The first time I played Contra 4, I died within a few seconds, having ignored the bullet that sneak-attacked my ankle. I remarked at the accuracy of the death sound and at the humorous Duke Nukem-style taunt that my dude issued afterward, and tried again. The same result. During that first session, I lost all of my lives before the halfway point of the first level.
You have probably read about Contra 4's difficulty in previews. If you thought that those writers were inflating the game's difficulty because of suboptimal trade-show settings or lack of familiarity with Contra, allow me to disabuse you of that notion. If anything, they have undersold the game's difficulty. Contra 4 is hard. It's probably the hardest Contra game ever made.
After that first trip through ... part of the first level, I tried again and made it through more of the first level. Then I made it to the boss before losing all my lives. I found that I could get a little further. As I replayed the levels, a combination of memory and improved response time had me sailing through the early levels like a badass. I was very rapidly getting better at the game, and, because it's so frenetic and twitchy, being demonstrably better at it made me feel awesome.
It's not accurate to call this a difficulty curve, because it applies over multiple plays of the same level. The difficulty in the game is just engineered brilliantly. Other notoriously hard games, like scrolling shooters, stay hard forever; you can practice until you complete the levels, but it is a boot-camp-like experience that requires serious dedication. With Contra 4, my performance improved noticeably with every session. It is both unrelentingly difficult and instantly gratifying. I can think of no other game that achieves this kind of personal progression.
I can't believe that the same WayForward that was responsible for Ping Pals and a string of licensed GBA games has somehow done this. It's not an American interpretation of Contra. It's not a Contra tribute game. This is, in fact, a real Contra game. It feels very Japanese in execution, focused more on enemy placement and carefully-orchestrated levels than on loading the player with abilities. In fact-- and this may sound crazy or blasphemous-- I think Contra 4 feels like a Treasure game.
Once you manage to complete the game, even in the abbreviated but still painful Easy mode, you unlock Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode is a series of bite-size levels that task you with completing an objective: beating a boss or a rush of enemies in some of the more conventional challenges, completing a stage with a certain gun or no gun at all in the more unorthodox challenges. As you would expect, these are brutal, but they also provide the only real short-session play available in Contra 4. They also provide the means of unlocking a bunch of series-tribute items, including playable characters from past Contra games, comics, artwork, and even decently-emulated NES versions of Contra and Super C.
Like every other aspect of the game, the presentation is something special. Everything about it is classic Contra, both paying tribute to and building upon the brilliant style exemplified in previous games. The graphics are exactly what a 32-bit Contra sequel should be: vibrant, colorful, intricate, and beautifully animated. virt's new soundtrack brilliantly integrates elements of Contra's signature tunes into new rockin' compositions, which are matched to visual cues in the game in ways that will probably force an emotional response. For instance, you emerge from a cave to find ... a rushing waterfall, just as the familiar strains of the Level 3 music from Contra begin to kick in. More than nostalgia for the old games, it creates a pervasively Contra feeling, and reminds you that no other series has done as perfect a job of conveying the feel of a level through its music.
Final verdict: 10/10