If you are on the lookout for a good WiiWare game, it might just be best to look towards the obvious contenders. Digging around in lesser known titles can be lead to heartbreak when promise turns to disappointment, but Konami’s ReBirth series of games is often touted as one of the highlights of WiiWare, and for good reason. For Contra ReBirth, Konami revived the old style of Contra play and made a new title that, while carrying over a lot of familiar elements from the old games, still stands as something different and enjoyable.
Contra ReBirth is a run and gun shooter that takes all its cues from the early Contra games, and while it doesn’t really shake up the formula at all, it does feel like a well-polished execution of the core gameplay of the series. Running through levels filled with soldiers and alien creatures, you must dodge them and their gunfire while dishing out some of your own, but be careful, because you will go down to a single hit. When you start the game off, you might panic a little when you notice the options menu only lets you have up to 7 lives, but the game balances this out in a few ways. The most important way is that the game has infinite continues, so even if you lose all your lives, there are usually around 2 checkpoints in a level that you’ll be put back to on revival. The checkpoints make it possible to continue the game until you win but they don’t completely erode the difficulty thanks to the level design and your vulnerability. Contra is well known for its difficulty and this leads to many players trying to work around it one way or another, so I prefer the game just giving you the option outright to continue the game instead of asking players to put in a code or something similar.
Besides the continues, the game has another good way to keep itself accessible while maintaining difficulty. My only real Contra experience before playing ReBirth was with Contra III: The Alien Wars, and while my opinion of that game ended up positive, I did waver on whether I thought it was Great or just Good. The way it handled difficulty settings and continues was the clincher for its lower rating, but Contra ReBirth is both more rewarding and less punishing if you start on the Easy setting and working your way up to Hard. There is the small downside that Easy mode still doesn’t have the true ending, but Normal does, and the way the game builds you up to Hard mode feels incredibly well done. Overall, a run through the game isn’t very long, and while I do wish there was more content in the game, its length almost seems to serve a purpose. If you build up from Easy to Normal and finally Hard, you’ll see that the difficulties are almost a training regimen. No difficulty is truly all that easy, its still got Contra’s need for fast reflexes and learning boss patterns, but playing through the difficulties in order will allow you to handle the growing amount of enemies and projectiles that you’ll face on the harder difficulties. Thankfully, while it is upping the numbers on hazards and foes, it never does so lazily, with new threats positioned intelligently so they can be adapted to well enough. There is technically nothing barring you from throwing yourself into the deep end, but the game tries to make sure its worth your while to take on the difficulties in order. Beating Easy will unlock the tiny girl robot Brownie as a playable character and beating Normal will unlock a large reptilian alien named Plissken for you to play as. Once the time comes to hit Hard, you’ve got a few characters to choose from and the information needed to face it. Hard puts up that fight that longtime Contra fans will be looking for, and there’s still the unlockable Nightmare mode that will really test a player’s resolve.
While quite a bit of Contra ReBirth’s difficulty is fair and just requires attention and skill to surmount, there are some moments that can’t be dealt with on your first encounter. Boss attacks and stage gimmicks can sometimes have very little telegraphing, meaning you’ll have to learn that they even exist and then how to deal with them by losing a few lives. Contra’s had this issue before and the limited lives and continues made it annoying to learn about them, but the continue system and difficulty scaling here let you do the training and get the results in much shorter periods. Even recognizing a boss or enemies from previous games won’t necessarily mean you’re facing the same thing as before, and there’s still new things going on so its not a full retread of old ground. Most bosses and stage designs keep the action going with interesting setpieces and challenging patterns, so even the returning threats are enjoyable rematches amidst interesting new gimmicks.
One thing I do like that returned from Contra III is the ability to hold two weapons, swapping between them whenever you wish. Flicking the Wii Remote to do that is a bit absurd and not the best to do in an intense battle, but the system lets you store an extra special weapon in reserve and you only lose your currently active weapon when you die (although you won’t lose the weapon in Easy mode). The weapon selection also mirrors Contra III quite a bit, with the homing rockets, a laser gun, the fan favorite spread shot, and of course your default machine gun fire. It is a pretty small selection, but only the laser gun really felt like it wasn’t always a useful find. Surprisingly, even the default gun had its uses, as its rapid damage output worked very well on stationary targets. With the spread shot covering the screen in bullets and the homing rocket finding foes to blow up, the laser gun’s piercing shot seems a bit tame and situational by comparison, but overall, none of the weapons are bad to have, there are just preferences for specific fights.
While Contra ReBirth was ticking all my boxes when it came to a fun Contra game, one thing I can’t praise is its bonkers story. Things start off relatively innocuous: a powerful alien group called Neo-Salamander Force wants to conquer Earth but can’t due to the powerful opposition they face in their present time. To make things easier for themselves, they travel back in time to when Earth’s defenses are still primitive and aim to take down the heroes of the Contra series before they became so capable. From there, things get a bit harder to track, because as soon as Bill and Lance begin the resistance, the game stops focusing on that plot and instead devotes nearly all its remaining cutscenes to what it means to be a Contra. At first, it seems like the team of Bill, Lance, Brownie, and Plissken are the Contra force, but every cutscene that comes along seems to start defining what it is to be a Contra, saying things like “all good men are Contra”, and it really feels entirely disconnected from the rest of the game, like it’s trying to create an inspiring message with no direction or build-up. At first I though it was trying to be a cheesy joke about bad translation, but the game really is pushing the idea that everyone who fights for what is right is a Contra. I’m a Contra, you’re a Contra, this random character who has no plot importance and isn’t playable in this unusual cutscene? Also a Contra! It doesn’t hurt the gameplay at all since its not even connected to it (unless you try to stretch it and say being able to play co-op means that you’re showing the unity of the Contra Force), and definitely doesn’t crop up in the actual levels or during boss fights, but this baffling choice is still hard to ignore in between all the fun run and gun action.
THE VERDICT: The Contra series has always been one that’s prided itself on its difficulty, but Contra ReBirth ensures that the player’s pride won’t be their downfall. Easing you in to the harder difficulties and rewarding you for going along with it means Contra ReBirth has the gradual difficulty build you’d usually find in most well-designed games, and when you do finally hit Hard mode, you get a satisfying experience that you’re ready to face. Even if you do immediately jump into the harder difficulties, there’s still a cushion to catch you when you face unexpected trouble. The shooting is simple and the game is short, but it’s a fun rollercoaster ride of intense action the whole way through.
And so, I give Contra ReBirth for the Wii…
A GREAT rating. Fixing most every issue I had with Contra III, Contra ReBirth feels like Contra refined. It sadly shed a lot of its parts to get here, but the experienced has been pared down into a tightly packed joyride that is easy to replay and cures some of the series’s common ailments by letting you continue more easily and making sure you learn in advance about potentially cheap deaths that would have made harder difficulties grueling. If you look past the baffling story moments, Contra ReBirth is a quick, quality romp with challenging opposition and memorable moments. Fighting a boss as you fall through the atmosphere, fighting a robot ninja that is riding a missile upside down while robot llamas run in to deliver special weapons… Contra ReBirth puts all its focus on interesting moments even if it did mean the whole ended up somewhat limited.
More content would have obviously made Contra ReBirth better, but it’s still got enough good going on that I’d not only recommend it to Contra fans but also to people looking for a game in the series to start with. The “rebirth” in the title is quite appropriate, as it manages to bring back the appeals of the old Contra games while giving it new life through more modern game design. I’m still not sure why this game insists we can all be Contras, but I do think you’ll enjoy being one if you give this game a chance.