Tag Archives: Contra

Valfaris Review

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A couple of years ago now, a small independent action platformer got some attention. Slain had a brilliant art style that was combined with a soundtrack by Celtic Frost’s Curt Victor Bryant. If you wanted a video game that instantly made you think of Heavy Metal music, Slain could easily come to mind. It had a botched launch as there were a lot of technical problems. But the developers truly did overhaul everything to do customers who backed the game justice. And with Slain: Back From Hell they largely succeeded.

Valfaris is the new game from Steel Mantis. Much like Slain, it has a gristly, horrific art style. It too has a soundtrack by Curt Victor Bryant. But it seems to be advertised as more of a Contra inspired game rather than a Castlevania inspired one. Did the folks at Steel Mantis give us an exhilarating Run N’ Gun that old-school NES era Konami fans the experience they remember?

PROS: Builds on everything the developers learned when making Slain.

CONS: It’s a triumph! But it isn’t quite the Contra-like the trailer teases.

METAL: Everything you see and hear screams “Crank it to 11 & break off the knob!”

One thing you can absolutely tell if you’ve played Slain before playing this game is that Steel Mantis learned many good lessons from that process. Right on the title screen, you can notice some cool details. Just like Slain, it oozes Heavy Metal. Your character is dressed like a Warhammer 40k Chaos Marine. There are mountains of fossilized remains of people and creatures everywhere. And you can notice a faded 3D render of the face of the protagonist as if it were made for an early Windows 95, PlayStation, Saturn, or Nintendo 64 game. It brilliantly blends the eras of the 16-bit and early 32-bit and 64-bit processor powered consoles.

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Upon beginning the game you’ll see a cut scene setting up the story. As Therion, you’re off to a mysterious space station; Valfaris upon it reappearing near a red giant. It was once your home and with its discovery, you decide to investigate. Upon landing on the citadel world it immediately becomes apparent that evil forces have taken it over. So right out of the gate, you’ll be confronted with enemies.

Now while many might think of this game as a Run N’ Gun in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, it really isn’t. You will be getting many cool weapons throughout the game, and you will be shooting a lot of stormtroopers, monsters, space insects, and more with them. But it doesn’t have that constant, “Go! Go! Go!” pace of a Run N’ Gun. Save for a couple of enemies that actually spawn enemies and a couple of auto scroller moments you can take moments to breathe. And while the game’s stages are linear, there are a number of hidden areas you’re going to want to seek out. In reality, it feels somewhere in between Konami’s two biggest franchises of that bygone era.

 

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Basically, it builds on the core gameplay introduced in Slain, and it does so beautifully. It feels very refined in the melee combat. Of course, all of the game’s enemies have an entirely different speed. So while you can indeed, expect to use parrying to your benefit you can’t expect it to be predictable. In Slain, knowing exactly when something was about to hit you was, strangely enough, easier than it is in Valfaris. Fortunately, parrying isn’t quite as necessary as it was in Slain, although there are definitely some moments where it is beneficial. So beneficial in fact, you’re going to want to get that timing down for when these moments come up.

So like Slain you have the ability to swing melee attacks, and you have a block button. The block can not only block attacks but as mentioned can also parry attacks if you hit one a split-second before it hits you. Underneath your health bar is a second bar that is tied to the blocks. Killing enemies with a melee attack can often refill it by dropping blue mana. This meter will deplete when you block attacks, and some enemies have powerful attacks that can take it to zero after one block! So there’s another reason to try to master parrying.

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Of course, the big addition to the gameplay here is the shooting. The game starts out by giving you a laser pistol and a lightsaber. But as you play through the game, you’ll discover newer weapons to use. Some of these are out in the open, but other ones will require you to find secret rooms or alternate paths in levels. Which is why the game never really hits the pace of a proper Contra game. You’ll need to take your time to look for these visual cues. It definitely is a bit peppier than Slain though. And while this game doesn’t have as many one-hit deathtraps in the background as Slain did, you still have to pay a lot of attention to the background. Some enemies really blend into the scenery and can knock you into pits, pools of acid, as well as other deadly places.

