It is a strength of GI.net that we strive not to compare games to other games - each title must stand or fall on its own merit. One of the few exceptions to that rule regards sequels; fans of a franchise will want to know if the latest iteration lives up to, exceeds, or falls short of the standards to which they are accustomed. Allow me, therefore, to lead with this: Contra 4 is an excellent presentation of all things Contra. It is a fast-paced, well designed side-scrolling shooter with fun, distinct weapons and impressive, deadly boss confrontations. The game is refreshingly challenging, and will provide good value for those who wish to beat it "fairly."
Since I have just hinted at cheating, I'm forced to bring up the inevitable: "Does the code work?" And, really, it's sort of preserved. "The code" still gives 30 men, is still entered in the same place (title screen), and still STARTS the same way. Thing is, instead of b-a-start, it goes y-b-start. I'm guessing this is because "y" and "b" are oriented on the DS as "b" and "a" were oriented on the original Nintendo controllers.
The graphics and sound in Contra are very faithful to the originals. Updates, tweaks, and improvements are made in small ways to keep the look and feel somewhat current - but for the most part I can imagine Contra 4 scrolling across my TV 10 years ago, rather than my DS. The soundtrack, especially in the first level, is a variation on a theme where the theme is the original Contra score.
My biggest complaint about the graphical presentation concerns the black character choices. They can be a bit difficult to find when viewed against some of the level backgrounds. The "mud cliffs" jungle motif is back, and while the choice to provide dark-skinned models is laudable, a little more thought could have gone into the choice of skin tone OR the choice of background color. Then again, neither color by itself it particularly "off," so it may just be one of those things.
Level design is very well done. In my opinion, there is clearly a "best choice" path through each level - but deviating from this path doesn't mean inevitable death. It probably means "eventual death due to a small mistake made in the face of a withering hail of bullets" ... but that's a big step better than "got no chance." It did occur to me that there may be a best path for ME and my skill set, rather than an "ultimate" best, but reviewing the levels as objectively as possible I think that my original statement is sound. Sometimes, I think level gameplay can devolve into a "memorize and defeat" rather than a "react" mindset, and that may or may not appeal to you - but I never felt like I had absolutely no chance, no matter what tactic I chose.
Bosses, on the other hand, are certainly "memorize and defeat." You don't have much chance at all the first time you encounter one, unless there are cues that I'm missing - possibly cues from previous games that I don't remember or something. At any rate, I consider my initial encounter with any given boss to be a scouting trip. The farther I get, the less likely I am to get blasted by some uber-ability next time around. See as much as you can, 'cause you probably won't win until you've seen all the tricks.
Contra has always been a game of angles, where getting in the proper position to bring your weapons to bear was the key to victory. In Contra 4, this theme perseveres, and the special weapons are generally designed with this in mind. The old favorite "spread gun" is still your best bet, but other weapons are certainly serviceable. Flame guns command a wide swath of destruction, but are slow firing. Heat seeker guns are unerringly accurate, but its shots run into barriers to which other weapons may not be subject. The machine gun and the rocket launcher are straight-firing, but amp up your firepower to allow you to bull through areas you may not normally want to explore.
I found the concepts of weapon storage, and double weapons especially cool. Have a machine gun, but run into something you'd rather be using? Don't throw away that MG, just stash it in your pack, and grab the new weapon! Now, if you die, you still have that machine gun to fall back on rather than starting fresh with the base pea shooter. Have a machine gun and run into ANOTHER machine gun? It's no longer a waster, as you can pick up the weapon for a double power-up. Now, your machine gun fires even more bullets, and in a wider "beam". Similar effects happen with other weapons. The spread gun, for instance, jumps from a 3-shot spread to a 5-shot spread! This is a great addition to the game, and promotes variable paths through levels, because you don't NEED (necessarily) to just chase particular weapons in particular places on particular levels.
I had the opportunity to play multi-player, and it's a ton of fun. Your power multiplies and you can carve your way through even MORE wimpy bad-guys on your way to the level's end. What this leads to is the odd death where you fall asleep because you're kicking too much butt. The only real drawback to this mode is that two players near each other can be a bit visually confusing (lots of bullets and such), and it's all too easy to regularly wind up on top of each other. You still share a pool of lives in multiplayer, so you can still have fun bickering with your friend when he gets killed too much and hogs all the 1-ups. I highly recommend giving multiplayer a spin.
This game defines Contra! You'll jump a lot, you'll shoot a lot, you'll die a lot, and you'll race for the spread gun a lot. You'll mow down tons of aliens in side-scrolling and "tunnel" modes where you play a 3D version of Contra that proceeds "into" the screen. If you need to, you can use the infamous "code" to get a ton of extra lives and see the end-levels of a very challenging game. As I note above, playing with a friend is excellent, so track down a buddy and have fun going to town. You won't find anything revolutionary, here, but Contra 4 should provide shooter fans with lots of projectile-based action goodness.