shooting, or leaping at you. In previous games, you really only had to watch left and right. Here, you’ve got things happening above and below you as well. The series isn’t keen on giving you a lot of time to react to things, so doubling the screens you need to watch, as well as adding dangers in new directions, made things even more challenging.
Contra 4 brought double the trouble, so you can get double the firepower. Picking up the Spread Gun or Laser give you solid tools to deal with all of these dangers. That you could carry two weapons and swap between them gave you some flexibility to deal with various situations. Collecting two power-ups for the same weapon would increase the power of that weapon, though. Two Spread Gun pickups give you more shots on-screen. Two Crush Guns give your missiles more range. Getting these high-powered weapons would go a long way to keeping the enemy onslaught manageable. A single pickup would work all right, but you really wanted one of these high-power tools.
It’s these two mechanics that made this game feel like such a tightrope walk. Most of the game’s levels would have enemies rushing at you from all directions. Now, in most sidescrolling action games, you get most of the information you need to know on a single screen. You can see everything you need to know without moving your eyes. It makes it easier to react, although the developers of Contra still made things very, very challenging within that constraint.
Contra 4 makes you glance up and down, though. You don’t just get to see everything from a single spot. Players need to keep moving their gaze around, seeing if something is going to hit them from a new direction. You need to watch out when you’re jumping to see if you’re putting yourself in range of some new attack coming from above you. Can’t drop down without a quick look or you may fall on a hazard. It only takes a few milliseconds to look, but in that period, your eyes are off of your character and what’s happening to them. It’s a tiny window, but the game doesn’t leave you with much margin for error.
I’ve died so many times from leaping into something I didn’t see coming. Died just as many from glancing away at the wrong time. It opens up these moments where you’re vulnerable and taking more risks than you’d have to if you only had one screen to watch. It’s frightening to take your eyes off of your character in these moments. It’s also unsettling to know that you could look up and see a bullet heading your way when you’re powerless to do anything about it. It adds this immense pressure – creates a sense that danger could be sneaking up on you at any time. It’s wild to have created these moments of jarring surprise in a sidescrolling action game. They startle me just as badly as the jump scares from many horror games.
Why be wound so tight, though? I’ve got a few lives and continues. Well, when you die in Contra 4, you lose the weapon you were carrying. You still have the weapon in your other slot, so it’s not a disaster, but it’s still pretty bad. If you had a double-powered Spread Gun, that was likely the tool you used to keep enemy counts manageable. If it was your Laser, you lost your ability to deal heavy damage to tough enemies. This meant your life was about to get much, much harder.
It’s always been like that in Contra, though. Well, With the increased play field, you really need to keep those high-powered weapons on-hand. The Spread Gun feels dang near mandatory in the final stage. That area feels like it will never end, and its enemies move so quickly, attacking from many directions. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed if you miss a single enemy’s appearance. Far more so if you only have the basic gun to fight back with.
Losing your high-powered weapons near the end of Contra 4 is basically a death sentence. At least at my skill level it is. It’s ridiculously hard to deal with all of the enemies without these strong tools. It’s do-able, but it’s far more challenging. So, for someone of my level, you really can’t afford to lose those weapons at the end of the game. Which means you can’t afford to die even once. Now, all of that pressure from watching multiple directions has grown so heavy it feels like it will crush you. You walk around the stages, terrified as you spray gunfire in every direction, struggling to keep an eye on everything.
It breeds this incredible terror as you move further through the game. You’re always on-edge, fighting to see every hazard before it catches you. You clench the system tight, a coiled spring waiting to snap as you brace for every possible surprise. You feel this encroaching sense of panic as enemies keep pouring on, knowing if you mess up once, you’ll be back to basic weapons. And if you lose those special weapons, do you even have a hope of winning? Will you just be watching a slower death after a single screw-up?
These two mechanics load Contra 4 with fear. You have so many directions where death can snatch you at any moment. If you die even once, you lose the special weapons you likely need to beat the game. It feels like a single death can cost you so much, and with failure coming so quickly from so many directions, every moment is loaded with terror. An exhilarating terror, as it offers the excellent action that has made the series so enduring, but terror nonetheless.