|Remember when the first Contra game came out, and
changed the way you felt about video games forever? Unlike the genteel turn-sharing of
staid platformers like Super Mario Brothers, the game allowed you the dual perks of not
having to wait for your turn as well as the ability to formulate team strategies. Well,
the genre started off promisingly enough, and many of its 8-bit outings are still classics
by any standard: Double Dragon, Gauntlet, Bad Dudes, and Ikari Warriors to name a few. But
then something happened, something less evil than underwhelming. The 16-bit era of video
gaming seemed either unequipped or unwilling to exploit the potential of a genre people
had already devoted themselves to fanatically. Although a few standouts existnamely
Super Cthe field can I think fairly be characterized as redundant, uninspired, and
hackneyed prior to the advent of 32-bit technology.
If the format still had its problemsand it did, remember Contra 3D?the genre as a whole received a new lease on relevance due to excellent titles like Apocalypse, One, and Loaded. The reasons were twofoldfirst and most obviously, the improved graphics and games mechanics created an indisputably new gaming experience. The advent of the "strafe" feature, for instance, revolutionized character control, and opened the games to a whole new type of strategy. Second, and more abstractly, the narratology of the games became central, allowing the once "twitch" genre to merge with more "adventure"-type conceptual paradigms. But still, there hasnt been a Contra to speak of since the original. Expendable, the Dreamcasts first foray into the top down shooter genre, is no exception, although its assets far outweigh its drawbacks.
In the first place, Expendable outdoes Apocalyse and One by bringing back the two player optionsomething that is not just a luxury in this type of game; it is, if you ask me, its heart and soul. With solid character controls and a well-engineered strafe button, the game mechanics allow for a great deal of two player strategy. Running around and killing everything you can will work for the first several levels, but as the enemies become more complex and less forgiving, you are going to have to employ a slightly more sophisticated approach to exterminating them. Certain enemies are only susceptible to certain weapons, and team play can maximize this game feature.
The weapons themselves are various and thoroughly gratifying. Everything besides your basic plasma-gun will appeal to your innate need to kill things with the most destructive tools possible. A brief but not exhaustive list includes machine guns, lasers, shotguns, particle beams, and grenadesall of which have power-ups. You can also pick up orbitals, as per R-Type, that follow you around and add to your weapons range and strength. And, it might be pointed out, the weapons look amazing. Combined with excellently mastered sound effects and superb depictions of alien injuries/death throes your rampage will delight every violent neuron in your body.
The stage backgrounds (I am told there are over twenty, but I still cant get past fifteen) are equally impressive. If variety is the spice of life, it is also certainly an edge to a game attempting to transcend its ancestors. Each level is fully fleshed out and aesthetically richnone of them really duplicate each other at all, from the arrangement, to the details, to the overall experience. All of the levels take place on various planets or space stations, but the climates and landscapes vary significantly, from the familiar "techno-wasteland" to jungles, snow-covered mountains, and rooftops. Rain, fire, and other elemental effects add richness and subtlety to the game. Texture effects, especially water, are better than anything out on the DC right now. Lighting is also superbgrenade flames give off shadows for gods sake!
The enemies are less spectacular. At least the common ground troops arethe reason being that they are repeated over and over again ad nauseum. New enemies crop up every few levels, of course, and some of them (particularly the robot dogs) are nice surprises. But, more often than not, its those same pistol-whipping bastards that just keep coming and coming The boss creatures, on the other hand, are incredible. Often they occupy a good deal of the screen, an impressive feat considering how small your character usually is. The enemies arent just big, they are also complicated, and require a certain level of strategy. Not to give too much away, but keep your eyes out for a gigantic mutated gorilla.
Okay, now to the downsides. First off, while Expendable does rate better than Apocalypse et al in terms of graphics, sound, and its two-player dimensions, it falls significantly short in terms of story. In fact, there is no story, at least, not one any more intricate than that underlying Defender or Asteroids. You are a bio-engineered proto-human, bred to kill and kill and kill. You have no name. You are expendable (get it?) A race of evil aliens is wreaking havoc across the universe on planets in which your government has some economic interest or else a compassionate one (yeah right). Because you have no identityin fact, the game leads you to believe that when "you" are killed, a replacement is simply beamed down to take your place"you" in actuality are playing the part of the political/military institution that is carrying out this war. All you are is a government puppet fighting against the puppets of another government for control of planets you are told nothing about except that you are required to fight for them. Wheres the ethos? This game is an interesting deconstruction of political and military ideologies, but, like all theoretical exempla, a poor story.
Second, the two player option often results in confusion. With so many things exploding all the time, and the two characters looking almost identical (one is slightly red and the other is slightly yellow) it is incredibly easy to lose track of where you are. There is an arrow to indicate your position if you happen to end up off screen, but the arrow is almost as hard to see as you are. The camera changes angles when it tracks you around some cornerstrust me, this can be more than mildly disconcerting until you get used to it, and even afterward.
The biggest problem that I have with this game is that I havent found any cheat codes for it yet, and it is damn hard to beat with only eight continues (four if you are in two-player mode). There must be codes out there somewhere, and I advise you to find them immediately if you purchase this game. If you cant find any, play as far as you can through it on "Beginner" mode to get used to the lay of the land before you try the real deal.
Anyway, Expendable is by far the best top-down shooter in a very long time. Despite its lack of any compelling storyline (and the unavailability of cheat codes) it is a nearly perfect example of what two-player-walking-around-killing-stuff games should be like. Replay value is high, and, unless you just dont like games like this at all, you wont be disappointed.