Saturday, August 17, 2019

Contra Anniversary Collection Review

Remember that Castlevania collection from a few months ago? Contra Anniversary Collection is basically the same thing but for Contra. You could replace all instances of Castlevania in my review of Castlevania Anniversary Collection with Contra and have a pretty good idea of what Contra Anniversary Collection is all about. I also played the Switch version of this one, so I'll go into some docked vs undocked differences here, too. This collection comes from the same developers as the Castlevania Anniversary Collection, M2, it has nearly identical UI and features, and a lot of the same problems. It compiles most of the 8-bit and 16-bit Contras; the arcade versions of Contra and Super Contra, Contra and Super C for NES, Operation C for Game Boy, Contra III for SNES, and Contra: Hard Corps for Genesis. That’s 1 less game than Castlevania AC’s 8, but unlike Castlevania AC, this has Japanese versions of all the games plus a few European Probotector versions for a total of 16 games. That’s 1 more than Castlevania AC’s total of 15 with all the Japanese versions.

Here's a full list of all the games included.
Contra - Arcade
Contra - JP Arcade
Super Contra - Arcade
Super Contra JP Arcade
Contra - NES
Contra - Famicom
Super C - NES
Super Contra - Famicom
Operation C - Game Boy
Contra - JP Game Boy
Contra III: The Alien Wars - SNES
Contra Spirits - Super Famicom
Super Probotector: The Alien Rebels - EU SNES
Contra: Hard Corps - Genesis
Contra: The Hard Corps - JP Mega Drive
Probotector - EU Mega Drive

I'd say having the Japanese Contra games is even better than having the Japanese Castlevanias. That's because the Japanese versions have much better cheats! NES Contra 1 has a 30 lives code in both versions, but the rest of the US console/GB games either have less cheats, give you less lives from cheat codes, or had the cheats removed entirely. Super C's code only gives you 10 lives in the US version, but gives you 30 in the Japanese version, for example, and Contra III and Hard Corps removed cheat codes altogether. Hard Corps also removed the Japanese version’s hit points. Trying to beat these games with limited lives is fun in its own way, but it’s way too hard for most gamers. I believe that the 30 lives code is a big reason why the first NES Contra (and Life Force) became so popular in the first place. If you're looking for the kind of experience you had when playing Contra on NES with 30 lives, look up the codes and play the Japanese versions.

If you're wondering what Probotector is, it's the European version of Contra before age ratings were introduced. The European console/GB versions of all these games replaced the humans and/or the aliens, depending on the game, with robots. The player character robots, the Probotectors, looked like human-sized mecha from Macross, and a lot of the aliens looked like tiny knockoff ED-209s from Robocop. Only the Probotector versions of Contra III and Hard Corps are in this collection; though, so you won't see the tiny ED-209s here because those were only in the Probotector versions of Contra and Super C.

The quality of the emulation here is just as good as on the Castlevania collection. I tested out every one of these games, and they run just as well as the games in Castlevania AC. There are no issues present here that weren't present in the originals. In other words, there's still some slowdown and flickering in these games, especially in the NES games. The only games that are enhanced in any way are the Probotector versions of Contra III and Hard Corps, which have a 60Hz mode, in addition to the original 50Hz mode, which makes them play as fast as the Contra versions and gets rid of the weird PAL resolution. That was nice of M2 to include.

The emulator options are still pretty disappointing in this collection. There are no improvements over the options in Castlevania AC. Most disappointing of all is that there's still only 1 save state per game. These games are all pretty short, so it's not as big of a deal as with the Castlevanias, but it would be nice to have a few more to have a save at the end of a game, or a save with a co-op game, or whatever. I'm also disappointed that none of the 3 versions of Contra: Hard Corps allow you to remap the buttons outside of the in-game options, which are made for a 3 button Genesis controller. The rest of the games all have emulator level button remapping. Castlevania Bloodlines was also missing button remapping, so I guess it's an issue with their Genesis emulator. Being able to remap stationary aim/weapon select to R would make Hard Corps much easier to play on a Pro controller. I found it easier to play HC with an arcade stick. Another disappointing thing is that there's still only 2 border images for all the games; the Contra 3 box art and a picture of some flames. Do they not have any other Contra art lying around?

The Save Replay feature is the same here, too. This feature allows you to retroactively record a video of your gameplay starting from when you booted the game up or from the last save you loaded. There's nothing new or different about it, but it's still a cool feature for recording videos, since you can just hit save after you've done whatever it is you wanted to do, instead of recording every attempt from the start.

Another complaint I have about this collection is that it does not scale the games down to 720p while docked. You can set your system to 720p if you want, but it’s not going to change the scale of the games. They're still going to be displayed at a scale meant for 1080p. I prefer 720p for these old games because a 3x scale image fills more of the screen at 720p than a 4x scale image fills at 1080p. The games still scale to 3x at 720p while undocked on Switch, at least.

Similarly to the Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection, this collection has turbo or auto fire for some games. Both the arcade and console versions of Contra and Super Contra let you either toggle turbo on with L, or hold down R to use it. Being able to simply hold down the button to shoot your default gun was either tied to a special weapon or really slow in those games. There was no default gun auto fire in the series until Operation C. My hands thank you for the turbo, M2.

