Contra: Rogue Corps hands-on and interview – ‘Konami have a gaming heart!’

GameCentral speaks to the director of the classic Contra III about his new sequel and the future of Konami video games.

Back in the late 80s, and well into the 90s, Konami were one of the biggest publishers around. With franchises like Castlevania, Contra, Gradius, and others they were responsible for some of the best arcade style games of the decade. But as they entered the PlayStation era they began to rely more and more on Metal Gear, before seemingly killing their own golden goose by forcing out series creator Hideo Kojima in 2015. A move which, much to fans’ dismay, made them more profitable than ever, thanks to their gambling and fitness club businesses in Japan.

But recently there has been signs that they are once again interested in games, and their own back catalogue. The Castlevania Anniversary Collection was excellent and while it came out right around E3, so we never had a chance to do a full review, so is the similarly comprehensive Contra Anniversary Collection. At the end of the day they’re still just repackaged retro games, but for the first time in eight years there’s also a new Contra game on the way.

We got to play Contra: Rogue Corps at E3 and talk to director Nobuya Nakazato, who has been involved in almost every Contra game since the classic Contra III (aka Super Probotector) on the SNES. He was clearly thrilled at the attention – decked out in a special Contra jacket with the famous Konami code emblazoned upon it – and well he might be, given not only his own track record but the fact that he’d convinced Konami to give the series another life.

Despite what might seem the obvious path to take, Rogue Corps is not a pseudo-remake of the original game or Contra III. In fact, at first glance, it doesn’t seem to have much in common with Contra at all, unless you’re familiar with the obscure Neo Contra on the PlayStation 2 – which Nakazato worked on and has a similar top-down viewpoint. But the more you play the game you realise that it’s actually a sort of greatest hits of Contra, with references to the very earliest entries, as well as Contra III, PlayStation 2 title Shattered Soldier, and no doubt more.

Despite the more famous entries being quintessential examples of the 2D run ‘n’ gun genre, Rogue Corps is a twin stick shooter. The first few Contra games were relatively grounded, for a late 80s arcade game, but under Nakazato the series has grown stranger and more fantastical and Rogue Corps is by far the most bizarre yet, at least in terms of your choice of playable characters.

There’s an Arnie-style soldier called Kaiser, whose arm transforms into a drill; an assassin with an alien in her stomach called Ms Harakiri; a cyborg panda with a human brain called Hungry Beast; and a very polite, and extremely ugly, alien called Gentleman. Since they all have unique special moves, such as the aforementioned drill arm, they’re even stranger than they sound when you start playing as them, with equally weird enemies that range from skin-peeled alien zombies to… we don’t even know what the blubbery cyborg boss was meant to be but it was gross and we’re glad it’s dead.

It’s all very odd and seems even more so given the relentless pace and constant switching of camera angles and perspective. But that is all perfectly in-keeping with the series’ established traditions. And so too is Rogue Corps’ focus on co-operative play, with up to four players at a time in the story campaign, both online and in couch co-op. Plus, there are promised PvP modes that go up to 4v4. Our demo was single-player only, so we never got to try any of that, but it’s clear that Nakazato sees it as an important step forward for the series.

As you can see, the graphics aren’t the best, and the frame rate was a touch syrupy when we played it, but the basic action was solid, enjoyable, and, perhaps most importantly, highly unpredictable. There is some nuance to the combat too, in the way you use your dodge move to not only escape incoming bullets but to stagger enemies to soften them up for other attacks. You also have to constantly switch from one of two weapons as the other overheats, with a between stage hub promising to be able to upgrade your weapons and abilities as you proceed.

We don’t know whether it’s going to go down as a classic entry in the series but Rogue Corps does feel like a proper Contra game, and all without resorting to being a remake or copy of an existing game. Although Nakazato wouldn’t give anything away about other new entries in classic Konami franchises he certainly seemed to be hinting at the possibility of a new Gradius, although that may depend on how well Rogue Ops does. Which is all the more reason to hope the final version lives up to its legacy.

Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Konami
Release Date: 24th September 2019

GC: I’m very glad to see a new Contra after all these years, I’d almost given up hope. Is there any particular reason why now though?