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Speaking of scenery, again, I have to point out the painstaking detail of the graphics here. There is a brilliant use of color shading and terrific palettes for every possible section. The environments are wide and varied in Valfaris. One moment you might be in a war-torn battle station. Another, you’ll be in a space bug-infested jungle where even the vines are sentient and lethal. Each stage has a multitude of bosses, most of which are insanely difficult while at the same time being completely fair. When you die in this game, 95% of the time you know it is your own fault. There are a handful of times where a Boss will pull a cheap trick at the last second or the rare platform that looks wider than it actually is. But on the whole, everything feels on the level. So the game fosters an environment where even though you’re going to die a ton, you’re also going to feel determined even if you find you’re getting mad at yourself for messing up.

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Obviously, the soundtrack goes along with everything perfectly, as Curt Victor Bryant returns from Slain to continue the shredding. Honestly, the music in this also feels a lot more varied than in Slain, as he touches on the many subgenres of Heavy Metal. There are orchestral moments that lead to a Symphonic Metal opus. There are classic Power Metal moments, Speed Metal tracks during some intense moments, and more. There isn’t much in the way of vocals here, but it’s totally fine. In fact, vocals might even distract from the action going on at any moment,

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And like Slain, you can expect to see a lot of intense, unsettling animations as enemies explode into gibs, get cut in half, smashed by parts of the scenery and more. Getting back to the gameplay, there are also Super Weapons you can use that also uses the mana the blocking function does. These do a lot of damage while consuming a lot of your meter so you may want to use it sparingly. In my playthrough, I tried to use them mostly for the more intense boss fights. Of which there are many. All of the weapons, the melee ones, guns, and super guns you find can also be upgraded at checkpoints. Throughout the game, you’ll find special items you can use to do so. Each of these can be leveled up to around four times and the cost to do so increases each time. As you play you’ll really want to think about what weapons to upgrade. Each weapon is effective on all of the enemies, but some are more beneficial on some than others. So there’s an element of Mega Man here for you to consider as well.

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When you do clear the game it will give you a pretty satisfying ending. Throughout the game, it definitely leaves some nods to Slain, but you don’t have to have played Slain to understand what is going on here. After the credits roll you’ll be given an end screen showing you how many times you died, how long it took you to beat the game as well as how many items you’ve found so that you’ll be inspired to play through the game again. It does try to get you to at least attempt a 100% completion run.

While as of this writing I didn’t see it on my physical Switch version of the game, the game’s Steam page does list a New Game + mode being added to the game. So if you want an even bigger incentive to go back to it once you’ve beaten it, you potentially have one. Ultimately though, even if you only play through it once you’ll feel very accomplished. This game pulls no punches. Even the most grizzled video game veteran will be challenged to the nth degree. But again, the whole thing generally feels fair. When you start to notice patterns and understand what you need to be doing things don’t feel so frustrating. They make you feel more determined. You can win the day, you really can. Valfaris is one game you should definitely look into. It’s gorgeous, sounds amazing and is filled with challenges. Just don’t come into it expecting a Contra-like. It is more of an Action-Platformer than Run N’ Gun. But still one of the best experiences you’ll have.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Super Cyborg Review

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Man, I have been finding a number of spiritual successors lately. Last time around we saw an excellent Metroid clone with a number of cool tweaks, and spins on the idea. This time I’m reviewing a really good Contra clone. With elements of Probotector. Because that game is the same game as Contra, just with the human characters replaced with robots.

In this game you play as a robot. Well, at first. More on that later. Super Cyborg nails down everything about the NES version of Contra, its sequels, and the rest of the series with pinpoint accuracy. If you’ve been stewing because of how Konami has been letting all of their franchises lie dormant, this is a game you’re going to adore.

PROS: Feels exactly like NES Contra. Added customization.

CONS: Limited number of controllers supported. May feel too derivative to some.

KONAMI CODE: Not here. Bur there is a NOT KONAMI code most of you will NEED.

I’m glad I found Super Cyborg. I stumbled upon it during the recent Steam Summer Sale. I had no prior knowledge of its existence. No buzz. No info on a board. Nothing. At least for me, this was a diamond in the rough. Upon looking at the quick little trailer, I thought it looked like an interesting Contra inspired game. I picked it up.

