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Contra: Operation Galuga respectfully modernizes an arcade classic

Soldiers shoot a giant monster in Contra: Operation Galuga.

I only had a handful of games growing up, but they were all I needed. I played games like Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and Pitfall over and over again, without ever actually beating them. Instead, I was content to bang my head against them, learning a little more with each failure so I could get just a bit further on my next go-round. What I wouldn’t realize until I was much older was how short those games actually were. If I played my cards right, I could beat Sonic in under three hours. Pitfall, a game I played for years, was barely 40 minutes long. Difficulty meant value.

I can see exactly how much the video game industry has moved away from that idea while playing Contra: Operation Galuga. The new release is a fresh remake of Contra, a genre-defining run-and-gun shooter that’s notorious for its difficulty. Gaming website IGN once even went as far as to crown the original Contra as the “Toughest Game to Beat.” You could play it for years without seeing its ending, even though a full run only takes an hour tops.

In modernizing a classic, in terms of both visuals and new features, the new Contra: Operation Galuga highlights just how much the ideas of content and value have changed how games are made. While that may bug purists, it’s not a knock against a fun approach to a retro remake. Contra: Operation Galuga offers a new spin on Contra that gives players more flexibility in their mastery.

Lock and load

Contra: Operation Galuga comes from WayForward, a studio that excels at creating modern retro titles. Its expertise is put to good usehere in building a new version of the classic shooter that feels both faithful to its predecessor and more up to date with today’s trends. On its surface, it’s tried-and-true Contra. Players blast through eight hectic levels, blowing away enemies, nabbing flying weapon upgrades, and taking down some tough bosses in an old-school arcade run-and-gun format. Move right, shoot, run out of lives, try again.

There are bits I could nitpick, from some clunky platforming to a lackluster visual style But for the most part, Operation Galuga delivers exactly what old fans of the series could want. It’s a fast-paced action game that takes classic Contra bosses and combines them with some new side-scrolling thrills. One stage has me blasting enemies in a long motorcycle chase. While most of the action happens on a 2D plane, the perspective flips as I cut diagonally through a hall of test tubes or launch off a ramp. When a familiar boss, a deadly car adorned with spikes, rolls up behind me, the camera swings in front of me to show it barreling toward me. It’s all a bit more dynamic without throwing away the core of the genre.

Soldiers shoot enemies in Contra: Operation Galuga.

That idea is also apparent in its reworked weapon system. Old favorite guns return with some extra twists. If players grab a stray power-up for one of the two weapons they’re already holding, it boosts its power by one level. A three-shot burst doubles its spread and a flamethrower’s short range grows much longer. Players can also discard a weapon at any time to activate a super ability, adding a bit of decision-making to the mix. When I see a new power-up in front of me, I can choose to scrap a weapon to unleash its power and make room for the new gun. Or perhaps I’ll choose to hold on to what I have in hopes that I can double its power later. It’s a small, but effective tweak.

The biggest change, though, comes from the way Contra: Operation Galuga stretches a short game out to make it more appealing to player with modern expectations. The package is split up into three modes. Arcade Mode is the classic Galuga experience where death means Game Over. Story Mode is more flexible, giving players mid-stage checkpoints and letting them hop into any level they’ve unlocked. That’s rounded out by Challenges, which task players with completing small chunks of levels under certain conditions (a speedrun race, tricky enemy layouts, etc.). All of that gives the feeling that there’s much more “value” in Contra through some clever remixing.

However, the one feature that really stands out is an approach to progression that sets it apart from old arcade games. All of these modes reward a currency that can be spent on permanent upgrades and perks for all characters. Players can boost how many lives they get in a run, increase their health bar, or even start runs with a specific weapon. That small twist has a few different functions. For one, it makes the idea of bashing one’s head against hard levels over and over a bit more rewarding. Even a failed run will net some valuable cash. Beyond that, it offers players a bit more creativity in their playing style, as each character has two booster slots. I’ve found my groove starting with a spreader shot every life and boosting my health, making otherwise tough levels more manageable.

A soldier on a motorcycle shoots a car in Contra: Operation Galuga.

That system can be a bit of a grind; players will have to replay the same stages over and over again to buy upgrades. Even so, it’s a smart appeal to modern players who are used to games that string them forward with rewards. Rather than using pure skill and determination as a motivator, it puts more tangible carrots on its stick. And it does that without sacrificing the former entirely. Those who still want the classic experience can play Arcade Mode and toggle on one-hit kills. That’s a whole separate challenge to tackle once you’ve finished Story Mode with assists. The replayable nature of Contra remains preserved with an extra coating of systems to keep fresh players from totally giving up.

I wouldn’t call Contra: Operation Galuga a total reinvention; it’s your standard retro shoot-em-up with some welcome twists. But I appreciate how it allows me to examine my own engagement needs and how they’ve changed since I began playing games as a kid. I was happy to replay games like Contra for years in my youth, maybe only ever seeing its first few stages. I wish that was still enough for me these days, but I crave even the smallest hooks to keep me motivated. Operation Galuga respects that attitude change, adding more side dishes to a lean meal and making sure I get my fill however I choose to play.

Contra: Operation Galuga launches on March 12 for PlayStation 4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch, and PC.

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Giovanni Colantonio
Giovanni is a writer and video producer focusing on happenings in the video game industry. He has contributed stories to…
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