The display options in these games all have the same names, except for in the Game Boy games, even though they sometimes do different things. The Contra and Super Contra arcade games had a vertical CRT monitor inside the cabinet, so these have the most unique display options of the bunch aside from Operation C. Original gives you a 3:4 (not a typo) aspect ratio at a 4x scale with a slightly vertically stretched look, like 4:3 options usually do but vertically. Pixel Perfect gives you an image with the same pixel scale as Original but without the vertical CRT stretch, and 16:9 stretches the image horizontally so that it fills the entire screen. 16:9 looks even worse than usual in these games with such a narrow field of view. 4:3 Scanlines, which is still actually 3:4, gives you a 4.5x scale image with scanlines and the vertical CRT stretch. 4:3 Scanlines is the only option that fills the screen vertically and doesn’t look ridiculous, so it’s the easiest one to play these games on a TV with because it gives you the biggest picture outside of Tate mode. Pixel Perfect Scanlines and 16:9 Scanlines gives you the same image as Pixel Perfect or 16:9 but with scanlines.

The arcade games also allow you to rotate the game image left or right, AKA Tate mode (pronounced tah-teh). Translator's note: tate means vertical in Japanese. You can even combine the rotation with any of the 6 Display Options. But strangely enough, or thankfully, the UI and borders don’t rotate with the game. This mode works really well with an undocked Switch and a controller, but I don’t know about on a TV or monitor without a rotating stand. You could just lay on your side and play on a TV like this, I guess, but I didn’t find it very comfy.

In the NES and SNES games; Original has a 4:3 aspect ratio with a 4x scale and 16:9 fills the whole screen with a horizontally stretched image. Pixel Perfect still has the same issue it did in the Castlevania collection; it’s displayed in a 10:7 aspect ratio while docked, like Pixel Perfect on Genesis, and is displayed correctly in 8:7 while undocked. M2 should know that Pixel Perfect on NES and SNES is supposed to be 8:7, so who knows why this hasn’t been fixed. The 4:3 Scanlines option fills the screen vertically with a 4.5x scale 4:3 aspect ratio image with scanlines, Pixel Perfect Scanlines is the same as Pixel Perfect but with scanlines, and 16:9 is a stretched fullscreen image with scanlines. I also noticed that the 50Hz version of Super Probotector has some messed up stretched aspect ratios in both Original and Pixel Perfect modes while docked and undocked. They look even wider than the 10:7 on the Genesis games in Pixel Perfect. I guess this is because of the PAL SNES’ 288 pixel vertical resolution, but it looks terrible.

The European version of Hard Corps, Probotector, has its own share of 50Hz problems. It looks like the Original and Pixel Perfect display options are reversed, there are big purple overscan bars on the top and bottom of the game image because of the PAL Mega Drive’s 240 pixel vertical resolution, and it looks like it’s being displayed in 3x scale at 1080p instead of 4X, and at 2x in 720p in handheld mode. It’s bad. The options on the 60Hz versions look good, though. No problems there. They’re the same as the NES and SNES games except that Pixel Perfect is displayed correctly in a 10:7 aspect ratio at all times.

Operation C looks like it's running on a Super Game Boy emulator. Sadly, this is the original version and not the colorized version from Konami GB Collection Vol. 1, just like with the GB games in Castlevania AC. The Original display option gives you a black and white image in 7.5x scale, Pixel Perfect gives you a black and white image with a 7x scale, and Dot Matrix gives you a 7x scale image in 4 shades of green and huge pixels. It's supposed to look like the original Game Boy, but the image is so much bigger than it was ever meant to be that it looks more like a GB running on an LED billboard because the pixels have blank space in between them, like lightbulbs on a billboard. The Color Filter option gives you a 7.5x scale with the default Super GB palette; 3 shades of orange and dark blue outlines, Color Filter (Pixel Perfect) gives you a 7x scale image with the SGB colors, and Scanlines gives you a 7.5x image with the SGB colors and scanlines. All of these display options are displayed in a 5x scale and fill the screen vertically while undocked since the GB's vertical resolution of 144 pixels fits evenly 5 times into 720p, so 4 of these display options are exactly the same on a handheld Switch.

Just like in the other collections, there's an ebook full of design documents, a Contra timeline, the instruction pages with the game's story and controls, and some interviews with Nobuya Nakazato and Tom Dubois. Tom Dubois is the artist who painted the cover for Contra III, Castlevania III, and lots of those old Konami games with painted covers. He wasn't too talkative in his interview; though, so I didn't get much out of it. Nakazato is the producer of the upcoming Contra Rogue Corps and a few of the games in the collection, like Contra III. He talks about how he got started at Konami, Contra history, and the development of Contra III and Hard Corps. It's pretty interesting. The design docs are really interesting, too. They have little drawings mapping out levels and explaining what enemies and the player can do, designs for unused weapons, and even details on how they were going to make the games harder for the SNES versions.

This collection is just as barebones as Castlevania AC and still has a lot of the same issues with display options, but the games are awesome and the emulation is good, so I still think it's worth buying. I just wish they would have put a bit more effort into these. I’ve seen what M2 has done for sega. It would have been nice to get more borders, scans of the boxes and manuals, art galleries, soundtracks, all that stuff the Mega Man Legacy Collections did so well. I hope they do another one and put Contra Shattered Soldier, Neo Contra, and Hard Corps: Uprising in it. Those games are awesome and I'd love to have them on new systems where I don't have to use a DS3 to play them. Contra Rebirth also needs to be brought back, because it was a Wiiware exclusive and you can't even buy it anymore.