Crispy Gamer

Contra 4 (DS)

You might wear skinny ties. You may rock feathered hair. Hell, perhaps you still sport a makeup job that'd make Boy George pause and cringe. But until you play Contra 4, an all-new chapter in the mega-popular, finger-cramping sci-fi run-'n'-gun series that helped define the entire category two decades back, you don't know the meaning of '80s kitsch.

And just in case the connotation brings back only rose-colored memories, kindly allow us to remind you up-front of the need to stock up on K-Y Jelly, as well. That's right... Fun and nostalgic as the action presented herein may be, it's also the sort so diabolically mean-spirited that the title pretty much bends DS owners over and makes them take it right in the proverbial cartridge slot.

Released in honor of the franchise's 20th anniversary, however, we can't be too harsh on the outing. Why? It's also the sort that revels in ironic self-awareness, offering the same addictive gameplay wrinkles and drawbacks that made the brand so freaking popular to begin with.

Even the manual -- which quickly summarizes the in-game world's chronology; reintroduces Rambo-esque, bare-chested heroes Lance, Bill and token ethnic stereotypes Mad Dog and Scorpion; and features enemies listed under the heading 'Dirty Alien Scum' sporting names like 'meat puppet,' 'Dirk McShooter,' and 'Ingrid Birdman' -- revels in era-specific cheese. Mind you, however, we're talking more well-aged Camembert than fat-free Kraft singles. While sure to get a giggle out of today's tots, it's those of us who grew up alongside the industry who'll really flip for the universally tongue-in-cheek presentation.

Seriously -- archaic as such a simple formula (run, shoot anything that moves, collect machine gun or spread shot power-ups, repeat) appears at passing glance, let's face it: It's hard not to flip for a title featuring speech samples of muscle-bound paramilitaries screaming 'let's party' and 'locked and loaded' while fighting legions of cybernetic troopers and bullet-spitting turrets.

But we digress. To most newcomers, you're essentially looking at a late Reagan-era arcade throwback-style outing that pits lone commandos (or two badass mercenary mofos, if you have a buddy handy for co-op) against legions of invading aliens. No touch-sensitive gimmicks are built-in, either.

Like a long-lost Super Nintendo outing, complete with authentic 16-bit period-style visuals and sound effects, you'll simply scroll along stages featuring dense jungles and high-tech laboratories filled with creatures straight out of 'Predator,' blasting anything and everything in sight (including pseudo-3-D corridors in which you stand at the bottom of the screen and shoot at foot soldiers, sensors and giant cyborg faces located towards the top). Control is handled strictly via the d-pad and face buttons, which work as elegantly as in the past, which is to say they provide a stiff, but wholly workable interface. Enemies appear in the same places, levels are linear, and one's powers of memorization -- for whatever good they do would-be saviors of mankind going at such a blistering pace -- can be brought to bear to even the odds.

Changes from past episodes are further few and far between. New moves include a grappling hook that lets you ascend platforms (oftentimes upwards into the top screen) and options to store/select two individual weapons by tapping the shoulder triggers. Special attacks such as flame shots and lasers can now also be powered up by collecting them multiple times in succession. The action further progresses in real-time on both displays, meaning you'll have to keep abreast of incoming assaults from both above and below -- never good for the blood pressure.

Difficulty levels (even on Normal, though it's imperative you start with Easy) range from punishing to 'who knew I was such a sorry masochist?' And really, with the first level evoking instant memories of one's misspent youth as you waste the better part of 20 minutes just trying to get to the obligatory over-the-top, stage-ending confrontation, let's be frank: That's about all you need to know to make a purchase decision.

Under normal circumstances, we'd be reaming out the title's designers. Contra 4 is inhumanly difficult -- even though Easy mode gives you 10 lives, awards more powerful weapons than normal, and offers additional continues, it still proves strikingly harrowing.

Furthermore, the quest introduces very little that series vets haven't seen before. Despite the pristine color quality and thumping soundtrack, you just can't compare it audiovisually to modern-day offerings for set-top systems, either. After losing all lives, you have to sit through an infuriating conciliatory little aural ditty before you can slap the continue button to boot. (Worse, restarts occur at set level checkpoints, so you have to, say, re-climb the vertically-scrolling waterfall at the expense of great mental anguish before fighting that spear-armed boss again.) And, of course, getting ahead largely depends on one's knack for snagging special weapons, yet you're constantly robbed of them upon dying (though you keep any not currently in use), making it tricky to regain lost ground.

Nonetheless, we'll stuff the complaints. To be brutally honest, our love-hate relationship with the adventure veers heavily towards the former emotion. Whether battling screen-hogging robots atop 3-D missiles rocketing off into orbit, dueling with giant plasma-spewing submarines that rise from below, or just admiring a wealth of bonus material (love the detailed bios on past series outings), this puppy never ceases too infuriate.

But by the same token, from cheap deaths resulting from background environments scaling a centimeter too high to the hilariously overdramatic musical score, Contra 4 is still the same hyperkinetic ode to teenage angst today's jaded twenty-/thirtysomethings first fell in love with. And, for at least a few hours, especially if you've got a like-minded pal handy, suffice it to say that it pays -- in sheer body count, if not intellectual stimulation -- to rekindle the old flame. Smooches!

This review was based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.