Nobuya Nakazato on updating the Contra legacy with Rogue Corps

A quick chat with the series' final boss.

Early reviews of Contra: Rogue Corps have been coming in pretty mixed, with some critics enjoying the game's manic cooperative multiplayer design and others detesting it. I'm reserving judgment until I play the game for myself, but I find myself recalling how mixed the reception for other latter-day Contras has been. Neo Contra was trashed by many (most?) reviewers for being too weird and outlandish, while reviews of Contra 4 were generally favorable but often dinged the game for not branching out from the vintage Contra formula enough. In other words, this is one of those series who own legacy tends to work against it, because the older games (which we discussed on this week's podcast) left such an indelible impression on fans.

Be that as it may, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to speak to the man who has directed or produced beloved vintage Contra installments like Contra III, controversial 3D chapters like Neo Contra, and now Rogue Corps: Nobuya Nakazato. We chatted briefly on the Tokyo Game Show floor a couple of weeks ago, discussing Rogue Corps, how it fits into the series' legacy, and his own views on the franchise.

Then he insisted I take a photo with the Rogue Corps booth "babes," a pair of incredibly muscular dudes who could probably tear Red Falcon a new one if they felt like it. Honestly, I would have expected nothing less from the man who brought us Brad Fang.

Retronauts: How do you modernize a vintage franchise like Contra? What was your creative process?

Nobuya Nakazato: One of the first things we did in bringing Contra to the modern era was to look back at what made Contra memorable for a lot of players. Playing with siblings, playing with family or friends, just getting together and playing it through. We definitely want to implement that element—but we hope it'll be even more satisfying with the addition of four-player cooperative multiplayer. 

We definitely wanted to keep that element. Contra has always been a game that you can just pick up and play, with controls that are easy to understand. The gameplay should be intuitive. That was something we really worked on with Rogue Corps: Not to make it too complicated. We also wanted to make sure that—you know, with four players on the screen, it can get pretty messy. That's why we did some experimentation with the camera angles so that you'll still be able to spot your characters and maneuver them really easily, even with four players together at once.

Of course, we kept classic Contra features, like the element of surprise.

RN: Not everyone is on board with the new design of the game. How do you address the cynics?

NN: Even though the main element of the original Contra was the side-scrolling game, there were always a few different perspectives here and there. But the design of the older games was really just due to the limitations of the hardware back in the day. You can only have one perspective, stage-by-stage. Now that we don't have those limitations anymore, it's possible to experience all those different perspectives in a single stage. Once you play, you'll feel this is a true Contra game.

RN: There's a danger when dealing with nostalgia that it can take over the project—where do you draw the line?

NN: One of the main inspirations for Contra as a whole is that sort of over-the-top, heavy action of ’80s and ’90s action movies. I sat down with the team and said, "This is what our end goal is. This is what we want—to ensure these quirky, over-the-top elements are part of the game even to this day."

It was really exciting to work on this project, especially with the team we had, because we had a lot of younger people working on the game on the development side. They grew up playing Contra III! Which is to say, there are people on the creative side who were also on the user side before. So it's been great having us old geezers working together alongside younger guys who know the games inside and out.

RN: You say Contra was inspired by action movies, but action movies have changed a lot since the heyday of Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Are you still looking to those ’80s films, or have you tried to incorporate contemporary trends as well?

NN: Action movies definitely have evolved over the years, and the style has changed a bit. But I think the core concept remains the same: You have heroes that you look up to, and they're badass. The one thing different is that... back in the days, you usually had a pair, you know? Two guys hashing it out. Now you see a lot of movies that are team-based, with more than two people working together. That's definitely inspired some of the changes we've made with Rogue Corps. We wanted team-based action this time.

RN: So the Avengers version of Contra?

NN: [Laughs] Exactly.

RN: Speaking of contemporary trends, have you looked to trends in gaming? Battle royale, online competitive play, that sort of thing?

NN: Like I said earlier, as long as we stick to that over-the-top action style... there are definitely a lot of items that appear throughout the stages. Some of them you'll share amongst your teammates, but there are others that you have to scramble for—it's an every-man-for-himself kind of thing. Or you work as a team and say, "Oh, I already have full health, you take this."

One thing new we did add to Rogue Corps: There's a PvP mode.

RN: With this being a co-op focused game, how have you tried to balanced it for single-player?

NN: Back in the day, when you were playing the side-scrolling games together, you had to move along the screen together. It was kind of a forced cooperative mode. But this time, with four players, you can go off on your own in some ways. This actually makes it a little easier to work together than in some of our older titles!

But we did make sure to make sure that if you're playing on your own, it's going to be very, very difficult. That is something evident here. You'll need to be very skilled to complete Rogue Corps. Contra is supposed to be difficult, and that hasn't changed.

RN: Your Contra games, like Hard Corp and Neo Contra, have always dabbled in a bit of goofiness. How would you describe your philosophy about integrating humorous elements into Contra?

NN: So, let me say this. My favorite character here is Ms. Harakiri. She has an alien in her stomach, and the alien has quite a potty mouth! Actually, it's the alien that's my favorite character out of all of them—not Ms. Harakiri herself. [Laughs]

RN: What sort of DLC plans do you have for Rogue Corps?

NN: We do have some things planned, including a season pass. That's basically packs of character skins, which include as a bonus some in-game credit and in-game items to upgrade your weapons. But we're also planning to release some free post-launch content, including new missions, new weapons, and a new level cap for your characters.

RN: If you had to give the elevator pitch to a newcomer and a Contra veteran, how would you describe the core appeal of Rogue Corps?

NN: We've definitely worked hard to ensure this game is easy to get into. Anyone should be able to pick it up and have an enjoyable experience. It's one of those games where you don't really need to know the lore or story. We also added the co-op elements because we wanted to make sure that, like back in the day when you were playing with friends or family... maybe there'll be an age gap here, with someone who's played the older Contras teaming up with someone who's new to the series. Either way, though, we hope that it'll be fun to play, and that you'll remember playing it 10, 20, even 30 years down the line.