It's never easy to change up a long-running series. Whether you're moving from 8 to 16 bits or 2D to 3D, inevitably something will get lost along the way. Castlevania continues to struggle with this at the time of this writing--for all the attempts to bring it out of the DS ghetto and come up with a faithful evolution of the series, the best they seemed to do was to slap some Castlevania names on a mediocre God of War clone, add in a twist ending that even M. Night Shyamalan would have said was bullshit, and rolled out the resultant product to the bored yawns of many.
Contra, Konami's other big franchise, has also spent awhile wandering in the wilderness. Sometime after the release of Contra: Hard Corps for the Genesis, they followed this up with two games for the original Playstation that were so god-awful that the few hardcore Contra fans I know have all but decided they never happened. Things improved a little in the next leap forward, as Shattered Soldier and Neo Contra were more in keeping with the Contra tradition of thumb-busting difficulty and insane set pieces, but in general, the Metal Slug series had stolen a good deal of Contra's thunder, because people will never get tired of the quick hit of dropping a quarter in, running right and killing everything in front of them. There's a reason I always see Metal Slug machines in movie theaters.
An attempt had been made to return the series to its roots with Contra 4 for the DS, which was mostly successful, had an awesome soundtrack, but suffered from that weird need that programmers have to make a specific feature of a console a core element of the game--in this case, it was the two screens, in the SNES days it was Mode 7, and generally felt less like something new than old wine in a new bottle.
So now it comes and here we go--through a bewildering set of circumstances I frankly know little about, Arc Systems Works (they of Guilty Gear and Blazblue fame) were engaged--somehow--to rework Contra: Hard Corps in their style and update it for the HD generation of games.
However it turned out, it was bound to be interesting. Arc Systems Works cut its teeth on fighting games with slashing metal soundtracks and the notion that they were going to be taking on a 2D classic like Contra was bound to be something else.
Fortunately for all concerned, that "something else" was "a really great game." Hard Corps: Uprising is a fantastic game that manages to balance the shiny new stuff of today with the classic gameplay of long ago. What Uprising has in spades in pounding action, fast paced gameplay, smooth control, and a great sense of cool set-pieces, something action games had pretty well ignored in recent 2D games.
There is, naturally, not much in the way of plot to be found--there's an oppressive regime that's . . .er, oppressing, the Earth, Bahamut, a former soldier and Final Fantasy enthusiast, takes up arms and the meat of the game is his attempt to overthrow the evil empire, hence the "Uprising" part of the title.
Bahamut's not alone in this (if he was, it wouldn't be much of a Corps, would it?) he is accompanied by Krystal (your average girl with a huge gun and an eyepatch) and, if you spring for the DLC (and you should) you can add in Harley (a powerful tank-like character who has the most ridiculous/awesome pompadour since Rocket Billy Redcadillac's in that second Gungrave game no one talks about) Sayuri (a ninja/assassin/samurai character who has no guns and actually turns the game into a very frenetic version of Strider) and Leviathan, Bahamut's recurring nemesis, who actually initially plays like a classic Contra character--one-hit death, one slot for weapons, etc. Generally, except for Harley and Krystal, they bring different play styles and options to the table.
Where the real differences come in is in Uprising's most fun feature: Rising Mode. Playing it on Arcade is, quite obviously, a test best reserved for the best of the best (and I, uh, fail that test) but is there because the Contra series is very difficult, people seek out difficulty to prove themselves, and this achieves that admirably. Good on you if you can do it.
Rising Mode is for the rest of us. Playing in Rising Mode works like this: As you play the game, in addition to your regular points, you accrue a second set of points called Corps Points, which go up or down based on the multiplier amount of your combo meter. Your Corps Points function as a kind of currency with which you can buy upgrades, allowing you access to rapid fire, extra air dashes and triple jumps, the ability to begin a stage with a weapon equipped already, or the ever-popular 30 lives (available for a somewhat inexpensive 57,300,000 Corps Points!) Some can be unlocked right away, most roll out as you complete more stages. Some of these allow you to enhance specific characters--Leviathan, for instance, gains a moonsault and slide move that allows him several frames of invincibility and the ability to throw grenades, which can get him out of tight spots.
That's the specifics, let's actually talk about the game and the whole "set pieces" thing I mentioned before. A set piece in this case is defined as "a moment in a game wherein it changes from a simple thing like a boss fight to a dramatic, awesome moment," or to use the TvTropes term, a Crowning Moment of Awesome. Uprising is full of them: There's the last minute jump to safety at the end of stages 1 and 3, the train car that you finished stage 6 clinging to the side of crashes into a statue of the Emperor at the beginning of stage 7, and also there's the chase between you and Leviathan throw a burning building in that stage as well, as he tries damn near everything from bombing the floor to leaping rooftop to rooftop to elude you. There's also the final battle (all three of them) in Stage 8, which culminates in a battle wherein defeating the boss is not the main thing to worry about, really.
As words are an inelegant and inadequate tool to describe it, allow me to pause for a moment while I show you a video courtesy of Youtube of the game in action:
Now, owing to the game being a bit retro in terms of style, it will not be to all tastes. Conversely, the fact that it's just a good solid game with a nice HD sheen over it is precisely why it may be to some tastes. It doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, it doesn't try to mess with what works too much, it is exactly what it needs to be: You walk right (or run right) and shoot things. Awesomeness ensues.
In short, I was quite pleased with this game, for reasons up to and including that it's tremendously great stress relief. It's highly recommended, y'all.