Title  : Contra: Shattered Soldier
Platforms  : Sony PlayStation 2
Publisher  : Konami
ESRB Rating  : Teen
Game Rating  : 7.9
Review by  : Ken Gagne

Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, Start. 

Even if you can't appreciate the significance of that legendary button sequence, you can still get in on the action with Contra: Shattered Soldier, a PlayStation 2 game from Konami. 

The Contra series has ridden a roller coaster of success, beginning with the 1987 arcade game and then enjoying several popular incarnations on various Nintendo systems. The transition to the Sony PlayStation was less efficacious, as the developer that Konami hired to manage the two PlayStation games updated them to 3D, destroying every fun aspect of Contra. 

Shattered Soldier is what Contra always should have been: a blending of modern technology with classic gameplay. The 2D action, two-player mode, and huge bosses are all back where they belong. 

Players troop from the left side of the stage to the right, through cities, jungles, and oceans, shooting anything and everything that moves. But unlike past Contras, there are no power-ups or additional weapons to acquire. Players begin with three weapons, which they can switch between at any time. The flamethrower and grenade launcher have such limited range, though, that shifting to them in the heat of battle is likely a fatal choice. The lack of acquirable weaponry removes a certain element of strategy and variability. The rest of the controls have remained mostly unchanged since Contra's Super Nintendo days. 

The controls are one of many factors to be mastered quickly in face of Contra's onslaught. It is virtually impossible to avoid any incoming attack without foreknowledge. The "Normal" difficulty setting grants a mere three lives and three continues with which to learn a stage. Even veteran gamers will do well to try the "Easy" setting, which changes these numbers to nine and 99. With that many opportunities, most gamers will learn the nuances of each stage, allowing their memorization, if not their skill, to guide them to and through each of the many bosses. 

The game often throws everything imaginable at the player, moving quickly from one abstract scenario to the next: waterskiing mechs, vomitive, baby-faced turtles, and an evil Seaman. All this and more pack the game's four main stages, which can be completed in any order. Ratings are earned based on performance levels, unlocking additional endings and a total of seven levels. Without this replay value, Contra can be played in its entirety in only an hour or two. 

Fortunately, those hours are spent in classic gameplay, as the 3D graphics integrate with the 2D gameplay for outstanding action. Every level is played from a side-scrolling perspective; absent are the overhead and over-the-shoulder stages that have marred recent attempts at Contra. The opening sequence suggests some excellent cinematics, but the movie sequences feature neither full-motion video nor digitized speech. Considering the brevity of game, the lack of showmanship in these rare moments is disappointing. Unlike most Contra games, this one purports to have a story line, but these weak moments do nothing to support this unnecessary accessory. 

The most frustrating aspect of Shattered Soldier is getting from Point A to Point B; so much rote is necessary that it sometimes feels more like Dragon's Lair. The lack of player initiative and the terse nature of this Contra keeps it from rating higher, but not from being the best Contra game in the last decade. Perhaps this series isn't so shattered after all.

This article is copyright (c) 2002, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 04-Nov-02