Like many games, the Contra series has seen its share of ups and downs over its 20-year history, starting off as one of the definitive “must-play” NES games, a third-party icon of gaming alongside the likes of Mega Man, Double Dragon, and Ninja Gaiden, among others. After two failed attempts to move into 3D on the original PlayStation, the franchise managed to reclaim a little bit of its former glory on the PlayStation 2.
Today, Tomm Hulett and Simon Lai are living the dream of every gamer who has seen a favorite series have a misstep. As Associate Producers at Konami, they stand poised to return Contra to its original hardcore, old-school glory in Contra 4 for the Nintendo DS, and hopefully show the gaming world just how much fun it can be to die in the face of impossible odds, and come back with a smile for more.
Recently, PoisonMushroom.Org was granted the opportunity to speak with Tomm and Simon about the newest chapter in the Contra series, as well as a few other things.
PoisonMushroom.Org: Please tell us a little about yourselves, and your involvement in the work on Contra 4.
Tomm Hulett: I’m Tomm Hulett, one of the Associate Producers on Contra 4. I’ve been a hardcore gamer since I was about 7, and it’s been a great honor working on a classic-style 2D game.
Simon Lai: I’m Simon Lai, the other Associate Producer for Contra 4 and I’m closing in on the end of my 3rd year here at Konami.
TH: Our role was to come up with the concept, work with WayForward to develop that into a game we were all excited about making, and then provide direction and feedback as they made one of the best Contra games you’ll ever play.
PMO: How long have you been fans of Contra?
SL: Ever since I got my NES back in the 80’s, although I have to admit that I sucked at it pretty bad back then.
TH: Since the second time I played the NES game. I hated it when I rented it at first (I even returned it to get a different game instead). However, my neighbor rented it later and once I played it with a friend I was hooked.
PMO: A concern among some gamers that seems to have been quelled by hands-on previews was that Konami wasn’t developing this game, that they went to another developer to make it. Did Konami approach WayForward with an opportunity, or did WayForward come to Konami with a plan to put Contra back on the map?
TH: We had decided internally to move forward with a new Contra title in the style of the old games. WayForward was the perfect developer for such a product, not just because of their experience doing 2D games, but also because of their passion as gamers.
SL: From our very first meeting with them we knew they were a team that could capture the spirit of the series. They’ve clearly impressed us all with what they’ve created!
TH: Producers at Konami have a bigger creative role than at a lot of other companies, so it was really a joint effort between Konami and WayForward. In addition, members of the previous Contra teams (such as Producer Nobuya Nakazato) have played Contra 4 and given their thumbs-up.
SL: As stated in a number of hands-on previews, it really is a Contra game!
PMO: Which game of the series is your favorite?
SL: NES Contra; old school baby! I still enjoy the balance of run and gun with platforming action to this day. It’s really a classic.
TH: Before working on this one, I would have said Contra III. However, really delving into each game to learn its nuances, I’m going to say the original NES Contra is my favorite. Like Simon said, that’s the one game that really got everything “right”; shooting, platforming, the whole package.
PMO: Beginning with Contra III and in every subsequent title, the machine gun has been a sort of standard-issue Contra weapon, allowing players to use turbofire as a default without the need to power-up. This was a welcome change from the days of the original Contra and Super C, where every shot made required a separate button press. However, some previews have referred to the machine gun as a separate item to be obtained.
The question: Will Contra 4 have rapidfire as a standard, or will players have to continue mashing the button until they pick up the right power-up?
SL: We’ve included auto-fire to save the thumbs of many. However, we also feel that pressing the fire button rapidly still adds an important element of control.
TH: In looking at the past games, the one thing we noticed was that they sort of turned into “Run n’ Aim” titles, instead of Run n Gun. If you can simply hold down the button to fire and endless stream of bullets, it removes a lot of the tension from the game. Remember those tanks in the snow stage of Contra NES? You have to pound on the B Button and just pray you can shoot fast enough to kill them? THAT is the exact feeling we wanted to bring back in our game.
SL: So, to answer your question, you can hold down the fire button to keep the bullets coming…
TH: But, you won’t fire nearly as much as you would by furiously tapping on the button.
PMO: On the subject of guns, have you added any new weapons to the arsenal? Might we see the return of the grenade launcher from the arcade version of Super Contra?
SL: With two tiers of weapons we decided to stay with the weapons we know and give them a couple of new tricks you haven’t seen yet.
TH: However, if you’re asking about which letters will be represented, count on the standards from Contras 1-3.
PMO: One feature touted for this game is the ability to “stack” weapons; that is, to make a gun more powerful by obtaining multiple copies of it. Another feature is the ability to discard a weapon so that your partner can pick it up. As a matter of curiosity, when you discard a weapon that’s been “stacked,” do you only toss part of it, or the entire powered-up gun?
TH: You can toss each “level” individually.
SL: This is great in co-op since if your buddy is sucking it up in an area with limited power ups, but you’re running level 2 Spread, you can toss him a Spread but keep one for yourself.
PMO: When speaking with Nintendo Power, it was mentioned that this game will sport multiple difficulty levels, with Normal being on par with the original Contra. But in the past, Konami has been a bit notorious for only allowing a player to see an ending when they complete the game on the hardest difficulty. Will gamers have to brave the challenges of the hardest mode in order to see the game’s ending, or will they be able to get that with lesser difficulties?
