Contra III - The Alien Wars Review by: drlimpleChallenging, Laughably OTT and Simply Awesome!!!
After countless hours spent trying to beat this game I've finally decided to write up a detailed review of everything that makes it great IMHO.
So basically everyone and their next door neighbour knows that this is the third entry in Konami's iconic Contra series which has been challenging gamers worldwide since the late 80's. It is hailed by many as the best in the series. While I won't go so far as to say that, I have to admit that it is a very, very well made game in its own right and deserves all the praise that has been showered upon it. The comparison with its older NES brethren, however seems a bit unfair, because I feel Contra III is a different beast altogether. While the older games focused more on classic run and gun game play interspersed with boss fights at the end of stages, Contra III deviates from that formula in at least three of its six stages. Its focus appears to be more on orchestrating thrilling, edge of the seat action set pieces, and the latter stages in particular are littered with what would normally be referred to as bosses and mini bosses.This is not necessarily a bad thing. You are pitted in insane scenarios like having to jump from missile to missile, evading fire from an enemy helicarrier while shooting at its turrets or like the time the game has you shooting at a giant skeleton head which is breathing fire at you while it's two minion robo-skeletons try to riddle your character full of bullets. The boss fights, or set pieces really, are designed to thrill and they don't disappoint. They also seem to be the most logical next step in the evolution of the series. Having said that, those who are looking for traditional run and gun game play, in the vein of earlier Contras, would best look elsewhere.
The graphics of the game are great for the 16-Bit era. The characters are nicely detailed and the animations are fluid. Sh*t blows up real good and explosions bring the screen to life (especially in a couple of cut scenes early on). The backgrounds are also nicely drawn. Bear in mind that since this is one of the earlier released games for the SNES, the graphics may have been topped by later games, but at the time that it was released, it was definitely the best looking game on the market.
Having said that I do have a gripe with some of the design choices like the color of the laser and the animation of the spread gun. The laser's colour is an ugly mix of white and blue for some reason. Which is really strange because even the generic red coloured laser would have been better IMHO. The spread gun "bullets" also seemed ridiculously over sized to me, but I guess the designers were going for "bigger is better" philosophy. In any case these are only minor gripes and both these things do fit into the overall universe of the game, so no harm done.
The sound is great as always with these Contra games. The standard gunfire and explosion effects are there as you would expect but there are also other nice little touches here and there like the faint poof sound every time an alien blows up. The weapon sound effects are overall pretty decent, the machine gun and the spread gun sounds being the best in my opinion.
The music while not as catchy as the one in the first Contra, is still pretty great. Some of it seems to be heavily inspired by 80's Arnold Schwarzenneger action movies like Commando and Predator, which does makes a lot of sense, now that I think about it. All in all it is a good package.
On your first try the game appears to be almost impossible because there is always so much going on on the screen. Odds are on your first 20-30 attempts you'll just be seeing the dying animation over and over again because of the one hit die mechanic. It is definitely very frustrating at first. So how can I give it a perfect addictiveness score? It's simple. Even though you will die A LOT, you never feel that you are completely out of the game EVER. The game always gives you the feeling that you are very close to solving the problem and getting through. And here is where the pure genius of the game shines through. The game is essentially a succession of puzzles because of the nature of its boss fights. Since every boss has a readily visible "weak point", you just have to figure out how to avoid its attacks for long enough so that you can hit its weak point enough times. The first few tries you are pretty much clueless. But slowly you start to crack the puzzle. Until, when you have given it enough tries, you finally figure it out! No other game IMHO gives a comparable feeling of satisfaction on beating it than one that challenges you fairly, as is the case here. And its a beautiful feeling! To finally overcome the challenges the game throws at you. The temptation to just open up youtube and see how other people beat the game is always there, but I would sincerely advise you against it. The game is most fun when you beat it yourself. Of course if you are absolutely stuck at some point for a long time and there seems to be no way out, a little peek won't hurt. But even then I would suggest using the emulator's save feature and having a few cracks at the unsolvable section in rapid succession before giving up. The meat and bones of the game is the challenge it offers and taking that challenge head on is the best way to enjoy the game.
The story, as expected from the genre, is really flimsy and threadbare. Something along the lines of Red Falcon launching another attack to take over the earth is shown in a very brief cutscene in the beginning. The characters have different names across different versions, in fact the entire player model is changed in the European PAL version, as was the case with previous Contras. All of this is fine because this isn't really an RPG to indulge you with an extensive background story anyway.
That's not to say, though, that the "story", or whatever little there is of it, doesn't add to the entertainment value. In line with the tradition of poorly translated Japanese games , there are a few lines here and there which will leave you chuckling. Of special note in this regard is Sully's line in the opening cutscene where he declares "Let's attack aggressively!!" (I agree it's always a bad idea to attack passively). That line is just pure comedy gold and has people laughing even to this day.
On the face of it the game is only six stages long and sounds like a really short ride. In fact it is anything but! The game is really challenging as detailed earlier and if you play it fairly (without save states and help from walkthroughs- the way it was meant to be played) it will take you a considerable amount of time to get through it on Easy or Normal mode. But, as the ending message tells you, that is only the beginning. The real game awaits you in Hard mode with quite a few surprises as well and that is the mode which you should look to beat if you want to truly "finish" the game. This is also where I feel the game has been unfairly judged over the ages. In every review online you will see people complaining about the short length of the game. The fact is, the game's easier difficulty levels were designed as a sort of introduction the world of the game, in order to make the players familiar with it for the Hard mode. Something which wasn't available in other entries of the series. The hard difficulty setting of the game in my opinion has enough differences from the easier settings to merit a playthrough.
Another thing people complain about are the two top down stages. Some people complain they are too easy, others call the changed controls difficult to adjust to and call them too difficult. Some go so far as to ignore those stages completely when talking about the length of the game. All of this is really surprising to me, because personally I found them to be refreshing changes of pace and think they add a lot to the overall value of the game.
The game is pretty challenging as detailed earlier. But since this review sub section is concerned with whether its controls are hard to learn and irritating, I would have to go with a really low score. I think the game is very easy to get into and the controls are very responsive. The action is pretty fast paced but the controls never frustrate you, which is a point in its favour.
Special Mention: The game's box art is truly gorgeous and is some of the best box art I have ever seen on the SNES. I loved how they worked different enemies from almost every stage of the game into one nice action filled picture. If you haven't seen it before, be sure to check it out, using this site's magnificent 3d boxart feature!
All in all this is a pretty solid action game. A must play for fans of the series and of the genre. Even to casual gamers the game offers a lot and is certainly worth checking out!