The Contra HQ
Site Map

July 19, 2007 - Contra 4 developer interview

Konami's Simon Lai, Associate Producer for Contra 4, recently contacted the CHQ and offered an opportunity to ask the developers some questions. Naturally, we jumped: This is an unprecedented event in the history of the Contra HQ (and that of our sister site, the Castlevania Dungeon). Simon also sent along the world's first crisp Contra 4 tunnel mode screenshots, also featured on our front page. I am pleased to discover that they asked these questions of a wide range of the developers. My original questions are in red; comments I've made since receiving the answers are in [brackets] and remain white. A short summary follows the interview. First, the images:

Image of Contra 4's 3D stage gameplay A second image of Contra 4's 3D stage gameplay

The interviewees:

Tomm Hulett (Associate Producer, Konami)
Simon Lai (Associate Producer, Konami)
Matt Bozon (Director, WayForward)
Sean Velasco (Designer, WayForward)

With special guests:
Cole Philips (Designer, WayForward)
Jake Kaufman (Music Guy)

Ed: Did the team consider using weapon icons and a handheld model that reflect the gun type used, as in Super Contra? Was this dismissed as fluff (or worse, distracting)?

Simon - The guns are a cool throw back to the arcade roots, but most of us on the team are fans of the Nintendo games. As we’re taking much of our inspiration from those titles, it’s only appropriate to stay with the Falcon icons we’re so familiar with.

Tomm – I always felt that the “gun icons” in the arcade made it difficult to tell which weapon you were picking up. When a power-up drops, the player should very clearly know exactly what it is so there’s no confusion about what he’s picking up.

Matt - Cole Philips, one of the key designers on the project really wanted to do this, as the original arcade games are very close to his heart. But, we found that doing 2 screens worth of 2D art put us up against a memory wall right off the bat, so anything too extraneous went out the window.

Sean – While I love the idea of having costume changes and models swaps for the main player characters, it’s time consuming to create the extra art. We decided to focus on other animations that I have to keep secret for now.

Ed: How has the talent scene changed in recent times? I recall hearing that Konami had some difficulty finding excellent sprite artists for the early GBA Castlevania titles, although that seems to have changed around. How has the Internet helped studios and talent get together?

Matt - WayForward has always had really great sprite artists & animators. But yes, the Internet makes it easier to find people. Before, we had to train ourselves, whereas now we can shop around. We really value individuals who love pixel art, wherever they can be found.

Sean - A lot of our sprite artists came from the online community Pixelation. This game truly was a worldwide effort, with artists from Europe and Australia contributing.

Ed: Some folks are likely going to ask "wait, Konami game, where's my slide tackle?" They also might wonder why they can't pull up their legs, Sketch-Turner-style (as in Comix Zone) at that first bunker boss fight. I'm gonna assume that was seen as being a barrier to predictable controls and logical map design. Is this right, and if so, what words do you have as salve for the feature-feeder?

Sean - We added a badass grappling hook! That isn’t exciting and new!?

Simon - We bounced around a number of additional move ideas including the forward/backward roll or slide maneuver from Contra: Hard Corps. The inclusion of any move has a direct impact on stage, enemy, and boss design, so we didn’t want to implement anything without careful deliberation. Ultimately the grappling hook filled that additional move slot. While it was originally conceived of as our solution to quickly traverse the two screens, we found that it was a lot of fun to use and added to the multi-level platforming feel we wanted to return to the series

Sean - Seriously though, we really just wanted to go back to basics for the anniversary of Contra.

Matt - At one point I was pushing for extra moves like dashing, dodging, double jumps and all that…things I’d throw into the Metroid “shine spark” category. But, “tradition” won out, and I really appreciate the purity of the game’s controls. In retrospect, putting our own flair on it would have been too much like what previous Contra developers have done.

Tomm – Anybody worried about this should know that Contra is the run ‘n gun shooter that established the genre’s popularity, so we’re sticking to a solid, proven control scheme.

Ed: There's probably a few gamers out there who know Contra solely from Konami Code T-shirts, which in my view is a bit like claiming to know Peanuts from Met Life commercials. Yet we love the unenlightened prospective converts, so: How does the team expect gamers new to the series to react to the difficulty of the game (and, for that matter, will Easy kick my backside)?

Matt - Peanuts? I thought they were the Dolly Madison cupcake mascots.

Tomm – This is probably the hardest aspect of balancing the game. Considering the series history and the wide user base of the DS, we know there will be a lot of people aren’t familiar with Contra considering this game. Our “Easy” mode needs to cater to these people. However, we don’t want the game to hold their hands—it will still be a Contra experience, just a simpler (and shorter) one. Normal mode is well suited to action game fans, and regular people who already love Contra. Hard mode is for that small percentage of the population that can beat Contra: Shattered Soldier. So yes, we’re aiming at something for everyone…worry not--many asses will be kicked.

