In 2011, the makers of Guilty Gear and Dragon Ball FighterZ, Arc System Works, made a Contra game, without the Contra name, Hard Corps: Uprising. It was published by Konami, plays just like Contra, and takes place in the Contra universe, so I don't know why it doesn't use the name. It was originally supposed to be the first in a series of games, but that idea was scrapped after the game’s low sales. Maybe if they had used the Contra name, it would have sold better. It’s a available for $15 on PS3 and Xbox 360, and the 360 version is also playable on Xbox One.
Hard Corps: Uprising takes place in 2613, 20 years before Contra, and 28 years before Contra: Hard Corps. The world is ruled by an evil organization known as the Commonwealth, whose foot soldiers look like Nazis with red KKK hoods. To combat the Commonwealth, one of the playable characters, Bahamut, forms the Hard Corps, a group of elite resistance soldiers.
Old-school Contra fans will quickly notice that this doesn't look like your usual Aliens/Predator/Terminator inspired Contra. Arc System Works replaced all that action movie stuff with their own brand of anime inspired designs. The game opens with an anime cutscene straight out of an animated series, the main characters look more like Sol Badguy and Samus Aran than Rambo and Dutch, and the stages and weapons wouldn’t look too out of place in a Guilty Gear game. This is basically Guilty Gear Contra, and that’s okay with me. I wouldn't want or expect ASW to make a game full of 80s action movie machismo.
This game sounds like Guilty Gear, too. A lot like Guilty Gear. The games share the same composer, Daisuke Ishiwatari, who is also the art director of the game. The soundtrack is mostly new stuff, but there are a few remade Contra arcade tunes in there, and the title screen, stage clear, and game over themes are all new heavy metal versions of classic Contra themes. I think it’s a great soundtrack. I love the air guitar heavy metal sounds. The voice acting; however, is ridiculously bad. The voice actors are all Japanese, so every line sounds like it's being read by someone who doesn't understand what they're saying. This is some SNK quality stuff here. It’s as funny as it is bad.
The game comes with 2 playable characters, Bahamut and Krystal. There are also 3 DLC characters available for $2.50 each, Sayuri, Harley Daniels, and Leviathan. Each character has different attributes, like more or less HP, so each one is sort of like a different difficulty setting. For example, Leviathan can only carry one weapon, and only has 1 HP, so playing as him in Arcade Mode will give you the closest experience to the classic arcade and NES Contra games. Sayuri uses a sword instead of guns, so playing as her makes it almost like a Strider or Ninja Gaiden game.
The 2 main game modes are Arcade Mode and Rising Mode. Rising Mode starts you off with 3 lives, the same amount of HP each character has in Arcade Mode, and no actions, like bullet reflection. As you play Rising Mode, you gain points which you can spend on new skills, and upgrading everything from your HP, to the level your weapons will be at when you get them. You can get a triple jump, a second air dash, and even 30 lives per continue if you input the Konami code on the start screen. Unlike Arcade Mode, Rising Mode has a stage select screen, which lets you start on whatever stage you’ve reached, with all your lives and continues. You can get a game over on the last stage, and then start a new game on the last stage again, if you want. Rising Mode seems like it's the mode the most work went into. This isn't some shoehorned in extra mode. I think it's the mode most people will play, since it is much more forgiving than Arcade Mode.
Arcade Mode lets you play the game more like the old Contras. You get 3 lives and 3 continues, and depending on what character you pick, you'll have different amounts of HP. None of the Rising Mode upgrades carry over into Arcade Mode, and you will not gain points to buy upgrades with either. You get preset abilities, like bullet deflecting and dash vaulting, and each character has different run, dash, and air dash speeds. Because of the limited lives, this mode is extremely challenging. You unlock 573 continues after using 100 continues, so running out of continues won’t always be an issue, but trying to progress to the next checkpoint with only 3 lives will push even the most hardcore to the limit.
Hard Corps: Uprising plays a lot like classic Contras. The most notable additions to the controls are the action button, double jump, and dash. The double jump and dash are mostly for platform jumping. You can dash both on the ground and in the air, so you can jump pretty far by combining double jumps with air dashes, and even farther if you get a running start with a dash before a jump. The action button lets you do a bunch of cool things, like vaulting, deflecting bullets, and character specific moves, like Sayuri’s “Samurai Action” combo. These additions make the game flashier and more stylish than any other Contra. It reminds me of games like Mega Man X2 and Strider.
Just as in classic Contra games, weapons come flying across the screen in little metal containers, which you have to shoot down to get. Like in Contra III, you can carry 2 different weapons with you, and switch between them with the press of a button. Classic Contra weapons, like the Spread Gun, Machine Gun, and Laser are back, along with the new Ripple Unit, which shoots waves in a cone for a short distance, and creates a barrier over you if you dash while shooting it. It's creative, I’ll give it that, but it’s one of the worst weapons in the game. You can also upgrade every weapon 2 extra levels when you collect a duplicate of the weapon you have equipped. Even though you have HP in this game, you still lose your special weapon after 1 hit, just like you would if you died in a classic Contra game.
The stages in Hard Corps: Uprising are full of familiar sections and obstacles. For example, the first stage is in a desert, and there's a bunch of quicksand around, like in the desert in Contra III. There’s a stage in which you ride through a city while riding a hoverboard, kind of like the bike stage in Contra III, and a few stages end with you having to jump and grab onto a helicopter, just like a section in Contra III. If you miss the jump to grab onto the helicopter, you lose a life and get a game over if you don’t have any more. This game doesn’t pull any punches.
This game has some great bosses. It's the layering of attacks and patterns, and the way they keep coming back for more that makes them so memorable. In a few levels, the final boss of a stage is the mid boss coming back for revenge, in a different form. One of the last bosses shows up multiple times during the game. Even the classic Contra metal wall shows up on more than one occasion, each time with a new trick up its… sleeve? The bosses start off with simple attacks, layer in more as the fight goes on, and even switch forms multiple times during a fight. They're all very well done, and push the controls, and the game’s mechanics to their limits.
Hard Corps: Uprising is the definition of a hidden gem. If you're any kind of Contra fan, or even a new fan of the genre because of Cuphead, you will probably enjoy it. You can have your super challenging game in Arcade Mode, or a game anyone can eventually beat, if you keep at it, in Rising Mode. It's a shame Arc System Works never got to make another one, or even continue making games like this without Konami, because they made an awesome game that's definitely worthy of the Contra name.