E3 Hands-On: Contra: Rogue Corps

More rough than ready.

By Robert Marrujo. Posted 06/13/2019 15:43 1 Comment     ShareThis

I can’t say that I’m particularly good at Contra, but I can say that it’s a series I love, nonetheless. From the original Contra on NES to Contra ReBirth on Wii, there have been decades of adventures set in Konami’s gritty, alien-infested universe of soldiers, monsters, and massive explosions. When it was revealed during Monday’s E3 2019 Nintendo Direct broadcast that Contra: Rogue Corps would be making its way to Switch this fall, I was pumped. After spending some time with the game, however, I’m… concerned.

It sometimes feels like people in the games industry don’t quite get what Contra is. When Contra came out in 1987, it was released in the middle of the zeitgeist of Hollywood’s muscle-bound action-adventure craze. From Predator to Alien, the precedent had been set for over-the-top, bombastic gritty action movies. It was something translated incredibly well from film to pixel, and Contra is arguably the embodiment of how that translation can best be handled. Yet, what is lost on some folks when looking back retroactively at the franchise is that Contra took itself seriously.

Contra: Rogue Corps doesn’t seem to share that perspective. It’s being lauded by Konami for having veteran designer Nobuya Nakazato helping to give Rogue Corps that special spark, that “it” factor which defines the very best Contra games. While his pedigree is impressive, having worked on a litany of Contra games as well as other Konami properties, I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Nakazato and Konami are trying to accomplish with Rogue Corps.

The game starts off with a pretty standard tutorial mission which shows players the ins and outs of gameplay. For a series like Contra where shooting is so integral to the experience, I was immediately put off by the extraneous mechanics that Konami has saddled Rogue Corps with. As opposed to the typical endless stream of bullets that Contra is known for, in Rogue Corps shooting too much results in a mandatory cool down period. It was very frustrating to have to stop and wait for my gun to return to a fireable state as it killed every bit of the momentum each time it happened.

To make things more frustrating, I found aiming in Rogue Corps unwieldy. The game has a twin stick setup, with movement delegated to the left stick and aiming to the right. This would be workable in theory, but in practice I found the controls resistant and jerky. Aiming should be smooth in a game like this, yet instead I was fighting with the control stick to position my line of sight where I wanted it to be. Admittedly, there’s the ability to adjust the controls in Rogue Corps, but during my play session I didn’t get the chance. I’ll reserve judgment until I play the final build.

When my shots were landing and I wasn’t wrangling the controls to do what I wanted, the gunplay was fine. The enemies are suitably creepy and monstrous as one would want from a Contra title. The game world, dubbed Damned City, has a great look and feel; it’s equal parts urban decay and the depths of hell all mixed together into one. The build shown to us was apparently a pre-gold iteration, meaning it’s very close to completion, so from a graphical and sound standpoint everything is shaping up well.

There are other areas where Rogue Corps could stand to stay in the oven a while longer, though. I found the customization screens a mess of text and cumbersome, overwrought details. Players can pick up materials to upgrade and build weapons, as well as augment the bodies of the players themselves. Kaiser, for instance, starts the game with his cybernetic enhancements on full display, but as the player progresses he can make the mercenary an even more lethal combatant through surgery. It sounds cool, but ultimately I couldn’t really tell how to get these upgrades made and equipped without a lot of trial and error.

Frankly, I can’t help but wonder why these upgrades are even in the game to begin with. Contra isn’t about loadouts and loot, it’s about action, pattern memorization, and steep challenge. Rogue Corps is veering too hard in the direction of modern shooters and jettisoning the simplicity of the classic games in the series. The focus in Contra should always be on how to overcome relentless foes, not figuring out how to manage countless menu screens. I don’t begrudge Konami trying to carve a corner for Rogue Corps in a market glutted with shooters, but the irony here is that the Contras of old would stand out among the crowd more than this latest installment is poised to in its present state.

As I noted above, Contra shares a lot in common with the gritty ’80s action flicks of yore, but there’s a tendency now to look back at those movies mockingly— something that Rogue Corps seems to be doing, as well. Were films like Predator insane gore fests filled with heaping doses of machismo? Yeah, they were. In order to replicate the feel of that era and of the original Contra games from back in the day, however, it’s necessary to embrace that source material in a way which isn’t quite as tongue in cheek as what’s being offered in Rogue Corps. There’s too much awkward contrast between the brutal game world and the cheesy narrative and tone.

Rogue Corps is currently awaiting a rating from the ESRB, but given the number of f-bombs I heard dropped and the gratuitous carnage, I suspect the title will likely end up earning an “M.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with adult content in video games, but the crudeness of Rogue Corps feels very forced. The comic book-style cut scenes and animations that serve to flesh out the storyline look great, but the storytelling comes across like it’s trying too hard to demonstrate how “extreme” and “tough” Rouge Corps is. The narrative could benefit from some restraint.

The characters feel both shoehorned in as well as desperate to appeal to… well, I’m not really sure. Konami calls it a “diverse” cast, but in reality everyone here comes across rather stock and generic. It’s not like Bill or Lance ever seemed as though they were stripped from a Shakespeare play, but the likes of Kaiser and Hungry Beast (a robo panda) disappointingly feel like characters I’ve seen elsewhere that were done better. Lucy, the game’s narrator, is especially grating. She doesn’t fit the tone of Rogue Corps at all with her perky, saccharine voice. It’s like she exists for players in their 20s or 30s to latch onto, but given how disjointed Rogue Corps’ tone is, I don’t know that the players who might identify with her would even be drawn to this sort of game in the first place.

Really, I think that’s the crux of my issue with Rogue Corps so far: it’s trying to be Contra while also attempting to appeal to a hypothetical crowd of gamers who likely would never be interested in the series anyway. Yes, Contra has seen revivals and new takes over the years, but the best installments almost exclusively stick to the style of series installments like Contra III, Super C, and all the other classics that have been kicking around for decades now. The combat here is needlessly convoluted, the extras like character customization are really unnecessary, and the cast isn’t anyone I’m very fascinated with getting to know. Konami is promising couch co-op as well as online play, so perhaps cracking into Rogue Corps with friends might improve the experience, but right now consider me very apprehensive about this latest Contra.

One Response to “E3 Hands-On: Contra: Rogue Corps

  • 1558 points
    penduin says...

    This is a shame, but not too surprising I’m afraid. Cooldowns, menu-based upgrades and bizarre ironic/forced-edgy mishmash of presentation make it a tough sell. Iffy controls alone would instantly make this Contra in name only.

    Ever since the non-ending of Phantom Pain, I keep finding myself thinking, “wow, Konami sure used to be great”.

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