Simon - We’re definitely making a Contra game in the classical sense here, and that means living up to a legacy of hard core game play.

Sean - I hope that players will continue to perfect the game as they see their competency and skill rise. With waggle controls and mini-games dominating the landscape, someone has to keep the faith for those who prefer a challenge.

Ed: Contra on the NES had some cruel multiplayer . Either your friend was scrolling the screen forward at the wrong time so you would spawn into a pit, or they were stealing your lives after squandering theirs. Yet some people feel inflicting cruelties made up half the fun...will Contra 4 allow players to play "cooperative" competitively, or will people who play nice be amply rewarded?

Simon - I think the motto for that kind of gameplay is “Work together well or die”. Personally I can’t wait to scroll Tomm off the screen in our new Waterfall stage…

Tomm – But Simon, scrolling would require you to reach the top without dying.

Sean – See? Contra 4 includes many of the “friendly” aspects of previous Contra games. You can scroll your friends off the screen and steal their lives. However, you can also discard your weapons now, which also lets you assist a buddy. I think we have a good dichotomy there.

Matt - Even still, expect to get punched in the leg. Wireless extends only about 30 feet, so be prepared.

Ed: Previously you could jump up and shoot diagonally to take out a power-up if you waited to shoot it. It looks like that's not possible much of the time here. What's the solution here? Extra question: Will we see any power-ups flying across the bottom screen?

Matt - That is one defining feature of this game. It’s like extreme wide screen, but tall. The “true space” gap adds about 20% to the playfield’s height. So, the diagonal shots won’t clear both screens if you’re at sea level. Like Contra on the NES, there are weapons in wall pods, and ones that fly from any possible directions. You warm up to it a few minutes in.

Sean – Here’s a suggestion: pay closer attention!

Simon - I know there’s videos out there focusing on Balloons flying through the top screen, but I don’t think it ever becomes a problem. Power-up balloons are a key component of level design and balance, so type and placement are being tested as we continue to tune the game.

Ed (A question for Mr. Kaufman): No predictable questions about your setup from me (I should be shot if I asked). What sound emulators do you use when you want to hear a classic tune...or do you go the extra mile and make tapes from your TV?

Jake Kaufman - With crazy-talented emulator authors spending thousands of hours refining their sound code, being a hardware purist is of questionable merit. I love anything using Blargg's libraries, and also NotSoFatso for NES, BSNES or OpenSPC for SNES. Various older Japanese computers' sound chips (a goldmine of incredible FM music) are well-emulated by Hoot, and if you're into TG16/PC Engine audio, try out the latest Mednafen (my friend tz just discovered how good it is). Forget iTunes, I just load up Contra III and rock out until my neck is sore.

Ed: The question that's gotten a fair bit of ridicule already [directed at me, not the awesome poster which I should've gotten before I asked the question: Mysterious, untraceable Contra 4 pixel artist "Snake" had some fun at my expense, 'identifying' Mad Dog's gun (and apparently replacing Bill's to show the similarity) as "a modified Disel Electric Locomotive model 37." I won't even dignify what happened on 4chan's /k/ board by mentioning it, other than to say somebody suggested a JaTiMatic as Scorpion's weapon - yes, I'm clearly an armchair enthusiast. On the plus side, we now know that Mad Dog is the Snipes-alike, while Vin D. influenced Scorpion - I had originally thought it was the other way around - Ed] ...A few of us have been wondering what all the weapons on the Contra 4 issue featured in Nintendo Power are. I saw an L-85 (no scope?) and at least one MP5-A2. What are the others? Is Mad Dog's gun really an MP7, or a JaTiMatic?

Matt - Man, we need Cole for this. I don’t know a Zapper from a Super Scope 6.

Sean - The Contra 4 poster was done by an external art house, so I can’t vouch for the authenticity of the guns.

Simon - I’m glad so many of you liked the poster! As for the guns, I honestly wouldn’t know the difference between a 9mm and a .45 if one was staring me in the face…

Cole – Actually, Bill and Lance both are wielding HK (Heckler & Koch) MP5A3s (The scale is off, but they are both the same weapon, only Lance's is drawn much smaller). The A3's have the retractable stock. The depicted weapons sport the "SEF" (SAFE/EINSELN/FEUER) trigger group. They also have the newer model foregrips installed. Both the MP5s have Claw-Style Scope Mounts with side Picatinny Rails for mounting additional accessories. The attached scopes are Open Reflex Scopes. They are used for rapid target acquisition while keeping both eyes open. There are many manufactures of these types of scopes, so it would be hard to say exactly what model they are, but it does appear that the scopes are installed backwards. Oops! Also of note: The MP5 that Bill is holding was drawn using a toy gun as reference. You can see the screw holes in the side, common of clamshell toy design, but inconsistent with the real MP5. [The horrible truth: Contra's small arms seem to have infinite ammunition because they're Airsoft guns shooting BBs! - Ed]

Mad Dog is wielding what mostly resembles a British L85A2 (Also known as an SA80). This rifle, originally made by RASF Enfield, is now being manufactured by Heckler & Koch and is the standard issue rifle for the British Army. The one that Mad Dog is sporting lacks any kind of targeting device. SA80s are all issued with some sort of sights, either the SUSAT optics for combat troops or a carry handle with iron sights for support units. Mad Dog needs neither.