NN: As you saw in the Nintendo Direct [the Rogue Corps trailer debuted during Nintendo’s E3 Direct – GC] a lot of old games are being remade these days and there is definitely a retro gaming boom at the moment. So I thought it was my chance to bring back the franchise that I love.

GC: You must have considered, at one point, doing a remake or something closer to the earlier games, what convinced you to go in this direction?

NN: This game is keeping the core of what makes Contra what it is. If it’s just keeping the old elements you could just play the Contra Anniversary Collection and it would be the same thing. Which is fine, please do! [laughs] But this adds new elements to make it a new game. The old games are still good today but I really wanted to add more new things into the game and not just rehash the old ones.

And when you think of Contra, what makes Contra a good game – that is enjoyed by a lot of players – is when you’re playing together with someone; whether it’s a sibling or a friend. So we wanted to expand on this idea and have four people playing together, especially four people that may not be in the same room at the same time. So that is why we have online multiplayer now, as it makes the game way more fun and way more appealing to modern gamers.

GC: I saw a lot of references to previous games, from the very first one to Contra III, but also Neo Contra and Shattered Soldier. Is that how it’s intended, as a celebration of all the games up to this point?

NN: I think you are right! We tried to design the game to bring a smile to existing fans and to bring back a lot of familiar elements, so it didn’t seem completely unconnected to the old games. But we also tried to have new camera angles and more dynamic action, which is possible in co-op since you’ll be online. You can have different people progressing at different speeds so everyone can take part at their own pace.

Back in the day, when all the players were sharing the same screen, you couldn’t have different things happening. It had to be the same thing and at the same time, so online does offer us a lot more freedom in that regard.

GC: There was a period about 10 years ago or so when these kind of old school games went out of fashion but, as you say, the opposite seems to be happening now. How do you feel when you see all these indie titles paying homage to your classic games?

NN: Of course, I’m proud and happy to see that indie games are taking inspiration from my creations. But at the same time they are competitors. [laughs] So I will do my best to make the best modern game I can. Games these days are getting more and more advanced and that creates difficulties not just for developers but for players who have to invest a lot of their time into a single game to enjoy it.

With indie games, and games like Contra, people are craving simple gameplay. Something that you can dive into really quickly from the first bullet to the last one. And this is what we tried to bring back with this game.

GC: Konami had a lot of games that were very big in the 8 and 16-bit eras but which never really moved beyond that, in terms of gameplay or mainstream appeal. When I think of what Contra would be like if it had continued to evolve I think of something like Gears Of War – a very gung-ho third person, co-op shooter. Does that make sense to you at all?

NN: Yeah, you’re right and I love Gears Of War and it’s a really good game. But it is still quite different from Contra, because it’s violent and probably more serious than Contra. Contra is really crazy and over-the-top and it’s not meant to be taken seriously. Even if the games might have had some similarities I don’t think the franchise would have evolved in the same direction as Gears Of War.

GC: Have you ever considered making a modern third person game like that based on Contra?

NN: There could have been a Contra game that would have been a third person shooter, just like Gears Of War. But I think Contra is more like a shoot ’em-up where you’re trying to avoid the bullets. Also, the competition is quite harsh in the TPS genre, so it made more sense to go in that direction. You have this very gameplay-focused game that is the core of the Japanese game industry, which you can also find in Western games like Smash T.V., and this is what makes Contra a Contra game.

GC: I think a lot of people have been worried in the last few years that Konami, as a company, has lost interest in video games. But the Classic Collections, at least the last two, have been really good, and now this. Is that intended as a statement that Konami are still serious about making video games?

NN: We know that there is this concern amongst gamers that Konami was kind of backing away from the gaming industry and that some of the games were in danger of disappearing. But internally we are all gamers. All the developers at Konami have a gaming heart! And I wanted to bring back the Contra franchise with a game that is aimed squarely at gamers and people who love games.

GC: Do you think we might ever see a new Gradius as well?

NN: [laughs] You like Gradius?

GC: Oh yes! [laughs]

NN: Well, there is a kind of reference to Gradius in the game, actually. And by the way, you see on my jacket the Konami code – everybody thinks it made its debut in Contra but actually the first game that used that was Gradius. I’d love to see Gradius come back.

GC: So would I!

NN: [laughs]

GC: Well, thank you very much, sir. It’s been great to meet you.

NN: Thank you!

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