Well it isn’t just interesting. It’s phenomenal. In terms of how close the game play is to NES Contra it’s almost 1:1. You play a robot out to save the world from an alien invasion. Like the game it is cribbing from. You get three lives, and sent on an overwhelming seven stage mission of mayhem. The first stage has a few visual nods to Contra. It starts in the jungle, and though the stage layout is completely different the theme is there. It ends at a fortress as well. But with a completely different, and original boss.

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From there, the game goes through different themed areas, and this is where it makes an attempt to differentiate itself from its inspiration. The inside of the base has its own distinct style. The third stage has more of a late game Ninja Gaiden look. There is a spider filled cavern stage. Throughout the campaign, the game does try to retain its own identity. In spite of just how much it feels like Contra. Of course, even some of that goes out the window when you get to the Super C inspired top down stage, and the final stage.

It really does feel like Contra too. As I said before, it feels almost 1:1. The movement is almost identical. The somersault jumping is almost identical. The shooting feels nearly identical. You can fire up. You can fire ahead, or at a diagonal slant. You can fire straight down so long as you’re in the air. One key difference is there is a “Lock” feature, where you can press a button to disable walking. In theory, some sections may be more manageable with it enabled. You can stay just outside the hit box of a projectile spewed out by a boss. Or you can keep yourself from walking off of a ledge. In practice, you’ll almost never use it because of just how much stuff is hitting you at any given moment. Super Cyborg also adds a secondary charge shot to every gun in the game. It does more damage. But because it’s so slow; again you’ll rarely use it with all of the chaos.

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Because just like Contra, the attackers never cease. They keep re-spawning, charging, and coming from all directions. Sit in one place too long, they’ll appear from behind. Or jump from above. Or crop up from the background scenery when you least expect it. Even Contra’s weapons are heavily referenced here. Barrels float through the sky in weird patterns. Shooting them drops a letter. Each letter is a different weapon. The letters may be different in some cases, but the projectiles have the same properties. The machine gun bullets are here. The laser gun is here. The coveted spread gun is here. The clear screen is here. Even the rapid fire is here.

And like Probotector, you’ll play as a robot. At first. You see, once you complete the game you’ll be able to play as a Rambo knock off, giving the game an even closer resemblance to Contra. One cool thing here is you can customize the colors on your character sprites when you start the game. The enemies are pretty varied throughout the campaign with all sorts of aliens, mutants, and strange creatures. All of them share attack patterns with Contra’s many soldiers, and creatures.

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Boss characters are original creations, and yet they could probably fit into a Contra game. There are some standouts here like the giant heart boss, the mechanical bee, and the game’s final boss. This thing has seven forms, and only gets more difficult as each form is introduced. Frankly, it goes from being a very difficult Run n’ Gun to a very difficult Bullet Hell. Think Toaplan difficult.

Honestly, the whole game is pretty difficult for many of the reasons outlined earlier. But again, so was Contra. It also has the simultaneous two player mode you know, and love. The game is fun, and hectic enough with one player. Two player mode makes this even more fun. On top of that, Super Cyborg includes Peer to Peer internet play. You can host a game, and let a friend or stranger connect through Steam, and away you go. Basically, it’s the same thing as the standard two player campaign. But now you don’t have to worry about your friend actually driving to your house.

Of course no NES Contra experience would be complete without the Konami code. Because, for the majority of us, getting through the game was almost impossible on three lives. Super Cyborg doesn’t have the Konami code, but it does have its own extra lives code that you’ll also have to input quickly on the title screen. It will give you 40 lives, and because the game has user files, you can actually save your progress between levels. Which is nice in case you find yourself getting too frustrated in your attempt to win. You can come back to where you left off. Moreover, Super Cyborg has three difficulty levels; Easy, Normal, and Hard which is unlocked after you complete the game once. Easy is about as hard as NES Contra. Until the last boss where it gets pretty difficult. Normal adds more enemies, and projectiles. The final boss gets much more health here. Hard difficulty is so over the top, it’s really recommended for those who love an almost masochistic challenge.