Scorpion's weapon is the hardest to decipher. It definitely is not an HK MP7 nor do I believe it to be the Finnish GG-95. At first glance, I thought it might have been a SITES Spectre M4, but on closer examination, what I first took to be the magazine is actually a forward vertical assault grip. The front of the weapon has an additional protrusion that I thought was a grip, but it could be some sort of LAM (Laser Aiming Module). Either way, there is no magazine protruding in front of the pistol grip, so the only place a magazine could be inserted into this weapon is in the pistol grip, but it doesn't look like it is. My theory, and it is just that at this time, is that the artist either: A) Came up with the weapon from his own imagination B) Used a toy gun as reference C) All of the Above I think C may be the correct answer. The gun does somewhat resemble a Spectre M4's profile, but it is different. Did the artist intentionally change it to make it look different? He didn't really change the other weapons much. He obviously used a toy gun as reference for the MP5, so why not use other toys as well? Some toy gun manufacturers copy real gun designs, but perform slight cosmetic changes to them, especially since the American crackdown on toy guns in the late 80's. I guess there should be a "D" choice of "I don't know"... But I betcha I'm right!

Tomm – Sorry guys… Sometimes a poster is just a poster.

Ed: On that note, the early Contra games had a bit of mystique going with the modern-day (at the time) military hardware still being used by humans on the outside [I flubbed that line a bit - I meant to say it merely looked like a conventional rotary-wing aircraft from the outside. Currently, the US Air Force is expecting to keep the B-52 in service well into the 2050s; who knows what fun gadgets will be found inside by then? Of course, it appears the Super Contra helicopter was altered by the aliens, so this point can probably be safely ignored - Ed]. Is a helicopter just a helicopter, or is there more than meets the eye (as with the classic Super Contra helicopter battle - NES doesn't do it justice)?

Tomm – There’s a running theory that the first place that Falcon and Viper went when they attacked Earth was a Military History Museum. That’s probably where they acquired the ancient weaponry.

Simon – Tomm’s rambling aside, I’m pretty sure we don’t have anything along those lines this time around. Unlike the NES version, it’s no longer a surprise that we’re shooting at aliens.

Matt - My hope was that Contra 4 would be more grounded in this area, at least for the first half of the game. I like that the NES Contras gradually took you from normal commando stuff into future/alien stages. Contra 3 had the Bubble Gum Crisis/Bladerunner future as its key setting, but I think that was its unique angle and should have existed for that game only. I guess I don’t see Contra as a far flung future brand even if it says it’s the year 40XX. For a back-to-basics game, I feel it’s better to have the aliens bring the future to our heroes’ doorstep.

Sean - …Besides, the helicopter is the only friend that Bill, Lance, Mad Dog, and Scorpion have! Without the copter, they’ll all probably be skeletons bleaching in the sun by now.

Thanks again for this great opportunity,

Sean - Thank you! Your repository of Contra knowledge has been a great boon to all of us developing the game.

Simon – And before we sign off, we’ve got a special announcement for all the Contra fans heading out to this year’s San Diego Comic Con. Konami will once again have a presence at SDCC, and at our booth this year we will have two kiosks with the Contra 4 demo for everyone to play! This will be the public’s first chance to experience the Jungle level as seen at E3. We’re looking forward to it and hope to see you there.


Since my questions were posed during E3, at least one question became redundant as the answer was made clear during Simon's gameplay demonstration on July 12th - unfortunately, this was the question with a reference (asking about a "minor missile crisis" and a "missile gap" when a homing missile was seen to enter the gap during a gameplay video). The gang omitted a few other questions: "What features or gameplay moments do you folks like least about the NES Contra titles (Contra and Super C) and Contra III?" Interestingly, the fan-submitted questions about a score attack, unlockable content, and whether the game will be localized in Europe as Probotector must also go unanswered for now.

I cannot draw any conclusions from that, although it's clear that there is more to Contra 4 than the footage and screenshots shown thus far demonstrate. It also must be said that I wasn't really expecting to get such detailed answers, or hear from more than one developer each question - the developers clearly went the extra mile to make this interview an informative and exhaustive one. We even got a few gameplay hints - it appears that "borrowing" a friend's lives (a feature of the NES Contra) will be possible once again, for example.

I also seriously considered asking a couple classic interview questions, including the immortal "How much health will eating a grenade give you? We already know it's a sandwich." Maybe another time, or not - I keep forgetting this isn't Quake.

Until next time,
Ed "Oscuro" Herdman, signing out.