Now I’m just as excited about playing the newest iterations of Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, Guitar Hero, SoulCalibur, and Silent Hill as the next gamer, but if you ask me, now is an awesome time to be a fan of classic gaming. Throughout these past few years, we’ve had several compilation packs of classic titles from companies like Taito and Midway. Nintendo, Sega, SNK, and NEC have been putting much of their systems’ back catalogs on the Wii Virtual Console, while the PSN store and Xbox Live Arcade have had a steady stream of both classic and classic-style games made readily available for download. Just when you think things couldn’t get any better, Konami recently released the Japanese version of Dracula X on U.S. shores for the very first time, and Capcom will be releasing new Mega Man, Street Fighter, and Bionic Commando games throughout the next several months. Then there is this, Contra 4. Out of nowhere, Konami has given gamers a clever throwback to the 16-bit glory days of Contra, while still keeping it relevant today. They’ve managed to bring back everything old school gamers loved about Contra while at the same time reintroducing it to a new generation of gamers.

The plot of this game takes place after Contra 3, meaning that the storylines of every game that has been released since then are no longer canon. That basically means that the events of Contra Force, Hard Corps, Legacy of War, Contra Force, C: The Contra Adventure, Shattered Soldier, and Neo Contra never happened, and the game is better off for it. All you really need to know is that a new alien menace is attacking Earth, and you (and a buddy if playing 2-player) are the world’s last hope. You select from 4 characters, Scorpion, Mad Dog, Lance, or Bill. There is no difference between them besides their looks. You’ll blast your way through several stages, each reminiscent of past Contra games. The music will also bring back memories, in fact playing on the highest difficulty level will replace the soundtrack with remixes of classic Contra themes. Like any good Contra game, you’ll gain several upgradable weapons throughout the levels. Just like in Contra 3, you can carry a weapon in both hands, and switch between the two at any time. Instead of of using the DS’s capabilities for some superfluous touch screen functions, Contra 4 simply uses the second screen as an extension of the playing field. Now you have to watch for attacks on both the top and bottom of both screens. A new grappling tool allows you to traverse between the upper and lower screen, but this makes the game no less challenging.

Speaking of challenge, this is as tough as it gets, just the way old school Contra fans like it. This means you get 3 (or 5 depending on the difficulty) lives and continues. You can earn a 1up if you’re good, but once your lives run out, you use one of your continues to restart the level, and when your continues are out, it’s GAME OVER. There’s no password save, no stage select, no mid-level checkpoints, no nothing. There is a quicksave feature, but it only works when you turn the game off, and you have to use a continue to start at the beginning of the last level you were on before you turned the game off. To make matters worse, you won’t be able to get to the end of the game if you play on easy. Oh, and don’t count on the Konami code to help you either. Oh yeah, it’s in the game alright, but…….well, I don’t wanna spoil the surprise. The extreme difficulty will scare off casual players. However, just like in the Contra games of old, those willing to put in the effort will be well rewarded, as there are several hidden Easter eggs in the game. Finishing the game on easy mode will open a challenge mode. You compete several missions which range from reaching the end of an area without shooting to destroying a certain amount of enemies. You can also unlock new characters, including the Probotector from the European Contra games. You can even unlock the original NES versions of Contra and Super C. Even after you make your way through the main game, there is plenty to keep you busy for at least a few months.

While today’s developers continue to try to outdo each other on a technological level, Contra 4 defies convention and keeps it strictly old school. It may not have Unreal Engine 3, Blu-Ray, Havok Physics, or downloadable content, but it manages to deliver an experience that’s just as fresh now as it was back in the late 80s.