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Super Cyborg isn’t terribly long, and it needn’t be. It isn’t very original. But that isn’t what it was going for. It’s a game trying to fill a void Konami left, by letting its franchise lie dormant. As a spiritual successor to that franchise Super Cyborg truly succeeds. It is a great game for anybody who loves Contra, as the entire game is a love letter to Contra. It’s also a pretty fun action game in its own right.  Super Cyborg might not look quite as good as Contra. Some of the sprites can look a little rough around the edges. But it still manages to get a pretty good NES inspired look all around. You can also toggle a CRT blur effect, and sprite transparency effects on or off depending on how you like your retro-inspired games to look. The music is pretty great. Stage three’s up tempo chip tunes really stand out. But overall the music, and sound is really good.

Where the game falls short is in the options menu, and controller settings. First off, the options navigation takes some getting used to, as it isn’t mouse driven. It has a weird lay out, with pull-down menus. It isn’t difficult to use, but it isn’t very intuitive. But the biggest problem is that it doesn’t support a very large variety of controllers. You can play with the keyboard. You can play with the Xbox 360, or Xbox One controllers pretty seamlessly. Even third-party versions, as they use the same driver in Windows. But beyond that, it’s tough to say. My Steam controller didn’t work right away. After a day or two, it miraculously decided to. So I don’t know if that was just an issue with my configuration, or if it was a Steam client issue an update fixed. Chances are if you’re using a Steam controller you’re probably going to be able to play the game just fine.

But for some of the other controllers out there you’ll have to use a third-party program like Xpadder if you want to get them working with the game. Other than that speed bump though, it’s a pretty great game I can still highly recommend. It can be pretty difficult, and it might tread a little too closely to Contra for some. But it is also a lot of fun. I know I’ve repeated myself a lot in this review. But if you’ve longed for a proper Contra game for a while, you just might want to check this one out.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Time Slip Review

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The Super Nintendo Entertainment System was host to a lot of difficult games over its time in the market. It was also home to many, uncommon games, some of which were ports of computer games. It even had a number of outright rare games like Hagane. It’s a system a lot of people collect for because it has many of these obscure titles.

Run, and gun games were also at their zenith around this time. Shmups were getting grander with Super R-Type, Gradius III, and UN Squadron. Run, and guns were right up there with the space shoot ’em ups on the Super NES. Excellent ports of Sunset Riders, and Smash TV. Gunforce. Contra III: The alien wars was probably the best received of the bunch. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Remember the obscurity I hinted at earlier? Well Vic Tokai published a fairly uncommon Contra III clone.

PROS: Nice graphics. Inventive character designs. High challenge.

CONS: No Continues. Some levels go on too long. Masochistic difficulty in places.

BOSSES: Most of the stages have three or more!

The Sales Curve, is part of Square Enix today. But long before a series of mergers, and takeovers they were a studio that made a lot of esoteric games. A lot of them were actually pretty good. You may have actually heard of their biggest game, Carmageddon. But even before then, they developed things for other publishers on a number of platforms. One of those things is today’s game Time Slip.

Published by Vic Tokai, Time Slip is a Contra clone that mixes things up with a Gradius clone. But it isn’t all Konami influences here either. There are a few key differences, and some nice features that are worth looking into. The storyline presented here isn’t the most original plot. You’ve seen it in other games, books, TV shows, and films before. A race of interstellar aliens wages war on Earth. Part of their plan is to go back in time to kill off humanity throughout history to prevent the present day humans from being formidable. When things look their bleakest, a lone scientist goes back in time, through several historical periods to defeat them single-handedly, and prevent humanity’s extinction.

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The game plays a little bit different from Contra in a couple of ways. The art style is definitely similar, with enemies, and bosses you would expect to see in a Contra game. But you are going to die from anything that touches you instantly in Contra. That is not the case in Time Slip. Instead, you are given a life bar, and every hit you take knocks off one block of the life bar. If you lose all of the blocks, you lose a life. Falling into a pit, or a trap will knock all of them out instantly. The game starts you out with nine lives, and you can replenish your bar with batteries you find hidden in crates. The crates can also hold other power ups, like smart bombs, and missiles. Grabbing a battery with a full health bar will give you a 1-Up. You can also shoot down projectiles, which is another saving grace.