TH: That’s something that frustrates me about Shattered Soldier, because I want to see the best ending but I just don’t have the time to devote to getting it.
SL: …but we do want to award those who can really prove their mettle…
TH: Let’s just say you won’t see the full ending on Easy, how’s that?
PMO: When Contra took to the PlayStation 2, it took a turn towards Mature audiences, those who grew up with the series and were now playing it as adults. As a result, these games– Shattered Soldier especially– had quite a bit of blood and sometimes some gross content, such as creatures going through a meat grinder and others spewing bile everywhere.
Will this game feature anything on that level, or will it be closer to the original, where the grossest thing you might encounter was a giant alien heart? What sort of ESRB rating are you aiming for with this title?
TH: Well, Contra 4 is still a Contra game, and will realize a lot of visuals suggested by the first 3 titles.
SL: However, our focus was more on “cool alien monsters” than “disgusting Akira references.”
TH: Contra 4 has been rated T for Teen by the ESRB; visit www.esrb.org for more ratings information.
PMO: Back in 1987, Konami operated a little differently when it came to localizing their games, often adding humorous quips and new names to characters in its booklets. As a result, Bill Rizer and Lance Bean came to have the nicknames “Mad Dog” and “Scorpion,” respectively.
But in the recent press release for Contra 4 from Konami, it says that Bill Rizer and Lance Bean are “joined by” Mad Dog and Scorpion. Coupled with the talk of 4-player co-op in the game, and a poster in Nintendo Power depicting Bill and Lance accompanied by two more Contra who look like Vin Diesel and Wesley Snipes, would it be safe to say that you’ve taken their former aliases and fleshed them out a little into new characters?
SL: Hmmm; sounds like a case of split personalities. You wanna take this one Tomm?
TH: Simon and I (well, mostly me) are big fans of the, uh, “classic” localization style of Konami. So when we decided to have 4 playable characters, we needed two more to join Bill and Lance. Our desire to have the US storyline make sense presented an obvious solution: canonize Mad Dog and Scorpion. They are now officially the heroes who took down Black Viper in Operation C for the original Game Boy.
I should specify that multiplayer is for two players simultaneously.
PMO: It has been said that in developing Contra 4, that part of the goal was to keep the player-characters the same in ability, unlike Hard Corps for the Genesis. Despite that, will players still get to choose which character they can play as, such as the options for Shattered Soldier and Neo Contra allowed?
SL: It was important to us that the gameplay felt like the Contra you remember, so we wanted all the characters to play the same.
TH: There is a character select screen so you can choose your favorite.
PMO: Casual players are unaware, but the Contra games actually do have a little bit of story to them, and that said, Contra 4 has been said to take place between Contra III: The Alien Wars and Contra: Hard Corps.
For the gamers out there that do care about such things (they exist, trust me), have you put much thought into anything more for a story to the game? Will there be any cutscenes as later installments have had? And in turning back the clock for this title, are Shattered Soldier and Neo Contra being retconned from the Contra series timeline? Or will Contra 4 fit snugly within it all?
TH: I wanted to create a story that allowed us to use the classic characters (Bill and Lance), since our game was a return to basics. The Alien Wars are obviously a crucial event to the series, and we wanted something to do with that. Once Simon and I researched and found “Black Viper” sitting out there forgotten, we had the villain we were looking for. Writing cheesy intro text isn’t that hard, so it wasn’t long before I’d created the story. I hope it meets everyone’s expectations.
SL: For all of you concerned about the continuity of our beloved Contra-verse, worry not! Contra 4 will give you that warm and snugly feeling, as it definitely plugs right in to the existing timeline with no retconning required.
PMO: Creating a sequel to a game like Contra is quite an achievement. Are there any other big franchise games, past or present, that you would like to develop for?
Tomm and Simon: Yes.
PMO: The XBox Live Arcade ports of Contra and Super Contra haven’t won many fans for their online multiplayer. Has there been any talk of doing a new console version of Contra so that players can team-up and take on an army together?
TH: One step at a time guys.
PMO: Contra 4‘s significance is only greatened by the fact that it is, in essence, the 20th anniversary Contra game. Do you know if there are any further plans to celebrate this momentous occasion? Perhaps any sort of bonuses included in the game?
TH: Simon, did YOU know it was Contra‘s 20th Anniversary?
SL: What now? Does this have anything to do with that “code” everyone keeps asking us about?
PMO: And now, just to finish off, a couple of questions that are just for fun.
Who makes the best partner for Bill Rizer? Lance, Lucia, or Jaguar?
TH: Lance, of course. It’s the classic partnership.
SL: Mmmm, robot women… Err, I mean, no one can replace the second toughest man alive!
PMO: And the big question. Think carefully on this one:
Who is the greater badass? Bill Rizer or Solid Snake?
SL: Everyone knows that clones are pansies. Oh wait…
TH: This is rough… it’s like you asked me to pick between my own adopted child and someone else’s child that I like better.
PoisonMushroom.Org would like to extend a huge thanks to Tomm and Simon for taking the time to answer these questions, and to Marc Franklin at Konami for making this interview possible. We wish you all the best of luck in the future, which will hopefully include more Contra games.
Contra 4 will be available soon for the Nintendo DS, so keep an eye out for it, and check out other great installments from the series on the Wii Virtual Console and XBox Live Arcade!