Review: Contra Operation Galuga

A Galuga whale of a time.

With hindsight, Contra 4 starts to seem even more unlikely and brilliant. Not only that it existed at all, though that is remarkable, but that it came from a Western developer and was so sopping with features. Notably, the game’s Challenge mode that essentially acted as a training function for the arcade playthrough; introducing you to each part of the game piecemeal and letting you get comfortable with it via the rawest means imaginable. And my fond memories of Contra 4, and this mode in particular, had me excited about the new Contra: Operation Galuga. WayForward’s second go at Konami’s long-running run ‘n gun series. Unfortunately, the stage wasn’t exactly set for them. The last entry, Contra: Rogue Corps is by some distance the worst, most point-missing effort ever to bear the name of Contra, and that’s with some significant competition for last place courtesy of the PlayStation’s particularly weak C: The Contra Adventure. Let’s just say that in my headcanon that “C” stands for something else.

Doesn’t matter. Operation Galuga is here now, a reboot of a series that apparently had internal continuity at some point. What that means is initially a little unfortunate. Stage archetypes we’ve already seen represented by Contra 4 return for another go around. Yer jungle. Yer waterfall. Yer alien hive. Classic? Certainly, but maybe a little familiar, and maybe not the easiest sell. Now, let’s be reasonable – it has been over 15 years since Contra 4, so it’s fair enough to tackle this stuff again. I’d say there’s only one point in Operation Galuga where I felt the familiarity was a little too familiar, and that’s the ascent to the boss of Stage 3. But then, the boss itself was fresh and thoughtful, with its returning attacks given new patterns and interesting twists. I’d say, overall, the “issue” with the familiarity begins and ends with the first level, and that’s the first level.

That’s enough wibbling about the game’s legacy. What’s the real deal with Operation Galuga? I think first of all I need to offer some personal perspective. See, I love Contra, but I’m no “1cc” skill player or speedrunner. Folks on that level are certainly indulged by Galuga, but it’s players like me who want that run 'n gun experience without the crushing, painful difficulty who are being catered to the most pleasingly here. You’ve got the option to play with multiple hit points akin to Contra: Hard Corps’ original Japanese version, or you can go with the classic one-hit kills. What’s the incentive for the latter? Well, other than bragging rights, there’s a currency system running through the game which awards more simoleons the better you play. For example, a no-death run through Stage 1 on Hard mode with one-hit kills turned on will net you 500 credits. Take a hit and that’ll drop. Beat consecutive stages and your credit reward will multiply. Play on an easier setting and you’ll earn fewer, but still earn. This lets you play your own way and be guaranteed rewards with practice.

Those rewards? Perks. You can equip up to two Perks on your character, and they range from starting each game with a particular special weapon to more dramatic improvements like extra HP, weapons that don’t vanish/downgrade on death, or even adding invincibility to your dash move. Another means by which to customise your experience and make things as tricky as you personally want them to be. I rate this system. I’m fond of the malleability and the way it lets you work up to higher scores, better runs. It’s fun to blow through the game with extra HP and automatic Lvl. 2 weapons. You can even get a perk that lets you heal on Overload – a new feature that sacrifices your gun for a powerful and unique attack that’ll help turn the tide on those pesky alien scum.

Visually it’s a very clean game, and that’s important when you’ve got a widescreen field full of hostiles and bullets flying through the air. Contra 4 certainly benefited from its Henk Nieborg sprite work, but the 2.5D visuals here are colourful and evocative, capturing the “pop” of the DS game while making allowances for modern tech. It certainly isn’t the best-looking game of all time, but Contra should marry spectacle with readability and even my favourite game in the series – Hard Corps – struggled with this at times. Operation Galuga doesn’t. If you die, it’s your fault. That’s all that matters. It’s responsive, it’s transparent. It’s just you and an infinite wall of screaming death. It’s Contra.

Enhanced by a choice of multiple soundtracks (Original! Retro! Contra 4! Castlevania!), there’s plenty of incentive to replay the game, not just to develop your own skill, but to unlock extra Perks, extra characters – even extra music. But one major question still remains; is the base game good enough to justify multiple playthroughs? I hate to lapse into game journo cliché but, in a word – yes. This is a collection of eight large stages – the perfect number, by my reckoning. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, but I didn’t feel short-changed either. And when I say large stages, I mean that in several senses of the word. There’s a hidden temple full of complex traps and clever visual touches – a section in which you must navigate the terrain using the reflections in a series of hanging crystals is a particular highlight, borrowed from an all-too-brief section of Rocket Knight Adventures, a game that’s also acknowledged elsewhere in a fantastical boss battle that I won’t spoil here.

Ah yes, spoilers. Indeed, there is a story to follow here, and it’s well-told, snappy and, in places, funny. Of course, Arcade mode ignores it, but Story mode is no waste of time, giving personalities to the characters you inhabit and setting up some outstanding series fanservice that you’ll unlock on your first clear. The requisite vehicle levels are also noteworthy, the first one seeing you tear ass through a secret lab full of mutants, pursued by all manner of soldiers and funky robots. The second is a highlight of the entire game, frankly – a snowbound chase alongside an out-of-control train full to the brim with gun emplacements and missile-carrying cyborgs. I’ve seen complaints that these levels are too long, and frankly I disagree. The former is a power fantasy for sure, but I reached the boss at the exact moment I found myself wondering if it was stretched too thin. The latter is just magnificent and one of my favourite Contra stages of all time, a relentlessly challenging chase juxtaposed with the beautiful white powder torn up in your wake.

In fact, thinking about it, this game contains two of my all-time favourite Contra levels, the other being Stage 6’s aforementioned temple. Jets of fire, refracting crystals, undead transforming golems and a final, brutal battle that I won’t go into detail about lest I ruin the impact. And having two out of eight stages be absolute GOAT status is a pretty fucking good innings, no? That’s not to say I dislike any of the stages at all – they’re basically all bangers, but those two in particular stood out. I loved the redux of Contra 4’s lab stage, reminding me of Metal Slug 3’s zombie level with its mutated, juice-spurting exploding alien zombie thingys. The finale is fittingly climactic too, with the final boss topping the spectacle of any given Contra climax.

And I didn’t even really mention the Challenge mode, returning triumphantly from Contra 4 to offer a chance at even more Credits, even more ways to play. Should you master that, you’ll face Arcade mode’s unlockable difficulty levels, so fearsome they won’t even let you use Perks. Good luck with all that.

What else is there to say? It’s Contra. And it’s the first bloody good one we’ve had since Wiiware’s brilliant-but-slight Contra Rebirth, a favourite of mine despite its brevity. I’m going to go back to Contra Operation Galuga again and again until I give up gaming entirely, settle down and start a family. And that’s probably never happening so it’s Galuga ‘til I die. Grab up to three pals, sit yourselves down and slaughter wave after wave of aliens the size of your 4K monitor. Contra is evergreen, it is the essence of video games. And this is the essence of Contra. Ignore all detractors – the real shit has arrived. Let’s attack aggressively, and all that.