This is good because Time Slip doesn’t give you any continues. This may very well be the most difficult run, and gun on the console. The game goes on for six levels, and if you have any hope of completing it, you’re going to need to treat each box on that life bar as an individual life. There are also no cheat codes, save states, stage select options, or passwords. You have to play the entire thing in one sitting. You don’t even get an easy setting. You’re going to have to dig down deep, and do your best.

Time Slip also doesn’t make your task any easier with its play control. It isn’t as smooth as the games it borrows from. This is partly due to the fact that it has some clunky animation when you climb walls, or jump over obstacles. But it also has to do with the fact that there are two ways to shoot. You have a button that fires in any direction while your character stays still. In many places this creates a dilemma because if you stand still, enemies will just spawn endlessly. But it can be handy in some sections where you need pixel perfect placement.

The other fire button is a bit more traditional as you can fire as you move. A third fire button lets you shoot your special weapons you’ve picked up, and the shoulder buttons let you select those. Fortunately, it isn’t all cinder blocks, and chains around your ankles. Time Slip can be a lot of fun. Over time you’ll level up your gun with pick ups, each speeding up your firing rate, and the spread of attack. Dying will downgrade you, but it’s all the more incentive to find batteries, and gun upgrades.

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Beyond those there are a lot of the power ups I mentioned earlier.  You should go as long as possible without using them however. Because you’re going to want them to use on the bosses. Time Slip has many, many bosses over the course of its six levels. A lot of them will feel out of Contra like the dragon, the volcanic monster, or the space ships. All of the bosses have intense patterns you need to memorize in order to escape without taking any hits. Which is all the more reason to not take damage. Because you’ll need every battery fueled 1-up in reserve if you want any hope of ever completing the game.

Each stage, save for one or two of them, is a long affair. Right out of the gate you’re thrust into a medieval themed stage where you’ll have a forest sub level followed by a boss. Then a cavern themed sub level. Followed by a boss. Followed by A BOSS. Then a castle themed level. FOLLOWED BY A BOSS. This is the kind of thing you can expect to experience while playing Time Slip. Some of the levels include shmup sections that feel a little bit more like Gradius. But these sections will throw an awful lot at you. Like the normal stages, you have two buttons, one to shoot in front of you, and one that will fire in the last direction you moved.

Fortunately the graphics, and sound are pretty good. The large sprites look vibrant, with a lot of great little details. The aliens, and the bosses in particular. The Super Nintendo’s Mode 7 effects are used especially well with things scaling to make some nice visual cues. The soundtrack isn’t something you might care to listen to on its own. But it fits the theme of the game nicely, with ambient moody synths. Explosions, and other sound effects are about what you’d expect from the time. Nothing Earth shattering, but nothing particularly memorable.

Time Slip is infuriating. Yet it is addictive. You’ll lose your last life, toss your controller, possibly even break your controller, and swear off of it. But then, ten minutes later, you’ll find yourself taking another crack at it. You’ll lose again. Then put it away for a while, and go back to it. Eventually it will go on the shelf for maybe even months or a year. But over time you’ll hear its call to make another feeble attempt at defeating it. Oh you’ll claim to hate it. But deep down you’ll know that had it only been given a little bit more balance, and given a difficulty setting option it may have been a lot more popular.

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That isn’t to say that Contra III was easy. Far from it. But it had better pacing, and a more intuitive control setup. Those are really the main problems with Time Slip. A couple of stages could have stood to be broken up into more levels. The lack of continues, are going to upset many who happen to clear that long first stage. To its credit Time Slip’s power ups do make things a lot easier once you’ve mastered how they work on bosses. But it still can feel a bit like a chore if you immediately restart the game after losing all of your lives on the fourth stage or so.

Still, if like me, you enjoy collecting esoteric games I’d recommend Time Slip. There is enough interesting about it to justify having in the collection. It has cool characters, huge bosses, and great atmosphere. The controls do work the way they’re supposed to, you just have to be willing to get accustomed to them. I know I’m repeating myself, but the bosses, environments, weapons, and enemies make this worth picking up. It’s going to be a very difficult run for most of us. But it still manages to be a fun attempt at victory.

Final Score: 7 out of 10