Contra: Hard Corps looks and feels exactly like a Treasure game, before Treasure was born. A great solo or two player co-operative experience, hyperquick pace, relentless action, boss fights galore, kaleidoscopic visuals, wacky and inventive designs – these are the hallmarks of Treasure game design. These qualities shine so brightly in Treasure games like Gunstar Heroes and Alien Soldier, and it turns out these are all are present in the Megadrive/Genesis’s sole entry in the Contra series, Contra: Hard Corps.
This fact probably shouldn’t be surprising, since Treasure was founded by ex-Konami staff. And you may also wonder how an entry in the acclaimed Contra series could possibly qualify as a hidden gem? Sounds more like an openly displayed jewel. But Hard Corps’ unique appeal is not made readily apparent, and so previously I’d written the game off as nothing special.
The first level looks like your standard Contra setting, a bombed out post-apocalyptic cityscape. But compared with the steady pace of other games in the series, everything on-screen – your character, the enemies, the gunfire – moves at double the speed! It takes getting used to, and by the time I’d gotten acclimated to it I’d lost most, if not all of my limited lives. At that point I was forced to restart the stage from the beginning – no checkpoints here despite the stage containing three boss fights.
After some practice I eventually reached a second level (there’s a choice of two as there are branching paths), but not without using some continues. The difficulty being similar to the first stage, I quickly used up the remainder of my continues and got kicked back to the title screen. If the first level were a tour-de-force showstopper, it might not feel punishing going through it again and again. But it’s really not, it’s boring. Now that I’ve seen most of the other stages, it feels like the first level was just there to try and make series veterans comfortable before things get wild later on – the game does not put its best foot forward here at all.
To get around this problem and discover the appeal of Hard Corps I would strongly recommend the much easier Japanese release, with a health bar and unlimited continues. Even with these helpful additions, Hard Corps is still not easy! But it’s doable and, dare I say it, fun. And, if it’s still not doable, fear not – there are cheat codes for more lives and extra firepower that were removed for the Western releases. Now, the game shines.
Back in the day, Konami used to increase the difficulty for many of its Western releases – I’ve heard speculation that this was done to combat the rental market outside of Japan. In Hard Corp’s case Konami dialled up the difficulty even more more than they did on their other games like Super Contra, which was hard but still playable.
So what’s special about the later sections of Hard Corps? Well as I mentioned, in true Treasure fashion it’s absolutely bananas, and with a sense of humour and loads of unique details and touches. For instance one boss sequence features a mad scientist on a throne in the background merging some of the enemies you’ve fought in the preceding level to make minibosses. After creating one abominable combination too many, the creation, a carnivorous plant, drags the scientist off the throne and eats him right in front of you. Another brief section has you fighting enemies on top of a goofy looking dinosaur. After you jump off its head to the next area you can choose to shoot its nose and have it “sneeze” a load of bullets!
I played Hard Corps on the Contra Collection for Switch, which comes highly recommended. It has the Japanese, American and European versions of all of the 2D era Contra games.